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National Identity, Great Thais and Eyes Rolling

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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Chanthaburi, Thailand, 2018
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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History is primarily a chronicle of wars and invasions, most often among neighbors, so every inch of every border has been fiercely fought over, for that's how any population maintains its autonomy, integrity and identity. Plus, you need land to prosper so, often, you grab your neighbor's when he's weak. Everyone has done this. Everyone.

Peace, then, can only be achieved when you're strong enough to defend your borders, and if you're no longer willing to do this, then you're already lost, conquered, and not necessarily by an external enemy.

Take Thailand. It has fought against China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Malay state of Kedah, all of its neighbors, in short. After swallowing up Laos in the 18th century, it lost it to France in the 19th, and in 1941, Thailand surrendered to juggernaut Japan after only five hours of, uh, fighting. At least it wasn't less than 45 minutes, which was how long it took the Sultanate of Zanzibar to raise the white flag to Great Britain. To be fair, the Sultan saw no reason to continue after the Brits had shelled his palace, instantly killing 500 troops and wrecking his beloved harem.

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All countries have been built on war and conquest, and the bigger a nation, the more wars it has fought, so an empire, by definition, is a war machine, with many fighting until the homeland itself is incinerated. One is so possessed, however, it has eviscerated itself by waging endless war on behalf of a supposed vassal, and for this dog wagging tail, is threatening to blow up the entire world.

Pointing out such basics, I'm sometimes challenged by world-class nitwits who'll say something like, "Well, China never invaded anybody. All the myriad tribes that make up present day China just couldn't resist the allure of superior Han culture, so they became Chinese voluntarily. They demanded to be Chinese!" This echoes the colonel in Full Metal Jacket, "We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook, there is an American trying to get out!"

But surely, after seven decades of (war-filled) Pax Americana, everybody does want to be American, as witnessed by the pervasiveness of American culture worldwide, but this is merely cosmetic, I insist, to be scraped off in a blink. Traveling, Americans tend to gravitate towards the most Americanized pockets of whatever country, so they're inclined to see foreigners only as touchingly degraded versions of themselves, and not as autonomous beings in an entirely separate universe.

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Last week, I was in Chanthaburi, Thailand, population 28,000. In the middle of town, there's a Robinson Mall, with a huge sign, almost entirely in English, advertising Tops Market, Super Sports, Power Buy, B2S, SFC Cinema, KFC, Swensens, Yayoi and MK Restaurants. With the exceptions of KFC and the Japanese Yayoi, however, the rest were Thai chains, and of the four movies shown, two were Thai, and two were American: Malila: the Farewell Flower, Thibaan the Series, Black Panther and Lady Bird. Wandering around, I spotted a bearded white guy on an ad, "DANCE / LOSE WEIGHT / CONTEST SEASON." Wearing a red tank top, he had a green hula hoop, like a twirling halo, around his impressive love handles. Throughout the mall, most of the other models were also white, I can't deny.

Beyond the mall, English was nearly nonexistent, however, and often bizarre, as in a roadside sign for a "MiniConcert" by "BOY PEACEMAKER." Holding a cowboy hat, a cartoon cow had a speech bubble, "Hi.!" Bits of English lent hipness to caps and T-shirts. A 45-ish woman wore one with Sesame Street Muppets and, "REPRESENTING THE STREET."

Showing up on clothing and even couple of trucks, the American flag was a popular decoration, and on Route 3, a dozen leather-clad guys pompously straddled Harleys.

All the Americanness, though, was extremely superficial, I repeat, for the social fabric of daily life, each second of it, remained deeply Thai. At no point did I feel like I was in nearby Vietnam, much less America, for its pace of life, tones of speech, modes of address and many other details, large and tiny, were all distinctively Thai, as they should be.

Take the wai, the Thai greeting of having hands pressed together, prayer-like, and bowing slightly. Most foreigners, especially tourists passing through, feel rather ridiculous doing this, so can't be bothered, but that's why we're not Thais. They are.

Next to a public porch swing, there was a plugged-in boom box, so the amorous couple could play their cassettes.

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Reminiscent of the Japanese fondness for kawaii, cute figurines stood outside temples, stores or even bathrooms, as in a bare-chested, chubby and smiling guy performing a wai.

Sampling a few lurid streets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or Chiang Mai, foreigners come home with tales of live sex on stage and ladyboys, but Thailand is no more of a brothel than the Netherlands, although each Dutch city, not just Amsterdam, has its red-light district. Most Thais are conservative, rural people, and during my visit to Namtok Phlio National Park, all the female swimmers were well-covered, except one, a young blonde whose barely there bottom revealed most of her cheeks.

Since 1912, Thailand has had 21 coups d'e'tat and 29 prime ministers, so that's a lot of turbulence, but it has not suffered any foreign occupation, civil war or mass imposition of an alien psychosis, such as Communism. Its twin pillars have been the monarchy and a brand of Buddhism that includes the worship of Phra Phrom, a version of the four-faced Hindu god, Brahma. Inside India, there are almost no shrines to this deity, but they are all over Thailand, with the one outside Bangkok's Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel making world news when a bomb near it exploded in 2015, killing 20 and injuring 125. No one has been charged.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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