the power of wai

Posted: March 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Every once in a while as you travel through another country you will experience xenophobia or  racism. It can come from the old guard, the young, from a crowd or an individual. Thailand is such a country that despite having hundreds of thousands of foreigner visitors a day and millions a year pass through the international airport Thai’s have still not completely come to grips with having ‘farang’ among them.

There are still section’s of Bangkok that rarely see any foreign visitors so that farang are an anomaly to the youngsters. There are a great many area’s of Thailand where individual villagers have never seen a foreigner. In this respect Thailand is still a young and primarily rural  country, isolated from the rest of the world  except for the financial elite who attend foreign universities and can afford frequent international travel.

Like  every country Thai’s are also told that they are the greatest people of all time. I was on a cross town bus recently where an inebriated soldier insisted that I know this with his limited but acceptable English. He also showed me a few of his Ranger moves for dispatching an enemy with an imaginary  knife, which was weird cool. Nationalist propaganda and jingoism is nothing new in nations large and small. Local boosterism is apparent in many European communities as well as in North America. Italians do it with colourful banners and rippling flags during inter city horse races around the town square, Americans do it with football games and cheer-leading.

The last time I was ‘befriended’ by any Thai military types was in the north where a group of young soldiers in a cafe directed me at gunpoint to drink with them. They then  proceeded to tell me jokes in Thai, none of which I understood of course. I waited them out, drunks are predictable, but i digress.  By the way, the stern conductress on the bus was more than a match for my soldier friend and put him into a seat with a word and a look that would have certainly put me in my place had she directed her ire towards me.

Community leaders of all countries sell these attitudes to the people for a variety of reasons, commercial, political  and patriotic. I would suppose it has been found that people who think they are living in the best place on Earth are less likely to revolt would be one reason. I come from such a place, Vancouver Canada which is bombastic about it’s ‘feel good’ campaign  about it’s being the ‘most livable city on the planet’. Of course it’s not true, but enough people believe it to support the political dogma long enough for a sitting government to complete it’s mandate and retire fat on a civic pension.

‘Farang’ by the way is a bastardization of the French word for ‘French people, ‘francais’. The French were the first westerners to introduce themselves to the Thai and as a consequence all foreigners became ”falangset’.  Due to the differance in vowels and consonants between the pronunciation of these two languages , ‘fa-lang.sey’, now shortened to farang stuck. It can be a general description of anyone foreign, or it can be used, and often is, as a derogatory inference to someone’s unwelcome strangeness as being  non Thai. It has also become a swear word as in ‘ f’u*king farang’, which is an odd adaptation to the Thai language as it is a mash of both English and French, two things the Thai user would be trying to defame.

Can we describe Thai as a tribal society? I think this is an apt description of Thai society generally as it is definatley an ‘us and them’ environment for those of us on the ground. We foreigners are paying guests  never welcomed to stay. Every long term resident will tell you how difficult it is to stay in the country and the rigorous procedure necessary to do so, even with the proper visa’s.

You are made to know that the government eyes you with suspicion and demands that you present yourself at the police station every ninety days regardless of how low you’ve been in the country. As a foreigner your legal rights are indistinct and right to own property non existent. There is a perception that farang are the equivalent of second class citizens in Thailand. Actions by the government lead common people to perceive a government policy as one of public disrespect.

Thai culture is all about respecting others so when they see that a certain group  treated without respect by the elite there is a feeling that everyone can do so. When farang are overcharged for services normally free or double and triple charged for entrance into public venues it is sometimes misinterpreted by Thai’s that it’s OK to double and triple charge their guests. I do not intend to make a statement on government policy. I simply state that it does not set a good example if a host disrespects his guest. When I don’t like something I am free to vote with my wallet and leave. There are plenty of nice places in the world to live comfortably for the winter.

And so , in my round-a-bout way I come to the true meaning of my story. I consider myself  an ‘old Asia hand’ and treat every circumstance as an opportunity to learn new things about my host country. While I was sitting in a McDonald’s today I noticed that I was being ‘eye-balled’ by a group of older men. Each had a studied look of disdain on his faces while looking at me and I heard the word ‘farang’ passing around the table.  I reacted to the situation as if it were a bit of surreal social kabuki theater playing out for my entertainment. As one had begun,  others joined in. I knew that these were men who had been indoctrinated by social and military forces from an early and would possess very few thoughts of their own on the subject of foreigners .

I was a stranger in their midst and out of a tribal reaction towards instinctual solidarity I fit the bill as ‘the odd man out’. Individually each wanted to let their friends know that they were  proud  ‘Thai’ by hoisting the flag of xenophobia and racism over the golden arches. My few semesters of university psych and my years of ‘on the road’ experience told me I should engage these men from an angle where I knew their greatest vulnerability lay. I know I shouldn’t play these ‘ghost in the mind’ games on people that are sometimes mere puppies in a basket. I am after all a professional observer, but sometimes I think I am also teaching the people around me with a life lesson about the greater world which surrounds them.

I met the stares knowing what was behind the affront and performed a perfect ‘wai’, the traditional hand-pressing denoting Buddhist culture and mutual respect. Over the years I have learned to mimic the gestures of my hosts perfectly. I knew these  older men are so conditioned to respond that they fell like domino’s,    unable to disrespect their own supreme cultural gesture, even though performed by a ‘farang’.

The  looks on the faces of these gentlemen told me they knew they had been bested by an expert routard and cultural ambassador at large. When I left smiling I noted that my smile was being grudgingly returned. After the flags are pulled own, we’re all just people. In this case we were all old men with little to argue over and less time to do it. Try a little tenderness next time you are confronted with a strange cultural dichotomy. You may be surprised at the outcome.

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