Thai-British Families: Towards a deeper understanding of 'mixedness'
Posted on: Wednesday 29 August 2007
Currently most research and attention to mixed identities focuses on the largest single mixed category, the Mixed White/Black Caribbean group. However, as the demographic of these single categories will change over time, other mixed groups will grow in numbers, adding pressure on our understanding (if not our recognition) of the diversity of culture and experience within the mixed group. (1) For example, as recent Department for Communities and Local Government findings in educational achievement presented more positive results for the Mixed White/Asian (2) group than the Mixed White/Black Caribbean and Mixed White/Black African groups, policy directed at a unitary mixed category in this area may not be useful or effective. (3)
In an effort to broaden the conception of what it means to be 'mixed' in Britain today, I present a small study of the relationships between (or the 'mixing' of ) Thai (4) and White British people and the subsequent ethnic 'mixedness' of the children from these relationships. Although a relatively small number of individuals, the number of Thai-White British relationships has implications for recognising the hidden diversity and experience for a unitary 'mixed' category. This article will explore the challenges Thai-White British relationships face as ethnically mixed relationships, the strategies couples employ to confront stereotypes and the implications of the lack of positive images of Thai culture and mixed Thai relationships for mixed Thai/British children and young people.
Thais in Britain
Large scale research has not been conducted on Thai people in the UK; therefore definitive information does not yet exist. Nonetheless from a variety of statistics, a picture does emerge for persons born in Thailand, residing in England and Wales. From Census data there were a reported 16,256 people born in Thailand living in England and Wales, of which the majority were women (72 per cent). Just under a third of the total people born in Thailand were reported to live in London (4,824), of which the majority were women (68 per cent). (5) Through Home Office records of grants of British citizenship we see that the majority of Thai nationals naturalised between the years of 2001 and 2006 came primarily as marriage migrants (only one-third of citizenship grants occurred through residence). (6) Additionally, between the years of 2003 to 2005, roughly 64 per cent of total settlement grants for Thai nationals were given to 'wives', while husbands only accounted for 3 per cent. (7) Because of the high gender imbalance we can infer that many Thai women are in mixed relationships.
This article draws mostly on primary information gathered for a broader study into the Thai community as part of Runnymede's ongoing Community Studies series. While the research focused on people's lives and experiences in Britain in general, this article will limit discussion to their experiences as being in mixed relationships or as being from a mixed ethnic background. Through interview, focus group and survey material, it became clear the experiences of the participants were inextricably tied to their 'mixing' - being in ethnically mixed relationships - or their 'mixedness' - being Mixed Thai/White British. (8) Due to the mixed nature of relationships (and people), the research methods employed attempted to include voices of not only Thais, but also spouses who may not be Thai, and also people who are of Mixed Thai descent. (9)
Perceptions and Experiences
The large gender imbalance in the figures gives shape to popular perception of the Thai population in Britain: Thai women migrating to the UK as individuals (and sometimes with their children) as the wives of White British men. (10) Unfortunately, with the image of the 'Thai bride' - which is shorthand for Thai mail-order-bride - come hyper sexualised stereotypes. As Enteen puts it, Thai women have the image of being, "exotic, young, alluring, yet potentially HIV-positive 'hookers', eager to please western clients; or dutiful, devoted wives of western men who dismiss the tenets of western feminism and appreciate the financial and emotional generosity of their husbands". (11) These sexualised stereotypes of Thai women who seek relationships with western (White) men were well known to all of the interview and focus group participants. Jane, a second generation Mixed Thai/White British woman described it bluntly, "the stereotypes are that women are sex objects - that the women are here because they're sex objects - they work in the service industry as massage girls, bar girls, prostitutes, or in Thai restaurants".
An unlikely commentator of what some have called, 'the Thai Bride boom' (12) in the UK is the television programme Little Britain, with its 'Thai bride' character Ting Tong Macadangdang. This has resulted in the characters Ting Tong and her White British husband Dudley, as being the most famous Thai-White British relationship. As perhaps the only representation of Thai people and Thai-White British mixed relationships in British media, many research participants were embarrassed by the programme: "It has given a name to the stereotype, 'Oh so you're a Ting Tong'", Jane explained, "It makes it worse; it gives an image to the caricature". When the sketch first appeared, one report introduced the topic as,
For more than 30 years it has been the marriage that dared not speak its name; now the life of the only Thai bride in the village is about to get a great deal tougher. Britain's growing legion of middle-aged men and their "internet-order" Thai wives have long suffered social disapproval after their marriages. But their struggle for acceptance is about to be dealt a further blow, by the television show Little Britain. (13)
The Little Britain sketch, and press (such as the aforementioned article), have set the standard profile of the life of a Thai woman in Britain, not as a woman, or someone of Thai ethnicity, but as a 'Thai Bride' found on the internet through dating agencies. Interestingly, the article continues to talk of how the programme may cause a hit for business for a Thai internet agency operated in Britain, but no attention is given to Thai women who may not see their marital status as their one defining feature, or of the possible discrimination a Thai woman in a mixed relationship may face. (14)
The stereotypes of Thai women as synonymous with mail-order brides, prostitutes and subservient wives featured prominently in the daily lives of most of the Thai women interviewed - and their partners. In one focus group, the women discussed the preconceptions others had of their marriages, which had in turn made them more guarded. During an interview with Tom and Nid, a mixed couple living in London, Nid expressed how she did not feel she was accepted by White British people; that, "...being here its going to be hard anyway because people are really against mixed couples... people have a lot of negative ideas about us". In one survey response, a Thai woman living in Glasgow explained some of the common questions she hears: "How old is your husband? How much did you pay for your wife?" making reference to the widely held assumptions that women come as mail-order brides for much older western men. (15) Likewise, mixed relationships between Thai men and White British women are not immune to discrimination. In another survey response, a White British woman voiced her annoyance over comments her and her husband often hear,
People assume I eat green curry all the time and ask if my husband eats dog. People also feel the need to discuss the topic of Thai bar girls and the sex industry. When people hear that I am married to a Thai they always want to tell me a story which is along the lines of: a guy who's a friend of a friend who was an old guy who took a young girl from Thailand who stole all his money and ran off (this seems to be an urban myth). I feel that this is a prejudice which people in the UK hold...
Many involved in the research, felt their mixed relationships have been looked down on because of the perception that most Thai-British relationships are mail or internet-order and thus morally distasteful. They recounted "incidents"; rude comments from both men and women who were co-workers, clients, strangers, children, and even extended family members; discrimination and ignorance of Thais and mixed couples were not seen to be limited to any one group. These comments and assumptions prompted some to actively challenge these stereotypes and promote what they felt was the reality of mixed Thai-British couples.
Some of the participants, such as women in a focus group in Eastbourne, sought to counter the negative representations of Thai people, and also their mixed relationships, by showing the 'real Thai culture'. For example, together with their husbands and friends, the women participated in a multicultural festival by demonstrating Thai dance, massage, and cuisine. It was hoped that showing these cultural expressions would give local residents positive representations of their families and Thai culture. Additionally, it was not only important to circulate positive images for the general public; the women felt that the sexualised stereotypes were unfair and would make Thai women and their (Thai or Mixed Thai/British) children ashamed of being Thai. By providing the general public with alternative representations of Thai people and Thai culture, the women in Eastbourne hoped to supplant negative opinions about mixed Thai-British relationships and families.
Similarly, Jon, a White British man whose wife is Thai, developed the website Thai-UK.org to provide information for Thais living in Britain and as a support resource for mixed families and Mixed Thai/British children. Distressed at the lack of Thai positive images and role models in Britain for his Mixed Thai/White British children, he was prompted to action, "I want my children to speak Thai, feel positive about being Thai and proud that they are of dual heritage". Even though some parents did not want to pressure their children to speak Thai, (16) others, like Jon, felt knowing Thai and English would support identification with both ethnic communities. A few people mentioned how Thai was encouraged in the home, but also found this difficult to sustain because of a lack of other Thai speakers in their area. (17)
While expressing children's 'Thainess' involved dedication, by nature of living in Britain and attending school parents felt their children could easily express their English or British identities. Charles, who is second generation Mixed Thai/White British, was thankful that his parents forced him to go to Thai supplementary school throughout his childhood. He felt fortunate to live near the Buddhapadipa Buddhist Temple in Wimbledon because it provided a social environment for interaction with other Thai and mixed Thai-British people and families. As an adult Charles realised growing up in a combination of cultures had been useful; he did not give the impression of being caught in-between two worlds or marooned between communities, but rather that his identity was fluid: neither only Thai, only British, or only mixed.
Having a very different upbringing from Charles, Jane was raised by her mother and her family, "who are absolutely English-English, middle class, from London", without any Thai influence. Despite her mother being fluent in Thai, Jane suspected that her mother did not teach it to her and her sister for fear of confusing them, especially as they did not have any Thais in their life to identify with. Jane recounted a story of her aunt taking her to a Thai cultural exhibition at the Barbican, and how it changed her attitude of feeling like an outcast for having "looked different":
I was two when I arrived and didn't go back until I was thirteen, so my whole childhood I had only heard of this place called Thailand. I had no concept, no idea... I couldn't visualise it; it was this fictional place. There were pictures of Bangkok and the King and Queen there, and I remember being really impacted by it, and it gave me a sense of identity.
Even though she could not speak Thai, Jane felt having access to positive cultural images gave her pride in her Thai background. Moreover having knowledge of both cultures had given both Charles and Jane a sense of comfort in operating within and between the contexts of each community. Identification with 'Thainess', 'Britishness', or even 'mixedness' will no doubt vary according to individual mixed Thai/White British people, although for Jane and Charles, their dual citizenship, personal experience in both Thailand and Britain, and positive outlook on both backgrounds, have shaped their mixed identities.
The case study presented here of mixed Thai-White British families and mixed Thai/White British people has sought to present a deeper understanding on the meaning of 'mixing' and 'mixedness' for Britain. Due to the sexualised stereotypes of Thai women and the stigma of the mail-order Thai-British marriage, Thai people have mobilised themselves and their families in different parts of the country through cultural events and electronic media to present their experience as Thai people and being in mixed Thai-British relationships. Besides targeting people's ignorance and prejudices, parents have also promoted positive images for the development of their children's pride in their backgrounds in order to enhance their Thai and mixed Thai/White British children's self-confidence.
This study has highlighted that one feature of the Thai community in Britain may be its 'mixedness' because of the prevalence of mixed families and Mixed Thai/White British children. Policy that may be directed at the 'Thai community' should keep its mixed composition in mind, and likewise policy directed at the 'mixed-race/heritage community' should take note of its own varied membership. One way some local authorities have supported local Thai communities and their families is through Thai summer festivals which have in turn provided an opportunity for local residents to have meaningful contact with Thai culture and subsequently mixed families. Festivals such as these also provide an environment of 'normality', as Chamion Caballero has described in this volume, of mixed families. As well, an environment of neutrality could be fostered where individuals and families have a space free of the preconceptions of others; namely, of particular 'mixes' or mixed relationships.
(1) In recent estimates published by Communities and Local Government, the growth of individual mixed categories sketched a changing demographic of the mixed group as a whole. While the biggest estimated change was of the Mixed White/Black African group (22 per cent), Mixed White/Asian and Mixed Other had a higher growth (18 per cent and 17 per cent respectively) than Mixed White/Black Caribbean (10 per cent). For more see: CLG (2007: 127)
(2) In the UK 'Asian' has tended to refer to people who have ethnic backgrounds from the Asia's sub-continent. Despite this meaning, during the interviews participants identified themselves as 'Asians', which may mean for the purposes of data collection, such as for ethnic monitoring forms, they also categorise themselves as 'Asian' or 'Asian Other' rather than just 'Other'.
(3) CLG (2007: 243)
(4) For the purposes of the study, 'Thai' refers to people who are either Thai citizens or people who are ethnically Thai.
(5) Finella, Giorgio (2005)
(6) Dudley, J. & Hesketh, K. (2002); Dudley, J. & Woollacott, S. (2003); Dudley, J. & Woollacott, S. (2004); Mensah, J. F. (2006); Mensah, J. F. (2007); Woollacott, S. (2005)
(7) Home Office (2004); Home Office (2005); (Home Office 2006)
(8) All but one of the Thai women in the interviews and focus groups currently in relationships were in relationships with a White British man. Similarly in the surveys nearly all couples were Thai and White British.
(9) At the stage of writing, in depth interviews have been conducted with seven individuals, two White British men married to Thai women and who had set up websites for White British-Thai families, one mixed Thai and White British couple, two second generation Mixed Thai and White British people and one Thai overseas student. In addition, two focus groups had been conducted in Eastbourne and Milton Keynes with nine Thai women in total. Additionally, in an effort to include Thais living outside South East England, a survey was distributed (available both in electronic and paper format and in Thai and English language) through networks and advertised on British Thai websites. At the time of writing, 21 surveys were completed in Thai, and 45 surveys were completed in English.
(10) There is evidence through grants of settlement and grants of citizenship that Thai children migrate to Britain with at least one Thai parent. Some of the research participants, for example, had migrated with their children (from a previous relationship) to the UK to join their British spouses.
(11) Enteen (2005: 458)
(12) Head (2006)
(13) Pavia (2005)
(14) For more on the critique of Asian women's simultaneous identities of wives, workers and citizens, see: Piper & Roces (2003: 1-21)
(15) This stereotype is not only limited to relationships between Thai women and British men. See Humbeck (1996) for discussion on the experiences of Thai women in Germany.
(16) These responses were true for both mixed families with Thai children and mixed families with Mixed Thai/British children.
(17) In the focus groups and interviews there were two cases where both Thai and British parents spoke to their children both in Thai and English.
CLG (2007) Race Equality in Public Services: Statistical Annex London: CLG
Dudley, J. & Hesketh, K. (2002) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2001. London: Home Office
Dudley, J. & Woollacott, S. (2003) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2002. London: Home Office
Dudley, J. & Woollacott, S. (2004) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2003. London: Home Office
Enteen, J. (2005) 'Siam remapped: cyber-interventions by Thai Women'. In: New Media & Society. 7(4): 457-482
Finella, Giorgio (2005) London Country of Birth Profile: An analysis of Census data. London: GLA
Head, J. (2006) 'Perils fail to deter Thai bride boom'. BBC News Online (Sept 6) Available under: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/5319072.stm
Home Office (2004) Control of Immigration: Statistics United Kingdom 2003, London: Home Office
Home Office (2005) Control of Immigration: Statistics United Kingdom 2004, London: Home Office
Home Office (2006) Control of Immigration: Statistics United Kingdom 2005, London: Home Office
Humbeck, E. (1996) 'The Politics of Cultural Identity: Thai Women in Germany'. In: Women in the European Union : The Politics of Work and Daily Life. London: Routledge: 186 -201
Mensah, J. F. (2006) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2005. London: Home Office
Mensah, J. F. (2007) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2006. London: Home Office
Pavia, W. (2005) 'Husbands on run from the only Thai bride in the village' The Times Online, (Nov 12) Available under: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article589324.ece
Piper, N. & Roces, M. (2003) 'Introduction: Marriage and Migration in an Age of Globalization'. In: Wife or Worker? Asian Women & Migration. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: 1-21
Woollacott, S. (2005) Persons Granted British Citizenship United Kingdom, 2004. London: Home Office
About the author
Jessica Mai Sims is a research and policy analyst at the Runnymede Trust working on the Community Studies programme which explores small, less visible minority ethnic communities. Prior work in the series has included research on the Vietnamese community, and race relations and multiculturalism on university campuses, with a forthcoming paper focusing on the Thai community. She has a longstanding research interest in issues around ethnicity, racism, and multiculturalism.
This paper is taken with kind permission from the forthcoming Runnymede Trust publication: Mixed Heritage: Identity, Policy and Practice.