Many things in Thailand have been influenced by the western world yet the expat will find that he experiences a little of what is known as Thailand culture shock. In spite of the western commercialism brought into this country over the years, Thai culture still remains strong and always will. Here are some important facets of their culture that you, as an expat, must understand. Understanding will make a better quality of life for you and your family while living here.
Respect the Royal Thai Family
The first aspect of Thai culture that you must understand is that Thais hold admiration and the utmost respect for the King of Thailand and his family. Never disrespect the Royal Family and never make any derogatory or critical comments about them. And yes, you can be arrested for showing disrespect. Many a foreigner has even found himself sitting in confinement because of disrespect to the Royal Family.
For some living here, the biggest Thai culture shock is getting used to being called “farang”. This word is used to refer to someone who is Caucasian. It is also the same Thai word for the fruit guava and is part of the Thai word for French fries. Some take it offensively but it is not meant that way by a Thai. If you want to enjoy your stay here, get accustomed to the fact that no matter where you go you will always be a farang and people will usually be fascinated with you (which means they will stare and try to practice their English with you).
The wai is the gesture used in Thailand to greet people, pay respects, and thank others. Other places in the world, people shake hands but this is rarely done in Thailand. At first, the wai takes a little getting used to in order to do it properly. And, there are times when it is inappropriate to initiate a wai. The basic form of the gesture is to hold the hands together as if praying. With the palms touching each other and fingers pointing upward like a lotus, the head is bowed slightly to touch the fingertips. The wai is also held close to the body.
A mistake made by foreigners upon first arriving to Thailand is to initiate a wai to everyone. You should never initiate a wai to a service-type of person such as a waitress in a restaurant. Only wai a service-type person if that person first gives you the wai. You should also never initiate a wai to a person who is younger than you or a subordinate. However, remember to initiate a wai to those in a higher social status and those who are older than you. Doing the wai among peers is fine.
While westerners will openly wear shorts and tank tops in warm climates, it is inappropriate to wear such attire anywhere other than the beach in cities like Bangkok. Wearing this attire in the city will cause Thai culture shock but it will be towards you—they will be shocked at your culture. You will find that Thais are very conservative in their standards of dress.
Thai Family Relations
Unlike the west where families tend to live separated by many miles, Thai families believe in the unity and cohesion. Thus, you will often see family gatherings that are quite large. You will also see that many family members might live under the same roof or have their houses all near each other.
Thais are non-confrontational therefore it is inappropriate to show emotions such as anger or irritation. Those from western cultures are not used to this because in these cultures it is quite common to openly express dissatisfaction with something like slow service.
General Thai Conduct
There are generally accepted standards of conduct that at first cause a little Thai culture shock. First, there are cultural norms concerning touching. In Thailand, outward displays of affection are frowned upon. The most you will typically see is couples holding hands.
On the topic of touching, you must never touch the top of a Thai person’s head. Thai’s consider this part of the body sacred and will take offense to your gesture. Also, women must be careful to never touch a monk.
Never stand over a Thai person. In some social situations, Thais like to sit on the floor. If you find yourself standing over another Thai person, don’t do it for long. You should also never walk over a Thai sitting on the floor. Take care to walk around.
Always remove your shoes before entering a Thai house. In fact, it is a good idea to get into the habit of removing your shoes before entering anyone’s home here. You must also remove your shoes prior to entering a temple or around a Buddhist shrine.
One aspect of the Thai language that could be a source of Thai culture shock is putting the ending khrub or ka at the end of sentences when speaking. It is considered polite and speaking without it can be taken as rude. Males put khrub at the end of sentences and females use ka. These two words can also be used as a “yes” answer. It never hurts to get some instruction in Thai language while you are here.
Ladyboys The Third Gender
One of the sights that have a tendency to shock a few expats arriving here is the sight of the “kathoey” or lady boy. In the western world, they would be referred to as “transgendered”. There’s no need to be shocked. These are thought of as the third gender in Thailand and are generally accepted by Thai people. You will often find them as wait staff in outdoor Thai restaurants or working in retail establishments.
Mai Pen Rai
A phrase you will often hear in Thailand is “mai pen rai” or “it is of no matter” in English. You will find that Thais have this outlook in many situations and it can also contribute to Thai culture shock for the expat. Is the traffic bad? Mai pen rai. Did someone cut in line? Mai pen rai. Is it taking too long to fill a food order? Mai pen rai.
Westerners tend to get irritated about practically any inconvenience and oftentimes have difficulty adjusting to mai pen rai ways. Mai pen rai can also show up as frequent tardiness to appointments and last minute cancellations. The expat living here must learn to adapt or frustration will soon set in.
Of course with driving, it seems that all bets are off when it comes to mai pen rai. However, considering the traffic situation in cities like Bangkok, not even mai pen rai can cure the frustration. However, never take it personal if someone honks their horn while behind you. Just say, “mai pen rai”.
A common source for culture shock among expat men after arriving here is seeing the cleaning lady in the men’s toilet. Pay it no mind because she certainly isn’t paying any attention to you. She only has a job to do: keep the toilet clean.
As a final note, you and your family will benefit from enrolling and taking a Thai culture class when you first start living here. These classes cover all aspects of the culture and norms in this country. By educating yourself in advance, you can minimize Thai culture shock and thoroughly enjoy your stay here.