An Elephant in a Ceramic Shop. That is how I feel sometimes in Thailand, with me being the Elephant. Farangs (foreigners) in Thailand make countless cultural blunders no matter how hard we try. It is built into our system, and difficult to get rid of. By and large, we farangs are big and clumsy, and often forget about the small details of Thai protocol. So we are regularly embarrassed. Maybe, just maybe, if we live in Thailand over several decades, we will start wising up and do this right. I am not sure, but time will tell.
If you go a remote place in Thailand, the first mishap you may make is simply being a farang. Sure, in Chiang Mai and certainly in Bangkok everyone is used to seeing people from other countries, but if you take a little trip to remote village in the hills somewhere, some babies or very young kids start crying at the first site of you. Older kids will simply stare at you like you just dropped in from Mars. I have been told by several Thais that the first thing they see is a big nose. Back home, my nose is not big at all, but here it stands out apparently.
When farangs are talking with one another, they are too loud for Thai tastes. It may be your regular voice level you have been using since adolescence, but Thai people may shake their head and say to themselves that farangs are very loud people (which they consider a bit rude). And we laugh too much. In Thai polite society, there is no loud laughter, and women typically cover their mouth with their hand when having a good laugh.
Of course, any farang that has been in Thailand for more than an hour understands taking shoes off before entering a home and other common politeness requirements. But sometimes, maybe because Westerners are a little clumsy, we accidentally bump someone in a crowded room or shop. If you happen to bump somebody’s head with your elbow, you have a major faux pas, and I dare say it has probably happened at least once to every expat living in Thailand.
And farangs should never be so foolish as to try singing karaoke with Thai language. Actually it is best that all farangs no matter how good a voice they have, refrain from getting up and singing any karaoke. It’s likely to be a bad reflection on you. Being a farang also often involves trying to squeeze a gigantic backpack or suitcase onto an overcrowded bus to the amusement of most Thais who travel simply with one small plastic bag of food and another equally small bag of clothes.
Most Thais believe that farangs drink too much (Mao Mack), and in the entertainment beach towns it shows that their perception is probably correct. If a farang in a regular town (like Chiang Mai) drinks too much, the Thais will see it as verification of the perception, and that’s not a good thing. And when farangs get a bit drunk, they tend to get more loud, laugh a lot more, and maybe even do a “ramwong” (Thai dance) in the middle of the street. I want to say right now on behalf of all my fellow expats and myself to the Thai people: I’m sorry, and will try to not do it again. Please accept my apology for all of us expats that have been guilty of this.
And despite all my efforts to do the right thing, I have forgotten to “wai” monks occasionally. In great error, I have hung images of Buddha at a lower position on my wall then another picture. I have been late in standing up at the movie theater when the National Anthem is played, and even once failed to stop and stand at attention when the Anthem was broadcast from speakers at the street market. It really is embarrassing, and hope that our Thai hosts can overlook my mishaps.
I have also sometimes had a really bad day and I lose my cool, raising my voice in anger when something goes wrong. That’s a Western habit that is hard to break, and I am always scolding myself after it is over. But this action is about the worst thing a farang can do. When Thai people have a bad day, they typically lay back and smile and say Mai Pen Rai (it doesn’t matter).
How many resident expats in Thailand have accidentally touched the doorway jamb when stepping in? When we go into Thai temples, everyone including my wife easily and effortlessly kneels in respect to the Monk and to the religious items, and to Buddha. Being a clumsy farang, well past the half way mark in years with no great practice in kneeling, I am unable to do that without looking like I am going to fall on my face.
Thank Goodness the Thai people are very patient with me and my fellow expats. Our blunders are often met with a warm and understanding Thai smile. And I thank them all for that. We just go through life in Thailand like a big ole’ elephant making our way the best we can.
CultureShock! Thailand: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette – Recommended
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