Everywhere in Thailand, as well as in some other Asian countries, it is a mandatory tradition that before you enter a house, you first remove your shoes. The same applies to Buddhist temples, and sometimes in very small shops. And never step on the threshold, as this is considered impolite. Always carefully step over the threshold. Reasons why can get a little complicated, but it has to do with the spirits in the home (which are in almost every Thai house) and stepping on the threshold could offend them and bring bad luck to the living residents of the house.
Protocol about taking off shoes before entering a Thai home is in almost every guidebook about the country, and Westerners are expected to know it well, understand the tradition, and to comply. But Westerners are used to just go clomping into every house without a thought about removing shoes, so occasionally this Thai tradition is violated. Don’t let it be by you. To not remove your shoes would be a sign of disrespect to your host.
Even in Thai homes in the West, this is the tradition. Back our California house, since our home was primarily for Thai people (me being the only non-Thai in a family of four), we kept the same Thai rules in regard to shoes that you would in our Chiang Mai house. Once you get used to it and do this for a number of years, even an old American guy like myself starts to feel uncomfortable when we see others wearing shoes clomping around.
In Thai Buddhism, a person’s feet occupy the lowest realm of a person’s existence. The head is the highest, and feet are the lowest. That’s why in Thailand it is also a major gaff to show the bottoms of one’s feet when sitting, or to (and this is really a bad one) point with your foot at someone or even at something.
After a while, Expats living in Thailand adjust to this, and it becomes as natural as with native Thais. But occasionally we see “fresh off the boat” Americans violating this creed, and we all cringe.
There are many traditions like this that come naturally to the Expat that lives in a Thai environment after a while. Other natural habits that we pick up include avoiding making a Thai lose face, and to understand truly what a Thai means, even when what they say may be totally different. Confused? I understand. We all are very confused when we are first plopped into a total Thai environment that is new for us. Let me illustrate with this little antidote related to me by another Expat:
My expat friend was visiting the home of a Thai colleague and his mother. Both the Thai friend and his mother are well educated, worldly people that have been to the US and elsewhere abroad. A couple of foreigners new to the area came to visit the house as well. At the door, the foreigners began to remove their shoes as they have been instructed by their guidebook. The mother insisted that wasn’t necessary. The two foreigners looked at each other, and then looked at the mother, and she repeated that they were welcome to keep on their shoes. So inside the house they came with the shoes on.
After an hour or so later the foreigners left, and the mother, son and my expat buddy closed the door and retired to the living room. The mother gave a big sigh, shaking her head.
“What’s wrong, mother?” the son asked.
“You know what’s wrong,” she said.
He did not have a clear idea what she was getting at but at the same time didn’t want to guess.
“I don’t understand, mother.”
“Your foreigner friends walked through my house in their shoes. Why are foreigners so rude? Don’t they understand the most simple thing about Thai culture and manners?”
“But you told them not to remove their shoes. I heard you, mother.”
She looked at him, slowly shaking her head, as if the foreigners had infected his mind.
“Aren’t they aware in Thai culture, that you always remove your shoes? I thought you said these foreigners knew Thailand.”
“They thought you’d made an exception,” he said.
“There are no exceptions. Shoes off. Always.”
Of course, she was right. The mother had, as an act of graciousness and courtesy, made a concession to their foreign ways, which she understood to be different. Westerners had no problem trampling over the floors of others with their shoes on leaving a trail of dirt and disease, and demonstrating their lack of gratefulness at being invited into the home. But then if they knew Thailand, these foreigners would also understand that his mother’s concession was not to be acted upon. In her mind, the situation was perfectly clear. The foreigners should have known that in reality her “yes, please keep your shoes on,” should have been translated by the foreigners as, “yes, remove your shoes.”
His mother had assumed the foreigners could “read her mind” and instead they merely heard her words and took them at face value. In a culture where face has such a high value, mind reading is an essential element in social relationships, and a foreigner should go behind the words and into the interior desire and real intention of the person. No one should expect a Thai to spell out her true wish when the rules are plainly, obviously clear and without ambiguity.
This same kind of thinking could be applied to paying a restaurant bill or offering food (even when refused it should be given). This is all part of life in the Land of Smiles, and Americans must learn to understand and become part of it if they are to make their home here, or even if they just come for a visit.
Going to live in Thailand, with the family, is a big shock in many ways. This book guides you nice and gently and with a lot of humor through your first embarrassing days. I have re-read the book , after four years, while now feeling complete at ease in this, indeed sometimes strange society.…