Some of you have bkk | ldn as your Instagram bio – and it shows. One Instagram account poking fun at that dek inter life through embarrassingly accurate memes has gained more than 11,000 followers in less than four months.
Most of @BougieBangkokGirl’s followers come from millennial Thai social circles of international students (dek inter or เด็กอินเตอร์) and the overseas-educated (nak rean nok or นักเรียนนอก).
@BougieBangkokGirl – or Bougie – agreed to be interviewed anonymously via email about the Instagram account’s underlying goal to politically awaken a notoriously apolitical demographic.
Bougie, and the account’s followers, “grew up with financial security, private-school educations, expectations to go abroad for college, and some sort of exposure to Western media.” In her own words, Bougie’s memes aim to show an “oversimplified and generalized lifestyle of the Bangkok upper-middle class. It is a personification and caricature of the homogenous lives we live.”
The account’s memes are uniquely relatable to this demographic. There’s memes about being stuck in traffic in your family’s Alphard with your driver while navigating between Siam Paragon and EmQuartier. Then there’s memes about family – like your auntie’s connections helping to secure a summer internship. And of course, there’s memes that poke fun at the assumption that this group is largely ignorant about Thai politics.
But within this demographic of upper-middle class, foreign-educated millenials are more nuanced shades of Thainess.
In April 2015, Thongchai Winichakul, professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, outlined a typography of “Westernized Thais” on a scale of farangness/Thainess during a keynote lecture at the Australian National University.
Some youth, despite having studied abroad, only socialized with Thais so in Thongchai’s words, “never left home while abroad.” Others become “more farang than farang,” uprooting themselves from Thai culture and completely assimilating into their new home. In the middle are those whose “Thai reads like English” but who champion local Thai wisdom, as well as the vice versa – those whose English may read like Thai, but who champion foreign wisdom.
Blissfully, Politically Ignorant
After the March 24 election, Bougie departed from memes mocking Bangkok’s upscale clubbing scene and turned to political memes oriented towards a demographic with a reputation for being politically uninterested or oblivious to Thai politics.
“Growing up in the midst of polarization, Thai politics wasn’t exactly ‘dinner table conversation’ for the Bangkok bougies or anybody else in our generation. Most of our families try their best to steer politics away from our personal lives, telling us myths about politicians and discouraging any obvious interest in the field,” Bougie said. “Possibly a parent’s worst nightmare is to have her kid study political science with a dream to be involved in politics. Why choose a career that would threaten the family name?”
Being apolitical is a safe bet for the clan name, especially since the previous generation was “witnesses of political violence and the fight for ‘democracy’ over the years”. Not only that, disinterest is practical – as one Bird Box meme says, rich Bangkokians with influential families can “weather the political storm so they can afford to be apolitical.”
“The bougies of Bangkok are not remotely affected by the political cycles in Thailand. Despite dropping agriculture prices or higher urban living costs, we are able to maintain the same level of wealth and lifestyle,” Bougie explained. “Our economic, and thus political, influence has kept us immune from the reality that haunts many out there.”
Paradoxically, this demographic – with wealth, clout, and foreign education – has in its hands the power to push for political change in Thai society, even if it has shown little interest in doing so. Bangkok bougies and their families may have participated in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee protests of 2013 to 2014 that preempted the most recent coup, before in 2019 claiming to be sick of Uncle Tuu and screenshotting Future Forward Party social media posts for group chats.
One of Bougie’s memes roasts overseas Thai citizens who couldn’t bother to go vote with the Cersei walk of shame meme. Another post explains electoral regulations that gave pro-junta Phalang Pracharath an unfair edge through a meme of Will Smith and his wife on the red carpet.
Perhaps most ticklish is a Tinder “screenshot” that shows a match between the liberal-presenting Future Forward Party and “my college campus’ liberal social justice values that make me feel like part of the new educated elite.”
All of this is not to say that bougie Bangkokians are entirely apolitical – but it’s US and world politics that captures their interest, due to easy access to global news, education oriented around understanding Western politics, and higher levels of English than Thai. Plus, it’s less tense to discuss Brexit at the dinner table.
“Without the same taboo that is put on Thai politics, we feel more at ease engaging with Western politics and forming our own opinions,” Bougie said. “For example, we are quite comfortable discussing the problems of white feminism or Bernie’s welfare state, but not as comfortable discussing violence against women in Thailand or the public health system.”
Relate Yark Wa Gae
For Thai-educated Thais and foreigners, relating to Bangkok bougies may be difficult. It’s one of the unique conundrums facing the demographic: being part of multiple cultures gains one additional perspectives, but also makes it difficult to assimilate completely with either world.
Mixing with Thai-educated Thais may be a challenge due to the separation of social circles where there are small overlaps at best, Bougie says. Different schools, friendship groups and senses of humor can cause the groups to have “distorted views” of each other.
Thai-educated Thais may imagine dek inter through tropes such as the possession of scant street smarts and knowledge about Thailand and customs, and Tinglish typing skills that are sometimes the butt of jokes. Some are also munsai (a term denoting jealousy and annoyance) at the more expensive foreign education enjoyed by dek inter.
“Yet funnily enough, their lifestyles are not that different,” Bougie said. “I hope the relationship gets better and it does not become another manifestation of the class line in our society. The narrative of “the other” (Bangkok vs. Other, Elite vs. Other, etc.) has long haunted our parents’ generation, and I hope it does not continue.”
Bangkok bougies may occupy a similarly liminal status among expats. Some expats may welcome them as Thai friends who refreshingly understand American sitcom humor, while others with self-loathing for Western culture may eschew bougies who aren’t “authentically” Thai – after all, the image of a millenial with a Macbook in a cafe shatters the orientalist illusion of a kind roadside auntie who gives out free som tam.
But despite the contradictions presented by dek inter, Thongchai has pointed out that Westernized Thais are not a modern invention.
“Since the mid-19th century, all notable and influential intellectuals in Siam, in one way or another, had to deal with the west,” the professor said. “For the past 150 years, they made dialogue between the Thai and the West.”
King Rama VI was an expert in Shakespearean English who translated plays into Thai, while King Rama VII’s lingua franca was English. “He was more comfortable with English than Thai. His writing was always in English,” Thongchai said. The minds behind the 1932 Siamese Revolution that ended absolute monarchy were also nak rian nok.
The financial future of Bangkok bougies are secure, but Bougie hopes that more sympathy will come their way too. She also hopes the demographic will use their silver spoons to feed others.
“Speaking generally, I want our generation to take the effort to understand the problems hiding behind the glossy covers of this city and country. To be conscious of the things we do and what we say. To be kinder to the people around us. I think that’s really all one could ask of another being,” she said.
Thongchai ended his speech with a similar sentiment: “What type of nak rian nok do you want to be? Make sure you’re aware of who you are.”