What is a Farang?

by Kenneth Champeon, May 13, 2005 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Sometimes you can learn most about a people by studying how it views other peoples. In Thailand, the most common and prominent visitors from outer space are the farangs, a versatile term that may apply to foreigners, Westerners, "white" people; like any term deriving from a loose racial category -- Negro, Oriental -- it has its uses, but ultimately defies precise definition.

The average Thai's conception of farangs is roughly as follows. First of all, farangs are extraordinarily large; this and their pale skin and variably-colored eyes and hair contribute to their otherworldliness -- and, to many Thais, their resemblance to ghosts. Farangs are also rich. While it may be true that the income of an average person of European ancestry far surpasses that of the average Thai, many farangs in Thailand are there precisely because they have little money. But good luck trying to tell a Thai this. Gouging foreigners wouldn't be nearly so much fun if it were known that often they too have to struggle to make ends meet.

On a related note, Thais are also generally of the opinion that farangs are stingy. This because a farang's property is his own and no one else's, whereas a Thai is more accustomed to viewing his property as shared amongst family and friends. Farangs are also individualistic, meaning that they do things like travel alone, scale mountains alone, and engage in antisocial behavior such as the reading of books. On a recent visit to America from Thailand, one of the things I first noticed was how few groups I saw: everyone seemed to be on his own, atoms crossing each others' paths but never meeting. While the Thais have a grudging respect for the farang's capacity to go it alone -- calling him geng, or "skillful" whenever he does something of which an individual Thai deems himself incapable -- for the most part I suspect that they find individualism to be unsettling, as it goes against the Thai respect for family, social cohesion and obeisance to authority.

But the main point I would like to make here is that farangs -- Westerners as experienced by Thais, in Thailand -- are a world apart from Westerners everywhere else. Many if not most farangs in Thailand are oddballs, rejects, runaways: hippies, druggies, alcoholics, sex maniacs, beach bums. Asked to describe a farang, a Thai is likely to imagine one of two creatures: the odiferous, long-haired backpacker, or the pot-bellied, beet-red barfly. And he may be surprised to learn that he has more in common with the average Westerner -- a regular job, a stable family life -- than the average Westerner has in common with farangs.

This because farangs in Thailand live according to a morality all their own, neither Western nor Thai, though drawing in some part from both. So, for example, a Westerner newly arrived to Thailand may be opposed to prostitution on principle, but the longer he stays the more he will come to condone it and he may even come to participate in it. He has gone some way toward becoming a Thai male, roughly three-fourths of whom have visited prostitutes, but he has not gone all the way. (He may draw the line at prostitutes he believes to have been coerced, for instance.) A farang is in the unique and often uncomfortable position of being judged according to three very different standards of conduct: that of Thais, that of Westerners, and that of farangs, and a certain amount of maneuvering if not outright deception will be required to satisfy all three. On the other hand, farang morality can be profoundly liberating -- as, in some sense, it is no morality all, but instead boils down to whatever you can afford so long as it keeps you out of jail. (And what's more, staying out of jail may boil down to what you can afford -- in terms of bribes.)

Indeed one of the reasons that farang morality can be so amorphous is that the Thais are exceedingly tolerant, so that behavior that might not fly elsewhere in the world receives, in Thailand, a good-natured shrug or merely a bewildered stare. Farangs are barbarians anyway -- why chide them for acting like barbarians? And in some cases the Thais are simply in awe of the liberties farangs are prepared to take. Unfortunately this only reinforces the common notion that all Westerners sunbathe in the nude, drink like fish and treat Thai baht as if it were Monopoly money.

And tolerance, of course, has its limits: very often the word farang is used in a derogatory or resentful manner, when a Westerner has overstepped the bounds of admissible conduct or has done something that brings shame to Thailand or its people. Indeed one occasionally hears the word spoken in the same tone that an English-speaking homophobe might use for the word "faggot", where both classes of people are seen as a kind of contagion affecting some mythically pristine social body. In many cases, of course, such scorn is justified, as Thailand's reputation would be much improved if its less savory farangs -- the drug traffickers, the pedophiles, the football hooligans -- were to get lost. But it also reveals the extent to which Thailand is a racist society -- and, paradoxically, one in which whiteness among Thais is prized while whites themselves are often ridiculed.

One indicator that farangs constitute a unique subculture is the existence of a magazine dedicated to them: Farang, which carries the regrettably narcissistic subtitle "You! You! You!" Although I have once appeared in its pages, much of Farang's content is uninteresting to me, me, me and my friends, friends, friends -- extreme sports, "hard" sex and similar amusements for the chronically bored. But all too often such things are what draw farangs to Thailand and keep them there. For many farangs Thailand is less a country than it is a playground, a place where childhoods can be relived or lived for the first time. And if the Thais can profit from providing the conditions for this to occur, then they are usually more than happy to oblige, especially as the Thais are generally more insouciant than are their Western visitors, many of whom seem never to have learned how to smile.

And it is partly for this reason that many Thais view the mighty farang not with awe but with an emotion by which farangs might be surprised: pity. Where are your mother and father? How often do you see them? How many siblings do you have? Questions like this are as urgent to a Thai as they may seem irrelevant or impertinent to a farang, but they are nothing more than variations on the question: Why on earth are you in Thailand, alone? Don't you -- this is another fairly common question -- get lonely? A farang may deny this up and down, but the truth is that loneliness is precisely what he has come to Thailand in order to cure. What, I asked a farang friend of mine headed back to the US, do you fear most about returning? "Alienation," he replied, without skipping a beat. And farangs are not just fleeing loneliness; many indeed are fleeing the very (and very dysfunctional) families about which the Thais are so inquisitive. "Westerner," a Thai once told me -- and she was referring in particular to Americans and their convoluted family trees -- "is fucked up." So there you have it.

Sadly, the fucked-upness of farangdom is not something to which the Thais are entirely immune, and indeed they sometimes display an uncanny ability to adopt or at least imitate the worst, because most conspicuous and alien aspects of Western behavior. But because the Thais are more grounded than their farang counterparts, whose ideas of what is right and wrong have been so assaulted by rapid social change that they are all but nonexistent, the reverse is more often than not the case, with farangs coming to embrace values in Thai society that they see dying in their own. This in part explains why so many farang men are attracted to Thai women, who represent for the men an ideal of womanhood -- which may be as simple as finding contentment in the mere raising of children -- that in their cultures may no longer exist. So in many cases a farang is a social reactionary, at least from the perspective of the society from which he originates. But to a Thai he may seem progressive.

Throughout most of this essay I have spoken of farangs as if they were all male, and that is because most of them are, and because I am, but there are plenty of female farangs too. And they are, almost without exception, regarded as beautiful by Thais, men and women alike. Thai women in particular see strength as well as beauty, but the more observant of them will sooner or later realize that this strength is sometimes a disguise meant to conceal deep uncertainties. Thai women tend to give an appearance of malleability that hides a solid core; with farang women the reverse is often true. Commonly the result is that farang women urge Thai women to stand up for themselves only to bemoan their own loneliness and insecurity, and the counselor ends up being the counseled. At once strong and sick: this more generally may be said to represent the farangs through Thai eyes.

Then again I suspect that for most Thais -- that is, the Thais in the countryside -- the farang is largely a comic figure, someone to wave at or make fun of, as he drives a motorcycle that is too small for him or fumbles his way through a language too musical for him. "Fa-lang, fa-lang!" -- this accompanied by pointing fingers and toothy smiles (or laughter discreetly covered by a small hand) is very often the most recognition that a farang will receive on any given day. And it's quite enough, really.

- The End -

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