Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

We vs Them

Posted on 05. Apr, 2017 by in Personal essays

Too often, we neglect to see the other side of the situation.


The “we vs them” reality is ancient and universal.

BANGKOK, Thailand

Since forever, groups of people have recognized the difference between their “own kind” and “outsiders.”

In a best case scenario, the welcoming of “other” ideas can be positive — strengthening of the gene pool primarily, also productive cooperation.  And in hedonistic modern terms the influence of immigrants in the global melting pot has given Americans new ideas, new foods (pizza! sushi! Scotch whisky!), languages and cultures.

In many parts of the world the society ensures that visitors are treated with dignity, warmth, even generosity.  Certainly individuals within dissenting societies regularly act kindly towards a person that others in the group might perceive as an enemy.  This is the “peace and love — family of man” view of an idealized society and is something to which we should all aspire.

* * *

However in many cases the “we vs them” distinction leads to distrust, antagonism, and conflict.

* * *

The “others” might look different, speak a strange language, pray to a different god, eat unimaginable food (frogs legs! durian! oysters! termites!). More often than not “them” are problems to be dealt with.

* * *

I’ve been following British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace for more than forty years. In his classic book The Malay Archipelago, which describes the eight years he spent in isolated corners of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, Wallace says he felt like a captive exotic exhibit in one of the “human zoo” exhibitions popular in mid-nineteenth-century Europe:

This was the first time a real white man had come among them, and, said they, “you see how the people come every day from all the villages round to look at you.” This was very flattering, and accounted for the great concourse of visitors which I had at first imagined was accidental. A few years before I had been one of the gazers at the Zoolus [sic] and the Aztecs in London. Now the tables were turned upon me, for I was to these people a new and strange variety of man, and had the honor of affording to them, in my own person, an attractive exhibition gratis.

They amaze us. We amaze them. What a wonderful world.

Wallace describes how he constantly had people looking over his shoulder as he tried to catalogue his specimens:

When I sat down in the afternoon to arrange my insects, the house was surrounded by men, women, and children, lost in amazement at my unaccountable proceedings; and when, after pinning out the specimens, I proceeded to write the name of the place on small circular tickets and attach one to each, even the old kapala [headman], the Mohammedan priest, and some Malay traders could not repress signs of astonishment.

The local folks were convinced that Wallace was a shaman, and that in the dead of night he would cause the birds, monkeys, and insects he caught to return to life, to aid him in mysterious mystical pursuits.

Even today, a European visitor to a rural Indonesia village is likely to be followed, Pied Piper-like, by a band of children, a bit shy but curious, with the bolder ones trying out their English — “Who you going?” “Where your name?” Such encounters are a pleasure, but Wallace’s mere presence caused chaos, and upset the sensitive Englishman:

Hardly any of the people appeared to have seen a European before.  One most disagreeable result of this was that I excited terror alike in man and beast. Wherever I went, dogs barked, children screamed, women ran away, and men stared as though I were some strange and terrible cannibal monster… If I came suddenly upon a well where women were drawing water or children bathing, a sudden flight was the certain result; which things occurring day after day, were very unpleasant to a person who does not like to be disliked, and who had never been accustomed to be treated as an ogre.

* * *

The common refrain promoted by proud folks throughout Southeast Asia is that “a foreigner can’t understand my country.” Just as Europeans dubbed the tribal folks they met “savages,” all Asian cultures, including seemingly “polite” Southeast Asian cultures, have their own terms to describe people who are different in skin color or language or dress or religion. Sometimes the term is positive, and polite outsiders are welcomed as guests.  Sometimes the phrase is neutral, and people curiously wait and see how the transaction will play out.  Yet often the perception of an “other” morphs into  “strange/stranger,” which equates with “someone different to the standard.”

Being called an “other” is a reality of venturing in a strange land where the visitor is invariably an object of curiosity. Because I am white and Anglophone, when I travel in Asia I am treated a certain way. Sometimes with undeserved deference. Sometimes with taunts. Occasionally with overly generous estimations of my physical attractiveness (long noses and body hair are wonders of nature), intellectual abilities, and the size of my bank account. Often I’m greeted with inflated prices. Constantly, I’m sure, with behind-my-back gossip.

* * *

Thailand is considered by the outside world as being unrelentingly “nice.”  The common belief is that people smile. People are polite.  Like all countries, there are well-educated, cosmopolitan people doing interesting and useful things. The food is good and cheap.  It’s a tropical country with plenty of air-conditioning and the shops are filled with anything you might want to buy. A delightful place in which to visit or reside.

Yet few places in Asia have as ingrained an “we vs them” mentality as Thailand, a country where folks brag that they have never been colonized and where the subtext is usually “no foreigner can understand “Thai-ness.” This attitude came to the fore when chef David Thompson, owner of Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Nahm in London, decided to open a branch in Bangkok, vowing to serve authentic and historically accurate Thai food. Some Thai socialites were aghast, others gave him grudging credit. From my point of view (but what do I know, I’m not Thai), Thompson has done Thai cuisine a huge favor. He speaks and reads classical Thai, has a library of hundreds of books, recipes, and menus from centuries past. He is a historian as well as being a talented chef. He discovers recipes and tastes that other Thai chefs have not investigated. Good for him.

The Thai term for a European foreigner is farang (and the term is used exclusively for white folks; there are other terms for Chinese or Japanese or Africans or Arabs). In Thailand, as in virtually every culture, the term “foreigner” equates with “an other,” which equates with “strange/stranger,” which equates with (usually negatively) “someone different to the standard.”

The term farang has uncertain origin.  One explanation is that it derives from the Thai pronunciation of  français — the French played an important role in Thailand’s history.  Other attributions suggest it might come from he Hindi word firangi, a derogatory term for Europeans that was coined during British colonial rule in India, or from the Persian word farang or farangī, meaning “Frank, European, ” which in turn comes from the Old French word franc, a Germanic tribe during the early Middle Ages which gave modern-day France its name.   It might come from the Arabic word afranj, which means white/European people — this term has a distinctly negative connotation because Arabs historically used it to describe European crusaders. And the Chinese used the term folangji to refer to the heavily-armed (and heavy-handed) Portuguese sailors when they first arrived in China.

Thais say farang to your face; they say it sotto voce; they growl it when they don’t like your driving.  Thais say it out loud as you walk by, instruct their toddlers in the use of the term. Some Europeans don’t mind and use the term farang to describe themselves. I mind a lot. Thais will argue over whether it is used pejoratively. Sometimes I gently scold Thais for what I consider an insensitive use of the word (a very un-Thai action on my part.) Certainly not all Thais are racist, and not all Thais use the term pejoratively. But of course it is pejorative, because it says “you are different and I’m not afraid to point it out.”

This is a universal experience – every language, religion, ideology, and culture has its own jokes and slurs based on gender/ethnicity/social class/fashion sense/religion. Everybody knows what the jibes are, and most people avoid using them in proper company.

Journalist Pichaya Svasti, writing in the Bangkok Post, argued that the phrase farang is not intended to hurt or belittle. But I wonder. Surely Khun Pichaya has visited Europe and the United States. Did people in Europe point at her in the street and mutter, in full hearing, “look at the Asian?” Did mothers point her out to their wide-eyed children and teach them the word “Oriental”? I doubt it happened, but if it did how did she feel about being so singled out?

* * *

Some foreigners go out of their way to try to understand whichever Asian society they live in. (Some go too far, and make themselves ridiculous by trying to live and behave “like the locals.”) And, of course, there is a vast cultural difference between the sophisticated people that foreigners meet at work and the poorly educated rice farmer. The time is long over when Europeans would carry on as did one of Joseph Conrad’s white characters in An Outcast of the Islands – set in Indonesia – who married a brown woman: “He loved to breathe the coarse incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white man; the man that had done them the honor to marry their daughter, sister, cousin…. They were a numerous and an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by neglected compounds…. He kept them at arm’s length … having no illusions as to their worth,” Conrad wrote. “He saw them as they were – ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers, motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat…. They wanted much, but he could give them all they wanted without ruining himself. In exchange he had their silent fear, their loquacious love, their noisy veneration. It is a fine thing to be a providence, and to be told so on every day of one’s life.”

* * *

It is interesting (and far too rare) when an Indonesian gives his version of a reverse stereotype. Historian Ong Hok Ham described a “gargantuan” colonial rijsttafel served at the Hotel des Indes in Batavia (Jakarta): “A Dutch gentleman, usually dressed in a white suit, would sit in front of his plate of rice and the multitude of other dishes consuming glass after glass of beer. Afterwards, overly satisfied and drowsy, the perspiring Dutchman would slump into the comfortable chairs.”

* * *

Westerners in Asia constantly invoke the “we vs them” didactic, often to question the logic (or lack thereof) of decisions “they” have taken. And I’m sure that the situation is true in reverse and that our Asian hosts invoke a similar “we vs them” mindset.

* * *

In a foreign environment it’s easy to slip into a behavior mode. Many people, on both sides of the “we vs them” continuum, have little interest in looking beyond the obvious cues of skin color, language ability, religious ornamentation, tone of voice, etiquette and hair style.

Perhaps we make this too binary (“you’re either for us or against us”). Perhaps both sides would do well to chill out. As Wallace wrote, it’s more pleasurable to be on the receiving end of open jollity than whispered innuendo:

One day when I was rambling in the forest an old man stopped to look at me catching an insect. He stood very quiet till I had pinned and put it away in my collecting-box, when he could contain himself no longer, but bent almost double, and enjoyed a hearty roar of laughter. Every one will recognize this as a true Papuan trait. A Malay would have stared, and asked with a tone of bewilderment what I was doing; for it is but little in his nature to laugh, never heartily, and still less at or in the presence of a stranger, to whom, however, his disdainful glances or whispered remarks are less agreeable than the most boisterous open expression of merriment.


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted at his website:

This article is excerpted from the new edition of Sochaczewski’s book An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.

Available on