A Simple Guide To Thailand
The Importance Of A Smile
You may be wondering why this is the first thing. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to smile in this country. Most of us can’t speak Thai and most Thai people can’t speak English. So if language is not an option then our only form of communication is with body language.
What is the significance of a smile?
There have been numerous studies that show when people engage and smile the person being smiled at will feel more comfortable right away. Even if they’ve never met you before and you’re a complete stranger. Scientist believe the need to connect with one another is apart of our evolutionary history. Being that survival was much more likely when we, as humans combined forces. We’ve adopted the smile as a way to signal friendliness even if you’re not!
Smiling shows people that you’re a friendly person.
For the most part smiling can make the transition from familiar to strange a lot easier. One of my biggest mistakes when first traveling to Thailand was that I simply didn’t smile enough. I’ve been told enough by Thai’s and expats that I look very unfriendly when I don’t smile. Go figure eh? The black guy looks unfriendly right…
I’m not saying cheese your freaking brains out. Just know that a smile can be the simple connection you make with a stranger that doesn’t speak English.
Why Wai and When?
When you’re new to Thailand most of what you’ll learn will be on the internet and from other people who are already situated. I was told by other foreign teachers to “Wai everybody!”. I took that advice in the most literal sense and would wai everyone from cashiers at 7-eleven to my 12 year old students. I can only imagine what they thought. Probably something along the lines of “Ahahaha silly foreigner!”.
It wasn’t until I had it explained to me by a Thai that performing a wai to everyone is just like performing it to no one. You have to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not necessary.
Examples of Appropriate times to wai:
- Formally Greeting Thai guest and co-workers in a professional environment.
- Showing respect to an elder or someone of higher status(i.e. director, manager, etc.)
- Formally saying hello and bye.
If you wai someone who is of “higher status” don’t expect them wai back. The wai is an act of humbling one’s self to a revered other. When I first started teaching I remember trying to wai some Thai teachers and they would simply look at me and keep walking. Thinking to myself, “WTF?” I stopped doing it all together.
I associate the wai with the gesture of saying “hello” or “hi”. If someone says hi to you and you just walk pass them, then you can bet that’s the last time they’ll try to talk to you. Am I alone in this logic? It took time but through my observations I realized it was something more apart of the culture than it was a personal thing. So just know that societal standards have shaped the elder to feel “above” you as they should. Wisdom comes with age. That’s why if you ever watched any anime cartoons when you were younger then you may of noticed how the older a character was the stronger they were. It’s almost the same in real life(metaphorically speaking).
Leave your Western Standards at the front door
If you’re eating at locally owned establishment you might notice some things that would get any business in the west shut down. I’m talking flies, grime and poorly cooked food. It comes with the territory and it’s all apart of the experience. Before I go any further I just want to say that 99% of the time the food is absolutely on point. I’ve had some bad experiences but I mostly blame that on my early on adventurous save money eat cheap attitude.
I once ordered pork with vegetables and when i got my plate the veggies were still frozen!! When I asked to have the food re-heated you could feel a dip in the positive atmosphere. It was like I crossed a line in Thai etiquette. They remade my food but it was still wasn’t thoroughly cooked. The food was hot on the outside and still frozen on the inside. At that point I just paid for the dish and left. The owner of the restaurant followed us outside and apologized telling us that the restaurant was brand new and there still working some things out.
I may have been within good reason to bring the plate back but what I’ve learned is Thai’s are very un-confrontational. I think social confrontation here is always highly frowned upon. It may be that it’s seen as an attempt to embarrass.
Body language is a big enough cue to let them know that something isn’t right. The mere act of just not eating my food and asking to pay for it would of been enough to let them know that something was wrong. The fact that I made them acknowledge something was wrong was a problem in itself.
At the end of the day your meals at family/locally owned businesses will at most run you 40 to 100 baht a dish. Just let it go. If it bothers you so much just pay for your meal and order something else. They’ll definitely get the picture. For a lot of Thai’s food is a more than just a meal, it’s a passion so try to be mindful to that.
Prepare for the double-standards
I love to talk about this one. It makes sense that preference is given to the locals. It’s their homeland after all. Don’t be surprised when you start to witness the double-standards with regards to foreigners and Thais. At school we were told not to wear polos because it would be seen as rude. Fair enough right? The Thais have asked us not to wear polos anymore so we won’t. Except about 2 days later when we came to school. We saw the very teacher in our office who told us not to wear a polo casually sporting one. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? Who knows…
(Polos are the perfect medium between staying cool and comfortable but still looking professional. Dress shirts can be a nightmare in this hot weather.)
It was later clarified by our coordinator that this request only applied to the foreigners…
Another time when our new office was built the Thais told us not to eat in the office. They said if we eat food in the office it would smell up the place. Well low and behold a week or so later Thai teachers, in numbers, were eating their meals in the office. I think it went without saying that they knew telling us not to eat in the office was kind of wierd. I mean were in a country where a common question to ask is “Did you eat today?”. Thai people love their food and it is something they plan their days around.
You’re always expected to pay more. There is just something about being a foreigner and the assumption that you have money. I think the mere fact that some expats brag about how they don’t have to pay the “farang price” is testament to the issue that many people do have to pay this inflated cost.
Many street vendors don’t advertise prices. This is by no doubt done tactically on their part. They literally size you up and estimate how much you’d be willing to pay. I know this sounds illegal but what’s illegal for us in most cases isn’t illegal for Thais(that’s for part 2). I mean… It is illegal but, who’s going to do something about it? The Police?
One time I was shopping for a pair of electric clippers in Pratunam Market. My friend told me about a street vendor that sold good clippers for 400 baht. The lady had no idea that I knew how much she sold it to my friend for.
When I greeted her I pointed to the box of clippers and looked at her with a questioning gaze. She said, “900 baht” and I laughed and told her I’d pay 400 baht and she smiled and responded with “Okay!”. Imagine, how many people do you think just pay the initial quote?
Sadly where ever you’re a strange face you can expect people to try and get what ever they can out of you. It’s like a conveyer belt really because they don’t expect you to come back. They really rely on one-time business transactions. They’re business model is geared toward the next customer not loyalty. So don’t feel offended if you feel like you’re not getting the customer service you deserve.
Racial stereotypes are a factor of tv,books,movies,history and broad generalizations. Now for the most part a majority of the people in Thailand have not seen many black Americans(we’re a novelty :)). Most of black people I’ve seen and met come from African countries like Nigeria and Cameroon. This is why at first glance most Thai’s think I’m from an African country.
As humans we know it’s wrong but we just can’t help it but pre-judge people. In the book ‘Blink‘ by Malcom Gladwell, there is a thorough investigation through countless psychological experiments that basically says we’re all racist deep down inside(I know no one wants to hear that…).
Truth, beauty and intelligence is associated with white-skin in Thailand. So we know the good thing about it but what about the negative sides? Some examples could be…
- You’re expected to have money and not be cheap.
- If you’re from South Africa you’ll confuse the hell out of Thais.
- You’re more likely to be targeted for scams because they think you have money.
When we’re out in the city the little kids who are employed as beggars by their parents always come to my white friends for money. It’s plain to see that there is a association of money with white skin. I can tell you too that they absolutely hate it!
What about Black skin?
- Black skin is least desired in general but there’s a interesting reason behind that. the psychological association of skin color and profession has played a key-role in that thinking. Darker Thais work hard in the hot sun for low wages while the light-skin Thais work in air-conditioned offices and got paid more.
- People are a bit apprehensive because they’re some stigmas that come along with being black.
- You’ll confuse the hell out of some people when you tell them your from a western country.
I think socially Thailand has come far enough where these things don’t really matter. I’m just taking a simple approach to discussing this topic. If you’ve read any of my past articles then you know that you’re politically correct thinking will be your downfall here. People are going to talk about you and address you as “black” and they’re going to stare. That’s about it, don’t let it get to you. I was told by a girl that Thai’s have been calling black people, ” kuhn Dam”(black person) for a long time now and there’s no racial animosity behind it. When you start to learn some Thai you’ll realize that, Thai language for the most part has very very basic literal translations into English. Ex. ” Pom bai hong nam” What it really means is “I go room water” aka “I’m going to the bathroom”.
I know what I said about black skin seems rather negative but I think it’s appropriate to not create this fairytale like setting. It could happen in any country and not all Thai people feel this way as I’ve met plenty of people who are very Americanized. The Hip-hop scene in Thailand is becoming more apart of pop-culture too. I’ve met Thai girls who love black men as well as Thai guys who love black women. I just think as a whole or in general that the common thinking is a bit more aligned with the general population. You’ll be fine I promise.
Time is the best medicine and over time we can show people who we really are with our actions. Thanks for reading and please share this if you found it helpful. Unless you don’t like sharing stuff.