Tuesday, December 3, 2013

National Anthem

My moto was stopped as we crossed the barracks that lent the Sanam Pao ("target range") BTS station its name. As the national anthem began to play, my driver, like everyone else in plein-air, immediately stopped. Three soldiers stood at attention, rifles at their sides, facing an arrangement of flags-- that of the king, that of the queen, that of the nation, before the rising eastern sun.

Like many other expatriates in Bangkok, I've come to bristle at the playing of the national anthem, a product of 1930s fascism in both its origins and spirit, with lyrics referring to blood and soil that very much fit the ethos of Field Marshal Phibun's tinpot tropical reich.

The bells that precede the anthem's play-- 8 AM and 6 PM sharp, another remnant of the Phibun era-- are Pavlovian at this point. I want nothing more than to run away and hide to someplace where I don't have to stand at attention, to prostrate myself as a gesture towards the nationalism I have always hated.

Of course, lots of foreigners in Bangkok maintain a principled contempt for the Thai national anthem, the hollow rituals that accompany it, the militant veneration of nationalist ideology, and the various flavors of gloomy propaganda pushed by Ministry of Culture bureaucrats. I certainly sympathize.

But, when so many of these Westerners are interrogated, they seem to be under the delusion that this ideology is essential and unchanging, and that an undefined "culture" prevents the citizens of the nation from actually possessing the capacity for critical thought. It's the same perspective found among British colonialists in pre-partition India (it's all caste, don't you see, if we leave there won't be a virgin left between Calcutta and Karachi) and Halliburton functionaries in the America-damaged sections of the Middle East (Islam makes them think this way, the Arab mind hates democracy). Though to be fair, what I find especially galling about the local version of this sort of intellectual imperialism is simply that I have to deal with it on a near-daily basis, so it pisses me off more, natch.

Now, there are also Westerners whose practice goes in the opposite direction, who are at pains to adopt Thai ways, and decry modernization and urbanization as a loss of "Thainess." These are the same Westerners who wai obsequiously at every turn, who are at near-constant pains to show off their (lousy) Thai language skills, and who attempt, with starry-eyed naivete, to adopt Buddhist practice.

Both of these approaches reflect fundamentally orientalist understandings. Yet both can speak to higher virtues on one level-- of iconoclasm, and of cross-cultural understanding, respectively-- but are bogged down as their practitioners let their unbending convictions obfuscate the messy complexities of human existence.

And, fundamentally, both are seen through the lens of the Western expatriate's single-minded pursuit of pleasure. What you hear being bitched about in Sukhumvit Road pubs by expats of both persuasions are the most superficial goddamn things: excessive fees imposed upon foreigners, the Asiatic obsession with fair skin. You don't hear those expats bitching so much about, say, the virtual enslavement of Burmese migrant workers, the Charoen Pokphand Group's near-criminal push towards American-style industrial agriculture, or the prawn farms that are destroying miles of the Gulf of Thailand coast. No, they get rankled by the incidentals that deny them the gloss of white privilege that they cling onto as their claimed birthright, much like the dispossessed aristocrats in interwar-period England trying to maintain their gentility.

I don't mean to tar every Westerner in Thailand with the same brush. Some of them are, even, ostensibly, close friends of mine. And these are the ones who haven't chosen either of the two above paths. They tend to be pragmatic, thoughtful, and cosmopolitan. Much like the people I try to surround myself with wherever I go.

But it is one of the central questions of living overseas. You are forced to ask yourself who you are, what your beliefs are, what your assumptions are, how to balance personal integrity with larger-scale respect.

And those questions are drawn into even sharper relief when the streets of your city are filled with marching demonstrators waving national flags and chanting slogans, when the people you knew as your florist, as your noodle vendor are out with colored armbands. When government buildings are being stormed, when students are being shot, when dismal demagogues like the red-clad Jatuporn Prompan and the yellow-clad Suthep Thaugsuban attempt to commandeer the national media outlets, when all the talk is of a "people's council" (a phrase that summons up the sound of boots in synchronized march on dusty boulevards, of slit throats and dumped bodies in the mangroves).

And those questions make me nervous about even writing this, about my position as an outsider-- after all, it wasn't long ago that an esteemed member of parliament from Chumphon Province led a crowd to assault a German photographer for being too nosy. I'm a bit anxious, but I know I'll be far more anxious if I simply remain in silence, or restrict myself to grumbling in the pub with the other Westerners.

So I write something, in order to palliate my doubts, in order to make peace with the place I've chosen to inhabit.