Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Face Off

I was walking down Silom a few weeks back when this poster stopped me in my tracks.
It's some advertisement for an English language school in Bangkok, which the city has quite a number of. There's definitely a big market for English training in Thailand, I suppose because it's a skill that can boost peoples' careers, especially if they want to work in multi-national corporations here.

The tag line of the print ad says "you can do it" and at the bottom of the panel says "bring out the English speaker in you" (or something to that effect). Well, the message is clear that the school markets itself as a place that can pretty much train you to speak like a native English speaker.
 
The ad is definitely visually catchy, but I think it's catchy for the wrong reasons (at least from my perspective).

I hope the photos are clear, but what we see in the ad is a (presumably Thai) woman and man unzipping themselves to bring out blond hair, blue eyes, and much-fairer skin. What the photos tell is that not only can the school help you speak better English (say like a native speaker), but it will figuratively turn you into a farang (the term for Westerner in Thai). 

There are many implicit messages in these photos. The people who conceptualized the ad might not have realized the images' deeper implications. The ad might have instead said outright: "bring out the farang in you!", or "come to our school and you will act like a farang in no time!", or "there's a farang inside you and it's just waiting to come out!".
The ad also suggests (most likely unintentionally) a categorization of languages (and the respective identities attached to them) into a hierarchy, with one being desirable than the other, hence, the inferior language has to be replaced with a much superior one. To learn a language and eventually to talk like a native speaker (if that ever is the ultimate goal) is tantamount to rejecting your identity and assuming a new one. Obviously, the transition from Thai to farang runs deeper than the skin or appearance.

In societies that are more sensitive to race, perhaps people would immediately express their disapproval of a similar ad because of its racial undertones. Somewhere else, this ad would not last a day in the street!

But perhaps because Thailand does not have a history of Western colonization, they don't have hang-ups on racial and colonized-colonizer relations. Instead, the image is just seen at face value here.
Coming from a country that experienced nearly four hundred years of oppressive Western colonization, I have a very different take on these ads, which I expressed above. In the Philippines, any instance of pandering to Western standards is still scoffed at as "colonial mentality", and perhaps that mentality is still prevalent but is not expressed openly for its attached stigma.
Recently, a humongous billboard of Adolf Hitler's photo, with a caption that says "Hitler is not dead" (or something to that effect), was erected in the highway to Pattaya (see article here) to announce the opening of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks in Pattaya. The German Ambassador to Thailand reportedly commented that the billboard was tasteless and the Israeli Ambassador found it unacceptable. The manager of the museum replied that the billboard did not intend to offend anyone.

There was likewise a similar incident involving Vogue Paris showing model Lara Stone in blackface in a fashion editorial shot by Steven Meisel and styled by Carine Roitfeld. For the French readers, the photographs were purely artistic, whereas many Americans were aghast at the supposed blatant racism of the images.Take note of the difference in historical experiences between France and the US.

As with the example of the English language school in Bangkok, the images were originally conceptualized without the motive of offending anyone, other than they want to present something eye-catching or perhaps artistic. On the other hand, images are always subjectively interpreted in dozens of ways by different people.

Because the English language school is marketed to Thais, their advertisements should be viewed from Thai eyes as well. But still, I cannot help cringing at sight of these images.

5 comments:

Lyka Bergen said...

Why the white face? I dont understand. Europeans are white too and most of them except the ones from UK and Ireland dont speak very good English. And there are Black Americans too. And British-Asians, etc..... Ignorante ang poster na to.

The face of an English speaker is NOT White!

Sorry, i know you have an open-mind telling us Thailand has never been colonized by the west and has no hang-ups on race issues but these posters are offensive not only to us Filipinos, but to the whole Asian Race.

Pls lang!

Dexter Mejia said...

Images like these are actually very harmful to the English as a Foreign Language industry in Thailand because so many unqualified EFL teachers in the market. These people got the job only because they have fair skin--that's all. This farang fallacy also harms the chance of non-white EFL teachers of getting a decent teaching position and a fair wage.

Well, if these Thais come to South Australia, they will be taught English and how to settle by a brown-skinned short man--moi!

Asia in Australia said...

Good post G.

"To learn a language and eventually to talk like a native speaker (if that ever is the ultimate goal) is tantamount to rejecting your identity and assuming a new one"

I immediately thought that too....this billboard essentially tells the people that unless they have blue eyes, they will not be able to speak english.

You say that in the Philippines, such a poster would be unthinkable because of colonial sensitivities. Maybe the Thais would have needed a bit of colonialism too to be more self-assertive and confident and less passive-aggressive. That of course a provocative opinion...

Asia in Australia said...

Good post G.

"To learn a language and eventually to talk like a native speaker (if that ever is the ultimate goal) is tantamount to rejecting your identity and assuming a new one"

I immediately thought that too....this billboard essentially tells the people that unless they have blue eyes, they will not be able to speak english.

You say that in the Philippines, such a poster would be unthinkable because of colonial sensitivities. Maybe the Thais would have needed a bit of colonialism too to be more self-assertive and confident and less passive-aggressive. That of course a provocative opinion...

kawadjan said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

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