Thai is not a difficult language, so why don’t all the expats bother to learn it?
One reason is that learning anything is hard and it takes time and perserverance. It doesn’t help that the way Thai (or any language) is taught is usually arduous and boring and time-consuming.
The other reason is that many Thai people in Thailand can and want to speak English. It’s relatively easy to find a girl (or boy) who can communicate well enough in English for a casual, albeit somewhat superficial relationship. If it’s just love, sex and companionship you’re after then this is usually sufficient. Your Thai partner will mostly welcome the opportunity to practice, improve and eventually perfect their English with you – so that even if the relationship doesn’t last, then it will be easier to find another partner or get a better paid job in an international firm, etc.
The staff and vendors at all the large shopping centers, supermarkets and tourist markets – not to mention the hotels and guesthouses – will speak English reasonably well. And even if you know a smattering of Thai, you can still get by at the local markets and street stands. At some very popular markets, the vendors simply punch a number into a calculator to show you the price.
And even when it comes to more complicated transactions like visas and rental contracts and internet lines, there’s either an English-speaking person at hand who will deal with you – or your bilingual girlfriend/boyfriend will take of everything for you. You just have to sign yer name and pays yer money.
However, it makes a world of different if you can speak and understand Thai.
If you value your relationship then you will want to communicate more effectively. Not only for ‘heart’ talk, but also to be able to get inside your partner’s mind, understand his/her way of thinking and enjoy each other on a more intellectual level. What do you say to each other after you’re sexually satiated?
If you don’t have much else in common then you will start to lose interest, you’ll get bored of each and even the sex will start to become fairly mundane. That’s when the trouble usually starts.
Also, if you can speak and understand Thai then you can be part of his/her social life. Thais will make a huge effort to speak English (even to each other) when you are present, to be respectful and to include you inthe conversation. But it’s a strain for them. They can’t really joke around and banter with each other – the Thai language is rich in double meanings and sexual innuendo, and the Thais love to play with words when the get together. They can’t do that if you’re around – the conversation will be strained and it just won’t be much fun anymore.
So what will gradually happen is that your partner will make excuses to spend the time alone with her friends… while you go off happily to watch the sport and drink and eat with your foreign friends… and maybe even have a “kik” (lover) on the side.
By learning the language, you get to participate in Thai life and understand & appreciate their rich, fun, highly philosophical culture. They might not be the most intellectual people in the world (but then neither are the Brits, Americans, Canadians or Australians) but they are sophisticated in many ways that we are not.
We can learn from the Thai culture and learn to relax and go with the flow of life.
If you can speak Thai…
I strongly urge you to start learning as early as possible. The easiest way to get started is to learn to read using my Rapid Method. It’s really easy and enjoyable, and designed to fit into your busy work and social life. Just 10 minutes a day over 2-3 months and you’ll be able to read.
“Yes, but shouldn’t I learn to speak first – and worry about reading and writing later, when I can already communicate a little?” you might ask.
Paradoxically, it’s much more difficult to learn aurally. Maybe it’s okay for children, but as adults we learn far more quickly and efficiently if we can harness our highly developed abstract and visual thinking skills.
The other thing is that it is difficult for us to hear the words and tones if we just listen to people speak. By learning to read first, you will know exactlyhow to pronounce each word accurately – using the correct tone; and you will find that you are more likely to hear what people are saying… even you don’t necessary understand them yet.
Learn to read Thai first and then your most enjoyable experience when you first arrive in Thailand will be: “Wow! I can make out what the signs say. It’s not an overwhelming blur, but something I can actually connect with.”
And as you spend more and more time in Thailand, you will gradually absorb the Thai language from your environment, by being exposed to street signs, shop notices and menus. Even if that’s all you do, it will make a huge difference to your life and you will enjoy Thailand more than I can describe. You have to experience it to understand. A bit like music, or color… or sex.
Please visit Learn Thai Online to try it out yourself.
Do’s and Dont’s
Thai culture is primarily Buddhist. The Buddhist way of thinking pervades every aspect of Thai life, the main precepts being to respect others and to avoid extremes (of emotion, desire and material possessions).
This means that Thais are not confrontational as we are. So don’t vent your frustration and anger if things aren’t going right. Don’t try to prove a point. Don’t act on principle. Be ready to admit defeat and apologize (even if you strongly believe you are in the right).
They also do not value freedom & independence in the way we do. They value inter-dependence far more. This means they make a huge effort to look after each other, particularly their parents and grandparents. Duty counts for more than anything, even if your own dreams and aspirations and well-being have to take a back seat.
So when you start a relationship with a Thai person, you are forming a relationship with the entire family, as well as close friends and neighbors. You don’t marry a single girl (or boy), you marry an entire village… even if you end up living overseas!
Cleanliness is also sacrosanct in Thai culture. We foreigners might be as obsessed about body odor and bad breath as anyone, but we do tend to be far more slovenly about our personal hygiene than the typical Thai person. Even the poorest Thai person will make an effort to be clean and to wear smart, laundered clothes.
They also feel uncomfortable with any public display of emotion – anger, shouting, or intimacy. They enjoy dancing and singing and talking wildly, but not so much negative or sexual behavior. This is beginning to change a little… more and more Thais hold hands and kiss in public – and your girlfriend will probably dress as provocatively as she dares (or just smartly and attractively if she daren’t) in order to please you.
Anything involving the feet is considered dirty. So it’s considered loutish to raise your feet up or put your feet on the chairs or table. Shoes are taken off and left outside in all but the modern shopping centers and supermarkets. It used to be that the head was held sacrosanct, but Thais are generally more casual about this nowadays – you can ruffle a child’s head or stroke your partner’s hair affectionately and that is no longer considered uncouth and disrespectful.
The wai (where you clasp your hands together in prayer and raise them to your face) is not so well understand by us foreigners. Thais will wai anyone who they consider to be superior in some way – older, wealthier, wiser or in authority – or just of equal status to show respect. They tend not to wai anyone considered ‘beneath’ them, such as waitresses and servants and mechanics.
We as foreigners are not expect to wai to anyone in particular – least of all the taxi drivers or maids or shopkeepers. It looks amusingly ridiculous when we do so, like formally shaking hands with the waitress or the bank clerk whenever you place an order.
It is considered polite for you to nod in recognition if someone wais you… and if they are your work colleagues or a neighbor or anyone in an official or formal capacity then you can wai them back.
There are several levels of wai, depending on how much respect you want to show and the social status of the person you are wai-ing in relation to yourself. Raising your hands to the level of your chin is usually respectful enough. Going as far as the tip of your nose shows a great deal of respect (so don’t overdo it or your risk coming across as mocking your acquaintance).
Even more respectful is when you touch your forehead. The most respectful wai of all is when you raise your hands past the top of your head. Only Thais need do this, and usually only to a monk or a member of the royal family.
So how do you know what someone’s status is relative to your own?
Well, even Thais struggle with this. It’s important for them to ascertain relative status immediately, because it affects what words they use for “I” and “you”. It’s usually why they will ask your age and your income when they first meet you. Status is determined by age or wealth and level of formal education. A young person in a high position of authority will still defer to your status if you are old – even more so if you are a professor or wealthy (they usually don’t go together of course).
Treat someone as equal or higher than yourself if in doubt. But if someone is obviously in a serving capacity then behave in an assured manner.
Insults and “face”
Sticks and stones may break your bones… Not so in Thailand, where words can be far more devastating.than sticks ‘n stones.
If you insult or demean someone (especially in public where they are likely to lose face as a result) then you will make an enemy of life.
Thais do not understand irony or sarcasm! They will take what you say literally. So don’t joke in a sarcastic way, you are just being extremely hurtful.
We have our own version of “face”, which we hold to be just as sacrosanct. We will fight (to the death if necessary) for “dignity” and to maintain our “self-respect”. So don’t make negative comments or criticize a Thai person – if you have nothing good to say then it’s best to say nothing at all!
Other Do’s and Dont’s
- DO bring a little gift (a bunch of bananas or some cut fruit) whenever you visit someone.
- DO take a shower before you jump into bed with someone, no matter how clean you already are.
- DO tip your masseuse (around 100 baht) to show appreciation for the service. (She might want 500 baht if she jerks you off as well!)
DO also tip your waitress (about 10%) unless there is already a service charge included in the bill; and add 10 baht to the charge on the taxi meter.
- DO be generous in general (but there’s no need to be overly generous or ostentatious) – don’t plead poverty because we are already so much more privileged than the typical Thai. We will usually be expected to pay for the cost of going out – because you will have the highest status. A little generosity goes a long way. It’s a sign that you are likely to care for others (e.g. your girlfriend and her family) in the long term and not be a Cheap Charlie or “sticky shit” (kee niaow).
- DO end your sentences with “khrab” (rhymes with “grub” and is sometimes pronounced like “cub”) – if you are a man. If you are a woman then say “kha” instead. This is a universal mark of politeness, and can also mean “yes” or “I’m listening”.
- DO dress conservatively or at least smartly. Even a very poor Thai person has self-respect enough to take care of his or her appearance. You will be perceived to be fairly low class if you are dishevelled and dress sloppily.
- DO be ready to surrender graciously to allow the other person to save “face”, even if you have to swallow your pride. You will be held in high esteem if you deliberately lose face to the person you are disagreeing with.
- DON’T grope a girl, especially not in public (even if she’s a bar girl). She will probably agree to sleep with you anyway, so you may as show a little self-restraint until she is ready for you.
- DON’T eye another man’s girl, or try to chat her up. If you want to chat with a pretty girl, check if she’s with her boyfriend and if she is then introduce yourself to the boyfriend and strike up a conversation with him first.
- DON’T get too drunk if you can help it – or at least have a drinking buddy who will remain mostly sober and keep an eye out for you. Most of the tragic stories occur because of excessive drinking. Thais like to get drunk as much as anywhere else in the world, but they are much quicker to lash out with a knife or shoot you if you cross the line (intentionally or otherwise). You are also far more vulnerable to “date rape” or being robbed in your room by a pretty young thing.
- DON’T insult the king or royal family. In fact, don’t enter into any discussion to do with the monarchy. You could end up in prison on the charge of lesé majesté.
- DON’T behave in an obstreperous manner with police officers or immigration officials, or any other official or public servant. They probably won’t understand what your grievance is, but they will sense from the tone of your voice that you are probably being insulting. And any inclination to help you or simply caution you and let you go will evaporate.
- DON’T act on principle, as you are used to doing back on home. We have no rights here – we are guests. Remember that always.
- DON’T have anything to do with drugs. It’s probably the stupidest thing you can do. If you do drugs then go somewhere where it’s tolerated or where you can at least navigate the legal system (i.e. your own home country). The minimum sentence for drug trafficking is 30 years with no chance of parole. You don’t need to have much in your possession to be classed as pusher. It’s just not cool. Don’t do it. Even if you are desperate for the money, don’t be a mule either. You are more likely being set up (especially if your prime contact is also a foreigner) – and the police will be waiting for you at the airport. Watch Sandra Gregory’s story and Tim Schrader’s story where you also get to see the seamier side of the Thai underworld.
- DO walk away from anything that looks too good to be true. Use your common sense and curb your greed or desperation. Remember, you are a stranger in a strange land, who doesn’t know the language and customs. As foreigners, we are extremely vulnerable and we do incredibly stupid things. You can live a wonderful life here, so long as you are law-abiding, keep your common sense and remain respectful of others at all times.