Americans don’t like to think of the United States as an imperialist nation, but my experience during eight trips to Thailand over the last 16 years has convinced me that we are. But the invasion has been cultural rather than military.
Exhibit 1: English
Almost every Thai speaks at least a little English because it is the lingua franca, the common language of the world today. Even the Germans and French and Swiss I meet here communicate in English.
It really makes an impression on me when a Buddhist monk approaches me in a temple I’m poking around and starts a conversation by asking in English, “Where you from?” Many of the younger monks are eager to practice their English on foreigners like me.
Exhibit 2: Body Weight
Thais have put on weight. As their standard of living has gone up, so has their weight. The Thai diet used to use meat as a condiment rather than an entree. As Thais have become more prosperous, they have added more animal protein and fat to their diet. The result is that the Thai body type is changing from slender to what I will call a fuller, more “American” profile. What’s more worrisome is that I’ve seen a great increase in what my physician friends would call morbid obesity.
Exhibit 3: Cuisine
As I write this column, I’m in a town called Nakhon Ratchasima, which has the reputation of being as lively as Toledo, Ohio. Have you heard the song, “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all”? It’s a cultural backwater. Nevertheless, within walking distance of my hotel, I could only find a Chinese restaurant, a KFC, and a Seven Eleven. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts and Dairy Queen are increasingly popular.
Exhibit 4: 7-Eleven
7-Elevens are everywhere. In Bangkok I saw one directly across the street from another.
Exhibit 5: Secularization
There still are 200,000 monks in Thailand, but everyone I talk to laments that the younger generation isn’t as religious as their parents. Buddhists don’t “go to church” like Christians, Muslims and Jews do. It’s more individualistic. There’s no Sabbath, on which practitioners of a religion all worship at the same time. Thai Buddhists go to the temple alone as often as they want.
Be that as it may, as education and income increase, Thais seem to be less interested in the spiritual and more committed to increasing their ability to make more money and enjoy life.
Exhibit 6: Rock and Roll
Thais have their own folk music, but rock-and-roll dominates the TV and radio stations. It is mainly what we would call Lite Rock, i.e. cute 20-somethings singing cute songs. You have to go to a cultural center to hear “real Thai music.”
The road of cultural influence is a two-way street, of course. Witness the fact that we have four restaurants serving Thai food in Forest Park. The thing that strikes me, however, is that Thais know a lot more about the U.S. than we do about Thailand. For example, when I say I belong to a Thai congregation, many Forest Parkers think I mean that the members come from Taiwan.
It’s hard to think of ourselves as being parochial. After all, we’re residents of a huge metropolitan area. Spending time with Thais, however, makes me realize that we’re less sophisticated than we may think.
The U.S. is the elephant in the global jungle. Every move we make results in a huge impact, for better or for worse. Being in Thailand makes me think we should pay more attention to where we’re walking.
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.