When you move to a country that has a completely different culture from what you’re used to, it’s easy to commit a faux pas here and there. When one of my friends first moved to Thailand a coin rolled down the floor of her classroom and she stepped on it to make it stop.
“The class gasped,” she told me. “The money has the face of the king on it. I basically stomped on the king.”
Thanks to her I knew to keep my feet clear of any Baht. I also knew a few other cultural taboos such as don’t point at anyone with your finger or with the bottom of your foot. Still, two weeks ago, in an attempt to get a student to say “foot” instead of “feet” I lifted my leg in the air, pointing the bottom of my shoe right at a young girl. The foot-assaulted student visibly shrunk and the others went, “Ooooooo.” I turned red and apologized profusely.
I’m lucky that most of my faux pas are committed in front of my students because they’re very forgiving and seem to find me funny (which I think is a good thing?). In one of my first classes I tried to discuss a new vocabulary word: protest.
“Have any of you gone to a protest?” I asked.
“Do you know what a protest is?”
“Like a riot,” one student said.
“Right, but it doesn’t have to be loud or violent. It can be a peaceful protest or a silent protest.”
“Would anyone join a protest?”
Students shifted in their desks, looked at the ground, and twisted their mouths. Even though they’re adults, they looked like kids who’d been caught cheating on a test.
“No one? Has anyone seen a protest?”
My most talkative student said, “We don’t have those in Thailand.”
“You don’t have protests?”
“How can that be possible?”
Another student chimed in: “We had protests a few years ago. Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts, but no more.”
“You’ve never had another protest?” I asked, skeptical. Everyone looked away. “That cannot be possible,” I said. “There must be something people disagree with that they protest about. What about the Women’s March?”
I pressed the topic further, but my students refused to respond. Later that evening I met a friend for drinks and told him about the class. “Georgia,” he said, “Thais don’t talk about politics. It’s not like the U.S.”
“They don’t talk about politics or they can’t?”
“A bit of both. Thai people are incredibly resistant to talking about politics.There are some instances where you can get in legal trouble for it. They just don’t do it, especially in a group setting.”
“So you mean I was trying to force them to talk about something they’re not allowed to talk about?”
The following week I apologized to my class. I learned that a group of five or more people talking about politics in Thailand can legally be arrested. I knew that didn’t include a classroom setting, but it explained why my students had been noticeably uncomfortable. The next time a vocab word teetered on the subject of politics I covered it only briefly:
“Do you have debates in Thailand?”
My talkative student responded no before I finished saying -land.
“Awesome. Moving on…”
Being American, I am especially wary of committing a faux pas. Not only are Americans stereotyped as rude, entitled travelers, but our current political/social climate is only reinforcing that image. When I first moved to Thailand, two Americans were arrested for posting a photo of themselves mooning the camera in front of a temple. Mooning and traveling is apparently something these two Americans do and they even had an Instagram account called Travelling_Butts, which has since been taken down. This is a prime example of what people expect from Americans: doing stupid stuff without fear of consequences because ‘Murica. You have to dress “modestly” in Thai temples: cover your shoulders and wear something that goes past your knees. Showing your ass in front of a temple? That’s just blatant ignorance. It’s thanks my idiotic countrymen like the Travelling_Butts that I am über cautious of disrespecting or insulting Thai culture (or any culture for that matter).
My latest faux pas happened last weekend. I took someone’s shift at work and afterwards headed for the train station at an hour I wasn’t used to. I had my earphones in with my music on low. As I entered the train station I heard anthem-like music playing over the loud speakers. It wasn’t very loud, but it was noticeable. In Thailand, when the national anthem plays, everyone stops and listens. If you’re in a crowded train station it’s like a large flash mob suddenly freezing in place. Unfortunately, the station I was at wasn’t crowded. There were barely ten people around me. I looked at the ticket machines. A Japanese family fiddled with money and argued over the train map. Another man beeped his BTS pass and walked through the turnstile. The guard that stands at the turnstile stood a bit more rigid than normal, but she didn’t salute so I figured the music piping over the loudspeakers wasn’t actually the national anthem.
I walked up to the turnstile with my BTS card in my hand. I then saw a man frozen in place near the escalator. I stopped mid-step. The BTS guard and I made eye contact. I looked back at the Japanese family still trying to slip coins into the ticket machine. Then I looked over at the ticket booth, which, had I been a smarter person, I should have looked from the start. Both ticket takers stood in front of their chairs and stared straight ahead. Ah shit.
Like someone playing freeze tag, I stayed frozen with one foot on the ground and the other mid-step behind me. My arm stretched slightly towards the turnstile, ready to beep my BTS card. Did I look ridiculous? Absolutely. Did I feel ridiculous? Shockingly no.
A friend had told me how she and a date were in a train station when the anthem played. Everyone around them froze, but her date kept moving. He said it didn’t matter because neither of them were Thai. The whole thing happened so fast that my friend kept walking. Later, she said she felt insensitive. “We’re guests in this country,” we both agreed. “We have to respect their traditions and take part when we can.”
Although I looked like one of those robot street performers waiting for someone to drop money at my feet, I didn’t feel ridiculous. I hoped my comical stance displayed my respect for my host country. Being white and blonde it’s pretty obvious that I am a foreigner. When the music stopped I beeped my card and walked through the turnstile. The guard laughed as I walked by and gave a slight bow. I shrugged. “Whoops.”
On the escalator I made note of the time. The next time the anthem played, I would stand still like a normal person instead of freezing like a startled squirrel.
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