Being An Expat (part two).
The Cultural Aspect
The holidaymaker is probably not always as aware of the vast cultural differences that exist between Asia and, let’s say, Britain or the West in general, whereas the expat is obliged to learn as much as he can as soon as he can. This is more important in rural areas than in the cities, because many country folk don’t know anything about foreigners and have probably never met one.
The cultural differences between us are masked, or played down, to a large extent in the cities for the sake of the holidaymaker, but in the villages it’s all they know. This doesn’t mean that they take offense easily, but as an expat, you don’t want to be the constant cause of uneasiness either.
I could give you many examples of cultural differences, but here are a few.
While learning Thai, I discovered that different ranks of people sometimes have special words. This alone is truly alien to us, but ordinary people ‘keen khao’, monks ‘chan khao’ and the king ‘savoy khao’ – all mean ‘eat rice’. So one night before a load of guests, I said: ‘Jao mai keen khao’ (the king doesn’t eat rice). No reaction, just a stony glare, so I repeated it.
‘Oh, yes, he does,’ challenged one old man, ‘he eats it every day!’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘jao savoy khao!’
The only reaction I got was a kick in the shin under the table from my wife. ‘Don’t ever talk about the king like that in public again,’ she warned.’ If these weren’t friends, they might have beaten you up for saying that’. It is much safer not to talk about the king.
I know a guy who stopped a coin that someone had dropped by stepping on it, and instead of gratitude got a slap for stamping on the king’s head.
Most people say I speak Thai reasonably well (except my wife who tells the truth, because most Thais are flatterers), but that respect soon dissipates when I say I’ve been here ten years. That alone proves that we expats are expected to try to learn, whereas holidaymakers are not.
Westerners often offend the dress cultural code too. Young men are the worst, walking around shirtless just because it’s hot (but really to try to impress the girls). T-shirts with short arms are OK, but vests (singlets) are not. In general, the less skin you expose the better in nice Thai society.
And last but not least, food. While it is culturally acceptable to leave the rice in a restaurant, doing so in someone’s home is like taking the filling out of a plate of sandwiches and sending the bread back – imagine if one of your guests ever did that to you 🙂
All the best,
Podcast: Being An Expat (part two): Cultural Aspect