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Foreigners in Thailand

25/07/2013

Thai culture is so different from that of the West.

I’m not talking about the culture of Thai art or dance. Or of music and literature. It is the lifestyle culture that is difficult to understand. Never obvious to grasp on a first visit when all we see are the smiling faces and the continual desire to please with helpful advice.

The smiles and the willingness to help are genuine as far as they go. What is not so easy to see are those aspects of Thai life that are not immediately transparent. For example, a Thai does not wear his heart on his sleeve..He has learnt to conceal his emotions. To a Thai, it shows weakness to show how you feel. The smile, therefore, does not always mean happiness. You will see smiling faces in hospital wards and at funeral wakes. That does not indicate any lack of respect, far from it. To a Thai there are few reasons why you should not smile. Smiling can indicate “no conflict”. The Thai does not want to embarrass you or get involved in a dispute. Easier to smile, say nothing, and walk away.

We would take that as rude and insulting in the West. It has no such connotation in Thailand or other countries of the Far East.

With decades of experience of a Western culture, we foreigners don’t pick this up all that quickly. Holiday visitors are rightly keen to see the sights and sample the delights of weather and nightlife. Expats who have been here longer would be expected to have been more exposed to the cultural differences and be able to make a more balanced view of Thai life and to understand where the basic lifestyles are dissimilar from our own.

Oddly, that is not always the case. Most get frustrated when straight answers are not forthcoming from a Thai, when they fail to keep appointments, when they won’t concede they may be wrong even after you have given them proof of some error on their part.

The reason straight answers are not given is this. The Thai wants to save you the discomfort of being told something unpleasant. They want only to be messengers of good news. Life is too short to talk of something that may upset you. The best example is from an internet forum (not always a good source, but true in this case): A foreigner is waiting in Bangkok for a Thai friend. After one hour, the friend rings and explains that he is caught in traffic in Sukhumwit, probably the most congested road in Bangkok. A feasible excuse. One hour later, the foreigner rings his friend and gets the same excuse and decides to call off the meeting.

Which is exactly what the Thai wanted to do. He was actually in Chiangmai, a twelve hour drive away. He did not want to call off the meeting, that would cause loss of face and annoy his foreign friend. Better to give a plausible reason for not making contact at the scheduled time.

Thais see it as story-telling to avoid a confrontation and not create waves in the relationship. We, as Westerners, see it as down-right lying and not being honest enough to be truthful.

Two different ways of looking at something. Two very different cultures. Understanding WHY they do it helps to understand the Thai way and makes it easier to cope with similar frustrations. Some expats can be here several decades and still not comprehend the culture.

Some want to understand and integrate; some do not.

to be continued

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7 Comments
  1. Keep on writing, grea job!

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  2. it would be hard to adapt to a culture where one guarded genuine happiness/via a smile. i find myself smiling as i walk down the street/sidewalk where i live in ecuador. ecuadorians smile a lot, but like the people in your host country, they want to please, and they are predictably late and will tell you anything, not really to lie, but because they truly want to please – and they tend to let you down often. ‘manana means not today’ is the best attitude, knowing that it might be tomorrow, or the next week, or – in one case, it’s been a year since the guy promised three different times, ‘manana.’

    i’ve never studied about the thai culture, so thanks for nudging me here!

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    • Matt Owens Rees permalink

      Excellent and interesting reply. Equador has many parallels with Thailand. I’ll take a look at your blog

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  3. Largely because of its location, Siam has always been a cultural cross-roads.Thai culture (like many others) is one where assimilation features strongly, whether accepting foreigners as locals (but not Thais) after a few years, or adopting – not to say ‘apeing’ – the latest global trends and buzzwords.

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    • Matt Owens Rees permalink

      I’d like to learn more about Thailand being a cultural crossroads. My observations and experiences are that they stick very much to their own culture. Apart from the Chinese influence still prevalent today, the country was never colonised, they dislike, because of “face”, learning from foreigners. They’ve ignored Dutch advice on flood control for example. Thais are nationalistic to the point of xenophobia. It’s no coincidence that Thaksin’s party was ThaiRakThai. Few foreigners successfully integrate and are fully accepted. Something that my books give illustrations of.

      Apeing certainly takes place particularly in fashion. I’m always amused seeing magazine covers and pictures in English and the articles inside totally in Thai.

      My views are different from yours on this but I am keen to allow alternative ideas to be voiced. That’s the greatness of blogs and social media.

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      • In referring to Thailand as a ‘cultural crossroads’ I was taking a more historical/geographical view. From memory, first there were the ‘SAKAI’ or aboriginal people, then came the Mon, then the Malay, Lao, Burmese, Khmer, Chinese, Indians and Japanese – roughly in that order. Then came then came the Portugese and other Europeans. Then came the North Americans, the Aussies and the Kiwis. So ‘we’ of European cultural descent (the term ‘farang’ is first and foremost a cultural construct) have been here in Siam a relatively short time, which I believe largely explains the relative lack of cultural impact by ‘Euro’ beyond a superficial level.

        Interestingly, a very similar melding of cultures (to various degrees) is happening here where I live. Lad Krabang Industrial Estate is well established with over 250 companies, and this supports a population of roughly 20,000 workers form all the Asian countries previously mentioned plus one farang – me. All the other farang live in the various sterile housing estates nearby and I rarely see them, or they commute from other parts of Bangkok. I’ve been living and/or working in the local community for over two years, and apart from myself the farang presence is very negligible.

        I guess all those Indian taxi drivers in New York haven’t had much of an impact so far either.

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  4. PS: Siam was never ‘colonized’ by Europeans, but it was ‘colonized’ by the ruling elite(s) of days gone by. Thais with Chinese backgrounds are heavily involved in government and big business and that could be seen as a colonisation of sorts.

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