Thailand and the Summer of Love

 | Fri 4 Apr 2014 14:26 ICT

During our lunch break the editorial staff, including the two young interns, were discussing what I might write about this afternoon for an editorial.

– Pollution

– The article I just read in which Noam Chomsky gives civilization another 100 years before it self-destructs.

– What it feels like to be called a “wanker” or some such ill-meaning word, almost every day by readers of your website.

– Bicultural love… and the sex that goes with it.

If Chomsky is right, and it’s true that incompetence, fear, greed, and the latent psychopathy of our world leaders will lead to widespread ruin in the near future, and that even this pervasive Chiang Mai pollution and its evident incorrigibility are smoke signals vaguely spelling out to us the nascent bust-ups with nature before the death of civilisation… and if I really am a wanker, then I guess I’d rather talk about love, or sex, or both, which is usually the case. I’ll deal with those other more depressing, maybe insuperable issues later…

You can’t write about love without sounding infinitely soft-in-the-head, or terribly reductive, but I’ll give it a shot.

The interns seem interested in love, or sex, in Thailand, because it seems to me they see it as some kind of exotic theme you might experience, something maybe relevant to fetishism, something strange, mysterious, or even alienating, and perhaps something that you must try at least once. I’ve intuited many times from western friends that they think relationships over here are kinda funny, or risky, or crazy, but of course real love can only exist back home, with one of your own kind. If not fetishistic, there’s a comedic element to how many outsiders view bicultural relationships in Thailand. It’s a snooty, malevolent stance to take, and I believe one that is/was fermented in a kind of learned ethnocentricity. While the interns certainly, I think, did not take this superior view, I believe many people do. They can’t take bicultural relationships seriously, and often they condemn what they view as pantomime love.

So, here’s my response to the interns.

Love is, to my mind, the only universal condition which all humans strive to experience; sex is the lowest, and perhaps highest, common denominator. Fear and violence are equally universal, but I believe they are manifestations of a failure to experience love. Love is the law, as they say, fear is failure; it works outside of the law. This sounds like I may have my head in the sand, or have read too much Mills and Boons, but the fact is I’ve been cynical for most of my life, and I think cynicism is healthy, but also ugly and petulant. Like teenage acne, it has to be outgrown, and it leaves scars. Notwithstanding people with serious mental conditions, it’s likely that none (if we are fortunate to fade out with a lucid mind) will wish we had hated more, or feared more, as we slide into the ether. Love is our only true affection; everything else we do is a ruse, a design, to find it. This applies to all of us.

It makes no difference where you come from when you’re wrapped around someone in bed and the feeling of love is mutual. Customs, or culture, at this pleasant, maybe even sublime moment, don’t matter. They feel more like hang-ups you’ve had, chips on your shoulder, bruises that won’t heal (Radiohead). Culture can feel like something you’ve been cursed with. Post-coitus, you are both aware that bodies are pretty much the same wherever you go, that orgasms are primal screams, a universally non-translatable language.

Languages seem insufficient at times, lying in bed, they slip off the bedside, you couldn’t care less; numb, dumb, mute, and you don’t give two hoots about the lamp you just smashed or impending martial law. If love is the definitive unifying condition, then sex is a fantastic nullifier of outside interference. Neither requires the spoken word, grunts will suffice.

In 1990, The Summer of Love in the UK, Ian Brown, lead singer of the seminal rock band, The Stone Roses, countered many fans chanting the names of the cities or towns where they came from – a terrible English disease. He said:

“It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

I agree entirely. What matters is where we are, not where we come from. If you travel, leave the luggage of your country behind; with those tiny angry flags stitched onto to its worn-out exterior, it’ll slow you down if you plan to get along.

There are many books written about cross-cultural relationships, thousands upon thousands of trite extraneous words delineating to you how you might make it work in a foreign country if you follow the advice proffered. In my opinion all this is unhelpful, and obfuscates something very simple: that love is not cultural, it’s a universal condition. The books set boundaries rather than do what they should: tell you that boundaries are manmade, and they can be breached. You don’t need a book to tell you how to fall in love. What you do need is to recognise culture as transient, and changeable. To fall in love you must realise that culture is something you have to grow out of, the clothes you wear that you must slip out of before step into bed for the first time; a border is a wall you must scale; language deprives us of mutual understanding, as much as it offers us explanations.

When I had just turned 16, I went to Spain with a few friends, my first time abroad without my parents. It was 1990, the Summer of Love. Besides being paid in champagne to dance (my friends and I looked the part of the new “scene”) and being pretty much worshipped for our Rave mixed tapes, I met a Spanish girl. I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, and she couldn’t speak English, but I was besotted with her lustrous black hair, her accent, the little mysteries of non-lingual communication; I remember we’d communicate using signs. I once explained to her my fondness for star-gazing by drawing a picture of the sky in dust on the floor. For a few days we kind of experienced love, at least some degree of real affection. There was something very pure about it, about being young and not yet cynical, and not having words to complicate things. Had I had words, I’d likely have just gone on about LSD, or in an attempt to ameliorate my vast insecurities, I would have used words to try to make myself look amazing. Silence was perfect.

I took her address, and I promised I’d write. She said, lovingly, “I know you won’t.” I told her I was loyal, that I really would, and in my mind I planned to go back to Spain and find her someday. But on the way to the airport I lost her address. I felt bad for a long time, not only because I couldn’t see her again, but because I may have planted a seed of distrust in her mind that shouldn’t have been there. Cynicism brewed when love should have been flowering.

People ask me what it’s like to date a Thai girl, as if I might respond that Thai women turn you into butterflies once they’ve encapsulated you in their cocoon, or that after they have sex they poke you with a poisoned fingernail and you sleep for 99 years. Love – and sex – transcends boundaries. If you don’t know how to love in a different country, or perhaps even fuck with abandon in an exotic world, then you probably can’t do that anywhere. I understand that wants and needs, in both a social and an economic sense, differ from country to country, and it’s better to understand what your partner wants from you, or expects of you, but that has little to do with love. Unfortunately, fiscal poverty often results in a poverty of positive emotions, but not always. Love should begin with a blank slate, and that means you have to each start deconstructing the cultural myths you’ve both become part of.

Culture doesn’t define you; culture is a narrative you’ve been written into, but one in which you, the hero or victim of the story, depending on how you view things, write your own part. You were born an Englishman, you can die human. I want to unlearn, as well as learn, our differences.

As George Harrison wrote:

Some things take so long but how do I explain
Not too many people, can see we’re all the same
And because of all the tears, their eyes can’t hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them, isn’t it a pity?

It’s our fears, those which have pervaded our heads since we were kids, written into the grand narrative, of how other cultures are so different and perhaps so dangerous, that blind us from love. Isn’t it a pity we believe we are so different when we are really just the same, wrapped in our national security blankets, praying to mythological heroes, those vaunted stars who carried the flags dripping in blood.

If you’re in Thailand wondering what it’s like to date a Thai, or you’re a Thai wondering what it’s like to date a farang, well, I can’t speak for your personal experience, but you may believe that love or sexual relations are defined by language and culture, and if that’s the case, then I think you’re wrong. While it may be difficult to express specific meaning outside of language, there is a universal language that we all speak but can’t quite articulate. The ineffable: love. I know plenty of people who love their pets more than they do their husbands or wives or parents, and so it seems to me that communication is not the key to love. I can’t say my love in England, or Canada, or Thailand has ever taken on a form represented by its place in the world. Love is transferable.

Stay away from books, or people, trying to tell you the meaning of Thainess. These platitudinous beasts of propaganda are in fact attempts to collectivise Thai people and divide them and us. Under every Thai person I’ve known and loved is an individual, an individual whose needs and hopes are similar to what most of us want. The cliché that we are just too different to get along is not correct at all, in fact it’s allusive poison carried to us through our computers every day of the week.

Our media provides for us numerous stereotypes of other cultures as we grow into national citizens, and our news provides us with fear of the other. We carry around these stereotypes, however open-minded we think we might be, until I guess we give up on ourselves as a stereotype, we forget our own national identity, or at least see through it. The silly Chinaman as depicted in Hollywood, or the aggressive Russian, or regimented German, or even the crass farang as depicted in Thai media, they all want the same things in life: love, security, affection, etc. We are all alike stripped of national myth and the boundaries set by custom and culture. The media thrives on propagating cultural isolation in an attempt to breed exceptionalism. It’s mean, and childish, this exceptionalism, but nations are just big kids that can’t grow up. Nations are immature, it sometimes prudent not to listen to them. 

Borders were made to keep us apart. Chomsky might not be right about the end of civilisation, but something has to change in the dynamic of the paranoid world in which war motivates the populace, and extends the riches of the powerful. We must recognise the other as simply the same, and appreciate our interconnection. I think it has something to do with what Hegel termed mutual recognition, some kind of transference of feelings, an ability to perceive the other as equal, to see each other through each other’s eyes. The separations, borders, inherent violence of this separation, the clinginess of culture and its demands and prohibitions, have been created as a means to preponderate fear and keep us working for the men in charge, men who never loved us and never will.


James Austin Farrell

Photo: Me in Spain, 1990