An Apology from a Bitter Expat

 | Fri 20 Sep 2013 14:03 ICT


Once upon a time there was a breed of expat, the bitter expat, a man made of innumerable clichés, whose Thai flavoured woes were stated frequently and vehemently from the crooked bar stools of Pattaya to the now not so active conjugal bedrooms of Hangdong where bitter expat’s endless plaints congealed online within the company of other bitter expats.

Definition: Bitter Expat (n.) Chiefly British

The bitter expat disses Thailand for all its endless blunders, its flagrantly over-blown wonders, for its wicked wenches, for its blooming too early nights and overly long obnoxious morning choruses, and for all the things right now that are not the way they were back then, when bitter expat was a happier man. He’s often the fey drunkard who pretty much lives in the pub where his name is embossed on a coffee mug. He’s twenty years in and can’t pronounce ‘thanks’ in the tongue of his nemeses, yet at the same time is a self-proclaimed oracle on compound nouns beginning with Thai-women, driving/culture/builders/doctors, etc…He’s jaded, he’s been burned, his wife left, and his kids look at him like he’s an apt to malfunction foreign-made vending machine. He’s usually in a bad mood, primed for diatribe, a little too ready to tell his story to any unlucky sod who is about to get lambasted for enjoying his life, or pizza, in Thailand.

I’m generalizing again, but I am aware that the bitter expat cliché does have some truth to it, otherwise it wouldn’t be a cliché. I met some bitter expats thirteen years ago, when I first came to this country. The bitter expat is anathema to the new expat. He’s forever bursting bubbles, popping up on sandy beaches and internet forums with Thai-based omens like ghosts from Christmas past. I kept my distance from these morose blokes and bitter women, they screwed with my Thai-land, as in the theme park, and tended to bring me down. My theme park had become their house of horrors. Even though I am still not seeking the company of this endangered breed of foreigner, I now understand how they might have become tainted. There are perhaps some rules to follow if you don’t want to join the ranks of bitter expat.

Not for a second did I ever think I was a bitter expat.

Part Two

Last week I was called, for the first time, a bitter expat.

Had I finally passed over to the dark-side of the eternally discontent? A marauding frown in a land of smiles? Was it time to get out of Thailand before it was too late, before one day I find myself arguing the merits of English sausage on Thaivisa, or shouting daily at my estranged new wife in toddler English? It was a time of great discernment, of emphatic introspection.

I was called, to be exact, “Just another bitter expat.”

The unwanted epithet was in relation to my criticism of the now viral video that some people say, with a patronizing compliment to this little developing country, leads the way in global marketing.

The tear-jerk, positively saccharine commercial has this last month been applauded by macho barbers in Costa Rica, and sanctimoniously sanctioned by fundamentally heartless editorial staff at the Daily Mail.

The three minute long sepia drama, in my own words, has hoodwinked (the very basis of marketing) millions of naïve viewers with its hypocritical wishy-washy, obscurative bull-crap. This is advertising and I accept that, but what is worse about this particular piece of propaganda, is that is uses inequality to sell its product. And in terms of inequality it is a main component. Its message is ‘give’, when it is nonetheless Thailand’s biggest ‘taker’. All this wouldn’t be so bad if the video hadn’t become a 3 minute hands-around-the-world cryathon.

I found the message (giving is best) in the video rather unsettling, like finding a bit of human tooth in my twinky. A really ominous, and thought-provoking find in such an unhealthy treat. How did ‘giving’ get in there?

But I was in a minority. For the two or three people online that had also pointed out the hypocrisy of this ad, there were literally millions of gifted consumers who had cried themselves to sleep, their world a brighter place now they knew poor kids could be doctors, and rich people always gave back. I was told my criticism was “irrelevant”, and if only slightly irrelevant, it was unfair because ‘artists’ such as Capote, and Dylan, made money too. Many other people were upset with my alleged cynicism…and bitterness.

It was, to be fair, a very well-made piece of film, as you’d expect from the richest corporation in Thailand. It was well-made technically, but also as a piece of ‘conscience’ marketing it worked spectacularly. ‘Giving is Best’ was clearly very successful.

As I wrote in the story, the ad was a product of TrueMove, who is a product of CP (Charoen Pokphand) group, who is a product of Dhanin Chearvanont, the richest man in Thailand and SE Asia according to Forbes, worth an estimated 14.3 billion dollars.

His wealth amounts to a bit less than 5% of Thailand’s GDP. His companies are doing really well at the moment, and after such brilliant, lugubrious, and utterly humane marketing campaigns we can expect his wealth to grow next year.

Addressing the point many people made in the defense of the video: ‘just enjoy the art, you can’t always think about who’s behind it,’ I will say this.

We might ask if TrueMove have artistic integrity, as Dylan, or Capote had when they wrote their brilliant immortal prose. Did TrueMove have in its sugary heart the anguish of lost souls and homeless boys when it paid for that ad, as Dylan might have when he wrote “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”?

Or, was it an artless piece of exploitative advertaintment masquerading as art, whose soulless intention is only to wrangle your consciousness into submission so you might pay up and buy a product you probably don’t need? Don’t need, that’s why the marketing has to be top-notch.

If True or CP had written a series of world changing epic novels, or a masterful exegesis of Thai poverty in the modern world, then I may have been persuaded by its artistic integrity. But their product, is not a work of art, it’s exploitation tactics using people oppressed by inequality as their gimmick. It is not at all good-natured as we are supposed to believe, it’s ill-natured, if you consider greed, lies, exploitation, as negative traits.


In literary theory there is such a thing as ‘reception theory’. How each person interprets a text, or film in this case. The professor of literature may read more into The Wasteland than the Premiership football player, a feminist critic’s explanation of Mrs. Robinson may not mirror the Freudian interpretation. We all get something different from a story, and that I think is one of the most hopeful and charming things about mankind, we are so hopelessly disagreeable and unique. But in the case of “Giving is Best”, how I negatively received this alleged insincerity, I strongly believe to be in the interests of society at large. That’s why I’m making this case.

Part 3

The boy in the film is poor, and as we know, many people in this country live in poverty, for some people on the margins it is abject, miserable, infused-with-danger poverty. Out of the 14.3 billion dollars that Dhanin is worth, I’ll make a lazy guess and say that if about a million of these poor folk put all their money together, it wouldn’t even bring Dhanin’s worth down to 14.2. Yet, just the crust of his worth could help a vast amount of people.

Giving is better than receiving. This is certainly true in terms of physical abuse, I wonder if that’s what True meant when they made a film about poverty?

TrueMove are using poverty as a gimmick in order to fatten the profits of the company. This to me is akin to using rape to sell pornography.

I agree the message is good, I’m all for giving, but imagine if your father gave you parental advice, and it was entirely insincere, and only given so he could take advantage of you.

If you want to market a product, don’t use poverty as a gimmick. Just as that Buddhist monk shouldn’t have advertised Isuzu under the pretext of sufficiency economy. Surely there’s a depth we shouldn’t reach to.

As viewers of course we want to sympathise with the ad, we want people to know how sad it made us feel. We have to, in some way, eschew the bad, and feel that we are part of something ethical. This is ‘moral fragmentation’. It’s how we can feel good about ourselves without really having to do much at all.

The silver-lining video obstructs reality. It’s a nicer version of reality, but it’s also fake. There are actually real-life poor people all over the place that we can help. For most of us our hearts are big, but not that big, so it’s in our self-interests to go gluey-eyed at the film.

For a fragment of one man’s wealth schools could be erected in every city in Thailand; the starved and shelterless could be put up for a year; the enslaved could be freed; the police could be enriched, and so maybe not so apt to cheat…the list is endless. But instead of putting the money into ameliorating all these social problems, rather than trickle down into the deep furrows of broken Thailand, the money overflows from the peaks of Dhanin’s pockets.

If only True or CP practiced what they preached imagine how that wealth could be shared. Perhaps if the public’s fawning sentimentality over this piece of subterfuge led to mass magnanimity then the tears may have been well spent, but it’s likely that the tears we shed only serve to proliferate what spilled them in the first place.

I’m sorry, but the video makes a mockery of Thai social inequities, it undermines poverty with its fantasy true story line, creating a merrier version of events that suits anyone who might profit from, or just want to believe everybody lives happily ever after at the end of the story.


James Austin Farrell