The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.