You only have to stay in Thailand a short while before you start picking up an often heard word which is “farang”. In any other country it would be seen as a racial slur as it refers to white faced foreigners. People from India or Japan have other names. But, Thai people use it to group together a certain group of foreigners. They even refer to the language we speak as “passar farang” which of course is nonsense. We not only have very different cultures, but also many different languages too. They almost have a childlike innocence about this. They don’t see themselves as being racial nor do they see it as being derogatory. However, if I say to them that grouping us altogether is like us saying to them that they are Lao or Cambodian – which of course upsets them a lot.
It doesn’t really bother me much these days as there isn’t really much you can do about it. At my school, the students have been told that it is not respectful to refer to the foreign teachers as farang. They shouldn’t also use this word with visitors to our school. We teach them that there is a proper Thai word for foreigner which should be used instead. I do sometimes hear them using the proper word on t.v. but quite often the commentators resort to using farang instead. I just look at them as being uneducated which is quite often true. The people who use the word farang with me a lot are the Thais that haven’t traveled much, don’t understand about racial harmony and really do believe that out there, there is a place called “farangland”.
A few months back, the three year old son of my next door neighbour used to call out “farang, farang” whenever I passed or when he wanted to attract my attention. His parents know my real name but didn’t do anything to correct him. As I am a teacher it is not really respectful for a child to do like this. At the very least, he should say Khun Farang or Khru Farang. Then, when the child of the neighbours on the other side started going to kindergarten at my school things started to change. This four year old girl would greet me with a “wai” and always said “Khru Richard”. Her parents always insisted on that. Now the three year old boy is copying her example.
When I am walking around Paknam or taking pictures at local events I don’t hear anyone say farang. In fact, most people pretend not to take any notice of me. We are close enough to Bangkok that they want to be seen to be familiar with worldly events and with people from around the workd. But, as soon as I go to a province away from the tourist trail then things change. I don’t want to call them “hicks” but I do hear some really strange comments. The thing is, they talk about me right in front of my face. They obviously don’t realize that there is a growing number of foreigners who can speak, read and write Thai. Here are some of the comments I have heard:
“Don’t look now but there is a farang following behind us.”
“Look, look! A farang.”
“Why is that farang taking a picture?”
“Look at that farang’s shoes. His feet are so big.”
“What is that farang doing here? He must be lost.”
“What is he eating? Look, look, the farang is eating som tam.”
I never get angry when I hear some of their rather silly and stupid comments. I just turn around and give them a big smile. Some just say, “Look that farang is smiling at us.” Others realize I understood what they said and they then smile themselves in an embarrassed way. They then quickly whisper to their friends that the farang can speak Thai. Last week I was buying some ice cream from a roadside vendor at a local event. A young woman with her boyfriend looked at me and told him in a loud voice that the farang is buying an ice cream. So, I just turned to her and said, “What’s wrong, have you never seen a farang buy an ice cream before?” She of course was embarrassed. I just kept smiling at her.
On the radio station I was listening to this morning, they had a show called “Sawatdee Farang”. It is in English and is aimed at foreign expats. I usually just change the channel when I hear it come on. But, what is stranger is hearing foreigners refer to each other as farang. There was also a foreign owned magazine called “Farang” which thankfully folded. I know a lot of people who don’t mind the word farang. Like me, they have long realized that there isn’t much you can do about it. But, there are quite a few people who get upset. They argue that in many other countries you can get arrested for grouping people together in racial groups. But, then, this is Thailand and even if you were born here and speak fluent Thai, you will still be a farang if you have a white face.
Many Thais tell me that they don’t mean anything bad when they call foreigners farang. But, I am not sure how true that is. Not long ago, I had a letter from a Thai person who had gone to school in America. His letter was rather insulting and wanted to criticize me for some work that I had done. He used a lot of swear words in English but he also said “you whitey” very often. That was basically his translation of farang. And believe me, he wanted to insult me. He was trying to make it clear that I wasn’t Thai and that I would never understand Thai culture or the Thai way of life because I am just a farang.
There was another incident that has happened to me a couple of times. Other people have reported the same thing. A couple of months ago I was on the back of a songtaew which is a local public bus. Sitting across from me was a mother and her one year old child on her lap who was crying. I didn’t really pay any attention and just sat there and minded my own business. But the the mother said to the child, “If you don’t stop crying, you can go over and sit with the farang.” It was like saying to your child, if you don’t behave, the bogeyman will come and get you! As this has happened several times, I cannot see much hope for future generations if parents are still teaching their children to be frightened of foreigners.
I guess things will gradually change as more and more foreigners come to live and work in Thailand. In particular, once more Thai people see them speaking Thai then that will only be beneficial for the rest of us. If you are out and about in Thailand then please try and not act like a “farang”. Act properly and have good manners. And, if you hear someone call out “You, you farang!” then just smile back and keep walking. They often don’t mean anything bad about it and are just trying to be friendly.