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By Pradichaya | Thai food | photography | voice teaching | opera artist
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More Open To Criticism

By Pradichaya | Thai food | photography | voice teaching | opera artist

Ralph Schatzki

2015-10-10

I lived in Thailand for more than thirteen years, and in all that time I can count on one hand those times when my ethnicity was cause to discriminate against me. These instances were also confined (almost) exclusively to those times when I was entering certain areas which are subsidized, either in whole or in part, by Thai tax money (such as national parks or temples). For the most part, westerners in Thailand are tourists, not expats; so while I, too, was paying taxes, to an extent I could forgive the practice, since it wasn't apparent I was doing so. I am not justifying the double pricing, but at least I can understand the rationale for it.

More Open

At no time during my time in Thailand, however, was I made to feel as though I was a second-class citizen simply because I was a minority. Indeed, I was treated almost uniformly better by the Thais than they treat even each other. There is a politeness in Thai culture- and probably in many others- that simply doesn't exist in the West.

Of course, the “West” is a rather broad term, and there exist differences within it. Having grown up in the USA, and having had several experiences outside my native country (both in the East and West), I notice aspects about my home that don't seem to exist anywhere else.

America is the “Land of the Free.” I firmly believe that, and in and of itself it is a tremendous thing, wonderful and glorious. I have been nowhere else where I feel my thoughts are as unfettered as they are here. When I have traveled in Canada or in England, for instance, even though they are special places in their own rights and in their own ways, they have also felt to me to be far more sterile and not admitting of an individual's thoughts and feelings which don't somehow remain “within the box.” The pressure to conform in these places is not great, but (to me, at least) it is constant and unrelenting. This is virtually absent within the USA's culture.

But with every good thing comes the flip side. Here, since each person's thoughts and feelings are tacitly condoned by this cultural freedom, it also means we are far less likely to reflect upon them and far more likely to become defensive when they are called into question. It is almost as though we allow each other to say and do whatever we want, except to tell someone else we don't agree with what they say and do. It may be human nature to be initially defensive when someone calls our practices into question- each of us feels we are doing right, of course. But if we want to grow as individuals and as a culture, we need to be able to get past this first reaction and to consider the content and criticism- and not simply through the lens of our own preconceived notions.

To Criticism

Yet most people here seem unable to do this. For all the glory our freedom gives us, this is the fatal flaw: We view everything from our own perspective (our culture prizes this, after all) and attempt to rationalize through our confirmation bias, rather than try to see another person's perspective. Saint Francis pleaded, “...grant that I may not so much seek...to be understood as to understand,” but it is especially difficult for Americans to live by these great words.

Our inability to reflect and to take criticism manifests itself throughout our lives. From political discourse, to social issues, to daily interactions, we simply are not as polite as we could be. We don't intend to be ill-mannered, but we are just so caught up in ourselves we often don't observe the niceties that make life so much more pleasant for us all.

Today, for instance, my Thai wife (she is a naturalized citizen, by the way) encountered several people who were insensitive to her. And it was not just run-of-the-mill insensitivity, but insensitivity motivated by racism. This is hardly the first time this has occurred: I have witnessed many such instances before, and there have been far more when I was not present at all. The almost universal constant, though, is that as soon as it is apparent I am with her these people begin to treat my wife much more nicely. Many of them are completely unaware of this shift in their behavior, but it is a real problem, and ipso facto evidence that they are somehow racist deep down, albeit unconsciously. There is little my wife can do, of course, since it is evident they feel she is beneath them. If she were to say something it would only make matters worse. (Remember I said that Thais never treated me like that?) Americans don't take criticism at all well to begin with, never mind from those whom we feel are lesser than us. On top of it all, when it's something that is often subconscious, well: there's little to be done. Defensiveness and denial will block most any attempt. The only thing, really, that has any hope at all of changing the ongoing racism and discrimination in this country is for white people to point out to other white people when it happens what it is they are doing. Unfortunately, the moment we show up, the behavior we are trying to eliminate disappears. But it's not gone.

I just wish we could be a little more open to criticism, especially where it comes to how we treat one another.

Ralph Schatzki

Is an opera singer, voice teacher, high school teacher (math and music), husband, and, father.