Having the chance to not just have a vacation in another country, but actually live there and experience the lifestyle lets you have a deeper level of understanding with the little cultural quirks that make the country what it is. For me, Thailand came with quite the culture shock, and it took me a very long time to fully process the fact that I was on the other side of the world, just living my daily life, you know, on the other side of the world… Anyways, I am so lucky to have had the amazing chance to live in Thailand for 6.5 months and experience some of the unique elements of the culture. There are a million things I could say and I’m sure I’m missing some important aspects, but here are a few of the little bits that really stuck with me along the way.
- The Wai – This is a very important custom in the Thai culture. It basically consists of putting your hands together in prayer and bowing slightly. There are many variations of the wai depending who you are talking to, but it is a common way of greeting in Thailand which could mean Hello, Thank you, or Goodbye. There are certain rules which pertain to the proper way to wai – such as between parents and children, and students and teachers.
- The King – In Thailand the king is basically considered a God or a father figure. People are very attached to their king. In fact, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in Thailand are on the king and queen’s birthdays.
- Ladyboys – For whatever reason, Thailand seems to be known as being one of the more accepting cultures for gender identity. It was interesting to see gender fluidity being such a casual accepted part of daily life there. It is common to see “ladyboys” in Thailand working at shops, restaurants, etc. Even from a young age, some male students begin to identify themselves as a “she”. It’s interesting to see such a progressive viewpoint of gender identity while it still seems much less generally accepted in the US. However, in other ways, this viewpoint is contradicted. For example, one of the temples that I visited said it would not allow females to enter the special temple because they menstruate and it could damage the sanctity of it. Hmm…
- “Have you eaten yet?” (Gin khao reu yang?) – This phrase, coming from a Western point of view, might come off as if someone is giving an invitation or asking you if you want to eat with them. Yet, this is not actually the case. So don’t be mistaken – they don’t actually want to eat with you. What this translates to in their culture is the phrase “How are you?”, a common greeting. I was told that this is because in Thailand food is a very important part of the culture, so it has become a phrase of greeting.
- Squatty Potties – Yeah it’s pretty much what it sounds like. In Thailand, “Western toilets” are not common. Instead, they have squatty potties that you stand on and squat in order to use. It might seem strange at first, but you quickly get used to it. When there are places that have the “Western style toilets”, they have signs telling you NOT to stand on the toilet, but rather to sit on it.
- Finding a public bathroom with both toilet paper AND soap is a luxury. I’ve gotten used to the luxuries in the US so it felt a little odd at first to get used to not having these things. It’s always necessary to be prepared for uncertain scenarios in terms of bathrooms, but everything works out in the end.
- Sharing food – In the Thai culture, food is generally shared. Although Thai people generally seem to eat out a lot, they generally eat family style meals, meaning they order a whole bunch of food and all share it. It’s very uncommon to order a meal just for yourself at typical Thai restaurants. Likely because the culture is so group-oriented, people generally eat in large groups. Even when I would eat out with other Thai teachers and we had our own meals, or if I was alone, Thai people commonly wanted to share their food with me or give me some to try. It’s something we are not used to in the US, but it’s actually really enjoyable to share and try different kinds of food.
- Mai bpet – If you don’t like spicy food, you need to make sure to say that you don’t want it spicy. Even if you say “Nit noi” (a little) spicy it will be VERY spicy. It’s just the culture, and everyone is accustomed to eating food with a lot of spice. I got used to a few typical dishes that were my go-to’s and I knew they were vegetarian and not overly spicy.
- Song covers everywhere – A lot of times in my town, I would actually hear Western music… except usually it was covers of popular songs. Never the actual songs.
- The Zombie Epidemic – For some reason the song “Zombie” by The Cranberries is incredibly popular in Thailand, and apparently always has been. It is actually was one of my favorite songs, so I was naturally surprised when my students came into class singing it one day … so of course, I had to play it for them so we could all sing it together. Then I started to hear this song everywhere I went, and realized that it is quite popular in Thailand and just about everyone knows it. One night, my friend and I were at a bar, and of course, a Thai band was playing some seemingly popular Thai songs (which we didn’t know of course) and then we heard these guys singing Zombie and requested for the band to sing it. To our surprise, they actually did and they sang it really well. They also sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
- Utensils – Thai people will think you are very strange if you eat your rice with a fork. I got so many comments and questions while eating with people there because I ate my rice with a fork. That’s just the way I eat rice. But no, you are supposed to use the fork to push the rice onto a spoon and then eat it!
- 555555555 – Once I started getting some Thai Facebook friends, I started noticing “555555555” on everything and I was naturally a little confused. After talking to a friend, I found out the meaning of “555” is “Hahaha”. The number 5 in Thai is pronounced “Ha” – Hence…
- Basing the size of your town on the number of 7/11’s it has… and quickly finding 7/11 as your go-to for everything – from coffee, quick meals, phone top-up (which I paid about $8 per month), toiletries, toilet paper, plane tickets, you name it. Fun fact – there are several countries outside of the US which have 7/11’s and Thailand has the second largest number of stores after Japan. The 7/11’s are much nicer than the minimal run-down stores found in my town… of course, they don’t have a such thing as Wawa there, so they need to spruce up their 7/11’s. You quickly find comfort in having a 7/11 nearby.
- Hitler – Apparently, people do not learn about Hitler in their history classes in Thailand and are simply unaware of what an evil man he was in the Western world. So, you often see Hitler images depicted as I guess they just think of him as someone representative of the Western culture. In a bar in my town, there was actually a bar with 4 pictures – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis, and Hitler. Hmmm…
- “Fighting!” – This is something that my students would say sometimes – not in a negative tone at all – but it was used more as an expression of encouragement, kind of like a “You can do it!” I don’t know but I kind of loved that.
Well, that’s it. Just a few of my bits and pieces of remembrances of the fascinating culture in Thailand.