Cross-Cultural Relationships...Answer to a Question

To Jonathan Krone,

Normally I would send you in search of the plentiful literature published on this topic, but coming from a “cross-cultural expert and professional,” I am intrigued that you are asking me to clarify.  With my muse having taken leave of late, perhaps on the day, this will have to suffice as motivation to write.

“So how do Thai express affection?”  On the surface that question would appear simple enough.  With Thailand’s world renowned reputation as a destination for sex tourism, some might assume they are a highly sexual and affectionate people.  Traditionally, however, any public display of affection is frowned upon.  With the notable exception of Bangkok and some tourist destinations, that tradition continues today.  Villagers by necessity are very subtile and creative, in the signals of interest they send to one another.  Right now, looking out my window, are some thirty villagers involved in harvesting our neighbor’s rice.  No doubt there will be stolen glances, teasing remarks, intentional bumps and the sharing of food, going on as a subtext to the job at hand. 

Other than me and my wife, one will never see villagers here, holding hands, hugging or kissing.  Even when they go off to Bangkok for work, it is difficult to overcome their internalized reluctance to display affection.  Bangkok is, however, where many romances are begun or nurtured, away from the prying eyes of the village.  The younger generation is changing but not all approve of that change.  Around here, if two young people are found to have had sex, there will either be a forced marriage or the boys family will have to pay a fine to appease the girls parents and exonerate her reputation.  At the same time the family may not blink an eye if she went off to work in the nightlight, yet sent money home for the family.  Unable to touch in public their humor is at times, however, quite raunchy.  Such are the contradictions of Thai life.  Pragmatic, with nothing being definitively black or white.

I met my wife in Bangkok so we were free of village constraints, yet it was our time in Hawaii that helped her to modify her beliefs and behavior.  Observing people wearing almost nothing in public, all age groups showing affection and touching and nobody paying any attention was an eye opener, for her.  Being me, a little shock therapy is always fun.  I remember grabbing my wife on a walk through the park.  After a groping and passionate kiss, I held her close and asked her to look around.  No one was gawking at us and there were no disapproving looks.  We were all but invisible to others and as this began to sink in, she kissed me back.

My wife was open to change and responded on a deep emotional level to social touching, from my parents and the friends she made along the way.  I am not a scientist making a proclamation of the universality, or necessity, of human touch.  People who touch more, are not necessarily better or kinder people.  It did, however, make a difference in my wife’s life and development, as a more open and caring person.  It is heart-wrenching to think that someone with such a capacity for caring and warmth, was denied that within her own family. 

I would like to take credit, for all that my wife has become, but that would be silly.  At best all I have done is provide reinforcement and a safe environment in which she could explore the world and find herself.  As a work in progress, together we continue to work through some of the residual cultural fears than cling tenaciously to her subconscious.  But then again, who among us has no issues at all?  I just know that I am a very lucky man, that she puts up with me, while I get to witness her growth and exploration of life.

I might reiterate at this time, that we have a rather unique lifestyle here, which is not focused on integration into the cultural norm.  My wife participates in customs that she enjoys or appear beneficial to others, while not making our own lives uncomfortable or disavowing our own values.  If it entails loud drunkenness that often deteriorates into violence, then some way is found to meet our obligations with a minimum of participation.  Many customs that are seen by most as obligatory, like the big wedding or housewarming party, have been avoided by us.  In that regard we are not the best example of cross-cultural integration.  We could be seen as providing an alternative lifestyle model that others may or may not approve of.

I seem to have wondered off topic here, which is not unusual for me.  I am hopeful that Mr. Krone, as a cross-cultural expert, will be able to extract or extrapolate answers to his questions from my muddled reply.