The Bliss of Ignorance
The Thai Immigration Officers were being trained in spotting false documents. There were counterfeit passports, where the entire documents are fakes; and forged passports, which are genuine passports that have been illegally tampered with.
And then there are ‘fantasy’ passports. The foreign trainer showed an example of a Rhodesian passport and asked what was suspicious about it. An embarrassed silence.
‘Well,’ said the trainer, ‘the problem with a Rhodesian passport is that Rhodesia no longer exists.’ The audience gave that rueful smile that is supposed to mean ‘Silly me, I knew that.’ Thai university students are past masters of this.
The trainer gave them a chance to recover their fumble. ‘So what is Rhodesia called now?’
An even more embarrassed silence. No one knew.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The ammat-phrai discussion had turned to other severely fissured societies. I offered apartheid as an example and immediately realized that many of the Thai listeners were too young to remember this as a live issue. So I started on a brief explanation of how South African society was structured around the pass laws and Bantustans and so on.
One listener had clearly never heard of this and wanted to know more. Which country was this? Africa Tai. Yes, but which country in Africa Tai? No, that’s the country’s name. Oh, he said; he’d always thought South Africa was the other half of the continent from North Africa.
Logical. Ignorant, but perfectly logical.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The tourist was trying to report the loss of her i-Phone at a Bangkok Police Station and the officer was taking down the preliminary particulars. He got as far as sanchat.
‘Nationality?’ – ‘Guinea-Bissau.’
‘No, I need your nationality.’
‘Guinea-Bissau’ she said again and offered him her passport.
He peered at this in some puzzlement. ‘What country is this?’
She pointed to the name on the cover. ‘Guinea-Bissau’.
‘What? What’s that?’
‘A country, in Africa.’
The light seemed to dawn. A false dawn, however. The report gave her the nationality of ‘African’.
Well, he got the passport number right.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Now far be it for me to bemoan the general ignorance in Thailand of picayune details of African geography. Citizens of many other countries have shown themselves to have equally poor levels of awareness of foreign parts (the US of George Bush springs to mind).
But these cases, involving immigration and police officers and graduate students, betray a worrying lack of knowledge among segments of the population where you might expect better.
I once raised this issue with a Thai university professor. She agreed and immediately blamed it on the school curriculum for failing to include such information.
I shudder to think that even more rote learning could be the answer. More bored kids mis-remembering facts that may soon be out-of-date anyway. Besides, this is not the kind of thing you learn from formal education.
My own school curriculum was no help. Apartheid was far too sensitive an issue for teachers to touch. Guinea-Bissau wasn’t invented until after I left school (and never having been part of the British Empire would be unworthy of inclusion anyway). And my schooling ended before Rhodesia did.
This is learning you get from the university of life. But Thai immigration officers, policemen and graduate students have lives. Why don’t they learn?
Perhaps we could solve this puzzle using the police method of solving crimes (well, perhaps not the Thai police). Opportunity, motive and means.
To learn, either someone has to sit you down and teach you (which we know hardly ever works and certainly won’t work here) or there has to be an opportunity to learn ‘out there’, in the general environment.
Now many foreigners in Thailand, accustomed to an English-language press that has about as much foreign news as national, mistakenly assume that the Thai media is the same. Not so. Foreign coverage is normally very thin, including many ‘aren’t foreigners strange’ stories, and a nationalist bias harps on about the centuries-old Burmese sacking of Ayutthaya as if it were yesterday’s news.
Interest in, and information about, foreign countries (apart from things like betting on the Premier Division) is simply not very visible in Thai society.
Nor does the average Thai have many examples of well-informed individuals to motivate emulation. In fact, wilful ignorance, as long as it is eloquently expressed, is often valued and copied. And if, through ignorance of foreign parts, you believe that Thailand is the best of all possible countries, then why bother learning about lesser breeds without the law?
And the means. Two things are needed here. The first is curiosity, something that the Prathom 1 children I meet seem to have in abundance but which gets knocked out of them by the time they leave school.
And second is the ability to look at all sources of information with a healthy and impartial scepticism, to search out and weigh evidence, and to live with the uncertainty that ever more information brings. Something that Hemingway called ‘a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector’.
Now that would be something worth the schools’ while.