Farang (n.): a Thai play on “foreigner;” something or someone that is not Thai.
It’s been a while since my last post, but I’m back! I have been waiting for inspiration to strike, and I’ve realized that I have been looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. I have been waiting for something crazy or amazing to happen, yet my days in Thailand have largely been reduced to schedules and routines. Much to my dismay, even on the other side of the world normalcy has a way of creeping in.
What I have forgotten is that traveling and living in a new culture isn’t only about the big “allewah” (Thai for “wtf”) moments, like using your first squat toilet. It’s also about the little moments: the mannerisms, the local jargon, the ways your brain clicks into different thought processes outside of your comfort zone.
I am by no means claiming to be an expert in Thai culture*, but these are a few things I have found helpful for me to not simply exist in a new place, but accept and love this new place as my home.
1. Wai like you mean it.
The wai is the way to greet and thank someone in Thailand. Generally speaking, the wai is done by placing your palms together in a prayer-like position in front of your chest, with a slight bow. However, there are different placements and levels of bowing depending on who you are wai-ing (ex. you would wai a colleague and a monk very differently).
The wai is no joke. I admit, when I first arrived in Thailand I was nervous to wai. It felt cheesy in a way, or almost like I was mocking their culture. I learned quickly that this was not the case; in fact, the opposite is true. By not wai-ing I was being disrespectful.
Now, the wai comes as second nature most of the time. A quick hello and thank you is almost always accompanied by a wai and a slight nod of the head. I am already laughing imagining the awkwardness this habit will bring when I return home; but for now, it’s standard.
If you are curious about the custom, here is a short video posted by my Thai teacher in Hua Hin, Pear.
2. If you’re eating with a fork, you’re doing it wrong.
Get on that spoon game! Almost every traditional Thai meal will be accompanied by a fork and spoon. No knife, although you don’t really need one for most Thai dishes; and contrary to popular belief, no chopsticks. You use your fork to scoop food onto your spoon. For someone who was taught southern table manners relentlessly growing up, this was incredibly awkward to me at first; but now it seems wrong not to scoop everything into my little spoon before taking a bite. The real question here is: why do we eat rice with a fork in America??
3. Speak with your inside voice, then go ten decibels below that.
Thais tend to speak very quietly, and if the aircon or a big fan is on — forget it. Just nod and smile like you heard them. However frustrating this may be, I have found it really is important to follow their lead and watch the volume. When hanging out with a group of westerners, it is easy for the volume to rise to a really disruptive level: Thais usually will avoid confrontation and won’t tell you if they are bothered, but don’t take this as an “okay, carry on” kind of silence. It’s important to be self aware, and, shocker: being obnoxious Americans, like most places outside of America, is a big faux-pas.
4. Pood Thai ka!!
Speak Thai!! This one is a no brainer. While my Thai is still very, very, very lacking, I have found the best and most effective way of feeling comfortable here is to at least try to pick up some Thai lingo. Some of it, like food and numbers, comes naturally just by living in a place. But I have recently challenged myself to try to learn a new Thai word or phrase every day. Fluency is not a very feasible end goal, but the act of trying generally makes locals more trusting and accepting of you, as well as (duh) giving you the ability to communicate. Spoiler alert: most people are not completely fluent in English.
I think the biggest compliment I have received in Thailand was from a street vendor in Chiang Mai: I was trying to speak only Thai with him, and seeing my attempts he said “mai chai farang” (not foreign) and gave me a big ole discount. Yessir!
5. It’s what’s on the outside that counts.
While Thailand can be a very casual place, outward appearance is make or break in here. Clothes do make the man, or in my case, woman. While this doesn’t necessarily apply to tourists here for a quick visit (although airing on the respectful side is always smart), anyone working and actually trying to make a life in Thailand will learn the imperativeness of appropriate dress pretty much anytime you’re outside of your own home. The level of which this is taken seriously is really dependent on where you live, how many westerners and/or tourists are there, as well as how rural it is. But for most places, stick with modest is hottest.
Beyond clothes, outward appearances trump quality of substance in a lot of social constructs here, especially in the Thai school system. But that is another blog for another day.
6. Street food or bust.
I am lucky to live in a town with a very multicultural population; about a quarter of Songkhla is Muslim (much higher than the rest of Thailand, which is 95% Buddhist), and there are also Chinese and Malay minorities. This, as well as a good number of westerners coming through the oil and gas industry here, has turned this little city into quite the melting pot.
The mix of cultures is mostly visible to me through the different types of food available. Trust me, I have tried a lot of restaurants here, but no matter the cultural origin, street food always wins. Not only is it more economical, but it always seems to taste better as well.
I was super worried about street food when I first came to Thailand and avoided it as much as I could. However, after being here a while, you learn that the cart vendors know what they are doing. Most of them have been serving up deliciousness for years, if not generations. They know how to keep food sanitary, they know how much to get for any given day so food isn’t wasted or has time to go bad, and damn they know how to cook. Not to mention, it is a great way to practice your Thai, na ka?
All of that being said, it’s best to stick to the old sage advice go where the locals go. That not only insures that the food is probably delicious, but if there are a lot of people eating there, there’s a lot of turnover so food isn’t sitting out for long. Also, try a bug. Do it for the snap chat.
7. Think In Baht.
Thinking in dollars is a rookie move. At first, everything seems cheap. It’s Thailand! $1.50 for a meal? Give me the whole damn menu! No. No sir. When you live on a Thai salary, it’s imperative to think in baht. Everything is relative, and if you’re constantly comparing and converting numbers, 1. it’s way more confusing, and 2. it totally gives you a false sense of security. I’m now to the point where if something I’m looking at online, or talking to friends from home, I actually convert back to baht. So Thai.
While I can’t speak for everyone, these are the major keys to success I have found here in Thailand. Living in a new place is always a mix of scary, exciting, and amazing at first, but normalcy does happen. What is weird to you is normal to someone else, and the best part of traveling, to me, is that it opens up our hearts and minds to new ways of doing and thinking. Sometimes it’s little things like scooping food up in a spoon and fighting the urge to keep your left hand in your lap throughout a meal (my upbringing does fight me on this, Mom), but it’s the little things that add up and show people of another culture that although you aren’t a part of it, you accept it and respect it.
I’m going to quote one of my favorite travel blogs, World of Wanderlust, because I think it is phrased beautifully:
“To travel is to educate yourself. To appreciate difference and grow to accept the world around you, to be inquisitive but not to question it. To understand other cultures, other religions, other languages, other worlds within the one that we share. It will open your eyes and heart. It will be the change we need in the world.”
As always, I am missing home, but also learning to love my new normal.
Lots of love to my friends and family, it goes without saying that Carolina is always on my mind.
*The title of this post is not me claiming complete and total understanding of Thai culture. If you weren’t forced to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens in eighth grade, then I seriously don’t know how you navigated the peer pressures and life changes that occur during your teen years?!