Cross-Cultural Relationships ...

Of late, my posts have trended toward the tame and even pretty.  So perhaps it is time to get controversial and take on a touchy subject.  How does one shed a rational light on something so personal and often discussed in such emotionally charged language?

In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter what others think.  People being what they are, however, tend to comment shamelessly and impose their views on others.  Ranging from idle gossip to hateful prejudice, it is not always possible to avoid or ignore.  From farangs, one often hears the proverbial questions about why young Thai women choose old, fat, balding Western men.  From Thais it is more apt to be about why farang men like such dark, unattractive, unsophisticated, low class women.  As with most things it all depends on ones perspective which is affected by personal bias and cultural reference.

Some label Thai women, gold-diggers who are only out for the money.  We have all heard the horror stories of men who lost everything in a naive bid to buy love.  On the other extreme, are those who have some fanciful notion that Asian women are somehow uniquely feminine, domestic and docile.  Good luck with that one.  There are a goodly number of very successful relationships that dwell in the middle ground.  Founded on love, respect, understanding and shared interests, a good relationship is only made richer by differences where bad ones are only made worse.

I understand that no matter what one says, people always have a long, well prepared dissertation about how their situation is different and unique.  The acknowledged uniqueness of each relationship is, however, framed by cultural stereotypes and constraints.  There is a history and often scars, that individuals bring with them.  In addition, Farang-Thai relationships will often evolve differently based on location.  His country or hers, big city or village, it all makes a difference.  Appearances are all important in how you are viewed and treated by others.  The perceived simplicity of a different culture, often belies the complex undercurrents lurking below the surface, when you enter a cross-cultural relationship.

On the long drive to town or sitting at our dining room table taking in the views, the wife and I have discussed this subject from time to time.  After spending time with other women she readily acknowledges that, at least in our village, a large percentage of women are fixated on money.  She doubts that they hold or even comprehend her notions of love, romance and a caring relationship.  This is irrespective of the Farang question.  If a man has little or no money, in general they want nothing to do with him.  The one exception being, if he is particularly diligent and hardworking.  They will stay with a man who is doing his best to provide for his family, even if they are not comfortable or well off.  Those perceived as slackers or layabouts, are kicked to the curb unceremoniously.

I don’t imagine there are many cultures, where we admire women who choose the poorest or least productive men available.  Yet when they are pragmatic and look for someone who can provide for them and their extended family, which is the norm in Thailand, they are labeled as only out for the money.  It hardly seems fair to hold such double standards or to think it is all directed toward fleecing the foreigner.

After a failed relationship and perhaps a child or two to care for, some women take to prostitution.  That is a very broad and all inclusive term that includes a multitude of subgroups that I will not go into at this time.  Sitting on the floor in a hovel, with a crying child, the realities of the profession are overshadowed by the image of some neighbor wearing nice clothes and living in a big house with no financial worries.  No longer a virgin, what difference does it make if I sell it for the good of my family, is a common argument.  Only a small percentage of women are able to bring themselves to act on this rational.  An even smaller percentage gravitate toward Western men, with most seeking out other Asian men, with less perceived stigma.  My wife was surprised to hear from a village woman, that she had been approached to go “work” in the nightlife.  The procurer’s line was that Malaysian men prefer older women in their forties.  The realities of the situation seemed to escape her as all she could think about was the money.  I think my wife managed to talk her out of it but who knows.

Going back to the Vietnam era, there is a long standing stereotype of Isaan women and Western men, as the US military was based in that area.  Fair or not it has become a firmly entrenched cultural stereotype.  I have even known farangs who would not consider dating or marrying Isaan women simply because they didn’t want to be tarred with that label.  They saw it as detrimental to their career or social standing with clients and friends.  That was completely irrespective of the girl’s actual socioeconomic status.  Interestingly one of the pluses of choosing some Western men, is their naiveté in regard to Thai culture, prejudices and values.  Also, their often loudly declared lack of interest in what other people think, especially the locals.

In general men seem rather clueless about women so it is no big surprise that they can get it so very wrong in a potentially mine filled, cross-cultural relationship.  They often think one grand gesture will suffice to prove their love for all time.  Not realizing they are simply setting a precedent by which all future gestures will be ranked.  It is never a one time item checked off a list as, “completed”.  Women have a different perspective from men on this.  Throughout a relationship they thrive on the knowledge that they are desirable, appreciated and sought after by their man.  That does not require grand gestures but rather regular or frequent ones.  Small thoughtful gifts, acts or even comments are often all that is needed to reassure the heart.

Rural Thai families are often, economical at best, in their display of affection for loved ones.  Romantic love, as portrayed in the movies, is not the norm in village life.  Living as they do, in such close quarters, affection or romance is often limited, quiet and brief, in an attempt to keep it hidden from prying eyes.  As with my own wife, hugs and kisses, were not something she experienced from her own parents.  Thankfully, physical warmth and affection is something that she has grown to value and now gives freely, to friends and family.  Unfortunately some women cling to what they have known and find it difficult to find that kinder gentler person that lives within.

While some Western men are able to get away with blatant disregard for the local culture they somehow don’t draw a correlation to how they are treated in return.  Though I prefer to understand things in depth, I can see the appeal of not knowing and not having to deal with that knowledge.  Brings to mind the notion of, ignorance is bliss.  Knowing and understanding what the locals are all about does not mean one has to be, just like them.  As they say, knowledge is power.  Maybe not the power to change things, but the power to navigate the waters more smoothly and efficiently.

Clearly there is no simple formula for a successful cross-cultural relationship, and no one answer for the whys and hows of choosing a partner wisely.  On some level I think we deserve what we get and typically would do the same things and make the same choices again and again.  There are always signs but seldom the ability to read them.  In the end it come down to the choices we make and how well we deal with what follows.