Culturally, Building A Better Understanding

The following blog/article was published in The Nation newspaper last Saturday. Here below, however, is the originally un-edited submission)

(Just a bitta innocent fun? Schoolgirls dressed-up as Nazis for their annual Sports Day)

In this glorious day and age of global education and communications, it has been widely hoped that a greater understanding between peoples of different races and cultures will appear.

Some very nice travelers before they set foot in Thailand, have a quick browse in their guidebooks or over the Internet about all those wonderful Dos and Don’ts of coming to Thailand and perhaps even catch up a bit on the Kingdom’s history. Alas though, there are others who are far too lazy to research any such things and can be viewed instead sat at the back of a Tuk-Tuk, with his muddy sandals planted on top of the driver’s head-rest. While the Farang is totally oblivious to any cultural violations, the driver is shaking his fist in the air complaining aloud at the complete lack of disrespect shown and just waiting to socket the tourist on the nose at the next red-light.

There has been much said and written about certain foreigners to Thailand and their lack of cultural understandings but not much vice-versa. There was however, the much publicized event of last week when a fancy Bangkok school decided it quite innovative to have 200 or so of their lovely little darlings kitted out, for their annual Sport’s Day, in some kind of German Nazi-style storm-trooping attire while carrying plastic rifles and parading around their playground doing a ‘Seig Heil’ salute. Rightly so, much criticism was unleashed against the teachers in charge, but this kind of scenario does indeed say a lot about the Thai education system. A system which hardly bothers teaching anything about modern history at all.

Besides just the Holocaust getting very little mention in any educational text book, you aren’t exactly gonna find that much else on even very recent relevant Asian history such as the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge, China’s invasion of Tibet or America’s Vietnam. As for Japan’s occupation of Thailand during the Second World War, well for some weird reason that hardly gets a mention whatsoever. In fact, history classes in Thai schools on the subject of wars, are nothing much apart from the same old glorious battles which Thailand fought and won hundreds of years ago, especially against the dreaded Burmese. This lack of anything positive taught about Myanmar has been reflected quite clearly of late, while a lot of folk have been completely indifferent to any of the streetly absurdities over there, just mention the word ‘Burma’ to a bunch of school kids and you can expect a pack of laughs in response. On the other hand though, it has to be said that most Western kids are totally naïve too to innumerable historical shambles and are also the victims of ‘subjective teachings’.

(Just a bitta fun? Wearing a nice pair of Adidas Buddha sneakers)

Going back to the above Sport’s Day fiasco, many a foreigner will rightly claim that the Swastika is actually Hindu in origin (The Thai greeting ‘Sawasdee’ originates from the word) and so Thais can be forgiven for their lack of cultural sensitivity in respects to the Westerner’s connotation of that sign. In fact, there is plenty of Swastika paraphernalia on offer in Bangkok’s Weekend Market. Then again, the land’s clothes market stalls are blatantly full of quite offensive English language t-shirts bearing well-known four-letter words plastered on the front which would have your dear grandfather spitting out his false teeth in shock and horror. Foreigners are readily taught in their guidebooks to Thailand to be culturally sensitive, but unfortunately Thai kids are not taught by their teachers, television or the Cultural Ministry that perhaps wearing a thumbs-up t-shirt with a big mug shot of Osama bin Laden on the front is not suitable attire for wearing anywhere, not just New York.

Turn the tables on the Thais however, and do as a couple of infamous Western companies have done of late – produce Buddha g-strings, dog jackets and sports shoes and the Thai Press and the Cultural Ministry will be up in arms delivering letters of well-worded complaints to respective embassies calling on their authorities to take immediate action against such cultural insult. Perhaps, there will come a day soon, when some local African societies start filing complaints against how some of their ‘coloured folk’ are portrayed on Thai television, movies and especially commercials and advertisements.

Although a lot of Westerners come here complete naïve to ‘cultural differences’, it’s quite funny how the locals expect Farangs, especially those here for a longer period of time, to act just like them (when it suits them like). Pop into a fried chicken Western fast food haunt and there is a decent chance your Thai colleague or friend will be teaching you to ‘do as the locals do’ and eat your darned chicken in a more culturally sensitive manner and not attack it like some under-nourished leper. Bite your nails like an English football supporter and you will be advised that only such behaviour is carried out by drug addicted junkies. Complain to one of your staff about any incompetence and you will be told quietly that such straight-talking is definitely Un-Thai. I mean the poor geezer doesn’t need to lose face – regardless to whether you own the so-called ‘international’ company.

(Just a bitta innocent fun? Students at Richard’s school welcoming a foreign visitor!)

Then, for those Caucasians in a relationship with a local – go to a temple with your partner and unless you copy-cat her religious beliefs she may feel that you are ‘culturally insensitive’. Then, if you are a beer drinker and prefer large bottles you will certainly be informed by your sweetheart to drink the thing from a glass and not the bottle – as such intricate behaviour will indicate your alcoholic tendencies. And whatever you do, just don’t say anything sarcastic to your mother-in-law if you find out that she has decided to sell off that nice TV set you just bought her two weeks back. Again, you don’t want anyone losing severe face. On the other hand though, as a Farang husband, there will be obvious times when you will be expected to adhere to all the wonderful manly Caucasian traits which she loves you for – ‘unlike most local guys’ you will stay at home, work hard and be completely faithful to her.

One very ironic place to find Westerners taught and conditioned to behave very like their Thai counterparts is in the land’s educational English language teaching classrooms. Now, if you are budding Farang wishing to strike it lucky and be a successful teacher in Thailand, it doesn’t matter how dysfunctional you are in the classroom. Just make sure, you have an exceptionally neat hair-cut, get rid-of that hairy moustache, take part in any teacher ceremony even though you may find it altogether Draconian-like and beyond a doubt – ‘wai’ every Thai teacher in sight. Moreover, according to enlightened authorities-in-charge, it has now been deemed culturally correct, in order to receive one of those blessed teacher’s licenses, that you pass a ‘Thai Cultural Test’. To be classified fit to teach English you may have to correctly answer some hazardous question along the lines of “What is Somtum?” a. A traditional-Thai dance b. Water-throwing festivities c. A typical Thai sport d. Spicy papaya salad.

Let the Sport’s Day event of late, be a lesson to the Thai Education authorities to open their eyes too, to the teaching of global cultural correctness and perhaps enforce a few mandatory world history lessons to be actually taught in the classrooms. And just as foreigners need to be when they come to Thailand, the locals too ought to be just that little bit more sensitive about other folk’s cultures, mentalities and ways of life.

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