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.]


Linda said...

Greetings from a fellow American expat. Teaching in Bangkok. Have been here 6 of the last 8 years. I am going to enjoy working through your blog.

Linda (lindern at gmail.com)

JD said...

Welcome to my blog, Linda!

I'm sure it'll be interesting comparing notes between teaching in The Big Mango,and upcountry!

trangam said...

I think it would be ok for you to slightly smile back everytime. I small twist in culture will not hurt anyone, I am certain. That is of course if the person is doing a fine job...