Just how “farang” shouldn’t I be?

P1060702 When I write these entries, I also post a link to them on my Facebook account because I have many friends who don’t regularly read my blog.  (As opposed to the many regular readers of this blog who have become friends.)  On Saturday I wrote an entry about this little boy, pictured right, playing on a sidewalk while his father operated very loud construction equipment nearby. 

I wrote that two of the questions crossing my mind were why the boy was sitting there and why nobody had any hearing protection on.  I didn’t rail against the injustices of the situation, demand that Thailand change, or harumph about how superior things are in the west.  I simply wrote that those were questions that crossed my mind.

You can perhaps imagine my surprise when I received the following comment on Facebook from a former Thai language classmate of mine, a European man with whom I studied around December 2005:

“How long have you been living in Thailand?  I am amazed that you are still thinking like a novice farang.  Let Thailand be Thai.”

I’m not sure what qualifies my thinking as that of “a novice farang” nor what I did to suggest that Thailand shouldn’t be Thai.  Was I being culturally insensitive to suggest that the loud noise could cause hearing damage to the young child and his father?  Was I being too “western” to wonder why they didn’t have any hearing protection on?

It seems to me that concern over the wellbeing of people, especially children, is a pretty universal value and not one that I should grow out of the longer I live here.  Maybe there is another stage of thinking after novice farang: “jaded expat”.  The jaded expat sees the lives and wellbeing of the locals as disposable commodities since he won’t be living here in five, ten, twenty years to deal with the long-term effects.

What are your thoughts?


Letter to Dear Abby

Dear Khun Abby,

I am a farang (foreigner) living as an ex-pat in Bangkok, Thailand with my Thai partner of nearly eight years.  In the time we’ve been together, I’ve made a lot of effort to try to understand the Thai culture, including learning to speak, read and write the language, and be aware of and sensitive to the customs, manners, etiquette and social expectations of Thais. 

While I know that it can take a lifetime to really learn another culture, I think I’ve done a pretty good job learning and applying what I’ve learned.  I base this on “Thais tell Thais” feedback, where other Thais have complimented my partner on my manners, appropriate behavior, etc.

But this isn’t about me, Khun Abby.  Living here, I’ve met many other farang, both in relationships and looking for relationships.  Many of them have had success in learning the culture, too, and make a lot of effort to be sensitive to Thai expectations.  But there are also many times when I observe some of them do things that are taboo, impolite, or unrefined by Thai standards.

At first, I thought this was just haughty arrogance on my part.  “I’m better than they are” type of thinking.  But the “Thais tell Thais” network suggests there is more to it than that.  The Thais in our social group comment on some of the things they do.  Even their own partners comment about it in a “oh, well, what can you do?” sort of way.

Some of the things are pretty minor – table manners, for example – while others are a bit more important and involve language use and interpersonal communication.  But all these actions reflect on them and, in a society that values the concept of “face” so highly, the actions reflect on their partners and potential partners.

Khun Abby, what do I do – or do I do anything – to make other farang aware of these standards, manners and expectations?  I know that they have the best of intentions and aren’t doing these things on purpose, but I also know that I’ll come across as either prissy or a know-it-all if I try to gently mention these things. 

“Let a Thai tell them,” you say?  Maybe, except that one of the tantamount aspects of Thai culture is not to cause others to lose face, so it is better just to smile away the conflict than to confront it.

Thank you for any advice you can provide.

Khap khun khrap,

Caring in Khrunghtep