Thursday, January 18, 2007

Thai ideas about farangs

In my old blog, I once made a post about a time I negotiated with a motorbike taxi driver. Motorbike taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok and Thailand in general. The bright shirted drivers are the salt of society, and have no problem risking their neck and yours by driving at breakneck speeds around the cities. Due to their visibility and social standing, motorbike drivers provide a good insight into Thai city culture and ideas.

So, my translated conversation went like this:

"I want to go to the bpaak soi" (literally "soi mouth" it means the end of the street)

"Oh you want the airport?"

" No I want bpaak soi"

"No no! You want to go to the airport" [Looks at the other drivers and grins like a five year old]

So after clarification I got on the bike, as the bike was speeding away the driver yelled back to his friends "He's going to see his Isaan wife"

So at the end of the road I got off the bike and onto a bus. The fare collecter basically Judo threw me into my seat - foreigner beating is a favourite pastime of many bus conducters - a group of teenagers at the back sighted me and began telling "farang" jokes while another girl turned to her friend and said aloud "Why is there a farang on the bus?"

In the short journey between my work and my home, these people had all exposed the Thai ideas and attitudes towards foreigners.

Thais can be very hard to shake from their ideas. They sometimes resist any attempts or evidence to challenge their own beliefs. To start, they don't understand why any farang would get on the bus. After all, they're all rich so they can take a taxi every day, right? Likewise, the vast majority of motorbike and car taxi drivers believe that all farangs want to go to the airport or downtown. They find it hard to understand why they would want to go anywhere else. Ditto, they believe that most foreigners are married to Thai woman from the north east region, known as Isaan. This is the poorest region of Thailand.

And right there at the pillar of the belief system is the golden rule: foreigners can't speak Thai. That's why you can speak freely about a foreigner, even in their presence. Let me illustrate a perfect example in point: Two days ago I walked into a pharmacist to buy milk for my son. The girl that served me was talking to the other staff while she served.

Remember, I was standing right next to them throughout this conversation

"Is this the same farang who came in last time?"

"Yes I think so. He buys milk for his son. Boonyai said he's married already."

[At this point I was tempted to interject to say that Boonyai was was telling a pork pie lie, she had no clue if I was married or not since I didn't know her. I kept silent though, to follow the conversation]

"So he's married already? That's bad luck"

"Yes "
"How old do you think he is? He looks very young"

"I don't know. What do you think?"

"I don't know"

I stood amused but bemused, wondering if this was how it felt to be like that kid in the Sixth Sense movie. I collected my change, said "Thank you" in English and left.

Of course, this can all be fun. Foreigners should expect to become acquainted with the Thai ideology of foreigners which for the most part is innocent and peaceful. The only time I've been remotely offended by a conversation I've overheard concerning me was when a woman on the bus complained that my feet stank. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the streotypical ideas are often right. Most foreigners can't speak Thai , most white folk do want to be taken downtown or to the airport in a cab and the number of westerners married to northern women is high.

The only dark side to this can be the predominately Asian - as opposed to Siamese - idea that Asian woman with western men are prostitutes. I'm not conscious of ever experiencing discrimination against my wife and I for this fallacy but I have known others - usually men with notably younger wives - experience public abuse directed at him and his wife. If this happens to you, you'll do well to swallow your rage and laugh at the morons directing the abuse. Many a would be hero has squared off to a local to find out that same local has ten friends with pool cues ready to show how tough they are. Believe me, it can happen and you'll be no good to your wife or girlfriend if defending her honour lands you in the nearest medical facility.

Still, those cases are scarce and take second place to the good natured or sometimes just plain daft ideas about foreigners.

The old saying that stereotypes are half true is redeemed in this case. So if you plan to stick around in Thailand, be prepared to roll with the punches. The locals enjoy their farang jokes.


Muay Thai fan?

I mentioned Tony Jaa a while back. The good news for his fans - and Thai movies in general - is that he is making two new movies this year and both are expected to do well in the states. I hope the movies do well. Tony Jaa is a great martial artist and a decent actor who stays close to his Thai roots. The kid deserves his success.

I note some sites billing "Tom Yam Goong" as the sequal to "Ong Bak". It isn't. The sequal is due out this year.

My hit ratio is rising again. Welcome to any newcomers and please feel free to comment and tell me if I'm right or wrong. Don't take the grumbling too seriously, I love Thailand and I love teaching.

I've been looking at other blogs and many are superior but others fall into the "Indiana Jones syndrome" meaning they become so exhilarated by their travels they rave about themselves like heros and forget it's not so exciting for those reading it.


TryThai! said...


I liked your comments about Thais' and what they say - I understand a lot - but a lot still gets past me. It IS funny to listen in when they think you haven't got a clue. I've been here a couple years, I have a clue - but not mastered Thai yet by any means.

I'm enjoying your blog - you recently left some comments on mine so I decided to check yours out - very nice. I like your writing style - down to earth, not exaggerated and easy to read. PERFECT! Keep it up! There are SO FEW blogs worth even looking at - let alone reading consistently. I think I'll like yours. I'll link to some of your stuff as I find it - thanks for the good reads! - Vern

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but you're understanding of Thai culture needs a little way to go yet; allow me to try.

Thai instinct is to play the fool with the foreigner and if they are not sure to test you out by playing the fool and make erroneous observations or responses. So the next time you hear yourself being discussed in a personal manner you can assume that they know perfectly well that you speak Thai and are trying to gauge HOW much you know so they can use slang or dialect to overcome this.

When you say left and they ask right. When you say up and they point down. When you say 'you' and they say 'who me', when you say rice and they say noodles, then you might reconsider that you are having your leg pulled. It's a great way to extract how good your Thai is out of you (knowledge is power)

Try this. Never talk Thai unless it's evident that your help is needed and if you do need help like ordering food or something and the responses feel deliberately obstructive. Try using the same language back: Who me? What there (pointing in the wrong direction), what now? etc etc. Actually once you do this you get the famous Thai smile but do remember there are 20 or so names for Thai smiles and most are synthetic.

This country did not open the gates and let the Japanese in after the second world war and suffer the shame of 'comfort women' for very good reasons and I assure you they played willing but dumb for those invaders too.

Don't believe me? Test out what I said. the 'who me' is the classic starter. The worst offenders are those with exposure to the Westerners. The most rural folk are simply brilliant and rarely play these games. They are sweet and unspoiled by the contamination of greed that we have brought to this culture.

Red and White said...

Interesting, I had never stopped to consider that the whole thing could be one big conspiracy, with people that I have never met let alone spoken to before “knowing full well” I understand Thai. Likewise, I had no idea that the Thais “played dumb” for the Japanese invaders too, all the history books I read said it was because the Japanese had Thailand surrounded and the corrupt Phibun Songkhram allowed them occupation. I guess the Free Thai Movement weren’t in on the plan? Still thanks for the lesson in Thai Culture, next time I’ll be aware it’s all a matrix style conspiracy.

Mark George said...

That's quite a lesson in Thai culture given by Anonymous. Doesn't ring true to my experience, but perhaps in his circle.

Thais talk all the time assuming I don't understand their language, sometimes getting a little frustrated when it seems they might not close a deal due to lack of communication. They're always so surprised when I open my mouth and utter a few perfectly pronounced words of Thai. My vocabulary is limited but my pronunciation is quite good (thanks to a strict teacher). Judging by most Thais reactions they really don't expect most foreigners to understand any Thai language.

Dan said...

"wondering if this was how it felt to be like that kid in the Sixth Sense movie"

Bookmarked. :)

i don't know if i like Thais said...

Some Thais are good while some are not but most of my experience most of them have the bad attitude like gossipers, arrogant and doesn't know how to listen to the other suggestion by farangs teacher.
i am an English Teacher to a Thai school but i can't able to speak phasathai but i can understand just a little bit of their language but they don't know about it. One day, i experience.., they are talking about me that my pronunciation are not good in English and sometimes they are correcting me in my "serious" in filipino and "seriat" in thai accents which is absolutely wrong, right? and the big problem there is, those people who corrected me have no knowledge how to speak english but they know how to correct me??that thing is very ridiculous, how can we teach such thai if they are arrogant..., haaaayyy!!! and i know and i feel they are saying bad not in my back but exactly in front of me because they don't know that i can able to understand phasa thai..., this is a very ridiculous bad attitude of thai which i hate most but still out of 10 people in my surroundings, there is one thai girl i like because she understand me...