Bangkok is at the crossroads of Asia and the Western world. As such, you would think that Bangkok would be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Pictures such as those of local Japanese residents shopping in kimono and walking besides Thai locals would understandably make someone believe so.
A country very dependent on tourism and foreigners
An inconvenient truth for many Thais, is that their country has become quite dependent on foreigners, either foreign companies and foreign tourists. For a country always proud of boasting they were never colonized , this can be an insufferable truth.
Because Thailand’s economy is mainly based on production for export and because the population has a pretty low skills level, a foreign presence in Thailand is very visible. Admittedly, with time, the situation is slowly changing, but the Thai education system is not helping. With the exposure to travels and to foreign marketing, even foreign culture can impregnate the country (although mostly from fellow Asian nations). A sizable foreign population come in for teaching and to support business of foreign companies, in leadership roles. A less fortunate population of neighboring countries (mainly Burma and Cambodia) is more often called to work in menial or manual labor (and their condition is truly not enviable).
Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan impression of Bangkok is soon lost. Foreign residents, just like tourists, are always seen as an external body to the country, who are never bound to stay. The whole legal framework and practice around foreigners is so created as to discourage foreigners from staying or from ever being part of the population.
Foreigners are just temporary visitors
The visibility of this foreign presence often irks the more nationalist Thais. Thais take some pride in thinking they are independent from foreign influence and don’t need foreigners. Police and immigration also considers roughly all foreigners as would-be criminals.
This practice translates in the Thai laws, which have installed some pretty irksome processes such as the obligation for foreign residents of Thailand to present their passports every 90 days at the immigration if they don’t exit the country in the meantime. The whole process makes no sense for people with dependent or business visas except as a vexatory reminder that they are just there on a provisional basis. Never mind if they have a business visa.
Nationalism will not stop at the administration. Some Thais can be so convinced of knowing better on local matters, that they will (at least in my experience) always try to do things their way (and often the wrong way!) just to prove they can take care of Thai affairs by themselves. Logic and common sense often lacks and explains why a foreign presence is required. Often, this is justified by saying that foreigners cannot understand “thainess”.
What is Thainess?
A central question is that of “Thainess”. Put shortly, “thainess” is an excuse Thais use to justify any behavior or practice they cannot rationally justify even to themselves. Thainess among other myths, also builds on the idea of a global centralized idea of a nation, which is only very recent in historical terms. Many ethnic minorities and tribes are being force-fed into the Thai mold and obliged to abandon their identity.
Interestingly, the case of the 13 youth rescued from a cave shows that the society might be slowly evolving as many of the kids are stateless.
Dependence on Chinese tourism has increased tenfold the last few years, but to some degree, this is not so alien for Thais, as a sizeable part of the elites are Thai-chinese.
Foreign cooperation is however vital for Thailand. It was never more acutely shown than in the case of the rescue of the 13 kids of Tham Luang caves. In that case, basically the whole country rooted for the kids, regardless of their origin or nationality. Somehow, even the army and Thai medias conscripted them as “Thais”. The big question now is whether the kids will ever get a Thai passport and once the media attention is gone, the focus on their ordeal will probably be also gone.
At any rate, despite its initial focus on nationalism, the Thai Junta has pursued a policy which is more of appeasing tensions and addressing real issues. There have even been some small attempt at making the country more welcoming to foreigners.
The Thai smile
So, is Bangkok a cosmopolitan city? Somehow, and despite the desire of the Thais, themselves, it is a huge hotch-potch of different cultures and populations with different cultures.
While it is often talked about “tolerance” of Thais for the weird behavior of some foreign tourists, such a tolerance is only skin deep. Deep below, there is a huge feeling of misunderstanding between Thais and foreigners. Just like the reputed “Thai smile”, “tolerance” is only in appearance and only as long as it is linked to a source of money for the Thais.
Bangkok may look cosmopolitan because of the various populations that cross themselves in the city, but it is not a place where cultures intermingle and enrich each other. Thais stay in their own “Thainess”, foreigners stay among themselves, and both populations live aside, but never really assimilate or influence each other.