Hi-lo Society in Thailand

We talk a lot in these blogs and on the forums about how the farang (white faced foreigners) should adapt their thoughts and lifestyles in order to fit in with Thai society. The temptation of newcomers is somehow to “modernize” some of the Thai ways of life which they deem to be antiquated or demeaning. I must admit I have been guilty of doing this myself. I remember my early days of teaching when the students would come up to my desk on their knees or bow their body as they walked past me. I was quite shocked and uncomfortable about the level of deference they were showing me. I tried to get them to stop. I thought I was liberating them, but I only ended up watering down Thai culture so it became a mish-mash of Thai and Western cultures.

Now I understand more than ever how important it is to preserve Thai culture from the influences of the West. Things that might work in your home country just won’t work here. The Thai culture is too deeply ingrained into their way of life. So, these days, I let the students get onto their knees when they ask permission to come back into the classroom. I allow them to stand up and say thank you to me at the end of my lessons. I understand now that the students are not necessarily showing respect to me personally, but to the position I hold. Teachers in Thai society are given a lot of respect. In my local community, a parent would tell their child to wai me even if they don’t go to my school. They are paying respect to my profession, and as a teacher I need to act accordingly. I feel I have a responsibility to my fellow teachers not to let them down.

Having said that, you do see some Thai people abusing their position of power. They know that people should pay them the greatest amount of respect and they don’t seem to care whether they deserve it or not. Like any society around the world, you will find Thailand full of contradictions which will confuse newbies. I am going to finish my blog today with a final extract from the excellent book “Thailand Fever”. At the bottom of this blog I will let you know how you can win yourself a copy of this book!

High and Low: Superiors and Inferiors

How does it make you feel when someone is showered with respect simply because of his age, his job title, the wealth he inherited, or the family into which he was born? If you are like most Westerners, you probably won’t feel that he deserves any respect from you unless you get to know him and find that he actually did something himself to deserve it.

How about when your boss at work, your teacher at school, a police officer, or your mother-in-law at home talks down to you, excludes you, or ignores what you say? Unless you’re in the military, it probably annoys you whenever someone acts as if they are higher than you. It may even make you uncomfortable when someone else bows down and “kisses up” to you.

These scenarios, which Westerners like us might sum up with the negative terms, “blind respect” and “rank pulling,” are perfectly normal to a Thai. In fact, many Thais believe they are part of a natural and beneficial system that holds society together.

Like it or not, the Thai universe is fundamentally hierarchical. Every person assumes a rank in that universe relative to other people or categories of people, albeit a fluid rank. From a very young age, Thais are raised to show gestures of respects to anyone in a higher category. For example, you bow to parents, older family members, teachers and monks – even ones you don’t know – as a way to honour their role in raising their children, imparting knowledge, teaching morals, or otherwise contributing to society.

This sense of hierarchy is ingrained in Thai culture. The theme of “high” and “low”, “superior” and “inferior,” pervades the language and culture. It comes naturally to Thais, but you are going to have to get used to it, as it affects how you should treat your partner’s family members, your servants, and even your children.

Source: “Thailand Fever” by Chris Pirazzi and Vitida Vasant

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Next weekend, we will be announcing the name of one lucky reader who will be receiving a copy of Thailand Fever. The competition is kindly sponsored by Thai Hypermarket. All you have to do is answer this simple question:

QUESTION: What does “nam jai” mean in English?

Send your answer to my email address by next Friday.

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