Going Native in Thailand

An expression often used during the colonial period was “going native”. It referred to the people who forgot the ways of their home country and started to behave like the natives. It was meant as a derogatory term as if Western educated people were of a higher class and standing. To “go native” meant to behave like someone from your host country. For example, accept the customs, attend their religious events, and even to dress like the local people. These days, it would be insulting to our hosts if we referred to them as the “natives”. However, people still use this term. In fact, an expat living in the city of Pattaya recently told the readers on his nightlife blog that I had “gone native”.

This Westerner blogger, who incidentally posts anonymously, had this to say about one of my blogs; “If you want to look like a complete farang goof, then follow the fashion tips from Richard Barrow at Thai Blogs. He’s one of those ridiculous white guys you always cringe at as they parade around in color-coordinated lockstep with the natives.” He didn’t like the idea of me wearing yellow on Mondays or pink on Tuesdays. He knew I was doing it to honour the King, but my actions embarrassed him. To be honest, I would prefer not to wear pink but as a teacher, it has long been part of our uniform. I didn’t really want to wear yellow the very first time that it became fashionable. It was way too bright for me. But, you do get used to it. And if everyone else around you is doing the same, then it becomes much easier. I know the Thai people certainly appreciate it when you show respect and admiration for their King in this way.

I wasn’t really bothered by this “gone native” label that had been given to me by someone who lived in the seaside resort of Pattaya. If anything, it was good as it made me stop and evaluate my life and actions in Thailand. I think it is true to an extent that the longer you stay here the more you become integrated into the Thai way of life. I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to do some of the things I do. It just felt right at the time and now that I do them so often, it just comes to me so naturally. Like many other Westerners in Thailand, I respect the Thai culture and try to behave in a fit and proper manner. As they say in Thailand, “When in the land of the people who wink, you should wink too!”

When I enter houses I will automatically take off my shoes. I will also be careful to step over the threshold as to not offend the spirits of the house. I will give a respectful “wai” to the elders of the house. I will dip my head when I walk past them and will never step over someone if they are lying down. When I sit down, I will make sure that I don’t stretch out my legs or cross them so that the sole of my foot is pointing to anyone. I will offer and receive things from them with my right hand. I will speak calmly without getting bothered about events around me. When I walk down the street I will do so in a relaxed and calm way even if I am late for an appointment.

When I go to a temple I will also act in a respectful manner. I am not saying that I will act completely like a Thai as Buddhism is not my religion. But, I do behave in a manner that will not cause embarrassment to anyone. At my local temples, where I often go to photograph different events, I do make a point of giving a “wai” to the monks that I know or before I speak to them. However, I do not prostrate at their feet three times. When I sometimes attend a chanting session or a sermon, I will sit in a respectful manner if I am not taking pictures. However, I do not sit there with my hands together in a prayer like gesture. It is not my religion. I know other Westerners might do this, but it is their personal choice. It is between them and their god. Thai people can already see from the way I act when taking pictures at the temple that I have the greatest respect for their culture and religion.

Some Westerners might go a step further by wearing a loincloth or fisherman’s pants which seem to be so popular with foreign backpackers. Depending on the setting, I think this is perfectly alright. It is certainly more comfortable in the weather conditions. But, I would never do something like this in the area where I live as people are more “westernized”. As I live in a city close to Bangkok, most people wear clothing much the same as in Europe. Though, I do still find it strange when I see kids and sometimes adults going to the local 7’Eleven wearing pajamas. I cannot see myself doing that. In fact, I cannot even if I wanted to. As a teacher, and therefore a respected member of the community, I have to dress and behave properly at all times. It is like I am on duty all the time. It is only when I go into Bangkok that I can relax as I can be anonymous amongst all the other foreigners.

I guess we notice these subtle changes in ourselves when we go back to our home country for a holiday. On the London Underground or even just walking down the street, everyone acts differently. They walk fast with their arms swinging. They sit on the seats with their feet up on the opposite chair. If there are no seats left, they also sit on the floor with their legs stretched out, forcing you to step over them. They talk loudly or just sit there in silence with no smile on their face. Children seem naughtier and run around screaming and bringing attention to themselves. Parents join in with the chaos by shouting at them and hitting them across the face. After every dose of “culture shock” that I got when I returned to the UK, it was always nice to go back “home” to Thailand.

Even if you can still use the term “going native” these days, I don’t really think I have “gone native”. I have certainly changed and adapted to my surroundings. But, I am still British in my upbringing. Much to the amusement of Thais, I still say “thank you” to the cashier at 7’Eleven and even to the bus driver when I get off the bus. I do also like eating an English breakfast of egg and bacon or corn flakes with milk. I like my cup of tea in the afternoon and prefer to watch a BBC drama or comedy rather than a soap on Channel 7. But, unlike many of the expats who stay on Sukhumwit Road or in Pattaya, I do not live in a sanitized capsule of Westernization. Those places are more like European countries where Thai people and their language seem to be a minority. I think in order to survive here you do need to integrate to a certain extent. You do need to become a little “Thai” otherwise you will go crazy and become one of those letter writers to the Bangkok Post who always complain and compare everything. When that happens, it is time to go home.

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