By Alice Ailes, Teacher in Tak, Thailand
What is the thing you like most about Thai culture?
Honestly, there are so many wonderful things to love about Thai culture but what has really stood out to me is how endlessly generous Thai people are! It is such a lovely aspect of their culture and makes you feel so welcome and integrated. From my students and colleagues to my local laundry service lady, Thai people have shown so much generosity and warmth through big and small acts of kindness to me. Being part of a collectivist society is a unique and special experience.
Have you been in any awkward situations where you have done something culturally inappropriate?
Hmm, I really hope not! I feel like I have tried extra hard to be aware of my actions in Thailand. However, one thing my friends made me aware of was that beckoning a person over with your hand requires a different action to what we use back home. Apparently this action that we use in the UK is for dogs, and to beckon a *person* over in Thailand, you must do the same action but with your fingers pointing downwards and moving towards you. This is a handy one to know when calling your kids up to the front of the class!
What parts of Thai culture have shocked you the most?
For me, it was just how prevalent and rich their culture still is. In the UK we don’t really have as many visible cultural traditions anymore. But in Thailand the respect that people show so earnestly to one another is very interesting and refreshing and can be seen all the time through the ‘wai’ (the palms-together bow) and other body language. The omnipresence of the Royal Family and Buddha is also something that was initially very unfamiliar to me, as well as the twice-daily National Anthem observation.
Are there many similarities between Thai culture and the culture of the country you come from?
It almost seems a bit unfair to compare Thailand’s massively vibrant and traditional culture to the UK’s not-so-visible culture. Nothing strikes me as being particularly similar, but maybe the British politeness could be seen slightly in the Thai approach of not letting yourself or someone else ‘lose face’.
Has it been difficult adjusting to a different culture?
I’d be lying if I said it was really easy to adjust to the culture but it is also a very enlightening and eye-opening process. For the first few weeks you do have to stay aware in social situations to make sure you ‘wai’ people in the correct way, or to not show the bottom of your feet when you’re sat down. But I promise it does soon become second nature and Thai people always hugely appreciate the effort of a foreigner integrating into their culture.
What is the one thing you would tell someone about Thai culture who is coming to Thailand for the first time?
I would say just embrace the culture as much as you can, it’s so rich and unique. But also, be patient. The Thai way of life can be far more laid-back to what we’re used to in the west, so services can sometimes run on their own make-shift schedule and paperwork can often be left to the last minute. That’s not to say that things don’t get done though! Despite the more easygoing pace of things, everything always has a way of working out well in the end. And it actually leaves you with a much more relaxed and laid-back attitude to life! Trust the process.
Have you been speaking any Thai?
In fact, yes I have really enjoyed speaking and learning a bit of Thai! It’s been extremely helpful to know a few phrases to help me get by in my city of Tak. A few simple phrases go a long way with the locals. You’ll be surprised how much you pick up when you’re immersed in the language 24/7!
Are you finding it easy or difficult to get by without being fluent in Thai, and why?
At times it can be quite frustrating not being able to make yourself fully understood or be able to understand. That’s why Google Translate will be your best friend! When you do manage to have a short interaction fully in Thai it is a very fulfilling feeling though! Practise what you’ve picked up and you’ll put a smile on people’s faces!