Spirit of Thailand

Spirit of Thailand

Culture, Relationships,
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Thailand’s Foreigner Phobia

Thailand is advertised as the “Land of Smiles” where open, friendly and smiling people welcome all those millions of foreigners who visit every year. After living in Thailand for many years I can definitely confirm that the Thai smile is one of the great aspects of being  in Thailand.

Those easy and spontaneous exchanges of smiles have made me feel good countless times. So it should be easy to become friends with the Thais, right?

But there is another side to this. Thais are generally very shy around foreigners. Unless they work in the tourist industry where they constantly interact with foreigners, or they work in a foreign-owned company, Thais feel uncomfortable and often insecure around the “farang” (the Thai word for people of caucasian origin).

Friendships in Thailand

Real friendship with Thais is rare. I mean friendship where you can talk about anything, trust each other, visit each other, do things together. Yes the Thais will smile at you and they will talk to you, but it will only be very superficial.

Besides the language barrier the biggest reason is that Thais and “farang” don’t think in the same way, their minds work differently.

The Western-Thai culture clash

If two Americans meet and talk, they both understand how the other one thinks since they come from the same culture and have similar values.

If an American meets a Thai, two worlds collide that do not really connect. Both don’t understand each other’s thinking, values, cultures, and habits. Even if they use the same words, they often interpret them very differently.

The Americans (as a proxy for most westerners) value straightforwardness, whereas the Thais consider it offensive. The “farang” (westerners) display a self-confident attitude whereas the Thais feel backed into a corner.

The Americans assume that the Thais understand what they are saying because they are smiling and nodding, but actually the Thais are just being polite and might not have a clue what you are talking about.

The Westerners openly display their emotions whereas the Thais totally hide them behind their smiles. The list goes on and on.

Is Thailand multi-cultural?

Thailand appears to be a very multi-cultural country with those millions of visitors and expats all over the country. But the truth is that the two connect only very superficially and Thailand is far from being an open and multi-cultural society.

This is not so evident to most visitors. They assume that just because they have a nice, friendly smiling conversation with a Thai,  this means they have made a friend and have truly connected. But the Thai does not think so and will keep them at arm’s length from what they really think and feel.

Most foreigners will never understand the depth of feeling the Thais have for their king, and most Thais will never understand that not all foreigners are rich and something akin to walking ATM machines.

Foreigners have a hard time penetrating through the smiling veneer of Thai faces and Thais have a hard time with the direct and straightforward approach of westerners. Opposites do not attract here.

Relationships in Thailand

What kinds of inter-cultural relationships exist here? The main one is the relationship between western men and Thai women. This is the subject of another article, but in a nutshell many Thai women want to be in relationships with westerners for various reasons with the economic ones being number one.

Relationships between Thai men and western women exist, but they are are not very common. Most Thai men are somewhat afraid of the straightforward, direct and self-confident attitude of western women which is totally different from the attitude of Thai women.

Real friendships between western men and Thai men are extremely rare. In all my years of living in Thailand I have not met one single western man who has a real close Thai male friend. There are of course exceptions to all my observations, but they are a very small percentage.

Thais and the outside world

Thais have very little curiosity about other countries. After many years of being in Thailand I have never been asked by a Thai about my country, what is happening there, how people live or think, what they eat or how they play or work. Not once! They are just not interested.

This is not meant to be a value judgment, it is only an observation. Most westerners come here brimming with curiosity about Thai culture and the Thais will happily tell you about it unless you probe too deeply, and then they will shut you out by smiling politely. The cultural curiosity is only a one-way street here.

The side of Thailand which visitors rarely see

This article is not meant to pass judgment on the Thais. Thailand is my adopted home country and I love living here, and I love the Thai people. Every country has its strong side and its weak side; nothing is perfect and neither is Thailand.

My purpose is to reveal a layer of Thailand that is mostly not seen by foreigners and is well hidden behind the endearing Thai smile. It can help you to adjust expectations you might have and it can help you to further your understanding of Thai culture and Thai thinking. It can help you to see a side of Thailand that is not displayed on the glossy covers of tourist brochures.

13 thoughts on “Thailand’s Foreigner Phobia”

  1. Depends what class you travel in. University intellectual is very different from farang/tourist mentality. English is different than American- all same, same but different. This article just propagates more stereotypes.

    • Jody, I agree with you that it depends in which circles you travel, and you are right, you will find many exceptions to my observations among Bangkok’s university intellectuals. You will probably agree with me that they do not represent the average Thai people that most Thailand visitors will meet. It is not my intention to write a comprehensive cultural comparison that does justice to all levels of Thai society – that would fill a book. My observations are based on living in Thailand for many years and interviewing many of my fellow expats as well as many Thai people. I am trying to present a different perspective from the tourist literature which is designed to please everyone and offend no one, but shows only a superficial picture.
      The name “Farang Phobia” was actually coined by Chris “Unseen”, the most famous English teacher in Thailand. He is Thai/American, has a hugely popular and very funny English language show, and teaches at Bangkok universities. He points out the same things that I write about in my article.
      Within the space of a short article I have to generalize to some degree. Besides, I’d rather be controversial than bland or boring. I hope that this helps you relate better to my article, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. I have been in Thailand for just less than 3 years and my experience is basically the same as you describe. I think it’s not so much an issue of cultural aversion but simply one of shyness. Mostly regarding poor English ability. As noted in the previous comment, those Thai people with higher education and presumably better English skills seem more likely to establish relationships with foreigners. That appears true for both men and women. Also I think the curiosity about other places is increased when the person has more education. Thanks…

  3. Thak you Shama for this simple and brief experience of your living in Thailand and interacting with Thais.

    As living in Bangkok for a year now, and having visited Thailand many times since the first time I ever came in 1981, but also as comparing with the other 35 coutries i lived and worked, I can say easily that thailand is a cool place to be, and for sure a different place to experience as a tourist. ‘Thai-ness is not to experience it is not a shared value. Hence all our experiences in thailand are different and women maybe more than men. Woman smiling down the Soi will get smiles from other women walking down the Soi. Asian men do not look at women. A totally different experience than walkng down the “piazza’ in Rome or Athens. There is shyness it is true but in far too many cases shyness has become an excuse for non -committing or not-intereacting. I see in Bangkok 9 men over 10 walking with Thai women. I see thai women smiling at foreigners and I ponder… What type of future is in store… Twenty five years ago it was like this, the present seem unchanged… Thai women do not give citizenship, Thai men married with thai women have to show up at police station even after 20years of marriage or proof by DNA test that these childrens are theirs. I find this a bit surrealistic but the stories I hear are fascinating.
    It happens that one my daughter’s friend is a girl aged 8 years old whose mother is UK and the father originally from Koh Chang. It took me 5 years of knowing them to get to have a conversation with him and even teach him how to move around Bkk and avoid traffic!. I guess this is one of kind exception.

    Please also read a post on my blog where I relate of a synchronicity which occured to me 2 weeks ago at a local starbucks outlet in a mall in Bangkok! http://thehealingmudras.blogspot.com/2009/11/synchronicity-at-work-at-starbucks.html

    I do hope this is GOOD omen for the future of Thailand because the world is changing all around so better open than closed!

    • I’ll happily look and smile at western women… and the occational firting… but then I’m one of the exceptions rather than the norm, having spent nearly 30yrs studying and working in the UK.

      From what I’ve noticed, most Thais who have not lived abroad or constantly interact with westerners have an inferiority complex when interacting with farang… I think it’s to do with our national status as a less developed country that the west. Of course we can point out that not all European nations are that developed… but most Thais assumes that all of Europe and North American are more developed than Thailand and it’s people more intelligent which is hardly the case. That all translats into yhe shyness. Thais tend to act shy when we interact with people we think are better, smarter than us.

      And that’s also why we rarely see Thai men with foriegn women… Thai men are too afraid to approach let alone chat up western women. So ladies… if you want to get to know Thai men… 99 times out of 100 you need to make the first move and be persistent about it too. Unless you happen to come across a western educated Thai (even that’s no guarantee) or an exceptionally brave Thai man 😉

      • I agree with you, but I also want to point out why this is bad. The reason that Thais are shy when interacting with someone they think may be more intelligent is because Thais (and many other east Asians) are ALWAYS trying to figure out who is “better” than who. It’s a very unfortunate cultural characteristic and one that is to blame for so the lack of many friendships or genuine social exchanges between Thais and non-Thais.

        I worked in an environment full of well schooled/educated Thais, and their willingness to engage in discussion was always and very obviously motivated to desire to establish how “good” they were. This is the other side of shyness. Both sides are very low class.

        Sadly, this is how Thai society works. And, once you realize that the ones who think a foreigner is better and willing to talk, it is usually only because the Thai thinks the foreigner can be useful in some way. They are interested mostly in what they can get from a relationship, not give to it.

  4. There is a book providing all resources on how to retire in thailand. It is writtenby a men and a woman. I rarely have seen a book with such blatant gender-unsensitiveness as that one. there simply are no examples of if a foreign woman marries a thai man… All examples all procedures are just for men… the trick in this situation is obviously to focus only on what you want to get yor own reality as a mirror of clean, nice, thoughts.

    It is very common for foreign women to label foreign men in thailand as in search of a thai heart…. It is so much of a stereotype confirmed by evidence. It is very nice to meet foreign men who spend time with thai women and are still able to communicate with non thai women.
    Oh well the world is changing transition will hit thailand as well. No exceptions.

  5. I have been coming to Thailand for over ten years and been living here for about two years, on a non-full time basis. I think, in general, most of what you wrote is right on. As you mentioned, there are always going to be exceptions. I have personally experienced much of what you have described. I think this piece is well written and is in-line with your stated intention.
    I don’t believe that any short-term visitor and many long-term expats will ever acquire an accurate understanding of the Thai culture. All cultures are deep and the Thai culture is no different. If one desires to understand more about it, I would offer these suggestions: express interest, be extremely patient and humble, empathize and learn the Thai language.
    Thanks for the service you provide, Shama

  6. Yes Shama it is true. since esterday I keep thinking at what you wrote… and was wanting to write this for a while. I visit 2 embassies in Bangkok regulalry for proceudres issues and every time in both of them the major business of the day, is marriage.

    I can’t though agree with the statement that thai women only look for foreigners but for sure the label of Thailand as the land of the smiles for men is real.

    In Africa there also are women on the look out for foreign men for many reasons, but there also are foreign women with local men. Which is here in thailand still a very rare commodity.

    There are many aspects of Thai society which are very pleasant and the rest is only culture which needs to grow and change and it will becuse allthese little kids born out of mied relationships will make it for them. The key is yes humbleness and NO expectations.

    Racial relations are very sensitive anywhere in the world. Drop the ego and all is solved easily. That is the lesson for the Asian society thailand is part of… Good to have you here Shama…

  7. Hi Isabella, you are making some very good points: “no expectations” and “dropping the ego” are certainly great prescriptions for a better experience in Thailand. I also totally agree with you that in spite of any cultural issues Thailand is a very pleasant place to live. All your comments have inspired me to write a new post about relationships in Thailand. Thanks for all your contributions.

  8. Living in Thailand for many years I can very much relate to what you’ve described, Shama, and I as well share most of your
    experiences.

    I’d like to add that if we are aware that our understanding about different cultures and behaviors is very limited and biased
    by our own personal history, conditioning and view of the world, living in Thailand with its unique culture (and that would
    be true for any other country, too) is a fascinating journey. It provides us with endless opportunities to review carefully
    our opinions and life models which we’ve built throughout our life.
    It can be a challenge at times, as we all know, and your experiences described in your article give a little taste of it. Nonetheless it is always an invitation to embrace all those people of different cultures and backgrounds, no matter how foreign their behaviors seem to us – we may or may not understand. We all share this journey to eventually open our heart and mind.
    What a great opportunity for each of us, especially us who live abroad.
    Thanks for posting your articles, Shama.

  9. Thanks Shama.. more on this as you made my left brain go back to all my years of working in cross-cultural context in more than 30 countries. To add spice to the discussion, as well as to relate to what i sometimes read on the Bangkok Post Forum about ‘Farangs’ feeling discriminated against.. for all sorts of reasons.. the point is: if one feels discriminated against or has comments about being a farang in Thailand, either because of non-connectiveness with Thai and or because of feeling aggravated by potential ‘robbery’ from thai women they should think of what the african-american, couloured and all the non caucasian, and arabic descent do experience in Europe or US or elsewhere.

    My own daughter who is of mixed descent from the West Indies is telling how in thailand she is looked at with either admiration or curiosity…. not to mention the questions I too have to answer as per her origins…. and she is only 7 yrs old and people almost laugh at her sight sometimes in the BTS or the MRT. Laugh with a sense of leasure of course. but still to make her feel unconfortable. Her difference is the focus. Woaw…. so many categories… when actually we are all one!

    keep up the good intentions.

  10. Yes Isabella, ultimately we are much more one than different, and if we could all think along those lines, nobody would even notice all those differences very much, at least not in any negative sense. Just like you I have lived in many countries and I always see that people are not really so different on the inside once you get past cultural conditioning and communication difficulties.

    By the way, in 10 years in Thailand I have so far not ever felt discriminated against although I am sure it can happen here and anywhere. And I agree with you, Thailand is by no means a bastion of discrimination compared with many other places and situations on this planet. Thanks for your input.

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