Sunday, 14 August 2011

A Farang in Bangkok

After some months in Europe, a Farang (as foreigners of Western descent are called in Thailand) returns to Bangkok (where he lives several months of the year) and meets his Thai friend for lunch. He brings a small present along, since he knows that this is expected. He has heard of the custom that one should never open a present in front of the giver (to avoid embarrassing him in case of obvious disappointment), yet he also knows that not everybody adheres to these ‘rules’. His friend unwraps the parcel and shows herself delighted. Although he’s not sure if she’s really delighted (for he has heard that the Thai have a thousand different smiles. As another Thai friend once put it: ‘the reason the Thai smile so much is because a smile is never out of place’), he is now given his parcel, unwraps it, shows his delight (he likes all Thai gifts) – the ambiance remains relaxed. While they wait for the food to arrive, she asks him about the hotel where he is always staying. He complains about minor things. It is obvious that she does not find it appropriate to complain when meeting for lunch. He stops. The food arrives. She starts commenting on the food. He knows that she expects him to say only things that would not interfere with the process of eating – when eating, one is supposed to enjoy it, that is the Thai way, that is what Thai culture expects him to conform to. Two French men at a table close by are engaged in a lively discussion while at the same time eating. That is the way he is accustomed to, that would be his way of doing things. His friend briefly looks to the other table, frowns, and continues to silently eat her meal, interrupted only by casual comments regarding the dishes on the table. He does the same, he finds the two French men indeed way too loud.

This is a possible illustration of the saying that ‘When in Rome, do like the Romans do’. In other words, do what you think that is expected of you. On the other hand, and this is also what this example, hopefully, has illustrated: intercultural interaction can be a learning process that might direct one to re-think one’s own positions.

Hans Durrer
Ways of Perception. On Visual and Intercultural Communication
White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2006
ISBN 974-4800-92-5

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