Foreign husbands bring big changes to Isaan
Somtam is out and hamburgers are in as more Northeast women adopt husbands' customs, according to a survey of the cultural impact of increasing Thai-Westerner marriages
Many Thai women in the Northeast who have married foreigners are now keener on eating pizzas and hamburgers than somtam and prefer celebrating Western holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day to traditional Thai holidays, a Khon Kaen University study has found.
Cross-cultural marriages have caused major social changes in the Northeast, including less family participation in community activities, the study - released yesterday - said.
A mix of various aspects of the two cultures was on the rise, the study found. It cited the example of many Thai wives now being keener on eating Western food and almost forgetting somtam - the region's popular papaya salad dish.
The head of the study, Asst Prof Supawatanakorn Wongtha-nawasu of the university's Faculty of Nursing, said her team interviewed 231 Thai wives in Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Roi Et and found that foreign son-in-laws had caused the community-oriented Northeasterners to become the more individualistic and give less attention to social interaction.
Cross-cultural couples had less interaction with neighbours because foreign husbands faced language and cultural obstacles, while the wives tried to adjust by becoming "farang" rather than helping their husbands to be more 'Thai', Supawatanakorn said.
Thai culture in these families was thus overshadowed by Western culture, with the families' own consent, due to the pride of having foreign sons-in-law, she said.
The researchers also found most wives interviewed were either not interested or less enthusiastic about traditional Thai holidays - such as Buddhist Lent and Makha Bucha Day - compared with Western holidays like Christmas Day or Valentine's Day.
"In some Khon Kaen villages, with dozens of women marrying farangs, Christmas Day is no different from the movies with real traditional Christmas celebrations, while many Northeastern festivals were forgotten," the academic said.
On the other hand, many foreign husbands enjoyed celebrating the Songkran festival but did not understand the tradition and meaning behind it, she said.
The wives still ate somtam, which they grew up eating, but also ate pizza, hamburgers or fried chicken as a symbol of their adjustment to Western culture.
Many ended up eating both local and Western dishes, while their husbands found it harder to adjust to local food and stuck more to Western food.
Supawatanakorn said that since the wives found it more convenient to cook once for all family members including their husbands, Northeastern food - especially somtam with fermented fish - had gradually disappeared from their meals, she said.
The study found that most Northeastern Thai women married to foreigners were over 30, with an average age of 35, and had education below secondary level. More than 70 per cent had previously wed and divorced Thai husbands and most had one child from the first marriage.
Supawatanakorn said most wives saw their cross-cultural marriage as turning over a new leaf.
The average age of farang husbands was 50, and most came from Germany, Britain and Scandinavia. A fourth of those over 60 had brought their retirement funds to settle down with Thai wives who took care of them, Supawatanakorn said.
The foreign husbands had an average income of Bt60,000 a month, but most of their wives didn't know their husband's work or educational background. The wives were mainly interested in whether their husbands had enough money to support the family, she said.
The study also found that Isaan families whose members had married foreigners had changed their views on choosing spouses. From the traditional practice of parents choosing spouses for their children, the decision is now made by the individual and is based mainly on economic security. Some women agreed to marry foreigners they had never met before the wedding day as they felt that if the man had money, the villagers would eventually accept and respect them.
With the obvious increase in wealth of wives married to farang, due to their husbands' financial support, some 90 per cent of residents surveyed said they wanted their daughters to marry foreigners, Supawatanakorn said.
Some girls told the researchers they were prepared to fly overseas to marry a foreigner when they grew up.
Cross-cultural marriages were also supported by the older generation as these couples took care of their own children instead of placing the burden on the grandparents, or could afford nannies.
However, the cross-cultural marriage weakened the children's language skills as parents spoke to them in a mix of Thai and English, which confused the kids and made them less fluent in the Thai language, she said.
The children's English skills were limited to basic daily communication due to the parents' limited educational background or a less stimulating social environment.
In areas with many farang
residents there was the phenomenon of shops putting up signs for their goods in Thai and English and of English being spoken between vendors and husbands, Supawatanakorn said.