Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Friday Five: Thai Things I'm Determined to Learn


I live in two places simultaneously: Thailand and a perpetual state of confusion. These are five things that exist in Thailand that I'm determined to understand during my time here.

(Two quick notes: I know it's Wednesday. I haven't posted a Friday Five in two weeks because of lack of internet. I wanted to write, so I had to take hold of the motivation while it was present. Contrary to the following entry, I can count. I realize there's only four. These were the four I thought from which I could induce the most hilarity).

1. The Thai Lottery- Mostly in markets, or high traffic areas, there are people who walk around with little cache cases. Inside them, they host innumerable little tickets with pink numbers on them and a bunch of smaller ones in black. Apparently, these tickets relate somehow to the national lottery. These individuals also hold Thai newspaper that have a section with dozens (hundreds) of apparently winning lottery numbers. I have zero idea how the two correlate. I know the following will be a simple-minded analysis of the situation, but I can't think outside the box: First, why would people consult the newspaper to inform their decision on which ticket to buy? I'm assuming winning numbers are as random as a number selection can be, and therefore independent. The likelihood of "95135" winning in consecutive days/weeks is just as likely as it not happening. The past selection of a number does not influence its future potential selection. Second, if they buy a ticket first and then subsequently look at the newspaper (to see if they won...?), shouldn't they have looked at the paper in the first place? If that's the case, wouldn't we all be winners? I'm clearly missing something.

2. Driving- It's scary here. Lanes are literally just guidelines, if they are even present, and rules are more like suggestions that are open to interpretation and optional to follow, regardless of said interpretation. I've now been on a freeway going 120 kilometers/hour and also done 25 kilometers/hour on the same freeway with two different drivers. Other quick observations: All lanes are passing lanes; Got five people in your family and only one moped? We see no problems. What if one's a toddler and/or a pet? Ain't no thang- they can hold and/or sit on the handlebars; Need to make a right turn against traffic? Just pull out slowly and make people stop for you; The bigger you are, the more permission you have to move about as if you're the only person on the road. Fare thee well, moped with family of five.

Additionally, people are either super confident or super stupid in their ability to maneuver their cars. Concurrent with lanes and rules being suggestions, parking is also done on a whim. If you need to park and stop, it appears kosher to do it wherever you need to, regardless of inconveniencing others. I feel like spatial knowledge in relation to others is far different than other places, or America at least (read: non-existent). People put themselves and their cars in the strangest of places and then pull odd maneuvers to get themselves out of it, often times taking considerable time and effort and done at the behest of many others. 

3. "Facts" based on assumptions- An interesting, and admittedly frustrating, part of Thai culture is how quickly ideas about you, Americans, Peace Corps, etc. become fact, regardless of them actually being true or not. First, there are many assumptions about Westerners: They're all White and Christian. They can't eat spicy foods. They're all rich. They all drink a lot. Imagine their faces when I state that I am half Mexican, Buddhist, devour spicy foods, have less than zero moneys, and don't drink (at site). The typical reaction is equivalent to me opening a worm hole in front of their very eyes, jumping in it, and reappearing upside down, on my head, right behind them. Additionally, if Thais see you do something once when first making an impression about you, then it means you do it all day, every day, even if it's the furthest thing from the truth. Should I have had a beer the first time I met my school, that would have meant me drinking all the beers. On the flip side, actually, I refused all alcohol during site visit and my welcome party at my host family's house, to the tune of my site now understanding I "never drink." In this case, it worked to my advantage.

Really, their exposure to Western culture is through media and foreigners. A lot of the Western media I've seen here seems pretty skanky- (blonde) floozies everywhere, macho dudes, violence. Subsequently, a lot of the Western foreigners I've seen here seem pretty skanky- culturally insensitive, zeroes to heroes, so to speak, drunk. Basically, they get a very limited view of America and just how diverse it is, and really only get the worst and most stereotypical view. At least Peace Corps Volunteers admirably address goal #2 (improve the knowledge of Americans on behalf of the host country) in this sense.

Perhaps I just answered my own confusion.

4. Criticism- This is perhaps the most strange to me. Personal attributes that are"flawed" (e.g. "fat" a.k.a. not thin as a stick, acne, dark skin) are immediately pointed out and joked about. Now, I don't necessarily think it's done maliciously, but coming from a culture that views these words as verbal attacks, and the complete opposite as a joke, make them difficult to hear. For example, a few weeks ago and earlier this week, I was ceaselessly called "fat." Being an individual who has had their share of body image issues, it was tough to hear. In fact, one person who I felt the most hurt by, I sort of stared at for a moment, completely disregarded their comment, and proceeded to blatantly ignore them. I'm not sure if I broke face (which I will soon attempt to explain), but I definitely think I hurt the relationship... Which is funny. I understand being in Thailand and being respectful of Thai culture, but I Thais know that I'm not Thai and that I a) don't understand all of Thai culture and b) don't necessarily abide by all of Thai culture. Even though I was the one who felt hurt, I also ended up feeling a bit bad because of my reaction. I did explain to my host family that to call someone "fat" in America is done in bad form, and if they are describing a person's body size, to use larger, thick, big. They appeared to understand, as it hasn't happened since, and informed me that in Thai, they only use oo-an (fat) to describe people larger than average.

On the contrary, if someone is terrible at their job, especially a manager or executive, they only receive praise for the work they do. This is, obviously, the extreme opposite of America. If someone sucks at their job, they're done. Someone else can do better. Here, it's navigating this kind of situation is difficult to tread. Aforementioned in this blog, the most important professional act one can do is build relationships, regardless of how well one does their job. Job performance is not valued like it is in the Western world. Americans are result driven and goal oriented. That just simply isn't the case here. That person who is terrible at their job? As long as they've developed solid relationships at their organization, they're good. It is more important in Thai culture to ensure that their failings are not public knowledge and everyone acts as if that person is competent. To publicly break someone's face is social suicide. You just don't do it.

It is a very difficult concept for me to grasp. My personal opinion (as Western and biased as it is) is that the concept of saving face restricts positive social and developmental progress. If everyone is happy and pretending they're all solid workers and can't hold each other (and especially leaders) accountable, how can progress be made? How can improvements occur? How does development take a strong foothold and create a solid base?

Please don't read this as inflammatory of Thai people and culture. It is merely one foreigner's culturally biased view, and confusion, of the different social nuances to which he is now subject. Fortunately, I have two years to develop a better understanding of all of these things.

1 comment:

  1. Jay, these stories give us Americans a good look at how WE stereotype other cultures and how hurtful it can be. Imagine if you had immigrated there and planned to stay forever. Those first encounters could leave you with some lasting confusion and resentment. I imagine that Muslims in America are getting a lot of crap right now that they just don't understand, because they are Americans, too, and were just as horrified and sad as all other Americans by the bombing. I appreciate your perspective.

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