On power and respect: the change in Thai perception of Russia

The other day we went to a restaurant in Silom, Bangkok’s business district.  At the end of the dinner, I got to chat with our waitress, who upon learning where I am from, started waxing on lyrically about what a great, strong and admirable leader Putin is and what a great rich country Russia is.
I am not quite used to Thais enthusing about anything Russian at all. When I lived in Bangkok in the late 1990s, Russia was a defeated Communist tyranny fighting a poor self-image, hyper-inflation  and a complete rehaul of its entire way of life in the midst of Yeltsin’s lawlessness. I remember reading then an article in the Times of India to the effect that Russia, with its compromised economical and international clout, is now a poor cousin to ignore not an ally to side with. It sounded unpleasantly opportunistic, yet  it did, with unashamed honesty, describe the wide-spread perception of Russia at the time. In Thailand, Russians were the farang jon, ‘poor Caucasians’, stragely dressed and with little purchase power.
All that has changed with Putin dragging Russia out of the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes that it was in the 1990s. Russia’s estimated 5 billion dollar annual investment into Thailand and the influx of cavalierly spending Russian tourists seem to caus a sea change in Thais’ ideas about the country. Besides such visible signs as the ubiquitous Russian-language signs and menus, the attitude has shifted too: neither any longer a feared Communist empire, nor a poor cousin of the farang world, Russia now seems to be admired mostly on the back of its economic resurrection.

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Sinic vs. Indic seen through Nihonjinron

“Ethnic Thais overwhelmingly prefer yoga and Sino-Thais mostly do Tai Chi. Because Thais are more inert and the Chinese are more active.”  The Japanese teacher of Tai Chi I interviewed for my PhD fieldwork in Bangkok was talking from her 20-year experience. For someone like myself who does both every morning, her very Nihonjinron-style observation echoed with my own impression of the two traditions.

Firstly, quite a bit of time in yoga is spent sitting on the floor, while the Sinic martial arts keep you on your feet all the time. For me, that has to do with the type of personal eschatology each tradition adopts. The Indic way is about digging deep inside oneself to discover the Absolute and thus escape the physical world for good. On the other hand, the Sinic way is to harness the power of the Absolute and make it work in the physical world (cf. Mao’s simile of how the stupid, the clever and the wise deal with wind).
Secondly, in yoga many exercises and definitely meditation is done with your
eyes closed, while in Chinese martial arts your eyes are open and focused or, sometimes, semi-closed, and very rarely completely shut. A Nihonjinron thinker would conclude from that that Indians escape reality, while the Chinese actively engage with it.
Crude and generalist as they are,  these binaries seem to shed some light on the differences in the modernising trajectories of China and India. Or, say, how the two countries perform in the Olympics and other sporting competitions. As always, outliers are left unexplained such as India’s shining cricket glory or its astonishing economic growth over the last several years.

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