It is not meant only as a “survival” guide; our hopes are far greater than that. It is written to help individuals maximize the cross-cultural gift that they have been given—to live and work among the Thai people for a significant period of time. This essay is based on my 19 trips to Thailand which p the period 1968 to 2011, from Peace Corps teaching at Thammasat University through two Fulbrights and multiple other teaching, evaluation and research trips.
I have taught International Education and qualitative research classes at The University of Iowa since 1979. In this essay, I will indulge in the kind of generalizations I never allow my students to make. In my classes, I encourage my students to think tentatively and carefully about cross-cultural issues, and make few if any broad conclusions. Here, in the interests of encouraging discussion and giving usable advice, I will risk making general comments about Thai culture. This essay, then, is written less as an academic piece than as a kind of user’s manual. I have asked my colleague and friend Porntip Kanjananiyot to provide commentary from her perspective of being deeply engaged in Thai-American educational exchange work for a number of years. Porntip is currently the Executive Director of the Fulbright program in Thailand. We hope that our discussion back and forth will provide additional insights. ?This article includes advice on language learning, behavior to help you engage in Thai culture, and some responses to issues that you may well encounter with your Thai colleagues and other Thais whom you get to know. ?Opening Advice and Questions?
In general, the more “out there” you can be—learning the language, trying all kinds of food, engaging with all kinds of people (monks, market people, academics, and so on), learning to joke Thai-style (including making jokes about yourself), taking unwarranted compliments without resisting them too much, and so on—the more you will learn about and appreciate various aspects of the “Thai view of the world. ” The “authentic” Thailand is surprisingly close physically to the “tourist” Thailand—it’s just under a bridge or around a corner or down an alley where tourists typically don’ venture. . . r it’s on full display before most tourists typically wake up, like watching the monks make their early morning rounds. Within a relatively short walk from Khaosan Road, the backpacker mecca in Bangkok, there are amulet markets near Thammasat University that are rarely visited by foreigners, where one can venture deeply into the spiritual beliefs of the Thai people. Don’t be afraid to wander (within reason) wherever your curiosity takes you. If you are actively searching for something, cultivating the “treasure hunt mind,” you may well find what you are searching for, or something equally interesting.
Or your quest may bring additional questions about the initial “treasure” you were seeking. For example, if you go to the amulet market in search of a small statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman, you will certainly find many other intriguing deities along the way—all of whom demonstrate incorporation of the Hindu religious figures, and Mahayana Buddhism, in Thai Buddhism. Why is Ganesh so popular in Thailand? Or Kwan Yin (Yao Mae Kuan Im)? With whom are the various deities popular? In many ways, Fulbrighters can benefit from the outlook and skills that qualitative researchers develop; that of the participant observer. You are taking part in the culture that you are trying to understand. ?? PORNTIP COMMENTS: Go out to meet people and you will find that Thai people generally welcome foreigners. Smile with them and show your interest in what they are doing, they will be even friendlier! ?? Learning Thai ?Learn certain basic Thai phrases. Now! Your colleagues may well speak excellent English, but once you are out in the markets, you will need to speak some Thai.
Plus, it’s fun. Develop a specific working vocabulary in Thai. Figure out what phrases you will need on a daily basis and ask a Thai friend to drill you on the pronunciation and tones until they are second nature. This vocabulary should include greetings, directions, numbers, and foods, among other things. ?Yes, clear pronunciation and tones are important. But they can be overemphasized. Speak with conviction. If you speak tentatively, your phrases will tend to go up at the end, like the inflection we use in English, which will confuse your Thai listener.
Speak with your limited vocabulary with an air of confidence and the receiver will have a far better chance of understanding you. They will think that you know more than you actually do, but that’s O. K. You can learn to accept their over-the-top compliments gracefully. Also, your Thai need not be perfect to be understood. We have much to learn from the Thais as “reviewers” of our mispronunciations and tonal goof-ups, patience we could use in similar interactions at home. The Thais go way past half-way to try to figure out what you are trying to communicate.
The fact that you are trying to speak their language is also a clear indication of your cross-cultural sincerity. Thais will often be impressed with your progress because they spend years studying English in school without a great deal of success. Acting things out helps, too. This also works on the cultural level of “sanuk”—you are having fun (and the joke is sort of on you) trying to communicate a specific idea. And when you succeed, it is a cause for joint celebration! Learn these phrases right now:? Kaw bia song kuat (Please bring me two beers) Kaw cowpot moo jon nung (Please bring me a plate of fried rice with pork)? Kaw cowneo maamuang song jon (Please bring me two plates of mango with sticky rice) Some basic food to order: guy young (friend chicken) cowpat moo (fried rice with pork) tom ka guy (coconut soup with chicken) pat thai guy (fried noodles with bean sprouts and chicken) kwitdeo sen yai nua sot (beef noodle soup) kow naa bed (duck with sauce over rice) ky jiow (Thai-style omelet) kao moo dang (pork with red sauce over rice) dom young gung (spicy shrimp soup).?? PORNTIP COMMENTS: One way to learn the Thai language could be through food as Thai people love to offer food. When observing that their foreign guests enjoy it, the Thais could feel even more comfortable to talk with them... and naturally, urge the foreigners to have more food! ?Thais also enjoy listening to foreigners speaking Thai.... even just a few words because they think the Thai language is very difficult so they feel really impressed. Don't feel embarrassed if you make mistakes and your Thai friends start laughing. They know the challenges you have to face with the tones.
Their laughs simply mean your pronunciation is 'narak' (cute). Thai people have patience to listen and try to understand Americans when speaking Thai. American Fulbrighters being in Thailand will be more aware how difficult it is for Thais when they are in the US as quite a number of Americans may not have similar patience. ?? Engaging Thais ?If you want to get below the surface with your Thai friends, engage them on their own terms; choose topics where they can teach you about aspects of Thai culture. Pursue whatever aspects of Thai culture, religion, history (spirit houses?
The Sukhothai period? Some aspects of Buddhism like meditation? ). The point is that you will be in their cultural ballpark. They will appreciate your genuine interest, and this will give you an entree into the Thais’ enormous cultural generosity. They will help you meet interesting people, plan field trips, and so on. Just give them the chance. On one of my Fulbright assignments, I was teaching in Nakorn Prathom. I mentioned to a teacher that I would like to visit Praviharn—the controversial Cambodian wat located on the Thai-Cambodian border—on my last weekend with them.
My Thai friend had never been there before, either. Despite the initial negative reactions from some of the other faculty (It’s too far—the trip will take too long; it’s too hot. . . ), she organized what was a memorable venture to the famous temple. It was a wonderful culminating event for my time with my Thai colleagues—many of whom wound up going and enjoying the trip despite their initial protestations.??? PORNTIP COMMENTS: ?Thai people are really hospitable so they could go out of their way to please you. Ask to see their reaction first and wait to see their next move.
If they are quiet, it could mean they can't accommodate your request.??? Inconsistencies in Thai Culture ?When you are operating in someone else’s culture, inconsistencies seem to abound. This is partly due to the fact that in our own culture, we are too close to things to see what “don’t make sense,” and our initial observations are relatively superficial in Thailand (you know the most during your first two weeks here; then it starts getting much more complicated), and that, at least in my view, there ARE things that don’t seem consistent here. But of course, that is true in all cultures. Take Thai Massage ?Thai culture in general steers around confrontations; in their view the key in human relations is harmony. The focus is on working things out without anger and keeping a cool heart” (Jai Yen) in all social situations. Thais are raised to make others feel welcome, relaxed, and “sanuk” (happy). In the West, of course, our fundamental goal is to make OURSELVES satisfied. Simply put, we are more individually oriented, the Thais more communally oriented. So you might think that when it came to massage, the Thais would offer massage that is soothing, relaxing, comforting. Ha!
Thai massage aggressively confronts the muscles that are stiff or bunched up with elbows and knuckles and knees—boring in on them until they give up their tightness and relax. Sometimes it hurts. O. K. , often it hurts. Where is all this Thai non-confrontation, avoidance of pain and making the other guy feel good? It goes out the window, as far as I can tell. This feels more like American no pain-no gain to me. Of course, it works. But along the way, the attacks on muscle bundles and the stretches are not all that sanuk (fun, in this context). Of course, the pain is meted out with typical Thai humor and grace. Jep Mai? ” (they ask with a chortle). “Jep Maack” (It hurts a lot) I respond, to more chortles. Yes, no pain no gain. ?The Case of Luang Paw Koon? In general, Thai Buddhist monks live a highly disciplined life. They must live by a total of 224 precepts, which provide strict behavioral rules. Like religious groups in all cultures, a few stray in terms of relationships with women and other sins and are tossed out of their temples. But for the most part scandals are rare and monks are respected for their discipline, dignity and wisdom.? Luang Paw Koon is one of the most popular monks in the country.
You often see his picture in the northeast part of Thailand, and frequently in the taxis in Bangkok, many of whose drivers are from the northeast. ?What the pictures show is a smiling monk deliberately flaunting Buddhist conventions, puffing on a cheroot or overtly handling money. He is seated in a squatting position like a northeastern farmer, not cross-legged like a monk. He speaks in the common language of farmers, not in “proper” Thai.? Why is he so popular? Some Thais respect his rebellion, while still demonstrating the key Buddhist tenets of poverty, integrity, honesty and generosity.
Funds given to him are known to go directly to the projects they are given for, most often schools and hospitals. No middlemen. No corruption. I think that is the message of the picture with Luang Paw Koon handling money—“Your donations are safe with me. I will get your donations to their proper destinations. ” Consistency with the principals of a monk’s life? Yes and no. Unconventional? Absolutely. Effective in terms of charity work? This certainly seems to be the case. And a great case for bending the social rules to serve a higher cause. Maybe we all love rebels.??
PORNTIP COMMENTS:? Treat the inconsistencies as surprises and enjoy the learning experiences!??? Short Takes-- ? Watch Thai TV Watch the soap operas, the variety shows, the shows on the monarchy. Ask lots of questions. Before you criticize, think about The Bachelor and Fox News and Two and a Half Men and other stellar representations of our own culture. Thai soap operas present cultural melodramas where actors confront each other and act in ways one would never see in polite Thai society with its emphasis on decorum and harmony. Is it just entertainment?
Cultural wish fulfillment? Ask your friends. ?In general, when things don’t seem to make sense, ask. Find good friends who are absolutely “culturally-insult proof,” who know that your questions may be clumsy and politically incorrect but that your intentions—to understand things a bit better—are pure. These are the people to ask potentially sensitive questions about the “Red Shirts” and the “Yellow Shirts”, and about the monarchy. PORNTIP COMMENTS: ?Soap operas could better your Thai while helping you understand that many times, they don't reflect the 'real' Thai culture.
It could be misleading if viewers take it literally to think that Thai women always go after guys, love screaming and yelling plus slapping others' faces. The way they dress to work is far from being professional either….. as if they went to an evening party even. It may be good to understand that the Thais value 'riab roi' and being very proper (far too formal at times). Perhaps Thai soap is something Thais quietly think the society could loosen up a bit. Be discreet when discussing or asking questions about Monarchy as there are lese majeste charges which could be complicated for you to understand fully.
The conflicts that seem to separate 'yellow shirts' and 'red shirts' are not easy to understand either. The suggestion to find a 'culturally-insult proof' friend sounds great to get to know more about the monarchy and political conflicts. ?? Small Bits of Advice? Take a zillion showers and guzzle water by the gallon. Keep your body temperature down and your internal system happy. When you feel culture shock coming on, retreat. Take some down time. Listen to your iPod. Watch a favorite movie (it is undoubtedly pirated here). No one should try to tackle a foreign culture 24/7.
You will burn out. It’s hot here. And humid. Incredibly humid. And you are constantly on stage. I can’t do one more impromptu speech, explaining who I am and why I am here. It can be exhausting. O. K. , it will be exhausting. Every moment you spend working on your Thai is a move in the right direction culturally. Even the process of learning Thai with your Thai friends has all kinds of cultural learning possibilities.? Take notes of your observations—not for Facebook or to Tweet about so much as for your own record of cultural discovery.
You’ll be able to see how far you have come by the end of your Thai adventure.? Remember that part of your job as a Fulbrighter is to play the role of cultural ambassador, representing your country with integrity here and portraying Thailand with fairness and accuracy to your friends back home. ?Learn to bargain. Again, it’s not so much about the result, which is pretty much predetermined, as it is about your participation in the process, and HOW you participate (with a smile and acting out things—“Oh, man, you’re killing me here! ”). Be a good sport Accept the Thais’ overwhelming generosity.
They are happy to have you here. We are conditioned to be suspicious of others’ generosity, and it’s a tough assumption to get over.? Sometimes conversations are just exercises in enjoyable social banter, without a “punch line. ” You talk about the weather, family, where you are going. . . just for the sake of the pleasant conversation. In our culture, we are used to seeking the “point. ” ? Develop a short introduction in Thai that explains who you are and why you are here in Thailand. Saying that you are an “achjan” (a teacher/professor) explains a lot.
This will be very helpful, so that people know who you are, how long you will be here, and so on. It puts everyone at ease. ?Never divide up the bill at the restaurant. The most senior person will “liang. ” It’s the Thai cultural law. Hierarchies define the nature of power in relationships in Thailand; royalty over commoners, men over women (women cannot be ordained as monks in Thailand), and age over youth. By the way, the best way to reciprocate in terms of food is to buy candy or fruit to share with your Thai colleagues on your trips together. This is perfectly acceptable, and appreciated.
Never assume that your English is being understood by your students. Slow down. Ask them lots of questions. Be patient; Thai students are used to lecture-style classrooms. Tell stories. Keep them with you (on topic). Try to relate your topics to Thailand, Thai applications of things, even if it is a stretch. Joke around a bit. Show that you can “take” a joke—tell one on yourself. Lighten up and the Thais will appreciate it and your communication will be far better. Over-serious classrooms are over-rated. Always share what you are eating. (That can’t be over-emphasized. Wherever you are living, establish your own little village; people you see and fuss over every day, like the noodle folks, the flower lady, the 7-11 folks, and your favorite night market vendors. The substance of the conversation is not the issue, it’s the attention. Simply remarking on the sweetness of the oranges (waan maach! ) or commenting on the heat (always safe) is fine. With just a bit of friendly banter it becomes “your neighborhood,” a little like Norm walking into “Cheers. ” I have found these simple, smiling conversations are a source of “friendly energy” I can enjoy every day.
Banter begets banter which makes you feel more at home. Get in shape! Many Thai temples are located on the top of hills. And just maintaining your energy levels in this heat takes some oomph. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate and learn from various aspects of this religion. Remember, the Buddha said that you should only apply the aspects of Buddhism to your life until after you have experimented with them and they seem to make sense to you personally. There is no pressure to believe in an overarching philosophy; just a big, broad display of spiritual and practical ideas to experiment with and learn from.
Sort of like the experience of living in Thailand itself.?? PORNTIP COMMENTS:? Even though the more senior Thais will buy you meals almost every time, you may wish to offer to do it in return once in a while. It might not work but that generous offer will be appreciated. Buying some kanoms or some little gifts to give to the more senior and friends would be a nice gesture to show your thoughtfulness. Thai students love learning by listening so storytelling is the good way to attract their attention and it's fun while keeping them focused and remember what they've heard.
It could be difficult to have some deep discussions with quite a number of Thais but don't lose hope. Sometimes, it's just because of the language. Other times it could be because Thai people aren't used to expressing their ideas extensively unless they feel very close to the persons. Having discussions with Thais regularly will also help Thais think and interact faster too. Enjoy learning about Buddhism in a practical way….. by understanding ‘the middle path’, it helps you ponder upon ways to balance your life. Learning how to meditate would simply lead you to have some peaceful moments.