We don’t usually think of our country as being an imperial power, of invading another nation to make it our colony. We did get California as a result of the Spanish American War, but on the whole we didn’t follow the Europeans in their land grabs in Africa and Asia.
Spend some time in Thailand, however, and you’ll discover that we’ve invaded the Land of Smiles not by force of arms but in terms of our culture.
Coffee for example. Do you remember when you first heard about Starbucks? “No one is going to pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee,” you said, “even if the coffee comes in five different forms, each with its own Italian name.”
I thought the same thing regarding coffee in Thailand. In a country where you can get a dish of Pad Thai for about $1.35, who is going to pay $1.70 for an iced coffee, even if it is made on the spot with freshly brewed espresso? Thousands if not millions of Thais, that’s who. In the year and a half since I had been in Thailand before last month, a coffee shop has opened up on every block, it seems. The Thais have gone crazy for coffee.
What’s more, the Thais, or more specifically the Thai Tribal People, are growing their own coffee on their terraced mountainside farms where they used to grow opium poppies.
They’ve also gone bonkers for KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Mexican food. Big cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai have large, modern shopping malls like Water Tower Place or the Woodfield Mall featuring shops that sell blue jeans by Levi, fragrances by Christian Dior and Converse All Stars—the exact same style I wore in 1970! Dunkin Donuts is big and—this is the truth—I spotted a box of Krispy Kremes in my guesthouse lobby.
If you want to make some fast money, go to Chiang Mai and teach English. We don’t control countries like the Europeans used to do, but you cannot be successful in Thailand, whether it be in business or the professions, if you don’t speak English and speak it well. English is the language of wealth and/or success. My pastor, Pongsak Limthongviratn, is attending a conference right now in Indonesia which he helped organize with delegates from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and Thailand. And guess which language they are using to communicate.
Now we might get a buzz from that, i.e. we’re winning the language Super Bowl, but personally I feel shamed—I’ve used that word in my columns two weeks in a row now—that the maid who cleaned my room at the Riverside Guesthouse in Chiang Mai and who was making 300 baht or about $11 a day—not an hour but a day—spoke better English than I spoke Thai. And I was in her country.
Another example of creeping cultural imperialism is the way people view time and work. Sabai, sabai is a Thai term that used to describe their work ethic. It means sort of “don’t worry, be happy.” One author put it this way, “Hey, there’s rice in the fields and fish in the pond. That’s all I need to be happy.”
But due to American marketing, Thais are beginning to want more. Whereas a motorbike used to take care of my transportation needs, now I want a Toyota. When I first visited Thailand twenty years ago, I noticed that they were not constantly checking their watches to see how much time they had left till the next deadline. Sabai, sabai. Why would anyone want to join the rat race in pursuit of more stuff?
But the American advertising industry is pretty good at creating desires which weren’t there to begin with, and to get those things you have to make more money which means doing it the American way. Good bye to sabai, sabai.
I noticed this time that I had to look carefully to determine if the person walking past me on the sidewalk was a Thai or a Westerner. That’s because they are now citizens in the American cultural empire. We have the same haircuts, buy the same fashions, listen to the same pop music on the same kinds of iPhones. I went to the contemporary service at the Sueb Church in Bangkok, and although the members were singing in Thai, I sang along in English. It was the same music we use back here and I knew all the words.
I suppose that every invasion brings some good changes in a country and some that are bad. For better or for worse, Thailand seems to march to the American cultural drumbeat.