Tag Archives: thailand

Teaching About Gender Roles: International Women’s Day 2017

When I was living in Bangkok I wrote a blog about women in Thailand and the differences between expat/immigrant women and local women, and how they are treated and perceived. Now I live in Krakow and I thought I would make a similar post about women in Poland. However, Poland is a completely different country in terms of history and culture, and so it does not have the same thoughts or structure as my previous post.
From having been teaching here for three months I have been able to make some surprising cultural observations. Despite the country’s recent history, the people of Poland can be quite racist and homophobic, to a level I was not expected. It was because of this that I felt somewhat hesitant to introduce gender roles into my classes, fearing that my students (aged thirteen to nineteen) would have a similarly old-fashioned approach. Luckily this time I was presently surprised.
In Poland, Women’s Day is celebrated to the same extent as Valentine’s Day is in the UK. Men and boys, at home and at school, buy flowers or other gifts for the women and girls in their lives to show them that they are appreciated. I have been told that the same happens in November on Men’s Day where women give gifts and show appreciation to men. It was a lovely day.
What did surprise me during the debates about gender roles was the sheer number of women who didn’t identify as feminists nor have feminist values. I noticed that the younger girls that I had were more inclined to feminist thoughts and opinions, and that often it was the older ones who didn’t, though I don’t know how much this observation applies elsehwere outside of my school!
Many eighteen and nineteen year old girls told me, and the class, that girls and women are all better at housework, and so should be required to do all the housework for their families, and that men should only have to do it if they want to. All of these girls are well-educated and planning to go to university next year, and I was surprised that such well-educated students still believed so strongly in traditional male and female roles.
I also noticed how often the boys in my classes completely ignored or disregarded the girls’ opinions. Ironically, one of my girls said “women are better listeners” and she looked at the boys for a response and not one of them was listening to her! I frequently heard scoffs such as “well, she’s a feminist so she would say that” as though feminists ought not to be listened to. 
I also witnessed some of the worst cases of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. I had thirteen year old boys explaining to me and the girls in the class that men are more suited to manual work because they all have bigger hands, which is why women should stay at home and do the housework. Did they forget that housework is manual? In a couple of classes I had boys explain that men and women are equal, and that we shouldn’t even be having the conversation! Perhaps in some countries around the world this is increasingly becoming the case, but largely speaking in Europe men and women are not socially or culturally equal. For men and women to be absolutely equal, women would have to be represented more in governments and industries, and men in more traditionally feminine positions. 
Many of my students felt strongly about these issues, but a lot of them didn’t. When I asked them to contribute to class discussions or I asked for their opinions, they nearly always sided with the person who was the loudest and most charming, and often this meant that the majorities were those who disagreed with feminist ideals. 
I don’t want it to sound all bad. Sexism in Poland is much less of an issue than either racism or homophobia. Many of my students, boys and girls, challenged the ideas of traditional gender roles.
“Men are managers and women are shop assistants.” 

“Why?”
“Science fiction isn’t for girls.”

“Why?”
“Women are just good at housework and men aren’t.”

“Why?”
Why?

These ideals are of course not specific to Poland, I just thought it would be interesting to compare what I have found to what I saw happening in Thailand.

Things I Miss About England

I’ve been living in Thailand for almost a year now and because I’ll be back in only four months time I’ve let myself think about all of the things I’m missing and what I’m most looking forward to about being back in the UK. 
My Family

I have been lucky enough to have my family come out to visit me here in Thailand. In December of last year my grandparents and auntie came for a fortnight, and then in March/April my parents and younger brother came to visit. Though of course it was so nice to have them here – I can’t remember being more excited about anything, the night before they arrived was like Christmas Eve for a child – it also made me miss them a little bit more, at least initially. I am lucky to have such a close family, and I won’t have seen many of them for fifteen months by the time I get back. Above anything else, I am most excited to spend time with my family. 
The Food

Don’t get me wrong, Thai food is some of the best I’ve had. But there are just some things you can’t get – or you can’t get how I like them – over here. I want a roast dinner! I want fish and chips (chips, not French fries). I want marmite on my toast (and I want the toast to not be sweet).
Carpet

This was something I missed last year too when I was in Spain. Buildings in hot countries are made to stay cool, which means flooring is mostly tiled. It works – the floor is always cold – but I sometimes miss walking on carpet.
Jumpers

It’s silly how much I want to put on a big woolly jumper and snuggle up. Thailand never – never – gets cold (unless you go to the cinema) which can be nice, but it’s nothing like what I was used to growing up and I sometimes miss cold weather and snuggling up. I also don’t have a quilt here, I just sleep with the quilt cover, because a quilt would be too hot. I just want to snuggle!
Transport

I spend a lot of time here in Bangkok using public transport, and trying to cross roads. What I really miss is adherence to traffic laws. It’s mayhem here!
Bins

This one sounds really silly, but there are so few bins on the streets in Bangkok that there are rubbish piles everywhere and this attracts rats and cockroaches. It also makes it look a mess and smell. Come on Thailand, get some bins on the streets!

Women in Thailand 

When I initially thought of writing this blog post, I intended it to be merely a collection of my own observations about the differences between men and women and how they are treated here in Thailand. However, the more I thought about it, the more I became aware of the differences not only between genders but also between Thai women and foreign women, and Thai men and foreign men. I then stumbled across an article that I just could not dismiss and so I will also draw upon the ideas I read there too.

Even to somebody who knows very little about Thailand, we all know that the country is famous for its beautiful women and its ladyboys. And it’s true. There are a lot of beautiful women and equally beautiful ladyboys. I absolutely have to praise Thailand for its acceptance of genders other than the standard male and female. There are many countries around the world where these women would be shunned and forced to be something they’re not. Similarly, Thailand as a nation also accepts people of all sexual orientations. For that, Thailand, I applaud you! For a country that is still developing in many ways, you have certainly taken the lead in this case.

Having been living in Bangkok for a total of nine months so far, it has come to my attention the number of male expats and the number of female expats differs greatly. From my observations, there are many male and female twenty-something expats seeking adventures in the land of smiles. However, as the expats get older, fewer and fewer women choose to move to or stay in Thailand. Many more foreign men than women choose to stay here long term. The reason? Their Thai women. Why is it that foreign men are so attracted to Thai women? And why is it that foreign women and Thai men do not have the same relationship? 

It all comes down to stereotypes. In my mind, stereotypes are never a good thing. They are dehumanising and take away from our individuality. However, I do accept that stereotypes come from a common trend or truth. Though I do not believe we should stereotype, it is important to recognise where these stereotypes come from. In Thailand, stereotypical Western women are fat and rude and out to destroy men. It sounds to me that those creating the stereotype are intimidated by these women. On the other hand, Thai women are seen as caring, domestic goddesses and sex kittens. The extreme differences are not flattering to foreign women, and unfortunately that imagine, to varying extents, is pushed on us. Though clearly the Thai women stereotype is far more flattering, it is equally unjust. Both are unjust, and should not be applied to any group of women as a whole.

This makes me wonder where this stereotype comes from. Are these stereotypes the fault of Thai culture and society? Or is it in fact from the expat community itself? I would argue that the stereotypes have been more created by the expats than Thai society. There is a popular image of western women that we all hate Thai women and are jealous that they are stealing our men. Who do you think started that rumour? It sounds to me like some bitter, older men who have had bad relationships with Western women in the past, projecting their anger and bitterness from the memories of white women onto all of us.

Which brings me onto my next point. I recently read a blog post on Single Dude Travel (http://www.singledudetravel.com/2015/08/what-ive-learned-about-western-women-while-living-in-thailand/) entitled ‘What I’ve Learned About Western Women While Living in Thailand’ though I think a more appropriate title would be something along the lines of ‘Sweeping Generalisations and What I’ve Projected onto All Western Women’. This article praises Thai women and frankly insults Western women. He begins by detailing a bad relationship with a German girl he had had in the past and goes on to say ‘I had absolutely no idea that there were continents full of loving, caring and supportive women who don’t create drama at every possible opportunity.’ To suggest that women in entire continents all share exactly the same personality traits is unrealistic. 

He then goes on to say ‘before I spent several months in the land of smiled I thought that it was normal for women to behave like men,’ suggesting that Western women are acting like men. Surely that is a good thing? Surely this means that the gender inequality gap is shrinking. In a perfect world it would go without saying that both men and women should act only like respectful and decent humans, and not have to live up to any gender roles prescribed to them centuries ago. I applaud the women who ‘are acting more like men’ – perhaps they are expressing their own personalities rather than what they feel their personailities should reflect. In my mind, this just shows that there is more gender equality in the Western world and is something to be encouraged.

I started to read his blog post with an open mind. Everyone is free to have their own opinions and should be free to voice them however they choose to. However, the more I read the less I took seriously. At one point he refers to Western women as ‘obese western dragons’ and I could no longer take it completely seriously. The post is full of biases and cruel stereotypes and ridiculous sweeping generalisations. One particular statement that stood out to me was ‘99% of Western women know that they are inferior to most non-western women.’ He argues that all Western women fear the day that their husbands realise that they made a big mistake and leave their women for Thai women. Unless my female friends and I all fall into that 1% that feels differently, then these statements are anything but true. We accept and understand that we are different to Thai girls in some respects, due to differences in the societies and cultures we were brought up in. However, we are all essentially the same; we are all people. 

It seems to me that the author of this post is extremely bitter about previous relationships with Western women and is projecting his impression of Western women onto all of us. I have heard many stories about disasterous relationships between Thai women and foreign men. Whether or not a relationship will last does not depend on the nationality of the people involved, it merely depends on the people themselves.

There are also things in Thailand that affect both Thai and Western women in the same way. For example, I recently went on a trip to a town in the north of Thailand called Chiang Mai. There I went to visit many Buddhist temples, and it was at one particular temple I noticed a peculiar sign: 


“Women are not permitted.” I could see no reason why this should be the case.

Similarly, not only are women not permitted to be monks, but we are also forbidden to touch a monk or sit next to a monk on the bus. In Thailand there is a law stating that women are forbidden to enter temples when menstruating. Though I strongly believe that Buddhism teaches some very important moral lessons, I do think it has a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality.

Finally I want to talk about the sex trade in Thailand, but also in south east Asia more generally. It is not uncommon for young women to enter the sex trade in order to fund and care for their entire families. Many young women are forced into prostitution by poverty. They come from poor areas to tourist areas in order to earn money to support their families. 

I have personally been to a handful of strip clubs and a ping pong show here in Bangkok and I hate it. It’s not that I hate the industry as a whole – women should be free to do what they please. What I dislike about it is the fact the so many women seem unhappy to me. If a woman is unhappy – no, if a person is unhappy – they should not have to remain in the job that makes them unhappy. However, for many of these young girls, they lack the skills to get positions elsewhere. 

I love Thailand. Though perhaps, as is the case with many countries arounf the world, it has a fair way to go before it achieves compete gender equality. 

Rice Farming on a School Trip

Two days ago, four of us teachers went on a school trip to a farm called Ban Kru Thani, an hour or so outside of Bangkok. Two teachers were already there, having been selected for the overnight camp, but myself and one other went for the day. By 7am we were on a bus full of children on the way to the farm.

Firstly, we were asked to entertain the students on the bus. Begrudgingly – we both tend to suffer from travel sickness and were a bit apprehensive about standing and entertaining on a moving vehicle – we took it in turns to teach new vocabulary (words that might be useful on a farm) and indicate how they were to fill in their worksheets. To be completely honest, that was a challenge in itself. Does anybody know the difference between a sickle and a scythe? Neither did I. 

When we arrived, we met the others, played a few games in English and sang some songs to get everyone excited for the day ahead. Even in the shade at 8.30am it was extremely hot and it dawned on us quite how hot it was going to be out in the sun all day. We were encouraged to take off our shoes in order to really experience the farm how it’s experienced everyday by Thai farmers. As nice as that sounded at the time, we all regretted having left our shoes behind when we realised how hot the floor was under our feet!

Once we had split the group into smaller and more manageable teams, we then went to pay our respects to Buddha and the farm. Not really understanding what we were doing or why, we followed the farmers to a room containing a shrine and paid our respects, after which we listened to a talk about the history of the farm and architecture of the building. Of course this talk was in Thai, and we understood very little! So many times as an English teacher have I been thrown into a situation with almost no knowledge of what’s happening or why, and this was another one of those times.

Shortly after, each group was taken to a different area of the farm where we all took part in different tasks, and then moved onto the next. We rode in a tractor, rode a cart pulled by a buffalo, collected eggs, climbed a tree on a bamboo ladder, sat on a buffalo, helped to prepare a rice dessert, fed some fish, kayaked a little (very difficult to do when the students on your boat don’t understand the difference between left and right – I lost count of how many times we crashed into the bushes!), shimmied across the bamboo bridge suspended across the lake (it’s not an exaggeration when I say it was like a bamboo tightrope that was so hot to stand on it hurt the underside of your feet), and finally helped prepare the omelette for lunch. 

We all sat down in our groups to enjoy our traditional Thai lunch. Again we paid our respects, and tucked in. There was Thai omelette, chicken and pork, soup, som tam (spicy papaya salad with prawns), green curry with chicken, and of course lots and lots of rice. 

Next we were told to change into the clothes we were happy to get dirty and make our way over to the rice fields. We were to plant rice in the mud. Slowly my students and I – all aged between 6 and 11 – waded into the thigh-deep water to find that we sunk to our knees in slimy mud! Some of my students were holding onto me for support, though that made it harder for me not to fall over! Once we were all over the initial shock of the mud, we had a great time – splashing around in the water and painting each other with the mud. After, we got hosed down and it felt like it was songkran festival all over again! We all had a great laugh but were very happy when we were told it was time to shower. We all queued up for our showers – I didn’t know it took little girls so long to shower! – and waited our turns.  What a relief it was to finally wash all of the mud off! 

Once we were all clean and changed, we were served some Thai desserts – banana fritters, and an ice puppy-esque, grape flavoured treat. Finally, it was the last activity of the day – thanking the staff at the farm, and giving out the rewards. We awarded 5 students special prizes for participation and excellent use of English during the day. Some students told us their favourite parts of the day, and then we were ready to get back on the bus and go home to Bangkok. 

Finally back in Bangkok, we went out for a well-deserved pizza, followed by an inevitable early night!

The Smells of Bangkok

Bangkok is a strange and wonderful city. There is so much here to see and do and experience. And smell. 

Firstly, one of Bangkok’s most frequented spots is the Chao Phraya river. The Chao Phraya flows through the centre of Bangkok and has been hugely important to trade in Thailand. It has been an important transport route for decades as there are many canals that stem from the river, most of which are frequented by river boat taxis. However, the thing about this river that stands out to me, is the everpresent smell of fish. Despite recent pollution, this river is home to many species of fish and therefore provides an income for many locals; seafood. By any river in Thailand you will find a seafood restaurant, be it on the street or inside. It is easy to become enticed by the aroma of the freshly cooked fish. 

Speaking more broadly, wherever you are in Bangkok there is no doubt you will be close to a huge variety of street food. In order to avoid the stifling heat, many street food vendors come out in the evening (though a large number of stalls do uncompromisingly come out in the morning and stay well into the night) and walking down a crowded street full of street food vendors after the sun has gone down is one of my favourite things to do in Bangkok. Walking down one street you can smell fried chicken, fried squid, fried fish, seafood pad Thai (sweet noodles), meat kebabs, fried rice, spicy soups, mango sticky rice, exotic fruits and innumerable other delicious foods. 

Which leads me onto the smelliest of all the street foods, Thailand’s infamous durian. If you are unfamiliar with durian, it is a fruit available in many Asian countries, but has become a symbol of Thailand and Thai culture. It is a large fruit with spikes like a pineapple. To be eaten, it has to be chopped open, and the insides scooped out. Durian can be found on most streets, especially when it is in season, and you know durian is being sold on a street before you even step onto that street. If you have ever once smelt a durian you’ll remember it. In many hotels, shopping centres and taxis are signs specifically banning durian from being eaten. Do you know of any other fruits that aren’t allowed in hotels purely because of how smelly they are? I didn’t think so. The smell to me, though everyone has a different theory, is that of onion, wine, and gone-off custard. 

A similarly bed smell that is seemingly unavoidable in the city is, unfortunately, that of sewage and rubbish. This nasty odour is particularly prevalent in the rainy season though it is certainly not exclusive to this time of year. One minute you can be enjoying the sweet smell of mango sticky rice, and the wind changes and you’re left with something rather pungent. The streets of Bangkok, despite the continuous and uncompromising  presence of street food, rarely have bins. Instead, rubbish gets left on the side of the streets, and is taken away at night. It is not uncommon to see rats and cockroaches rummaging through, looking for their dinner. The city could smell so much better if only there were more bins around. With lids!

Finally, one of my favourite aromas I’ve come to associate with Bangkok, and Thailand more broadly speaking, is incense. Buddhism is the major religion here in Thailand, and incense is often used at ceremonies and during prayers. Walking down many streets you could stumble upon a shrine, and often there’s the smell of incense burning or of it having recently been burned. In temples there are incense sticks available to burn (often requiring a small donation) during prayer, not dissimilar to candles in churches in western Christian culture. 

So there you have it. My thoughts on the smells of Bangkok. Though some of the smells I mentioned are less than desirable (to say the least), the huge variety and persistence of the smells of Bangkok are an integral part of the complex make up this strange and wonderful city. 

Thanks.

Claire

Introductions

So I guess first things first; introductions. My name is Claire and I’m an English Teacher currently living in Bangkok, Thailand. 

For the sake of honesty – and all the best blogs are honest – I’m quite nervous about writing and publishing this first blog. I studied history at university so I’m no stranger to writing, but a blog is more personal and, with that, more intimidating. But I’m glad I’m finally putting pen to paper (or whatever the modern day, technological version of putting pen to paper might be) and getting some words out. People have a tendency to use social media to romanticise their lives (nobody wants to post a picture of the time they spent fifteen hours on a bus from Barcelona to Paris, but rather the pictures of the beautiful Sacre Cour when they finally arrived – I did that once, and I would not recommend bus journeys of that length!) and I am certainly no stranger to that; just look at my Instagram account! That’s why I want to make this blog as honest as I can, both for myself and to show the realities of travelling, and of both living and working abroad.

I also really enjoy writing. I love reading – I read all the time! – but I haven’t really written anything since I graduated two years ago. I’d also like to use this blog to talk about some of the books I’ve read recently. I’ve had more free time in Bangkok than I’ve had in a long time and I love using that time to read different things, and to learn about the world, about history, about culture (and read the occasional piece of chick lit that really teaches very little but provides great entertainment on my commute to work!). 

Lastly I’d like to say who this blog is for: me. I want to write. I want to document my time here in Asia with not just photos, but with anecdotes and feelings. I want to be able to show my family and friends back home in England – or wherever they may be! – that I’m safe and happy. (I am, mum, I promise.) And I want to show what Thailand is really like, what Bangkok is really like for a young woman in her twenties, the realities of living 6,000 miles away from home, and having to navigate a new place alone without understanding the language and being unfamiliar with the culture. Not to mention how much fun I’m having!  

Thanks for reading. 

Claire