Saturday, March 24, 2007

Farang Kii Nok!!!!!!

When you hear and comprehend these words as they ring in your ears, you can bask in the glory of an achieved milestone. You are no longer a tourist.

Before I explain what the backhanded compliment or insult actually means, let’s examine each word.

Farang” is actually pronounced “falang”. Thais will tell you it simply means “foreigner”. That’s not the whole picture though, there is actually another word in the Thai dictionary describing anyone of a differing nationality. What the expression “farang” means is a white skinned foreigner. A person of Japanese or Indian appearance is unlikely to be slapped with the same label. So in occidental psyche, the term is discriminatory. In Thai psyche – which is what matters – it’s another case of 'say what you see'. The connotations of racism are not the same here.

Ex-pats will all happily tell you the etymology of the word "farang" – it shows how smart they are, you see? – but the reality is that so many theories exist, nobody knows for sure. The most credible sounding theories I’ve heard are that the term is etymologized from “farangseht”, meaning “French” from the times of French colonialism around, and trade opening within, Siam. The other theory suggests it stems from the derogatory term “barbarian” , which is an old Asian label for us white folk.

Kii” is a word that – as best as I can gauge – is midway between “poo” and “sh*t” for offensiveness and has the same meaning.

Nok” means “bird”.

So if you are Caucasian and you fit the criteria I am about to elucidate on, you are a “bird poo foreigner”.

Come again? I am a what?

Nobody seems to know exactly why the Thais choose to give us such a dubious compliment. Again theories run amok and the best one I’ve heard is the idea that when bird’s "poo" hits the hot ground in Bangkok, it dries on and sticks. You see, a "farang kii nok" in its politest terms is a farang who’s been around so long, he or she (I’ll say “he” from now on, since the vast majority of ex pats are males, now why could that be, hmmmm?) knows his way around. He can understand some Thai, he won’t let the taxi driver circumambulate ten times around the hotel street and he knows that the fried rice should be fifty bhat, not two hundred.

In other words, he’s no longer a tourist. Also – and bear in mind we are still using the word in its kindest terms here – Thais use the expression to test if you actually are at the kii nok stage yet. They’ll mention the very same words to or around you while looking to see if your ears pick up. The real kii nok of course could play double bluff and act dumbfounded whilst listening to hear what else is said after the "kii nok test" appeared to confirm it's safe to gossip.

However the FKN expression is similar to many of the milder swear words in English, it can be used in a friendly way to someone you know well (ala "Dave you old bast**d! How are ya?") or in a very unpleasant way. The other side to FKN terminology depicts the farang as a scrounger, a cheap skate and a reject from their own country. To my knowledge, I've only had this form of the insult hurled at me once though I suspect that the crafty Thais actually have an underling of this meaning every time they utter the words.

The incident in question occurred in my old village. My son was just one month old and needed a lot of sleep. A group of kids insisted on "playing" directly outside my front door from school close time to ten PM every day. "Playing" involved yelling at full volume. Imagine coming home from work each day and listening to a fat kid bawling non stop right outside your front door for six hours. They had been moved there because their own parents didn't want the noise outside their house. Most of them were just normal kids but a couple of the older boys were particularly unpleasant in their words and behaviour (sitting on our car and kicking footballs against it, throwing their rubbish on our garden and even graffiti. Hardly Hitler Youth but still not so nice). After several polite requests were ignored, I asked one boy to stop sitting on my garden door. He ignored me, I told him again in firmer Thai and received the same zero response. I kicked the gate and he left. The next day as I left home I heard a deafening bellow of "FARANG KII NOK!!!" that was so loud a couple of people came out of their houses and one guy, to his credit, reprimanded the foul mouthed kid. Whilst not bothered by the insult itself - I am fortunate enough to earn more than triple the average wage in Bangkok - I was taken aback by the sheer racism and malice of the action.

Similar expressions exist in Thai for other farang behaviour. "Farang kii bon" is "moaning sh*t farang" a title well deserved by many , "Farang kii neow" is "sticky sh*t farang" i.e. a cheap person and so on. However these other expressions can also be used on locals, the "kii nok" is reserved for foreigners only.

Really, the whole "kii nok" thing doesn't cause too much concern. Newcomers still in dreamland - even those who speak Thai - are blissfully unaware and those in the know are too far indoctrinated to be sensitive to it. Many farang use the tag in the same way NWA used the "n" word, they use it on themselves lightheartedly to diminish the offensiveness. "Shall we get a taxi to the club?" "No, let's kii nok it and take the bus".

As with so many things in life, familiarity with Thai culture can take away some of its magic, yet I personally take solace in the knowledge that if the worst thing that happens is that people call me barbarian bird poo in secret, I can live with it.

After all, in the west we say that if a bird defecates on you, you're about to come into some money. There must be a link somewhere........