The Bangkok Post
The new politics of desire
Sexuality meets globalisation _ Thais are getting involved in more international relationships but the dynamics are changing
Published: 21/08/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum
The face of Thai sexuality is changing in small fault lines that may soon represent a seismic shift in the way the Land of Smiles is viewed.
While the perception of international relationships here in some Western eyes may be of older, overweight, oversexed tourists trawling bars for Thai partners, the post-Vietnam era cliche of American servicemen on R&R is being challenged by and is also accelerating new trends.
The sexualisation of Thais in foreign eyes has had an effect on international partnerships, as Thais try to distance themselves from the misperception of being tied to a foreign partner for monetary reasons.
As citizens of a middle-income country where status is important, middle class Thais have much to lose or gain by being involved with a foreign partner. In this light, several trends are emerging. Thais seeking foreign partners are more often gazing over the fence at East Asian partners. The "white Asian" ideal is gradually replacing the "white European".
There is more migration to the countryside, with German and Swiss enclaves in Isan and Thai village women struggling to fit into life in the austere towns and cities of northern Europe. Even as such migrations increase, their demographics are changing, as many Western men are younger and willing to forsake jobs and connections back home to build a new life on the farm.
Young Western women are also finding holiday romance in Bangkok's backpacker areas and the beach full moon parties, with Thai lotharios more than willing to accommodate them for the night or the length of their holiday.
The Thai middle class has grown quickly and continues to expand. With the rise in income and education, Thais have more access to international trends and popular culture, and globalisation and social media are playing a major role in the changes.
From the popularity of English in texting and Facebook to the pop culture tsunami of the Korean wave, the signs of globalisation are everywhere.
We have Korean beauty products, Japanese manga and Hollywood movies, and many celebrities are luk krueng or light-skinned _ that is, those that look more Northeast Asian or Western.
Spectrum spoke to those at the coalface of the changes, as well as anthropologists and academics who presented papers on transnational romance recently at the International Conference on Thai Studies, and these are their stories.
"He looks uglier than five years ago!" says Apple* of Barry, her long-time American boyfriend. "And we have a lot of communication problems."
Apple's first foreign boyfriend was a Frenchman she met on the internet. After only a short message exchange, he abruptly flew to Bangkok to be with her.
"For two months it was nice, but it was like a holiday romance for him. Bangkok corrupted him," she says. "Eventually he fell in love with a massage girl."
Another complaint she has about being with Barry is that sometimes waiters and clerks assume she's Barry's bargirl.
Like many young middle class women, though, Apple has lost interest in dating Thai men. "They have an ego," she explains, "where everything is about them. Foreigners see themselves as part of the wider world. They have hobbies and other interests.
"But farang [culture] is still far away," she adds. "Asians are closer."
Apple, 30, works for a fashion magazine and is looking for a Japanese man to replace Barry. She finds men in Korean and Japanese dramas and movies "dreamy".
"The image is kind, gentle and handsome," she says. "I know it's not the reality and more of a media depiction.
"Also it's the 'whitening' culture," she adds. "Maybe because the Chinese in Thailand do well in business and popular culture. It makes whiter skin more appealing."
Woramon Sirinopakul, 23, works for a television station and thinks nationality is less important than it used to be. "I've started to consider each person in his behaviour rather than culture," she says. "Now it's very easy to meet foreigners. For culture, the more unique, the more attractive."
As for dating Thai men, she is equivocal: "Thais are fine as long as they have something to talk about. The big advantage is I can say anything without language problems."
"But all my life I see ton of bad Thai men. For a date, yes," she concludes. "But for marriage, no."
Ms Woramon finds Europeans "artistic and charming" and more attractive than Americans, who "tend to think that everything is easy to understand like a Hollywood movie". The British are especially appealing to her: "The different accents are charming, and I like Brit-pop."
Along with British, though, she finds the most attractive men her age to be the Japanese. "I know not every Japanese man is attractive," she says, "but media from Japan _ manga, anime, movies _ is what I love to consume. We'll always have something to talk about."
For middle class Thai women or gay men, says Dredge Byung'chu Kang of Emory University in the US, who presented a paper at last month's International Conference on Thai Studies, being seen with an older Westerner often lowers their perception of status, in their own eyes or those of others, because of the country's high-profile sex tourism industry and its roots in the Vietnam War, when the women with the most proximity to Western men were those offering sex for money.
Today, large numbers of Western men still come to the Kingdom for sex and some hotels and restaurants have posted "no Thai" policies to distance themselves from the sex trade.
Still, the number of Asian sex tourists visiting Thailand probably outstrips the number of Western ones.
In a country where the line between appearance and substance is indistinct, the way a relationship looks matters. Thais with means try to avoid being seen as someone's "bargirl" or "money boy", both to avoid judgement by waiters, shop clerks and other strangers and to be recognised on their own merits.
Whatever the truth of an arrangement, there is less of a stigma risk when seen with a Far Eastern partner.
THE NEW GAY MALE
This look to the Far East is especially apparent on the gay scene.
"Asians are more similar in culture," says Beer, a 32-year-old dentist. "It's easier to communicate. Their way of thinking is easier to understand."
Beer would still consider dating Thai or Western men, but he is largely attracted to "looks, way of thinking and status" _ which equates well with Far Eastern men. "If I love him enough I can adapt to anything," he adds. "But you simplify your life and there's less to overcome if you have similar status."
Ken, a 32-year-old travel writer, still prefers Westerners, and says he finds the Korean look "too fake and homogenous".
But when asked to name celebrities he finds attractive, he cites Nadech "Barry" Kugimiya and Pope Thanawat, who both have a "white Asian" look, as Mr Kang describes it.
Some gay Thais, just like straight people, enter relationships with foreigners to improve their socioeconomic status.
Thailand's position between wealthier and poorer countries in the region, he argues, shapes new partner preferences.
Mr Kang's research focuses largely on the changing choice of partners for Thai gay middle class males.
He loosely defines the middle class as earning between 7,000 and 70,000 baht a month.
He cites four main reasons for the gradual lean towards the East rather than West: the regional flow of media and commodities, the internet (notably sites such as gayromeo.com and fridae.com, both used by Thai men to find Asian partners), discount airlines (especially AirAsia) and regional alignments and politics.
Gay tourism has expanded greatly in the region in recent years, helped along by circuit parties that help connect Southeast and East Asian party-goers.
"East Asian partners are associated with high economic status, modernity and cultural similarity," Mr Kang says.
They do not have the nergative status attached to many Anglo-Saxons.
"Even when middle class Thais have farang partners, they often hide this fact from family or friends.
"Other Asians can be interpreted as friends while farang are more likely coded as sexual partners. Farang are sexualised via the very Western gazes that sexualise Thais."
According to Mr Kang, the list of partner preferences mirrors the economic status of its citizens so that Japanese, Koreans and Hongkongese are prioritised over Chinese Singaporeans and Taiwanese, who are preferred to Chinese Malaysians, mainland Chinese and Vietnamese, while other Asians, especially Burmese and Cambodians, are considered undesirable.
This results in some dissatisfaction when image doesn't match the reality, such as in relationships with Korean men, who in Korean soap operas are seen as soft, sweet and romantic but in life can also be aggressive, impatient and stubborn, says Mr Kang.
FROM PATTAYA TO BRITAIN
While women in tourist centres becoming wives to foreigners is not a new development, more of these relationships are involving long-term migrations to Europe and to Isan.
Studying how the growing diaspora of Thai women is adapting to life in Britain is Chantanee Charoensri of Thammasat University's sociology and anthropology department.
Much of her research is centred on interviews conducted over three years with 40 Thai women in a British city of 200,000.
Thai wives in Britain, she argues, regardless of youth, beauty or upbringing, "need to possess wide arrays of subtle capabilities and sophisticated social skills", she says. "Thai women know what Western men want."
More than a few of the women were former sex workers. According to Ms Chantanee, the "nature of sex work in Thailand is different and more centred on a relationship", which makes the trajectory from sex worker to wife less obstacle-ridden than in other countries.
"Thai men have found themselves less equipped than women for economic survival in today's world," she says. Men are "prone to hedonistic retreatism; women are more determined to escape poverty, even by means of prostitution".
Many Thai women have difficulty in assimilating. Among the 40 couples, though, only two were divorced, neither of whom had returned to Thailand. ''This was due to the fear of 'losing face','' said Ms Chantanee, ''as women who have married Westerners are seen as successful by their fellow villagers. They preferred to struggle in the UK. Contrary to popular belief, it is more likely that the successful couples will return.''
Some couples will lead their working lives in Britain and then retire in Thailand, with the husbands then involved in a business related to the tourist sector.
It can be debated in online forums and academic circles whether bar girls ''freelancing'' should be categorised as choice, predation or victimisation, but it is true that many short-term or vacation transactions in Thailand turn into long-term romances and marriages.
Thai women abroad also often act as matchmakers for friends and relatives back home, resulting in the growth of the Thai diaspora in areas where Thais have already migrated.
Once a foreign community is established, it will likely continue to expand as long as globalisation does and this works both ways _ such as in a village in Roi Et that has 200 German and Swiss husbands out of 500 families.
THE WESTERN INFLUX TO ISAN
More Western men are migrating to Isan, predominantly to live with Thai wives or partners. Most of these couples meet in tourist areas such as Bangkok and Pattaya, sometimes through the tourist or flesh trade, but there are other men who are moving to Isan before falling in love.
There are over 100,000 resident Westerners in Thailand, according to research by Robert Howard from the University of New South Wales.
They come mainly from Britain, Germany, the US, the Netherlands, France, Canada and Australia. Most live in areas with large numbers of expats, such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and other tourist centres such as Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui and Hua Hin.
Megan Lafferty, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, is studying the expat community in Ubon Ratchathani, a province she estimates has more than 2,000 Western men residing at least part time.
Many couples live in or around the provincial capital, while others live more remotely in villages or farms scattered throughout the province. She thinks Udon Thani and Nakhon Ratchasima probably have the largest number of Westerners in Isan.
Ms Lafferty is studying the relationships among men and their partners, children, Thai kin, as well as the village cliques developing among foreign men. Ms Lafferty says many of the couples meet in tourist areas such as Bangkok or Pattaya where the men come for holiday or short-term work. Other men have lived in various parts of Thailand for years and choose to settle in Isan because of the easygoing lifestyle and cheap cost of living. There are some men who decide to retire in Thailand before ever visiting, motivated by a desire to escape rising prices back home. There are also American men and Thai women who married during the Vietnam War and returned to the US who are now retiring together in Isan decades later.
For men in a rut in the West, divorced or in an unsatisfying job with little adventure in their lives, Thailand represents freedom and a chance to reinvent themselves. Here they feel wealthier and more desirable, and age, loss of hair and weight gain aren't as great a deterrent to a happy new marriage as they are in the West.
The role of money, however, often underlies a number of insecurities in their relationships, with men trying to convince themselves that their wives really love them and women hoping the men won't find someone prettier, younger or of higher class once they've settled in the country.
Most transnational migrations are towards countries with a higher standard of living. Isan is poorer than foreigners' home countries, but the move makes sense when taking into account the high quality of life that Thailand can provide, and the lower cost of living here.
Ms Lafferty says one growing segment of the Isan expatriate population are those younger than retirement age. New immigrants are often younger and investing more of themselves in their life here, learning the language, launching businesses and creating broad social networks with locals. They are more likely to consider Thailand their home.
She thinks the figure of 100,000 Westerners in Thailand greatly underestimates the reality, since many men leave the country on tri-monthly visa runs or live here only part of the year, and it is hard to find a town of any size without several resident foreigners.
Mr Howard's surveys exposed much discontent, from Westerners feeling they are being treated as ''second-class citizens'' and ''walking ATMs'' to outright hostility from ''jealous'' or ''racist'' neighbours.
Thais, especially marriageable men, often resent this influx and the general assumption that a foreigner can be a shortcut to status and financial security.
This anxiety was explored in the recent film E-nang Ei Koie Farang (White Buffalo), in which men in an Isan village swear off boozing and laziness in favour of honest work to win back their wives and sweethearts from the clutches of violent or nerdy Westerners.
A sizeable and growing number of Westerners, though, are finding long-term contentment and rustic peace among the rice fields and eucalyptus groves or small towns and cities of Thailand's Northeast.
THAI MEN, WESTERN WOMEN
Dusit* has an after-hours bar on Soi Rambutri, near the backpacker haven Khao San Road. He pays a small police fee to be able to sell drinks out of his car after midnight, and serves beer and cocktails on plastic and wooden stools and low fold-out tables. Travellers heading back to their guest houses after a night out at the Khao San bars and clubs often stop here for a nightcap.
Every night tipsy groups of young women from Denmark, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US or other countries stop by, some made amorous by alcohol and the freedom of being away from home.
''The girls are on holiday,'' Dusit explains, ''and they want to try something new.''
If they're good looking, he says, he offers them free tequila shots for any occasion that might warrant it _ a birthday last week, visiting Bangkok for the first time, or wearing the right colour for the day of the week _ but only if they duck down the small sub-soi with him. After they drink their shot, he kisses them on the lips.
''Some push me away,'' he admits. ''But even then they're laughing. Some kiss back. Some stay behind for more kisses in the van after I close up. Some take their drunk boyfriend back to the hotel, let him sleep and come back for me.''
He doesn't know how many nationalities he's slept with. ''Maybe every week, two girls,'' he boasts. He says he tries to kiss several girls a night, but isn't deterred by the rejections. Even if he exaggerates the number of his conquests they are an obvious source of pride for him.
At Hat Rin in Koh Phangan, thousands of travellers converge each month for the full moon party. Many Thai men, especially working in the bars, have made it their calling to ''travel the world'' vicariously through liaisons with Western women.
Linda Malam of the department of geography at the University of Otago in New Zealand says such liaisons allow men to improve their social status.
Many of the Thai men who work in tourist settings are from other parts of Thailand and subordinated to both local Thais and the tourists they serve.
Ms Malam says that by pursuing tourist women they can reverse the roles.
Much of Ms Malam's research was done in Hat Rin, where drugs and alcohol during the full moon party are rife.
''Koh Phangan,'' she says, ''has come to be seen in backpacker circuits as highly sexualised and a site where the social mores and boundaries of home do not apply.''
This results in many intense encounters between Thais and tourists, including sex and violence.
Ms Malam describes women ''approached by irate or bewildered tourist men asking them why they were dating a Thai man''.
''The specificities of the bar space enable the men to perform a form of masculinity that belies their economic marginality,'' she explains.
While heterosexual Thai men in general are also involved in more transnational relationships, it remains to be seen in non-tourist settings whether this will rise as quickly as among other segments of the population.
The idea of beauty changes. Look at Peter Paul Rubens paintings to get an idea of the plump white model of feminine beauty in Europe during the Baroque period. These were the women of the aristocracy. After the Industrial Revolution, plumpness in women who didn't see the sun became less of a sign of status, and athletic and tanned became more desirable, since these were the women who had the leisure time and money to afford beach vacations and exercise, markers of high status. In parts of India and the Middle East, plumpness is still considered a mark of desirability in women _ and also in men since in patriarchal societies it can identify propertied men of means.
Love, as they say, is blind. But societal factors play more of a role than we admit in whom we find attractive. The import of foreign media, popular culture and products; the lower price of air travel; local media depictions of beauty and sexuality; and the power of internet dating and social networks are combining to make foreigners less foreign to Thais.
Part of the reason for the changing sense of beauty in Thailand, however, are the monetary ways in which romantic relationships have long been viewed here, as well as the search for status.
The casting of light-skinned and East Asian-looking actors and models, the plethora of cosmetics and beauty treatments designed to make women and, increasingly, men look whiter reflects and accelerates this trend.
Thailand importing media, cosmetics and fashion from Korea and Japan means that these nationalities are increasingly associated with wealth, beauty and modernity.
Nevertheless, regardless of trends, aesthetics, or income, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.
Individual preferences will always be unique.
But as globalisation, urbanisation and industrialisation become more pervasive in Thailand, affecting media, fashion and lifestyle, our sense of attractiveness will change just as tastes in music or foods change. As Dusit says, ''I don't think about where she's from. I think about where we might go together.''
* Name changed on request.