The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

Originally published here in February 2010

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.

References

Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/strikingabalance/Appendix%20D.pdf

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.

Traveling Notes–Expect the Unexpected!

March 20, 2015

I am at Kilimanjaro International Airport, returning home after a five day whirlwind trip here. The reason for the trip was “business,” meaning that establishment of a relationship between two American universities, and a university in Moshi, Tanzania.

I am reminded thought the reason is not just business, but to experience the vitality of life. An important part of travelling is welcoming the unexpected.

And this trip has done it—despite being so brief. Just today—in the morning there was a 370 student welcome for us at an elementary school. Friday was sports day, and the students were all dressed in androgynous “sports uniforms.” Then a tour of a hospital where I saw my first orthopedic surgery. The doctor was screws into a thigh bone, a procedure which involved using what appeared to me to be a manual screwdriver inserted through a hole cut in the leg. The patient, we were told was anesthesized with a spinal block. He had a screen up so that he could not see what was being done on his leg–but he could feel the pressure of the screwing, and hear the sounds of what was going on.  Ye gads.

I’m nor sure which caused this surgery–but our guide told us that the most common source was motorcycle accidents.  With a bit of wealth, Tanzania is being introduced to motorcycles, and the broken legs that his leads to.

Then on the way to the airport we drove through an area of Tanzania which has in recent years been cleared to plant maize. The rains are about two weeks late. Every evening the winds kicked up, but no rain. But today was different. As we drove to the airport in our cab, the winds did indeed kick in, creating a dust storm which led suddenly to zero visibility—and a cab driver who had to stop suddenly when a bicyclist appeared out of the dust. What cleared up the duststorm? Rain! Indeed, a torrential downpour arrived just as we left the cab.

All of this was “unplanned;” if you asked me what would happen last night, I would have predicted some boring tours of a school, health facilities, and a taxi ride to the airport. But that is the purpose of travel—the delightfully unexpected!

Travelling Notes—from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

I’m on a rather strange trip from Chico, California to where I live, via Sacramento, California where I had a meeting on Thursday, and then onto Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

The usual hurry up and wait of travel applies, except for the first day in Sacramento, when I went to a meeting of the committee which will advise Chico State’s president on a hire for a senior executive position.

The meeting went well—the usual range of nervous and earnest candidates making a case those of us who for them are a bit of a cipher. I suspect that I would like most of them in other circumstances, but such interview situations are so contrived—for both the interviewees, and interviewers. To be honest, I much prefer to be on the interviewer side of things.

For dinner we went out to an African American Soul Food restaurant. One of the people on our committee recognized Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson when he came in and quietly sat down at a table. Johnson is both a political and sports celebrity. It was interesting to watch him during his low time—it was not quite anonymous, but he was very accessible. A number of times patrons came up to greet him and take a picture with him. Other times, he quietly worked on his mobile electronic device.

My flight to Los Angeles the next day though was delayed by another celebrity who was not so low key. President Barack Obama was apparently in Los Angeles to tape a television program the night before, and departing for Washington (or somewhere else) that morning. Anyway, all the airspace in Los Angeles was cleared for the departure of Air Force One. And we in Sacramento were delayed—and I suspect the whole days schedule was disrupted by the morning shutdown. For me that meant my flight to Amsterdam was delayed, and I missed my flight to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

And so there I sit typing away in the Amsterdam airport, about to finally board my plane for Tanzania. Fifteen or twenty years ago I came here once or twice per year—but not recently. The airport is a bit older now, but still as always under construction. One of the really odd things is that most of the signs are now mono-lingual in English. The written Dutch language is very low key—there are few signs in that language; I recall reading a statistic recently that 95% of Dutch people are conversant in English. I guess that that reflects that statistic.

As for the languages I hear, Schiphol is still ever international, though of course there is still a lot of Dutch.

Singing in Sociology Class

Occasionally I break into song, particularly when teaching my Classical Sociology class. Classical sociologists Max Weber, and W. E. B. DuBois wrote about the importance of music in defining group boundaries. In the case of Max Weber, he noted that dominant groups typically have myths and stories which glorify a past of some sort. A great way to illustrate the importance of these songs is to break into song in a fashion that illustrates the the stories that separate the dominant from the subordinate. Thus, the South in the US Civil War marched to the tune of “Dixie” a song which glorified old times of cotton plantations, and southern industry of the early 19th century.

But, as Weber also wrote, subordinated groups also have ways of expressing their views about the hidden honor of their own group. The South was built on the backs of millions of subordinated African-American slaves, who dreamt of future redemption, a desire that they too expressed in music. In the case of the slaves, these are what W. E. B. DuBois called the “Sorrow Songs” because they expressed both joy and sorrow at the same time. Today, such songs are better known today as spirituals. Two such well-known songs are about crossing over the River Jordan, and passing into the Promised Land are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to which the northern armies marched in the Civil War is also a song of expressing a desire for future redemption. The Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” is another obvious song of this genre.

For years, I have been able to go to class and sing (badly) a few bars of any of these songs. And suddenly half the class would be filling in the rest of the lyrics. More recently, this has become more difficult. Last semester while teaching about W. E. B. DuBois, I began singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a song that I sang as a child both in school, and in camp. Few of my 1980s born students had heard of it. Earlier in the semester, I had tried “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with only slightly better results. Why would my students not share such classic songs?

Answers to interesting questions often come in unusual places. On New Year’s Eve, I went to the home of an elementary music teacher. She complained about the declining role of music, or what she called “cultural literacy” in the public schools. She pointed out that in recent years music, art, drama and other subjects have given way to new emphases on basic literacy, and math, to the exclusion of all else. But, she said the creeping cultural illiteracy actually goes back earlier than this. To understand how music has been slowly disappearing from the schools, she explained, you need to go back further, to the 1960s when cultural and policy changes began to effect what is taught in the school.

For example, she pointed out that basic piano skills were until thirty or forty years ago part of teacher education, at least for primary school teachers. Music was a daily occurrence in each of my primary school classrooms (many of which had a piano), and my teachers who were presumably trained under the older policies, continued teaching until at least the 1980s or so. With the demise of the piano requirement for all teachers, my students were slowly pushed for their musical education towards Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Sesame Street and, since they were children of the 1990s, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. For whatever reason, the creators of these new cultural resources did not include the songs that emerged from the Civil War and were so important in my own elementary school career in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Which of course raises another question for me as I prepare for a new semester. What songs can I sing in class to illustrate great sociological points about the nature of sorrow and joy in subordinated groups, or the glorification of the past by dominant groups? If “Dixie” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” won’t work, what would? What is the common musical heritage that a child of the 1960s can share with children of the 1990s?

I will again teach Max Weber on the nature of subordination, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a couple of weeks, and would appreciate any ideas you may have. If anyone reading this has any ideas, please let me know.

And no, I will not sing “Oops I Did it Again” by Britney Spears!

 

Originally published here in January 2009.

Hypocrisy in Politics?!?! Imagine That!  

political hypocrisy

Max Weber is today known for his sharp sociological pen in which he created word pictures of processes like bureaucracy, politics, capitalism, power, and inequality which underlie not only his society, but ours today. He was also known as a proponent of “value free” sociology, in which the sociologist would analyze without respect to personal political views.

But Weber was not only a sociologist, he was also an active politician who through the force of his words, access to German power-brokers, and prolific pen brought him renown as an advocate for the German war cause in general, and his own German Democratic Party (DDP) in particular. He used this podium to great effect, castigating his political opponents in sharp pungent language. For example, on November 4, 1918, one week before the end of World War I, he loudly proclaimed the “idiocy” (Dummheit) of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

But in my view, the true breadth of Weber’s frenetic writing emerged especially strong in January 1919, in three separate places. During this month Weber was given a prominent platform as a candidate on the DDP list standing of candidates for the new German Parliament, as a journalist seeking to justify to the world why Germany was not responsible for World War I, and finally as that “value free” sociologist given access to the lecture podium at the University of Munich where he explained why nine out of then politicians (i.e. people like himself) “are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves.”

Here is what he had to say

  1. Standing (unsuccessfully) on the DDP list for the new German parliamentary elections of January 1919 and making many speeches proclaiming sentiments like: “ We have this [German] revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles. All we see is dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else. Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens.” (see Radkau 2009:507) (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the leaders of the “Spartacist” party in Berlin which briefly seized control of the government there. They were assassinated a few days after Weber made this speech).
  1. Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, Weber blamed the Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I: “ In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia. . . . It never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans . ”
  1. Tortured by very nature of politicians in the analytical “Politics as Vocation” (January 28, 1919), Weber proclaims: “In nine out of ten cases they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder; they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.” (pp. 20-21, Weber’s Rationalism, Edited and Translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, 2015).

So there you have it, all in one month: Political opponents belong respectively in the madhouse and/or zoological gardens; the Russian Czar wanted war, and the Belgians provoked their own invasion. To be concluded by a speech “Politics as Vocation” which insisted that politicians are out of touch with reality, and simply intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.

Students often ask me if this means Weber was a hypocrite when it comes to politics. They ask, how could his insight be so penetrating in essays like “Politics as Vocation,” if he lacked even the least amount of graciousness when challenging his political opponents? Didn’t he have a deeper understanding which should lead to the gift of empathy?

Well, yeah, duh, he was a hypocrite. As I learned from a third grade bully name caller some years ago: “Takes one to know one!”

(The same thing could be said, I suppose, of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who lived off the profits of the Engels family capitalist firm, Barman and Engels. Takes one to know one!)

Love, Duty, and Marriage in a Classic Thai Novel

Originally published here at ethnography.com in October 2011.

Behind the pAINTING

In summer 2011, I had the pleasure of co-teaching a Sociology/English class for American students in Thailand.  One of the real pleasures was using novels to illustrate sociological principles.  It was kind of like profession (sociology) meets hobby (reading novels).  I hope that the students liked it—I certainly did, and this blog is about what was my favorite Thai novel of the summer, Behind the Painting.  It proved to be ideal for discussing a wide range of subjects stretching across both sociology and literature, particularly the meaning of duty and love in structuring Thai and American society.

Behind the Painting by Siburapha is a classic Thai romance novel used to teach literature in Thai high schools.  The first half of the book was published in 1937-1938 as a serial in the newspaper Prachachat, and the entire book later in 1938.  The English translation by David Smyth was completed in 1995, and published by Silkworm books in 2000.  The story drips with references to the Thai aristocracy; indeed, the lead female character in the story, as well as her husband, are always referred to by their aristocratic titles in Smyth’s translation.

Set in the 1930s Japan, Behind the Painting is about a young Thai student Napporn and his relationship one summer with the newly-wed wife of a family friend.  Napporn at the time the main story is set has been in Japan already for three years, seeking entrance to the upper class status that a foreign university education provides ambitious Thai.  As with all well-born Thai, Napporn and his father consider such study abroad as a means to pull their impoverished country into modernity, and an entrance to the Thai ruling class.  Still, Napporn’s father knew that there was risk to such a trip; in preparing Napporn for his long trip abroad—it will last eight years—so Napporn was betrothed to a woman chosen by his father, to preclude Napporn seeking out a Japanese wife.  Completing the setting for the novel, are two visitors from Thailand who arrive in the summer of Napporn’s third year in Japan.  They are a widower with the title Chao Khun Atikanbodi (roughly Lord University Dean), who Napporn knew previously in Thailand, and his new wife Mom Rachawong Kirati (roughly “Lady Kirati”).  They are in Japan to spend the summer and become better acquainted following their marriage.  At 22, the commoner Napporn is a youthful host for the 35 year old Kirati, and the 50 year old Khun Chao.

Both Khun Chao and Mom Rachawong Karati are educated members of the Thai aristocracy, and are quickly swept into the swirl of social events in pre-World War II Japan.  What this means for Chao Khun is activities among his peers at men’s clubs, embassies, and the world of Thai and Japanese elite.  For his well-educated wife Mom Rachawong Kirati, it means pursuing her aristocratic passion for painting, and frequently being left in the company of the young student courtier, Napporn.  The two of them share an enthusiasm for the world of art, literature, public parks, nature, and intellectual life.  It is in this context that despite the differences in marital status and age, and even social status, the two find each other to be kindred spirits.  In wide-ranging discussions, they explore the beauty of the Japanese country-side and architecture.  More dangerously, the explore definitions of duty, loyalty, marriage, and love.  In the process of these dialogues, a picture of the elegant Mom Rachawong Kirati’s life as the idealized woman of the Thai nobility emerges.  This creates an increasingly personal dilemma for the now lovelorn Napporn who wrestles with the implications of being in love with a married woman, while he himself is engaged to his father’s choice.  In contrast, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, the question about the ideal of the loyalty to duty and class, or one rooted in the longing for the union between love and marriage is never in doubt.  Painfully for her the answer is clear: duty comes first.

How Mom Rachawong Kirati and Napporn both reach this conclusion is the heart of the book, as the tension between romantic love, marriage, and duty to class and family is explored.  In developing this point, there is actually much to be demonstrated for the western student who reflexively assumes that love and marriage are inextricably tied together, and trump broader loyalties to family and class.  They do not, as Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and even Napporn, demonstrate with their own arranged marriages.  Behind the Painting makes the point well that marriage is about duty, and preservation of society as much as love.  Love comes first only for the most fortunate—and the most craven.

Mom Rachawong Kiratis’s Marriage

Mom Ratchawong Kirati was one of three daughters raised by a father who was a royal administrator during the days of absolute rule in Siam.  Aristocratic girls in that day were raised in a protected environment, with the expectation that they would find a suitably aristocratic husband, who would both enhance the status of their family and hopefully also be a love match for the daughter.  It was a cloistered world, or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati describes the situation:

Before the change of government [in 1932], the aristocracy lived in a world of its own….When I finished school my father drew me into that world with him and forbade me to associate with people beyond it….I continued my studies with an elderly foreign governess…you may imagine the sort of conversation to which I was exposed…The virtues of a lady… the proper conduct of a household.  I had McCall’s and Vogue magazines to read, from which I learned to preserve my beauty and care for it well…something like caring for a hydrangea in a vase…We are born to decorate the world and to pander to it.  I do not say this is our only responsibility, but you cannot deny its importance.  Pp. 123-125

But Mom Rachawong Kirati’s success as a “hydrangea in a vase” was bittersweet; her cultivated beauty attracted wide notice, but no eligible man stepped forward to ask her father for her hand.  Thus, despite younger sisters finding husbands who both loved them, and met the approval of the families, she remained in her father’s household virtuous, lonely, and unloved.  Finally, at age 34, her father suggests that she marry his good friend Khun Chao who was recently widowed, even though he was almost 50 years old.  As she notes Khun Chao was a good man, but regretfully not one whom she can love; any hope that she can have anything but a dutiful but loveless marriage is sacrificed to the expedience he provides.  So she dutifully enters into matrimony, and the two embark on the trip to Japan where she meets Napporn.

Oddly the age difference between the 35 year old Kirati and 22 year old Napporn is similar to that between that of Kirati and her husband.  Nevertheless, the relationship becomes very different.  It is through the words of Napporn that we learn how he falls deeply in love with Mom Ratchawong Kirati, while knowing full-well that her duties are first to her husband, and his own to his family and his fiancé in Thailand.  This is the context as the friendship between the two blossoms. She confesses to him that she is in a marriage that is unlikely to develop a true love due to the difference in age; she even confesses that Napporn is her best friend.  And in the process Napporn becomes infatuated with her, and in a private space at the park at Mitake, he steals a passionate embrace and kiss from the older woman, while confessing his love to her. He pleads with her that she reciprocate his love, but she avoids the question.  Mom Ratchawong Kirati, despite Napporn’s entreaties, refuses to confess that she too loves the forbidden Napporn and entreats him to look at her as an older sister.

The Healing Effects of Time and Duty

Behind the Painting is particularly effective in expressing the heartbreak of such youthful love on Napporn, a conviction quickly described by in a dialog between the two (p. 132):

Kirati: “….I shall consider you a friend for life”

Napporn protests “But I shall gone on loving you, all of my life.”

Kirati: That is your choice, of course; but in time, you will renounce that right, and you will do it of our own accord.

Napporn: I know otherwise

Kirati: The very young have such faith in themselves; I congratulate you on that enviable faith, Napporn.

Within days of her departure, Napporn writes Mom Rachawong Kirati two long love letters, which she receives after her return to Bangkok.  In her response Mom Rachawong Kirati again protests that there relationship be that of an older sister and younger brother, a common and appropriate relationship in Thai society.  And her protestations are successful—Napporn’s letters from Japan to Thailand become less frequent, and eventually are only sent at the rate of about three per year. Napporn’s love does indeed wane, as indeed Mom Ratchawong Kirati predicted.  This slow-down even continues after the death Chao Khun two years later, an event that leads the widowed Mom Rachawong Kirati to withdraw from society, and become a recluse in an aristocratic Bangkok neighborhood.

But to his surprise, and despite Napporn’s loss of interest, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is among the small group greeting Napporn at the quay upon his return from Japan at age 28, as indeed is his father, and a strange woman he doesn’t even recognize as his long-waiting fiancé.  Thus, the relationship between Napporn and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is re-established as she wished as that between an older sister and younger brother; for Napporn at least, the infatuation of his youth died as indeed she predicted it would.  His father’s arrangement for Napporn’s wedding proceeds, and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is invited; it is only at the last minute that she cannot attend due to ill-health.

Thus as a married man, Napporn strives to create a loving relationship with his new wife.  But then unexpectedly, Mom Ratchawong Kirati calls her old friend Napporn to her bed where she presents him with a painting—of that glen in Mitake where he so passionately kissed her.  Near death she mysteriously explains: “Your love was born there and it died there, but loves thrives in another body—one that is ruined and soon will be no more.”  And indeed, Napporn was called to her deathbed seven days later where, unable to speak, she scrawls on a piece of paper tragic words that are central to Thai romantic literature “Though I die with no one to love me, still my heart is full…for I die loving someone.”

Love, Marriage, and Duty in Behind the Painting

Mom Ratchawong Kirati’s story is a well-known in Thai literature, Thai film, and is required reading in schools.  It is important because indeed, Thai society often wrestles with the tension between familial duty, and matters of the heart.  In describing this tension, it is apparent that the conservative nature of Thai society is not simply the result of pseudo-Victorian sensibilities that the Thai aristocracy brought back from Europe (or Japan).

An alternative interpretation is that such literature is also about the virtue found in denial of self, and duty to a broader social honor.  Notably such themes are central to the doctrines of Theravada Buddhism which then, as now, permeate Thai society.

Thus, as much as being about love lost, Behind the Painting is also about duty fulfilled—albeit at a steep cost in terms of the immediate happiness of Napporn and Mom Rachawong Kirati.  Or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati beseeches Napporn “Napporn, I beg you to believe that you must confront reality and only reality; let it be your judge and your guide in life.  Idealism is far more attractive—but believe me, it is of little worth in practice.”  Napporn’s response is not that of the scorned, but of one who believes in the wisdom of such self-denial.  Napporn responds in a fashion which seems, ironically quite modern in the context of the changed status of women, and not as a scorned lover: “I realized that I was looking into the eyes of a woman so intelligent and so wise that I could not begin to follow her.  Such a woman should have been a great figure in history, not merely Khunying Kirati.”

Reference

Siburapha (1938/2000).  Behind the Painting, and Other Stories, translated from the Thai and introduced by David Smyth. Silkworm Books: Chiangmai.

 

 

 

Where Have You Gone Robert Redford?

I lived in Thailand as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1980s.  To learn Thai, I would go into small local restaurants where I would sit at a table.   As a lone single foreigner, my presence raised curiosity of the people working at the restaurants, or other patrons.  Oftentimes is was a 30 or 40 year old woman who owned the stall, and made their living selling bowls of noodle soup.  Quite often there were also  girls in their late teens, or early twenties also working there, i.e. my age at the time.  I learned much of my Thai in such situations, often in the context of a conversation that went something like this:

Me:  Could I please have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them: You mean you even speak Thai!!!

Me: (modestly) Yes, yes, a little bit.

Them: You speak Thai really really well!  Where are you from?

Me: I’m from America.

Them: Ooh that’s interesting.  We see American movies.  Did you know you look just like a movie star????  (accompanied with teenage tittering).

Me (modestly):  Well, yes, I’ve heard that before (i.e. the previous time I sat down at a restaurant like this).

Them:  You have golden colored hair, just like Robert Redford!!! (more teenage tittering).

Me (with more humility):  Well yes, I guess so….

Some form of this conversation took place probably a couple hundred times during my three years in Thailand in the early 1980s.  In fact, it took place with most of the Peace Corps guys who had long noses, and hair that wasn’t’ black, including the bald ones.  It was the starter for a great deal of conversation, fun, and flirtatiousness.  Not to mention, it was the context for much of the Thai language we eventually learned.

Anyway, I returned to Thailand in June 2011 with hopes of reliving the glory of thirty years ago. I even brought along my wife of 24 years to show it how it was done—and how lucky she is to have married a guy who looks just like Robert Redford.

First restaurant:

Me: Could I have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them:  Sure.  Do you want something to drink with that?

Me:  Yes….water maybe?

Them:  It seems you speak a little Thai!

Me (hopefully):  Yes, yes….

Them:  Where did you learn Thai?

Me:  In the Peace Corps, over thirty years ago.

Them:  Why were you so stupid to leave Thailand?  Couldn’t you see that this is the nicest country in the world???

Me:  Um yeah.  Do you remember Robert Redford?

Them:  No, who’s that?

The real sad part is that it was no longer the tittering teenagers and twenty-somethings asking me these questions.  They still sit conspiculously in front of the noodle stand, but seem focused on others, and no longer strike up conversations with me.  Rather it is 50 year old ladies who smile as much the teenagers used to (wait a minute—I guess they were those teenagers), but the tittering is gone.  For that matter, so is the flirtatiousness.  I guess that the good news is that the noodle soup still tastes great.

Originally published here at e.com in July 2011