Western retirement migrants in Thailand between escapism and power
Thailand has become one of the preferred destinations for Western retired migrants in Asia, with more than eighty thousand foreigners applying for a Retirement visa in 2018 [Boonbandit 2019]. These women and men want to make the most of their retirement, in terms of improved quality of life, living in a warmer climate, and living a second youth of travel, sports, and, at times, sexual and romantic engagements. Previous research has clearly shown that these migrants benefit from relative economic and structural privilege [Benson & O’Reilly 2019] and noted that their privilege can be precarious [Botterill 2016; Green 2014]. In my recent research on Western retirees in Thailand [Scuzzarello 2020], I move beyond the existing research and provide a detailed empirical account of how retirement migrants’ privilege is negotiated, justified and maintained.
To create the (imaginary) environment where Western retirees can live the dream of a good life, they have to draw on the illusion of their dominance and superiority in relation to Thai people, and they justify this by claiming engagement with Thais and knowledge of the country’s norms and morals. This is done differently by men and women.
Most women I talked to equate a ‘good’ life after retirement to a life of spirituality and authenticity, away from Western consumerism. Thailand, promoted by local tourist authorities as the ‘land of smiles’ [Sunanta 2020] whose people follow Buddhist principles of kindness and altruism, is an ideal place where they can live the ‘good’ life. They do not only buy into the neoliberal marketing of Thailand, however. They exercise their privilege by reproducing this image and by presenting themselves as spiritually connected to Thailand. They claim to possess an in-depth knowledge of Thai society, that they describe as being non-materialistic, slow-paced and where people follow nature’s own rhythm. Yet, most do not have close Thai friends, and with one exception, they speak only enough Thai to say, ‘Please clean the windows’ to their Thai maids.
The male participants imagine a ‘good’ life after retirement as one where they can pursue a project of self-reaffirmation as they, as ageing men, have lost status in the West. They happily describe themselves as looking and acting younger than Thais the same age. They also buy into the other image of Thailand, as the destination for exotic sex [Statham et al 2020]. They move there with the desire to live in a place where they can be young and virile again and engage in a relationship with a much younger Thai woman. To justify their life in Thailand, they also claim to intimately know and understand Thai society. They describe it as belonging to an imaginary past, where gender roles are clearly defined – i.e. they reproduce their patriarchal (re)constructions of society before women’s liberation. These representations enable to pitch themselves as ‘good’ partners to Thai women, unlike Thai men who are described as abusive, or ‘bad’ Westerners who only exploit Thai women. Like the female participants, they fall back on simplistic ethnocentric tropes of Thailand, its culture and people.
The alleged knowledge of Thai society enables Western retirees to justify their consumption of Thai culture, spirituality, and female Thai bodies for their own personal gratification. Their privilege is expressed in their blatant distortions of Thailand embodied in the (incorrect) tattoos of Buddhist symbols, the display of Buddha icons in their homes (which is inappropriate), or in their views of Thai women in tourist cities like Pattaya as being “for sale” and there to be “tested” by Western men. Furthermore, their presumed knowledge of society, allows them to justify their luxurious life relative to natives by claiming that Thai culture accepts that “the world is unjust” and that therefore Thais are “not jealous” of the Westerners who live in their towns and for whom they work. In fact, many respondents believe that their presence creates opportunities for employment and upward social mobility for Thais. This justifies their ultimate expression of privilege: their activities to ‘improve’ Thai society by ensuring it meets (Western, middle-class) values and ways of doing things, such as setting up animal shelters or educating local children so that “they know how to behave when they are invited by a farang”.
The participants’ privilege relative to Thai people serves to construct a barrier towards any genuine appreciation of Thai culture and society. The stereotypical imaginaries of Thai culture cast retired lifestyle migrants in a positive light as the ‘good’ husband looking after his wife and her family, and as ‘good’ Westerners helping Thais out of poverty and, in some cases, prostitution. No consideration is ever given to how their presence contributes to the construction and reproduction of socioeconomic inequalities in Thailand. On the contrary, they present their privilege as something they cannot do anything about. To be able to live a ‘good’ life while at the same time ignoring it is found at the expenses of the local population who is directly impacted by the lifestyle and long-term tourism industries, is the ultimate expression of privilege.
Benson, Michaela, and Karen O’Reilly. 2018. Lifestyle Migration and Colonial Traces in Malaysia and Panama. London: Routledge. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137511577
Boonbandit, Tappanai. 2019. “Health Insurance Will Be Mandatory for Retiree Visa Holders.” Accessed October 10, 2019. https://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/2019/10/10/health-insurance-will-be-mandatory-for-retiree-visa-holders/
Botterill, Kate, 2016. Discordant Lifestyle Mobilities in East Asia: Privilege and Precarity of British Retirement in Thailand. Population, Place and Space 23(5) https://doi.org/10.1002/psp.2011
Green, Paul (2014): Mobility Regimes in Practice: Later-life Westerners and Visa Runs in South-East Asia, Mobilities, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2014.927203 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2014.927203
Scuzzarello, Sarah (2020) Practising privilege. How settling in Thailand enables older Western migrants to enact privilege over local people, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 46:8, 1606-1628, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711570 https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711570
Statham, Paul, Sarah Scuzzarello, Sirijit Sunanta, and Alexander Trupp. 2020. “Globalising Thailand Through Gendered ‘Both-Ways’ Migration Pathways with ‘the West’: Cross-Border Connections Between People, States, and Places.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 46(8): 1513–1542. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711567. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711567
Sunanta, Sirijit. 2020. “Globalising the Thai ‘High-Touch’ Industry: Exports of Care and Body Work and Gendered Mobilities to and from Thailand.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 46 (8): 1543–1561. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711568. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1711568