Thursday, February 23, 2006

Your Know You're a Thai Redneck When....

(below) From America: redneck jacuzzi
Most Americans are familiar with Jeff Foxworthy's redneck jokes. They poke good-natured fun at country people in the USA. Example: "You know you're a redneck if that billboard that says "Say 'no' to crack" reminds you to pull up your jeans." Rural people seem to enjoy them the most, because they can laugh at themselves.

Well, redneck jokes have now hit the Thailand expat community. Some guys blend in so well with the upcountry rural culture (especially guys who marry Thai wives from rural areas) that other expats are making fun of them. To quote one of my internet friends, "This is all for fun and should not be taken seriously. I love Thailand and the Thai people. This is just another way to express my love for their culture. " So here goes....

You know you're a Thai redneck if...

...If your idea of vehicle air bag safety is having your lady sit on the front of your motorbike.

....if your food tastes better when you eat on the floor sitting on newspapers

...if you consider owning a buffalo as a good investment

...if you don't use toilet paper [JD's note: that's only for fancy Bangkok people]

...if the one and ONLY bottle of medicine you have at home cures every single illness known to man.

...if your whole family sits on the floor eating your meal--when visiting a KFC or MacDonald's in Bangkok.

...if you use two 1-baht coins as tweezers.

...if you can't sleep because that chicken in the next room just won't shut up.

...if you carefully avoid the dog sleeping in the middle of the street but prefer hit-and-run for humans.

...if your idea of lawn ornaments are the empty plastic bags blown off the highway.

...if you haven't done the dishes in hot water for the last five years.

...if you can eat any dish consisting of 50% hot chili peppers without heart failure.

...if your idea of a traffic jam is two motorbikes waiting for the buffalo to finish his business in the middle of the dirt road.

...if your only morning alarm clock is the regular 4:30am mosquito attack.

...if you prefer the "Burning Garbage" aroma as your choice of spray can air freshener.

...if the back end and the front end of your pickup truck are held together by scrap wood.

...if your idea of "dining out" is moving from the inside floor to a grass mat outside the front door.

...if you use para* as cologne.

*(para: very popular condiment made from fermented fish and condensed into a paste. Quite a stimulant to the olfactory senses!)

At the least these should give you a tongue-in-cheek flavor for upcountry life!

[Acknowledgement: adapted from forum]

And in closing, from America again...

(To my Thai friends: Some people who live out in the country in the USA live in small metal homes on wheels. When they are this small, we call it a "travel trailer." Its purpose is for travel, but some people live in them as a permanent home.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

How to Wai Your "Hi" in Thai

One of the first things you learn in this culture is the physical act of greeting called the wai. Actually, in addition to greeting, the wai has many, many other uses: expressing appreciation, leave-taking, showing honor, serious apologies, etc. Looks simple, huh? Easy as waving "hi," huh?

Think again!

The hands. It's more than just flat hands held against each other. The wai is supposed to represent a lotus bud, which also figures prominently in Thai culture. Therefore, the hands are ever so slightly cupped to give that "bud" appearance. The kids in the picture above are still in training, so don't mimic them. You need a more rounded look to your hands position. The guy below has it right.

The vertical position of hands. Depending on the status of the person to whom you are wai-ing, you demonstrate the appropriate honor by the height of your wai. This is a bit tricky. You also have to take into account your own status. So many factors come into play here: age, position, relationship, economic status, social status, etc. You have to roll it all into one and then demonstrate your wai to match the situation.

The lowest wai is with the tips of the fingers at about mid-chest level. The highest wai, given to the King, are hands and arms way above the head with head and neck bent backward at a very awkward angle. Then, there's a half-dozen positions in between these extremes: tips of fingers at chin, at mouth, at bottom of nose, at top of nose, mid-forehead, etc.

The position of the head. While doing the wai there are variations from keeping your head unbent, to a deep Japanese-style bow. Which do you use? The more head-movement downward, the greater honor being given. It's all part of that status thing. As if that wasn't enough, then there's....

The timing. It's important who does the wai first. I've been admonished more than once on this point. My first month in Thailand, I had heard how important the wai was, so I was going to be sure NOT to forget it! My secret was to show it to everyone, all the time--and to show my enthusiasm for their culture by jumping the gun and doing it first. I went around, doing the wai to up-line status, down-line status, trees, dogs and cats. I thought everyone's giggle was from their delight. No, it was because I looked ridiculous. I was totally unaware of the "timing" angle. Now, I know to let down-line status individuals wai to me first. However, I need to be quick-thinking to initiate the wai to up-line status persons, lest I offend them.

Get it right, and you earn the approval and pleasure of the person you seek to honor. Get it wrong, and you risk embarrassing, or at worst, insulting the other person. Fortunately, we foreigners are granted, what I call "farang's license" to mess up. Just the effort is appreciated. However, if you've been in Thailand for some years, it's expected that you'll stop being a dunce and start getting it right!

OK, start practicing, class! The quiz is on Friday. Flunk the quiz? Lose your visa. Pass the quiz? Earn a Thai's undying appreciation for taking the time to learn his or her culture!

Ronald MacDonald
gets into the wai.
Anything to sell those Big Macs.

And not to be left out,
The Michelin Tire Man
show's his cultural
sensitivity as well.

The world's most polite
crocodiles reside in Thailand.
(At the gates of my local village's

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


For a blog or diary writer, the danger of living in a new culture too long is that things become commonplace. Every so often, I have to startle myself into remembering what it was like the first time I saw or experienced something new in Thailand, in order to capture the uniqueness of it all.

The campus police force is one of those now-commonplace, but once-startling experiences. They're a sharp looking bunch: most of them former military guys in their early 30's, physically fit, short haircuts, ram-rod straight posture, and the over all bearing of a soldier. Their dark-blue uniforms, modest insignias, and shin-high military boots complete a pretty convincing picture. I would guess most of them are getting more experience for the next step in their career, the national police force, which is quite a coveted and powerful position in Thai society.

Imagine the first time I was rushing to class along a breezeway and came face to face with one of these military types. He stopped dead in his tracks, drew up to his full height, loudly clicked the heels of his spit-shined boots together, and gave a smart salute, edge of open hand to forehead, and elbow held high. I also stopped dead in my tracks--not to acknowledge him, but to look behind me to see if the Prime Minister of Thailand was in tow. No one there. I turned back to him, and judging by the eye-to-eye contact, it dawned--slowly dawned--upon me that this gesture was intended for yours truly.

Now, mind you, no one has ever saluted me in my life--except for an insulting salute by a smart-alec junior high kid in an American school who was mocking my authority. The difference: while the middle-school brat had a sneer on his face, Mr. Campus Policeman had one of those "Yes Sir!" expressions I've only seen in World War II movies. I wasn't sure whether to lead the charge or search in my book bag for another medal to pin to his uniform. Not sure how to lead a charge, nor having any medals, I opted for a Thai wai (folded hands in front of my chin and slight bow), and continued on my way--just a bit flustered.

Big mistake.

Someone who saw the brief interchange upbraided me at a later time. "Ajarn (Professor) JD, did I see you giving a wai to the campus policeman this morning?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Didn't you notice his embarrassment?"

"No, I just wai'd and quickly walked on. Why was he embarrassed? Was I supposed to salute back?"

"Not really. As a university teacher in our culture, you really shouldn't acknowledge or show deference to a campus police officer. You should just continue on, as if he wasn't there."

Oh really? The first time in my life I felt like The Commander in Chief of Something, and I'm just supposed to pretend it didn't happen? Bummer. Such is the vertical society of Thailand. In the horizontal society of the USA we take delight in "all are created equal." In Thailand, we're supposed to take delight in "We all know our place in the hierarchy of society."

Years later, I suddenly realize I get that formal military-style, heel-clicking salute several times a week. However, now it's almost a non-event. It's as normal as tying my shoes every morning. I really don't feel "more important." It hasn't gone to my head.* It's just another normal manifestation of a society that values a carefully defined social ladder.

I said almost a non-event. OK, I cheat just a little. I'm still a farang (foreigner) and I still can't help returning just a little twinkle in my eye and a slight smile.

At best, I think he knows it's still a bit novel for the foreign teacher to get such treatment.
At worse, the other possibility is that he still wants a reaction out of me like that on the first day--not the wai, but that searching look over my shoulder for Mr. Prime Minister.
At worst, I might be the private joke among the Campus Police.

*The next time I return home to the USA for a visit, I would prefer all of you at the airport to line up in a reasonably straight line, stand at attention, and execute a respectful salute as I exit customs with my bags. No sneers. Thank you. [Update, 2011: Apparently my instructions were ignored last visit.]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Teaching in Thailand: Newbie Tips

First Year Experiences...

Three years ago, I stepped into a Thai-Isaan classroom full of unmotivated 15-year-old students who could hardly say "My name is..." in English. I could speak absolutely no Thai beyond "sawadee krap" (hello) which I murdered so badly I had best remained silent. At the outset, they were petrified from fear, and so was I.

By accident, I happened upon a technique which serves me well to this day. After several fruitless false starts, it hit upon me one day to ask the students to become my teachers--to teach me their language. In my neck of the woods, it's the Isaan folk language (a derivative of Lao). Because their folk language is somewhat frowned upon in "proper Thai society," they were dumbstruck that not only a farang was asking them to be his teacher, but that he didn't ask to be taught "proper Thai."

Almost as if by magic, these cowering students displayed an unbelievable confidence which bordered on delight as they reallized they could teach the intimidating foreign teacher something he didn't know. In the process, I slipped in the equivalent English terms, basically teaching English by stealth.

It became a game of competitive learning between me and the students. We both did a lot of acting, drawing pictures on the board, playing games, etc. Weekly, we took walks around the school campus, them "teaching me" about the flora, fauna, Buddhist statues, parts of the motorcycle, features of a building, etc. I would "just happen" to mention the English equivalents at every stop, and they started trying to imitate it.

For one thing, they learned how much slower language comes for a 50-ish student than a middle-school student. My defeats became their delights as they "bested" me nearly every day by remembering the English faster than I could remember the Isaan terms. In the end, I know they learned a lot more English than I learned Isaan.

Yes, I did get some disapproving stares from Thai English teachers who were futilely drilling their kids on English grammar, but I know we were defintely having more fun. And, any teacher worth their salt knows that, in a relaxed atmosphere, the doors to comprehension and retention get thrown wide open. At the end of the year, their kids knew more English grammar rules, but my kids could speak it. Which would you take?

Of course, the cleverest students caught on to what I was doing, but still enjoyed the charade. For the rest of them, probably for years, I'll be remembered at that school as the English-speaking farang who came to learn their folk language. Lingering reputation notwithstanding, I'm a pragmatist. Whatever works, do it.

These days, teaching upper-level English majors, and master’s degree students at a large Thai university, I still fall back on the “old trick.” When I see that deer-in-the-headlights look of bewilderment or failed confidence, I just ask, “Now what’s that equivalent Thai/Isaan word?” Some clever student always comes to my rescue with the native term, and--“bingo”--class equilibrium is magically restored as well as a term gets unequivocally defined in the minds of the students.

My college professors always said you should be a lifelong student, but never knew how handy it would come in at the professor's podium!