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Family Life in Thailand

11/11/2013

The Thais are shy and sensitive to comments that they perceive to be critical of their lifestyle and culture. They can interpret innocuous remarks, even if you think they are flattering; as making them lose face. Thai people can be quite reserved with foreigners, the farang. Unless you know them well, and then often only on a one to one basis, they will not be keen to talk to you about their way of life. Transparency is not in their vocabulary.

Living in a gated community and associating for the most part with other expats, those foreigners that do not fully integrate simply do not appreciate that Thai family life is not the same as our own. A minority, through an unawareness of Thai social rules and attitudes, can take extreme positions of loving everything about the Thai or hating everything they do – the Thai apologists and the Thai bashers.

Their limited experiences of Thais can result in many misunderstandings. There is nothing wrong about living in that way of course – with little no local contact. Each to his own. Nevertheless, it may lessen your enjoyment in living in the country.

Together with typical Thai reticence to talk about their own non-western brand of ”culture”, this all makes writing about the country and its people far from easy.

Many books on Thai subjects don’t get to the nitty-gritty of what really goes on here. I have just finished reading a book by Richard Nesbitt on how eastern people think differently from farang westerners. It is worth looking at though it is not an easy read and some of his points are from a very biased viewpoint. It is sound academically as far as it goes but it lacks, in my view, the common touch. Giving real examples of how people live would have added to the credibility of his ideas.

I live in Thailand and will try to explain how Thais have a very different worldview on family and community life from westerners. My examples are from observations and conversations with Thais. There are certainly some good academic works on the subject but my approach is to cut out the technical jargon used by sociologists and anthropologists and go straight to what actually happens in real life. Academics can have excellent ideas but often fail to engage the reader. Rather like the young toff fresh out of his prep school explaining to his father how he prepares bird eggs for his collection.

“I take the prolate spheroid egg in one hand, the apex at the top, the larger nadir at the bottom; make a small perforation in the apex, a larger opening in the nadir, and propel the yoke and the white through the shell by making an air current with my mouth”

To which his father replied, “Interesting. In my day, I took the egg, made a small hole top and bottom, and blew the contents out of the shell.”

Margaret Mead in her book “Coming of Age in Samoa” wrongly assumed that her interviewees were giving her researchers accurate information on the sexual attitudes of Samoan adolescents. The reality, only established after her death and the book had been published, was that her researchers had been given what the Samoans assumed Mead wanted to hear. It transpired that Samoan teenagers were not after all that different from their western counterparts.

So, having made clear that this article is based on careful observations and lengthy conversations with the ordinary Thai, let us look at family life in this country.

Family is important to a Thai. They keep in touch more regularly than perhaps we do in the West. We often see family only at formal occasions such as weddings and funerals. We contact relatives only on birthdays and at Christmas. Thais are much closer. They use mobiles and social networking a great deal.

On starting work, A Thai will live at home. In the West, youngsters are encouraged to stand on their own feet and leave the nest when they start out in life. If Thais find a job some distance from home they will still keep in touch regularly with their parents and send money home on payday. If you ask a Thai why they do this you will always get the answer: “My family looked after me when they were bringing me up. I now look after them.”

This attitude to parents and family can cause problems in Western – Thai relationships. Somrak asked her farang husband for money to cover the cost of the family’s sick buffalo. He saw through the obvious scam. Somrak had to explain that her white lie, as she considered it to be, was her way of helping her brother to buy a new motorbike while giving her husband what she thought would be a reason he would be more likely to accept. She justified what her husband regarded as a deceit by saying that in Thai culture a man always helps his wife’s family.

Westerners should be cautious if invited to meet a girlfriend’s family. To her, it is not to get approval as much as to show that the relationship is serious. If marriage is not on the cards, do not go. You would unwittingly be sending out the wrong vibes. It is unfortunate that social customs are not better explained to those expats that are already here.

Giving a dowry is still traditional in Thailand. The sinsot is often negotiated by a go-between and is paid to the bride’s family by the groom and presented publicly at the wedding reception. Often the cheque will be proudly shown for all to see. And, just as often, particularly in wealthier families, it will be discreetly returned later uncashed. Marrying well is as keenly sought in Thailand as it was in Victorian England where arranged marriages had more to do with maintaining the power and wealth within the elite than any notions of love.

You marry the family and not the girl in Thailand. At first, that does not seem a big deal. In the West, we would usually help family whenever we can – though one’s own partner and children come first. It is not always obvious that in Thailand the pecking order is rather different. Bloodline is more significant than any marital ties. It is one of the cultural shocks that can be experienced when you realise that your position as husband comes below that of your wife’s family.

The exceptions to the rule that no foreigner can own land in Thailand are so few that in practice it is correct to assume that you cannot own land. For foreigners living with a spouse, any land bought by you would be in her name. She could gift it or sell it back to you, or she could leave it to you in her will provided that it was valid. You would have to transfer it to a Thai or sell it within one year. You would never own it.

Given that restricted limitation, you would be unlikely to get the real market value of the property.
Without a legally approved will, 50% of all other assets would go to her blood relatives, the rest to you.

If you are married through a Buddhist or other rite and not registered through the local district office, you are not legally married and have no inheritance rights at all. Many Thais as well as foreigners have not registered their marriages legally. That is probably because divorce can be complicated in Thailand unless the other party agrees. In that case, some money usually changes hands before the divorce is granted.

Thais are more community conscious than most farangs. School and university chums use telephones and internet networks to ensure they do not lose contact. It would not be unusual for several students to travel 500 kilometers to attend the funeral of a former classmate. Their employers would fully understand their wish to do so. It is an accepted part of Thai culture. Family and community values are learnt in the home, the school, and the wat (temple) from an early age.

Families tend to live close together. Granny will often live in the same house as her adult children, newly-weds may build a house within the same family compound.

Life can be tough for the average Thai. Workers are not always paid the minimum wage of 300 baht per day. Payday loans to tide someone over from one month to the next are not uncommon. Family and friends will often assist whenever they can. Helping within the family takes many forms.

A son arrested for some traffic violation will go to the police station where his mother will plead his case. He will sit in a corner most of the time playing games on his mobile phone. It is expected that the family will come to the rescue but it does little to encourage the younger members of the family to take responsibility for their own actions.

Thais will routinely wai their parents, their hands clasped together before giving a deep bow. Parents are referred to as khun paw, khun mae, (mother, father) with no familiarity being allowed. Today’s children will sometimes call parents by their first name but always preceded by khun paw or khun mae.

Six-year-old Paiboon was playing up at a local restaurant. He wanted more ice in the orange juice his mother had poured for him. He asked politely enough. Then he wanted more even though his glass was so full no more ice could be added. Nothing unusual in that. Children everywhere in the world can be spoilt and behave badly. What strikes the westerner is the parental attitude of not chastising let alone not punishing. The mother took him to the toilets where he was still yelling and shouting. The other Thais in the restaurant thought nothing of it. Siripawn had a bite mark on her ankle when they returned. She said it was a mosquito bite even though it was not the time of day for those insects. Everyone knew what had happened.

Adisak is Ratchanee’s younger brother and she asked him to work in the garden of the home she and her farang husband had bought. He worked well at the beginning. Adisak had been unemployed and it seemed sensible to give him an opportunity to earn money. He started arriving later and later to begin his day, took longer lunch breaks, and seemed to get so bored that he would move from job to job without finishing any.
Even his mother said she could not control him. That is not unique to Thailand. The idea that you, “Give an inch and they take a mile” can occur anywhere. Here, though, the temptation to establish what is effectively male supremacy is very great.

Paiboon could well follow in Adisak’s footsteps. For Ratchanee it is more embarrassing because she realises her brother’s attitude is also a reflection of Thai xenophobia towards a foreigner, even though he is her husband and technically part of the family.

The inbred class system and the importance the Thai gives to family unity also explain why there is no stigma against daughters going into bar work or prostitution to earn money to send home to family. The girl thinks of her family first and is mindful that she is in a sense repaying a debt to her parents for caring for her when she was a child.

Her family will not openly say what her job is but the community will know that the expensive gifts she is showering on relatives and friends does not come from more savoury work. Her looking after her family is seen as all-important. Wearing a western hat and thinking of western principles, foreigners do not always see things the way a Thai does.

When visiting a Thai family, you will be offered water and possibly a meal. Or, at the very least, be asked if you have already eaten. The response is to politely decline. Quite acceptable though to take a small gift of fruit or a snack. Later, it may be weeks in the future, you will receive something in return. Thais are fastidious about reciprocal giving. They do not want to be in your debt (their concept of grengjai).

It is enigmatic of Thais to be both very caring and quite ruthless depending on circumstances. They can be good friends and bad enemies. They will smile and help foreigners, a trait that visitors quickly notice. They will look after their elderly relatives at home and rarely put them in care homes. They would lose face in doing so and it is against all their instincts of being a strong family. If a close relative is in hospital they will stay overnight in the room. Hospitals provide a temporary bed for that purpose.

83-year-old Dta Sompet cycled every evening to his youngest daughter’s shop to stay overnight. She lived alone and had been burgled twice. Filial duty was being repaid. It would have been unthinkable for him not to do so. Everyone in the village appreciated that. At his funeral some years later the whole village turned out to pay their respects to him.

Matt Owens Rees writes on Thais and Thailand and is published with all the main Ebook retailers, including Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Createspace (for hard cover books) and Amazon.

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8 Comments
  1. Ghost of Jit Phoomisak permalink

    Thanks Matt – I’ve lived and worked half my life here (I’m 57* not out) and I found the article above particularly straight forward and clear-sighted. I have always lived alone among the Thais here (usually Bangkok) and my work as a freelance ELT Instructor brings me into contact with them on a friendly basis every day. That and the fact that I generally use public transport or my bicycle, live in a one room apartment like them (albeit not shared) and shop at the local shops and 711. Allow me to observe that my experience has been that once there’s no great language barrier, you’re over the hump of the cultural barrier, with face and animism the two biggest issues – particularly the pernicious nonsense of face, as one has to necessarily accommodate this ‘Curse of Asia’. In any case, wit and bonhomie usually save the day – but sometimes one does have to jump rather than wait for them to get all the ‘face-saving’ ducks lined up.

    Like

    • Matt Owens Rees permalink

      I thought your comments are very perceptive, Mr GConigrave. Face, language, humour. Without an understanding of those one would be lost in Thailand. If you are interested do a free sample download of some of my books and see what you think. Avaialble on Apple, Kobo, B&N, and Amazon etc.

      Thanks again. I thought your comments were spot on.

      Like

      • Matt,

        Thanks – it’s nice to be understood. Could you provide a link ?

        If you’re ever down in Bangers, maybe we could share a small  Sang Som.

        Regards,

        Gaz.

        Please acknowledge MESSAGE READ AND UNDERSTOOD by a quick reply “OK”.                    Thank you for ‘closing the loop’ on this communication.

        ________________________________

        Like

      • Matt Owens Rees permalink

        Probably be in Bangers early next year and would be delighted to share a few sang soms.

        My books are on Apple, Kobo, Barnes&Noble, Sony, and of course Amazon. You can always download a free 20% sample either onto areading device or on to a computer.

        Cheers

        Like

      • Gaz permalink

        I’ll give it a whirl…

        Like

      • Gaz permalink

        …no go, I’m afraid: Perhaps it’s better that way. We could meet at Dasa Book Cafe or at my local shop/bar in Latkrabang: Only one sells Sang Som ;- ) >

        Like

  2. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Reblogged this on Matt.Owens.Rees; Thailand Writer.

    Like

  3. Excellent depiction of Thai life IMO, Matt.
    Two qualms though:
    1. I’m not sure ‘inbred’ is the best way to describe the class system.
    2. I sometimes find Thais willing to open up about cultural mores even when they are not alone with me: But then again, these are usually my neighbors and I’ve usually been drinking with them.
    I remember in a Thai language conversation telling a BKK taxi driver in rather cavalier fashion during one of my rare trips by taxi about 15 years ago, ” BPEN KON THAI LAEW: POOD DAI, YIM DAI.” – to which he added, “GO-HOK DAI DUAY, LEUH?” Yes, we were alone in the taxi.

    Like

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