An American Experience of Being Thai
Ralph Schatzki lived in Thailand as an American expatriate for 13 years, and has been married to the Thai culture for 26 years. He has come to love the Thai ways, including cherishing the King as a Thai.
This article was written in conjunction with Pradichaya Poonyarit's article, "Under the reign: Kingdom of Thailand," both inpired by their 11-year-old daughter's poem entitled, "A Great Wall."
A Great Wall by Primrug Kaitlyn Schatzki
Thai and American
When I first moved to Thailand I was struck- indeed, I was often amazed and perplexed- by some of the differences between its culture and that of the USA. After living there for more than thirteen years, however, I came to understand well and truly both the Thai people and why these differences exist.
One of the most obvious differences between the two countries is the relative homogeneity of the Thai population. Until recently, this manifested as far greater unity, both in terms of background and belief, than those of us in the USA could ever imagine. I do not value this more nor less than I do the far greater diversity that exists in the USA: I simply make the observation that the Kingdom historically has had a core culture and set of beliefs that the vast majority of its citizens believed in and lived by.
King Phumipol Adulyadej has now been the Thai King for sixty-five years, and in that time has been not only a servant of the people.....but quite literally the sole constant in a country beset by political uprisings. Even during the darkest times of his reign the King has refrained...
The colors of the Thai flag represent the country, the religion, and the King; and while the current Chakri dynasty has been in power for as long as the USA has been a country, the word “power” is a misnomer in many ways. Like the kings of many other countries, the Thai royalty has surely benefited from many luxuries and privilege, yet this is a mere part of the whole story. Historically, they have also been both benign and beneficent, and virtually every member of Thai society would admit readily that its royal family deserves the utmost respect and reverence. Still, despite the fact that the Thai kings were constantly modernizing the country, and over time had granted its citizenry unprecedented freedoms, an uprising in 1932 removed the King from his position as absolute ruler and reduced the monarchy to a symbolic role.
The people had always seen the King as a symbol of the country, of course, and continued to do so. In 1946, upon his return to the country to ascend the throne-even if it was no longer the absolute seat of power it once had been- the current King's older brother was assassinated: yet King Phumipol Adulyadej immediately followed in his footsteps. He has now been the Thai King for sixty-five years, and in that time has been not only a servant of the people- working long days, even when not in good health- but quite literally the sole constant in a country beset by political uprisings. Even during the darkest times of his reign the King has refrained from interfering, despite much insistence that he do so, advising only when asked, and even then only in the most unusual of circumstances. He takes very seriously his role, both in terms of what and who he is, as well as what and who he isn't.
I always ask of Americans what it means to be American, because it quickly highlights the differences between us, and frames debate. I ask of Thais the same thing: “What does it mean to be Thai?” but for the entirely different reason of bringing them together by remembering those things which create solidarity among themselves. Isn't the King the one constant within your country, and hasn't he been for sixty-five years?
Change, however, is not always for the better, so I do not. If being Thai means what it always has, this law must remain; for, although its repeal would permit a certain freedom, the resulting costs would be far worse.
There is much discontent within Thailand these days, the reasons for which are complicated and deep-rooted. Change does always come, though seldom is it as rapid or in the guise that one expects. Many are calling for the repeal of the lèse majesté laws, under which people within the Kingdom's jurisdiction can be prosecuted for criticizing the King, and to those who value free speech and freedom of expression such a repeal might seem to be both inevitable and just. Yet most of these are not people who have lived within the Kingdom and experienced Thai culture first-hand. As to those who do, I ask again: “What does it mean to be Thai?” What has the King done, other than to serve his country and to be a symbol of unity? When you criticize the King, you criticize the country.
Many view repeal as progress. Change, however, is not always for the better, so I do not. If being Thai means what it always has, this law must remain; for, although its repeal would permit a certain freedom, the resulting costs would be far worse. What would it mean, then, to be Thai?
I await the answer.
Thai-Thai, and more Thais
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