You Think You Understand Thai Culture Because You Eat at Thai Restaurants? Think Again

Growing up in the American South, I was usually the only Thai person in any room. I'm used to seeing the limited knowledge that many Americans have about Thai culture, often reducing it to a takeout order or an object of fetishization. As a Thai American person, I find myself thinking a lot about my own experiences, as well as my family’s of being Thai restaurant owners, and I come back to this quote by scholar Jennifer Ho: “I understood my identity through my family and foodways.”

Food has played a significant role in the ways people perceive my family's identity in America. Witnessing members of my family being expected to fulfill a role of being easy-going (Thailand is marketed as "The Land of Smiles") and serving delicious food compels me to explore the origins of this concept of "Thainess.” That's the performance that Thai people do to uphold ideas of Thai culture and cuisine that have nothing to do with the actual experiences of Thai people.

But how did there get to be so many Thai restaurants in America, with diners having such limited knowledge of actual Thai people? Gastrodiplomacy.

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Gastrodiplomacy, also known as culinary diplomacy, involves a country using food as a means of globalizing and gaining international influence. This was something Thailand was particularly skilled at. In 2002, the Thai government launched the Global Thai Program, a diplomatic initiative with the aim of increasing the number of Thai restaurants worldwide. The state provided training programs, grants, and information to Thai investors who wanted to open restaurants abroad. As part of this campaign, Pad Thai — a dish with virtually no cultural history — was positioned as Thailand's national dish and pioneered a culinary campaign funded by the Thai government with 500 million baht ($15 million USD). The government believed that the project would contribute to agricultural and food exports, while also producing foreign income from overseas transactions of goods and services. It worked. Thailand's cuisine has become a global phenomenon as a result of the project. 

By 2011, the global number of Thai restaurants had increased to more than 10,000 and the nation positioned itself as the “kitchen to the world” by advancing the exceptional quality of Thai food around the globe and becoming a food capital for the world. It also laid out strict standards for what diners can expect on menus. Thailand's Department of Export Promotion designed prototypes for three different styles of Thai restaurants: Elephant Jump for fast food, Cool Basil for mid-priced casual cuisine, and Golden Leaf for high-end meals. Thai restaurants abroad can be awarded the Thai Select award by the Thai government, as long as their restaurants abide by the government’s standards. To be considered authentic and high quality, these restaurants abroad must meet certain criteria during inspections, including being open for at least five days a week, employing government-trained Thai chefs, and using Thai products. These standards may ensure the quality of the restaurants, but also contribute to a standardization of Thai food and by extension, perceptions of Thai people. 

Setting Sail for Siam with a Lot of Baggage 
Starting in the early 19th century, American ships visited the country (known as Siam at the time) as missionaries, providing education, health treatment, and acting as representatives of the U.S. government after President Andrew Jackson appointed businessman Edmund Roberts as the first envoy to visit the region. Roberts' visit put into motion the Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations of 1833, an economic policy between the United States and Siam that gave special rights and benefits to American citizens who wished to establish their businesses in Thailand — the first the United States ever negotiated with an Asian country. 

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As diplomats and missionaries came to the region, it became clear that some held negative views of Thailand and its people. Some of these officials believed that their culture, economic ideals, technology, and intellect were superior and sought to influence Thailand to adopt these values. Excerpts in the Bangkok Dispatches, which were letters from American diplomats in Thailand to communicate with other Americans, show David B. Sickles, an American diplomat, describing the Siamese as "ignorant and superstitious" but not "bigoted or intolerant.” Another correspondent, Jacob T. Child, Minister to Siam characterized the country as having “barbaric laws and customs” and “outlawry and demoralization prevailing.” Many of the sentiments from these letters depict Siam as a nation without ambition, but with the ability to carry out American plans.

The Strange Origins of Pad Thai 
In the 1930s, Thailand suffered from a loss of rice because of limited production in the rice fields and flooding. This created problems for both the nation’s economy and the people’s nutritional intake. At the same time, the region began to gradually modernize under U.S. advice, and in 1938, Plaek Phibunsongkram became Prime Minister and focused on putting it into practice.

To maintain valuable grain assets and as part of the campaign to westernize and unify the nation, the Thai government under his leadership began to promote rice noodles. Because noodles only used 50% of the grain, it was more efficient and cheaper to manufacture. As part of the campaign to Westernize and unify the nation, Siam was renamed Thailand and efforts were made to adopt Western appearances in order to appear more sophisticated. The Thai government also conceived the dish known as "Pad Thai" to preserve the rice resources of the nation as well as defend it. Government officials assured the general public that by eating the dish, they were serving their country, because with a distinct national identity, they would be less vulnerable to exploitation by other national powers, as had occurred in other parts of Asia during the early 20th century in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. 

The shift in Thai culture had a good impact on the relationship between Thailand and the U.S. in the long run. As the U.S. admired Thailand’s ability to change, they provided military aid to Thailand during both World War II and the Vietnam War. Thailand was pushed to cultivate an economy and structure that directly benefited the U.S. – meaning reconstructing Thailand to open its doors to tourism and economic development. 200,000 international and domestic tourists visited Thailand in 1960, 800,000 in 1970, and 5 million in 1980. Americans could experience Thai food and culture for the first time, but when these culinary tourists praised the ability of Thai people to meld differences and create a common culture, they were only looking at one side of the story. They celebrated Thailand's ability to bend and adapt to Western influence and interest in Thai cuisine. 

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To foster this new relationship between American and Thai citizens, the farangs, a group that included tourists, military officials, scientists, and students, produced and circulated representations of Thailand to bolster the idea of it as a state open and adaptable to global changes, especially to American capital. Outsiders described Thai people as “lazy yet friendly and naturally subservient to hierarchies,” as Mark Padoongpatt describes in his book Flavors of Empire, making it easier for the U.S. to intervene in Thai affairs and culture. A prime example of Thai people being typecast is the 1951 Hollywood musical The King and I which depicted Thailand as backward, but capable of modernization through the guidance of a Western school teacher, presenting Thai people as adaptable and friendly, while also creating and affirming racist stereotypes. 

Taking Over Thai Food
As non-Thai people tasted Thai food for the first time, they subsequently became "experts" as they brought their Thai culinary “discoveries” home through cookbooks. The first of these cookbooks, Siamese Cookery, was written by Marie Wilson in 1965. In it, she assured readers that “while there is nothing plain about Thai cooking,” the dishes are “not difficult to prepare,” as she made substitutions that resembled a Western diet. Her recipes called for “light on chili peppers” and “soy sauce instead of fish sauce” homing in on how easily consumable Thai cooking is for non-Thai tastes. 

While her cookbook became an authority for Thai cooking, it presented a fantasy version of Thailand to Americans, one that was both exoticized, inaccurate, and harmful. Food became a way for people to think of Thais as "exotic" during the development of Thailand's tourism industry after WWII and helped to justify American involvement in Thailand. The way Wilson wrote about and standardized Thai food in her cookbooks was a way to assert dominance over Thai culture and it was American military presence and ongoing relations in Thailand that enabled women like Wilson to discover and represent Thai food culture in the first place.  

The Authenticity Trap
Food can shape both how different groups of people are seen and how they see themselves. It can bring people closer to different cultures, and help them understand each other better, but as Lisa Lowe points out in her book Immigrant Acts, this kind of multiculturalism doesn't always address the big issues of inequality that exist in America. It can be more about enjoying foods than challenging the status quo. With this in mind, I recognize that Thai culture has become popular in the U.S. in part because of how delicious Thai food is, but also how appealing and malleable it is to American tastes. Thai people have been made to focus on keeping the American idea of what is "authentic" Thai food because it's good for business.

With Americans' growing fascination with Thai cuisine and culture, Thailand saw a chance to expand its economy and global presence through the work of chefs, tourist agencies, the media, and everyday people, rather than state officials and diplomats. In reality though, while consumers were getting their demands met, actual Thai Americans were being ignored. 

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Sometimes, when people talk about Thai food, the issue arises that underqualified Thai restaurants in America may serve Thai food that is neither authentic nor tasty. Some Thai people worry that this can damage Thai food's reputation and respect in the eyes of the foreigners who in many cases, their economic prosperity relies on.

The problem is that people often think of Thai food as having one specific taste or way of being made, which can limit what chefs and eaters can do with it. It's a tricky situation because fostering a sense of false authenticity can be good for business, but at the same time it can hold back Thai cuisine. Thailand has benefited from people wanting to have a "typical" Thai experience, but that can be a double-edged sword. I’ve always found this to be  a trap – but a trap that generates income. By turning their food into a commodity for economic survival, my family has been pushed to compromise their personal tastes and values in order to cater to the preferences of customers, rather than being able to serve the dishes they truly love and hold dear.

The presentation of contemporary Thai food in America, has been carefully crafted to be consumed and appreciated globally, as many parties have a stake in the global branding of Thai cuisine. In order to sell a performance of authentic Thai culture, the serving of Thai food is often accompanied by inaccurate decorations, such as Thai art, depictions of Buddha, and food served in traditional containers like wooden bowls or banana leaves to create a more “Thai” atmosphere. 

The cultural materialization of Thai food, with its emphasis on specific details and elegant presentation, allows consumers to “feel” immersed in Thai culture while eating Thai dishes. However, this replicated decor is not always an accurate representation of Thai culture and many non-Thai diners may even regard their absence as “inauthentic.” 

The Act of Kindness
John McCarthy, former Peace Corps Director, described Thais as “a relaxed people [that are] friendly, quick to smile, attractive with small features, adjustable, and are not rigid to strangers,” in an 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times by Ann Frank titled, Don’t Be Upset a Way of Life, Observes Peace Corps Veteran. Characterizations of Thai people, like that of McCarthy, pushed a static version of the culture that still affects Thai people today. Often, non-Thai consumers expect Thai culture and cuisine to be friendly, so Thai Americans feel compelled to be friendly as a means of income. My family’s restaurant has felt the pressure to perform kindness out of the sake of maintaining historical ideations of "Thainess."

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Along with this emotional labor, comes the changes that Thai restaurants make to their menus in order to appeal to Western palates. This can be frustrating for my family, but they are necessary to keep their business running. I have witnessed firsthand the sensitivities around the expression of Thai food for American audiences, including being scared to serve dishes that may be deemed too spicy, omitting fish sauce from Pad Thai to-go orders because too many people complained about the smell, and always agreeing with the customer, even if they’re really, really wrong. 

It's true that the U.S. has had a big impact on Thai food, both positively and negatively, as well as how Thai Americans — including my own family — see themselves. In the restaurant, they have always done their best to make people happy with our food, but it's not always easy. It's important to acknowledge both the good and bad parts of America's enduring influence and to look towards a future where Thai people aren’t commodified for their cuisine and labor.

But where do we go from here? Like many Thai immigrants, my family’s work in the restaurant service industry was the primary reason they were able to integrate into American life. Without providing Americans with Thai cuisine, it would have been difficult, or impossible, to cement their status as Thai Americans.  

In order for Thai people to reclaim their agency, it is crucial that we take control of the narrative surrounding Thai food and take ownership of its performance. Instead of only catering to the tastes of others, we must assert our own cultural identity and agency by actively promoting and celebrating Thai cuisine in all its glorious diversity. Because quite frankly, I am tired of hearing people rave only about Pad Thai, when in reality they’ve been spoon-fed a story.

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