Cover image by Christian Vium. The cast of the documentary Heartbound – A different kind of love story
By David Streckfuss
At the conclusion of our series, “The Good Daughters of Isaan,” we take a look back at the discussions generated among our readers and make a reconsideration of what the series was hoping to achieve. Certainly, the series was geared toward our Thai/Isaan audience as it set out to challenge a discourse prominent in Thai society that focuses on the emotion-laden term, “mia farang,” and was not focused on whatever discourses there might be in Western circles about the issue of marriages between Isaan (and in many cases, Thai) women and Western men.
The Thai/Isaan side of the series as a whole reached 15.8 million and garnered 172,000 engagements. Our English audience was much smaller, with 153,000 reached and 4,400 engagements. Comments from our Thai and English readers were naturally different as the discourse on “mia farang” within Thailand is different from that in the English-speaking world. Yet, in some cases Thai readers shared thoughts on the English Facebook page, in both Thai and English and vice versa.
Thai response to the series: Poverty is the cause
Many Thai readers defended the reputation of “mia farang.” One top fan, Wilailak Ritdet, 56, who lives in Germany, reasoned that it was normal that any person wants to expand their horizons and to improve themselves, their status, and the opportunities for their family and friends.” That Isaan women are so popular as a choice for Western men “reflected the kindness of Isaan people. Western men give them honor and respect, and for those going abroad, they are afforded the same and equal rights of any other citizen in the country they migrate to.
Arlawan Lövgren, born in Roi Et and now living in Sweden, agrees. She writes that her first thought in getting a Western husband was “I wanted to come and work in a foreign country in order to make my life and that of my family better, and the future of my children.”
Suchanya See, a reader living in Bangkok, points out that in this day and age when education, culture, and wealth are rapidly changing, it is commonplace for people from different countries to marry. Many younger Thais are more interested in politics and can see the effects of development policies in Thailand, policies that result in the rural people coming to Bangkok where wealth is concentrated.
Pusdi Kitsawad, a 65-year-old female reader from Bangkok, wonders why Isaan women are so prominent in the phenomena of mia farang and so often the target of criticism by people of other regions. Isaan people have increasingly succeeded in education, found work, and lifted themselves and their families up. “Why, then,” she asks, do Isaan people “have to be trampled underfoot by others, we of Bangkok?”
Nearly a quarter million readers viewed the Thai version of the video story on the different kind of relationship between an Isaan man and American woman. The 428 comments made were all positive. One male commenter wrote, “You are so lucky to be dating a farang girl.” Also well received was the video story on the elderly home for Westerners in Buriram, Lanee’s Residenz. Many Thais wanted to apply for work there, and new prospective residents from Switzerland made inquiries.
In the more than half million engagements of the video story about the bullying of Isaan-Western kids in the Northeast, Pranom Rosenbröijer, a female Thai reader from Khorat, pointed out that bullying of kids who are different is not unique to Isaan or Thailand. For Thai women who brought their children to Finland to go to school, Finnish children made fun of their black hair and they were quite often isolated. It is worse still for those Thai kids who have trouble speaking Finnish who then become stressed which brings with it many other problems.
Thai men also weighed in on the issues brought up in the series. In response to the video story on the “Farang District” in Udon Thani, “Krabi na Choengdoi,” a Thai male reader from Krabi, argued that the core issue behind the migration of so many poorer Thai women to the West was because the Thai state had not guaranteed quality of life for its citizens. “If the social welfare system was good,” he wrote, and everyone enjoyed free education, good healthcare, and had rights, “no one would want to go to a foreign country.” Under incompetent officials and a weak democracy where people can’t speak out, everyone is left to “struggle and find a way of surviving.”
Darin Delya, a Thai female reader, agreed, writing that the lack of a social welfare state “causes the poor to be without basic important opportunities of life.”
Boonrit Cha-oompitiwong, a male who had worked for the Secretariat of the Senate and is originally from Sisaket, agreed that the lack of wealth was the cause of the mia farang phenomenon. With a Western partner, these women have access to wealth and respect. Unlike in the past where such women were not as valued, these women can now transcend the shame of their past and their children won’t have an inferiority complex.
English response to the series
Whereas comments on the Thai side came overwhelmingly from women, men –and mostly Western men– dominated conversation on the English side.
Many readers were critical of what they believed were the “stereotypes” presented in the series’ introductory articles. Although the series introduction clearly laid out what the series covered –primarily the “second type” of situations– where the relationships that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s where the Isaan women were largely less educated, previously married and with children, and who had met their future and older husbands in tourist venues.
But the introduction also acknowledged there was a new trend over the last decade or so of relationships between a new rising class of more educated Isaan women who coupled up with Westerners closer to their own age. Steven Di Glitterati who appears to live in Bangkok, pointed out there was “a large and growing number of highly educated, lower middle-class, self-sufficient women choosing a Western partner, often in the same age group.”
The idea of the “good daughters of Isaan” is not a stereotype; it’s a type of a common situation that has been by this time well studied. The series was not conceived as covering all the situations Western men encountered, but a common thread that was prominent in a certain period and formed the discourse that many Thais hold about the issue of transnational marriage between Thai women and Western men. In any case, the new trend was covered in the later pieces of the series.
Adding some context to our story on American GIs who connected up with Isaan women in the 1960s and 70s, Larry Fitzpatrick, an American living in Phuket, pointed out that there was quite a difference between the GIs and Westerners who came to Thailand decades later. “These days farang men in Thailand are much older and have more money. The soldiers back then were in their teens and early 20s” most of whom “were just here for one year and many left the service when returning to the states.” Many with no jobs and little education, bringing home a Thai bride was “near impossible.” Some of the women did end up going to the US. Some stayed “with the same man for 50 years.” Others returned, “sad and lonely.”
Readers beat up Thai men
The role of Isaan males within the mia farang phenomena is brought up in the introductory pieces, noting that the same lack of opportunity experienced by Isaan women also applies to Isaan men. Though not a focus of the series, the issue comes up again and again in the experiences of many of the women who end up marrying a Westerner.
David Hopkins wondered whether any research has been done on the topic and is sympathetic to Isaan women who found ways to marry a Westerner. He wrote that the topic is “the unspoken dark side of Isan” and pointed out that these women become “damaged goods” and “are ostracized by family and village as if it’s all their fault,” while for the male “is accepted without consequences.” He decried, “When will Isan males be called to account!?” and attributes the problem to different attitudes to males and females in Thailand: “boys in Thailand are raised and spoiled without ever being held accountable for anything, while the girls even have to bear the consequences for them.”Another reader, Kay Schibulsky, pointed out that governments in the West “will go after you and every penny you own when you don’t support your child.” Many of these women have had a bad experience with their former Isaan partners and Kay saids that as a result they can become jealous as they may fear “that Farangs may be as unfaithful and irresponsible as their former Thai husband. But he showed the positive attitude that many Western men have for Isaan/Thai women when he wrote, “without Thai women this country would come to a screeching stop.”
A male reader, Bo Phyu, didn’t buy the explanation that Isaan males who cite financial problems for their lack of responsibility as “a cop-out.” These men even “excuse their marriage transgressions leading to divorce” by citing their Isaan wives’ “materialism” rather their own failure “to meet their marriage responsibilities because of physical/emotional abuse, unfaithfulness, and alcohol and drug problems.” He also pointed out that “it is highly unusual” for “middle-aged Isaan women with children to be able to find a Thai partner.”
Sean Perkins wrote that if Thai men felt threatened by the allure of Western men to Thai women, then it “sounds like they need to evaluate themselves.”
The series did not focus on the issue of Isaan men who had broken up with their wives, and no readers, neither Thai nor foreign, neither male nor female, came to their defense.
Racism against biracial kids in Isaan?
The question of equality became a point of debate among English readers. They questioned the comment in the Matichon Weekly column that posited that “All Thai women have equal educational opportunities.”
John McPherson, a reader living in Mukdahan, approached the matter rather philosophically, arguing that nothing in life offers “equal opportunity” and concluded that Thailand should not pursue creating a welfare state. A Thai male from Bangkok, Ren Jinruang, countered that the goal “should aspire to be a welfare state” as a way of giving every equal opportunity “in terms of education, career opportunity, healthcare etc. The world is not equal,” he writes, “but we should do our best to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance at achieving a fulfilling life.”
The issue of racism showed up in many of the discussions. Noon Klinbubpa, a Thai female living in the US, argued that using the term “mia farang” was itself “racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic!”
The offense was not intended although the use of the term was. We decided on employing this commonly-used term as a way of challenging it. We agree that it has often been used as a derogatory term, just as using the word “farang” itself is often used in a derogatory way.
But that doesn’t necessarily make use of the term “racist.” Prejudice and racism are not the same thing. Prejudice is an attitude. Racism is when that prejudice is engaged and invokes the use of power by, say, making a law that discriminates against a segment of the population on the grounds of race. It is true, as Noon claims, that Thai attitudes about beauty and status make “mia farang” (and possibly their children) targets of prejudice that taken as a whole might lead to a larger pattern of discrimination, and so “the concepts of “Mia Farang” and/or interracial marriage can never be perceived positively.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement in the US has shown, the question of race is in need of new and serious reconsideration. John McPherson remarked quizzically that the Matichon column is racist, but then wonders how it’s “Hard to be racist against your own race.” This highlights two race-related points made clear in this series, a dark side of Isaan culture (and Thai culture more generally): on the one hand, the prejudice of Thai society concerning farang, their Isaan wives, and their offspring, and on the other, the prejudice of other Thais against Isaan people on the other.
Our Western readers are well acquainted with the ubiquitous use of the word “farang” in Isaan. The term has both negative and positive connotations. Stu McKay noted that Isaan is the “worst region for shouting farang out loud in public,” a region where there are “great people…ruined by a minority.”
Our story on bullying of Western-Isaan-mix children shows what happens when this prejudice is activated.
Hannah Smith, a female reader from the UK, wondered why there was “a general tolerance for bullying in schools? Children being bullied about darker skin colour, or being different in other ways.” She recommended that schools “create a zero-tolerance environment for bullying” in which “all types of bullying is taken seriously and both those being bullied and those doing the bullying are supported.”
Many readers said the bullying children (and their parents) are motivated by envy. Many Thai readers minimized the issue, complaining that the story made a mountain out of a molehill. At the same time, many of the Western readers recounted how their own children had faced prejudice and bullying, some of them eventually deciding to send their kids to Bangkok for education.
Stereotyping of mixed-race children was evident in reader comments. Readers said these children were lauded by Thai society, they all had beautiful white skin and were beautiful/handsome, they would all be able to make it as “60-70%” of TV and movie personalities were these biracial kids.
One reason we used the word, luk khrueng in our stories is because there is no nice way to define the term. It is not uncommon to hear the term “half-breed” or even “half-caste” used whereas the more neutral “biracial” is new and not commonly used.
Spymoo Pingza noted that this “is biracial struggle with peer ostracization within a predominantly monoracial community” that “can stoke rooted stigmatization of white-man-Isaan-woman relationship of their parents.”
Noon Klinbubpa, reflecting on her own experience and how her own mother explained the troubling proposal of marrying a Westerner (and explaining why she’s so averse to the term, “mia farang”):
Marrying a farang (foreigner/other) is leaving your own race (and nationality). ‘Mia farang’ is a term used to describe a Thai who has become an outsider; we dress differently, wear our skin (dark/tan) differently, speak other languages, and embrace different social and spiritual norms. Being called ‘Mia Farang’ is damning and painful! All other aspects like education, hard working, kindness, are thrown out the door. Intra-racial discrimination exists.
The motherly advice nicely shows various aspects of Thai concepts of race –and racism. A marriage to a person of a different race makes you an outsider who dresses differently, has different skin, speaks a foreign tongue, is different socially and spiritually.
But at the same time, these biracial kids have lighter skin, so they are beautiful. And yet they are bullied because they are different. Mike King pointed out that with the “dodgy gluta drinks, skin whitening clinics, armpit lightening underarm deodorants etc. being peddled,” he was “surprised bullies are making fun of her whiter skin.”
Paul Sophaphone, was also surprised, wondering how there could be discrimination against biracial kids” in Isaan, especially as “normally,” Isaan people “or Thai people of Lao origin are very accepting people.”
Many readers –mostly Thai but also some Westerners–couldn’t accept that biracial kids were bullied and wondered whether the bullying was really due to other causes and not because of their foreignness. Nattpol Phorueng, a Bangkokian male, remarked that there are a “ton of mixed actor/actress.”
Tula Santisuk from Bangkok dismissed the bullying of biracial kids, saying, “There are very few stories like this in Thailand” and “Thai people like Mixed race that are beautiful. Mixed race stars are very popular.” He also wondered why such a big deal was being made of this story, happening only in “one in a million” cases. Highlighting the bullying of biracial kids would “cause foreigners to look down on Thailand.”
Victor Jackson who lives in Pattaya and is partnered with a woman from Chiang Mai, remarked on the bullying, “Just put it down to utter ignorance when people degenerate others, is it spite, envy etc.” Isaan women, he wrote, “are stunningly beautiful and are excellent wives,” the majority of which when married to a Westerner “are very contented with their spouses and lives.”
Racism against Isaan women and Isaan people?
Bo Siddhisornchai, a Thai female reader who had gone to high school in Khon Kaen and now lives in Bangkok, wondered where the bullying was “also partly from the stigma over the child’s mother’s past?” and so suggested that bullying of biracial kids was not “solely about race, but also class.”
John McPherson was much ruffled by an op-ed that began with outrage against a Bangkok columnist who looked down on Isaan women and society that snowballed into a larger critique of the Thai political structure: “An article suppose[d] to be about the dynamics of marriage between Thai women and Foreign men turned into a diatribe against how other Thai’s [sic] see people of issan and ends with a political statement against the central Thai government.”
Another reader saw the connection between the phenomenon and inequality. Bert Brouwer thanked Pintong Lekan, the writer of “Stop stigmatizing us, we Isaan women determine our own fate.” He encouraged her to “keep on going the good fight for equal rights for people who are from the Isaan in relation with all other Thai people all around Thailand and even worldwide.”
For a growing number of people –both Thai and foreign– it is hard to square the facts that Isaan remains so poor and a Bangkok elite that holds onto power and espouses a suffocatingly centralized approach to state policy that excludes the voice and participation of the majority of the population. Bangkok depends on the denizens of Isaan workers, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and commerical sex workers and yet (or perhaps because of this) holds people from the periphery in contempt.
In Isaan, the case can be made that Isaan culture and language are separate and of equal value to Central Thai culture and language. At least in day-to-day life, Isaan people are subject to social discrimination. When viewing the disenfranchisement of Isaan people through coups and court orders, a case can be made for discrimination that approaches racism.
At least this was the perception of many of our Western readers. Bert Brouwer whose partner is a Loei woman, wrote that it is “so clear that [the Thai] middle class look down on people from Isaan instead of helping them improve their life standards.”
An American living in Bangkok, Robert Pajkovski, wrote:
“The reason why Bangkok holds racist views toward Isaan is because the ruling elite in Bangkok is an occupying force. They tell you Thailand has never been colonized. That’s pure smoke and mirrors. The colonizers are in Bangkok, and they control the country’s wealth. You know who they are. The only thing that stands in their way is Isaan and its large population. So they denigrate Isaan to convince people that Isaan is the enemy and too incompetent to run the country.”
Nick Lyons, a Swede living in Udon Thani, wrote, “I think the Bangkok elite fear Isaan, and certainly don’t understand them.” He noted that the region held a third of the population and was “slowly creeping upwards” in terms of wealth and education.
Gleaning modest lessons learned from the series
This is the second time we are incorporating views of our readers at the end of the series. A number of themes emerged among readers: attitudes toward Isaan women, a blanket condemnation of the behavior of Isaan men, questions about equality, issues of bullying and racism, as well as questions about the position of Isaan within Thailand.
There are perhaps three concrete recommendations that come out of series that could challenge issues of unequal status.
Educational and economic policies need to address the issue of inequality
At least for two generations of Isaan women, transnational marriage was one of the few options for social mobility. The cause can be traced to state policy. How could after almost 90 years of “democracy” in Thailand the majority of Thais still be with so few choices for life, most of whom are condemned to poor education, migration to Bangkok or abroad, while the whole time being looked down upon by those holding power?
When access to quality in education is made equal, and when the economy allows Isaan people to make a living in Isaan, the region can retain and benefit from the best of what its people can give, rather than it all draining away for a pittance elsewhere. When some degree of wealth is possible for the majority of Isaan people, their life options expand. They have options in terms of life partners, jobs, where to make a home.
A democracy that works for Isaan people
Under the current regime (and like past military regimes and even some democratic ones), instituting state policies that address the basic needs of the people is not possible. What attention they get from the government is an act of beneficence from the metropole. The democratic will and aspirations of the people in this region which represents a third of the population have been frustrated again and again. Isaan people have been painfully patient. But political equality can be achieved only by democracy which would respect and protect the will of the majority. Without it, without recognition of political equality, it is impossible to change the current situation and status of the majority.
A recognition and respect for difference
Under the highly centralized state, Isaan people are unable to express their own local –and diverse– language, culture, and aspirations. Just as Isaan women are not recognized as equal and deserving of equal dignity, just as Isaan women who marry foreigners become targets of derision, just as Isaan people are valued only for their labor and obedience by those in power, the collective entity and its culture are not recognized. It is held back, locked into the political morass of national politics of the metropole. It cannot move forward within the centralized state; it cannot move forward as an entity because the region and its history are not recognized by the state. To the state, there has been no discrimination, no racism, no coercion, no inequality.
But this respect and recognition of difference has to be an inward process as well. Prejudice and cruelty live within Isaan society. Isaan children bully kids who are racially different while the parents use race-laden language and look down on others within the region and in other parts of the country. Demonstrations against Thai muslims in the three southern provinces was common in the 2000s, even in the face of the negligent homicide on part of the military against those killed in Tak Bai. Isaan society has to face up to these attitudes that ostracized Isaan women for years, that left biracial kids subject to cruelty, to the tedious but day-to-day reminder to any foreigner here that they are foreign.
When Isaan people can elect its own representatives, when those representatives can legislate policies that can address the institutional discrimination that limits people’s life choices, and when Isaan can have some way to express itself as a collective entity and for that entity to be recognized and respected, then there is some hope that constructs like the phenomena of mia farang can become a normal part of Isaan life that requires no attention from news outlets like The Isaan Record.
We’d like to hear more of your comments and feedback on our coverage. You can message us on social media or write an email at email@example.com.