Losing Face - the Problem
by Capt Haddock
Like most farangs I sometimes think that I grasp the Thai concept of "losing face", but then some new episode makes it clear how limited my understanding is. I am only talking about "losing face" here, not "gaining face", which I take to be a distinct, if related, concept. Anyway we just had such an enlightening episode that I think others may find interesting.
There is a, naturally, a large cast of characters in a tangled web of relationships, the complexity of which is important to consider since it is the ultimate point of the story. Here's the cast of characters, whose names have been changed:
Nok, 30, my wife, who lives with me in New York City since 2002. Nok is the eldest of three girls and essentially raised her sisters herself.
Nut, 28, my wife's middle sister. A pretty girl, she married "up" two years ago. They have a one-year old boy.
Noi, 22, my wife's youngest sister, a college student in Muang Lop Buri. Both Nok and Nut graduated college in Thailand.
Somchai, 28, husband of Nut, just finishing his MBA, hard-working, ambitious young businessman type.
Jeab, 53, mother of the three girls and wife of Kamnan Thon. Very nice woman, shy, forced out of grade school to help her mother around the house. Deeply regrets lack of education.
Kamnan1 Thon, 55, father of the three sisters, eldest son in his birth family. Honest, hard-working, self-sacrificing, but at the same time, loud-speaking and frequently tactless. As a young man he worked to put his brothers and sister through college, all of whom achieved middle-class careers as a result, except him. Since he obtained the farm when his girls were young school age, he put them to live in his father's house in Muang Lop Buri where they would have access to better schools. Kamnan of five villages in eastern Lop Buri province, where the family farm is located.
Aunt Aom, 50?, sister of Kamnan Thon, an administrator in a government school in Muang Lop Buri and the central character in the story. After the death of their grandfather she is effectively the boss of the house in Muang Lop Buri where the three girls grow up and where Noi still lives.
Kob, 19, daughter of Aunt Aom, a college student in BKK and so, cousin to the three girls.
Suree, 55?, mother of Somchai, mother-in-law of Nut, a nurse who married a doctor. Turns out, as Nut learned only recently, the doctor is actually by now a baht-billionaire. The doctor lives in another city for some unexplained reason.
Nut and Somchai live in Suree's large house with servants in a gated community outside of Bangkok. Since the three girls grew up in a poor neighborhood in Muang Lop Buri, Nut has thereby moved up a great deal. Her family pressured her to marry Somchai, as it seems, because he was such a good "catch" economically. Nut herself was ambivalent on her wedding day, but that is water long under the bridge by now.
Suree is by no means the harsh Asian mother-in-law of cliche, but Nut nevertheless recognizes where they loyalties lie within her husband's family. When young-couple type conflicts emerge, it is clear that Suree will always side with her son. All are overjoyed when the son is born and this does seem to enhance Nut's leverage in the family since everyone recognizes that if it should happen that the marriage were to end at any point, they would risk losing the apple of everyone's eye, the young boy emperor, who is spoiled by a household of adoring females.
For Aunt Aom on the other hand, life is not looking up so much. She and her husband, a school teacher, divorced a few years ago. Although she is a school administrator she continues to live in the house where she grew up, a house that is not up to middle-class standards. And therein lies the crux of the story. Some time ago, Aunt Aom descended on Nut to stay while she had some conference or other in BKK. And stayed. And stayed. Since then she stays as much as half time in Nut's house, which is really the house of mother-in-law Suree and the billionaire doctor, of course. Of course she was never invited to stay by Nut or anyone else. To the farang mind Aunt Aom is selfishly imposing on Nut to an extraordinary degree.
But selfishness is evidently a familiar component of Aunt Aom's character. My wife resents her to this day because when the girls were growing up, Aunt Aom didn't really take care of them. My wife had to cook for and supervise her sister's from the time she was six years old. Even worse, Aunt Aom viewed her nieces as the poor relations and treated them like servants, commanding them to do household chores while exempting her own two coddled children.
And here is where I begin to lose my grasp of the social dynamics of Thai families. I asked my wife why her father did not step in during those years to restrain Aunt Aom, who, after all, as a younger sister is lower on the scale than he is and,furthermore, owes her middle-class status to his self-sacrifice in putting her through school at his expense.
Kamnan Thon comes across as a forceful, assertive personality. Why didn't he protect his daughters? My wife just shrugs at that point saying that he never did assert himself in that way on their behalf. Was it because he couldn't enforce his protection since he was always away? Or is he driven to avoid conflict whenever possible, despite his apparently assertive personality?
A few months ago, my wife first mentioned the burden that Aunt Aom has been placing on Nut. I was aghast. Wasn't it humiliating for Nut to have a poor relation squatting in her home, which is not even hers, but that of her upper-class in-laws? Yes, my wife agreed, it was every bit as embarrassing for a Thai as it would be for farangs. Couldn't Nut refuse to permit Aunt Aom to stay there? Certainly not. Nut would lose face. Well, then, couldn't Nut ask her father to tell Aunt Aom that she is out of line? Wouldn't that solution fit into the hierarchical structure of the family? While Kamnan Thon would probably agree to do it, the family felt that since he is so tactless that such a conversation would be needlessly harsh.
I don't know if there was actually any family discussion of this option or whether it was just my wife's assessment. On the other hand couldn't Nut go to mother-in-law Suree and apologize by expressing her embarrassment at the tacky behavior of Aunt Aom. No, Nut couldn't do that either because she would lose face in that scenario as well. Now,this response genuinely surprised me. Why would Nut be blamed for apologising to Suree?
Well, that's because Suree would be permitted to respond in only one way in such a conversation, by pooh-poohing the very notion that it was any imposition at all and saying how much she enjoyed having Aunt Aom about the house, etc. Since it pretty much goes without saying that those are not Suree's true feelings, putting her in the position of having to say them shows lack of consideration on Nut's part. At this point I begin to feel how tightly the social bonds tie the hands of every one involved. Indeed, the point of social custom begins to seem to be to deprive the participants of any option other than to grin and bear it.
We dropped the topic for a couple of months.
Recently, the subject came up again. It came out that Aunt Aom had purchased a computer for Kob a year ago from Nut and Somchai, who sell them as part of their business. The price was 20,000 baht. Aunt Aom paid 10,000 baht at the time, but hadn't paid the balance. Nut asked for the money repeatedly, but Aunt Aom allowed as how that was now the responsibility of her divorced husband, who hadn't, however, had any part in the transaction.
I can just imagine Nut's face falling through the floor as her in-laws realize the poor relation is also a deadbeat. By this time my wife had decided to resolve the situation. She planned on asking cousin Kob to speak to Aunt Aom. Well, how would a college girl be willing to tell her mother to toe the line? Now Kob is a sweet, pretty girl, whom my wife and her sisters never blamed for the overbearing demands of Aunt Aom even if Kob was frequently the beneficiary of them. It's hard for me to see Kob standing up to her mother in any sense.
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1Kamnan - (pronounced 'gamnan') is a kind of rural mayor with a certain amount of status.