Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sixth Month Impression of Living in Thailand

June marks my sixth month of retirement in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I thought it might be a good time to report some random impressions of Thai culture.  Please note that the following thoughts are mine and mine alone and may not align with the thoughts of others.

But first, a few thoughts: Don't even think of bringing a coat to Thailand.  Although Thais wear jackets and sweatshirts while driving around in 80% weather, a westerner would overheat.  Leave regular shoes at home (makes for easier packing).  Sandals and flip-flops are de rigueur for any venue.  Keep in mind that in Thailand "things change".  Don't expect things to happen "on time" or that something about your reservations, start time, or program won't change.  Everything changes and it is best to be prepared and expect it or you will become very frustrated. 

In general, the cultural differences from western society is vast and often frustrating and incomprehensible to western culture. 

Belief System:  Thais are mostly Buddhist which formulates much of their outlook on life.  Human life is not as precious here because you will be reborn into (hopefully) a better life.  I think this may explain their cavalier attitude toward driving recklessly and not wearing helmets, etc.  There is very little worry about anything since you are in the hands of the Buddha and he will take care of everything.  Wearing an amulet (Buddha image) around your neck or hanging from your rear view mirror will protect you from traffic accidents, being shot, crashing your motorcycle or _______ (fill in the blank).  With this attitude you don't have to worry about being careful or particularly mindful about your actions.  This drives westerners crazy as they view such an attitude as not taking responsibility for your actions and sometimes endangering others.

Christian missionaries have converted a fair number of Buddhist Thais, about 10% in Chiang Mai, from their traditional beliefs.  Although I generally abhor religious evangelism invading a country, Christian endeavors have vastly improved education, and contributed significantly to healthcare and were responsible for introduction of the printing press to Thailand.  Being Christian, by-the-way, does not change the belief system much.  You just put a statue of Mary on your dash instead of the Buddha and Jesus will protect you from mishaps.

Education:  Public education in Thailand is abysmal as one might expect in a non-first world country.  Although there are so many ways to interpret "second and third world" that even using the term seems a bit pretentious.  Is it measured by socieo-economic status and per-capita income (the minimum wage in Thailand has just increased to $9 a day) , the number and amount of exports, environmental sophistication?  Public school children soon learn that teachers are not allowed to fail them.  This produces students who realize they don't have to study.  The result is grown people who haven't learned very much and have become lazy about learning anything new.  I have friends who teach here who tell me about the level of learning of their students.  They are taught "What to think" rather than "how to think" which carries through to adult life.  One of my teacher friends who teaches a GED (high school equivalency) course tested his students on the difference between "opinion" and "fact".  100% of the students failed.  After discussion and explanation of the difference, only a few passed the second test.  They have been conditioned to actually not learn.  This makes it impossible to critically think through  problems and come up with solutions so they revert to what they have been told about the world which is often backward and seemingly irrational.  Thais are not stupid as many westerners believe, they have just had poor education and resort to superstition and magical thinking.  If you remember a previous post about having pigeons in the attic and the resulting non-ability to correct the problem would be one example of non-critical thinking.  Another example is when I made a suggestion about how to shade our water tank from the hot sun with bamboo so the water didn't scald you in an afternoon shower, the reply was "it won't work".  Upon further questioning the reason it "wouldn't work" is because they had never seen it done before. 

English is now being taught starting in very low grades and a portion of each day is spent learning English.  Students, however, don't see a need to learn English, don't see a reason to learn it, and the majority probably will never use English in their everyday lives.  The result is high school graduates who can only say "hello, how are you".  Knowing English, or other western language is the key to further education because science, technology, history are not accessible in Thai, either on the Internet or elsewhere.  It is these students who are relegated to $9 a day wages with no way to improve their lives.

Private and Christian schools, on the other hand, produce students of high academic standard and any Thai family who could afford to would opt for sending their children to these schools.  These are the students who go on to college, get good jobs, get good salaries, can support a poor family, and can function in an international society.

Can't Say "No":  Thais are taught that "saving face" is the most important thing in life.  There are cases where a Thai was embarrassed in public and retaliated by killing.  There have been many Thais who committed suicide over being made to feel stupid.  A westerner would be well advised not to argue with or make any kind of remark that might embarrass a Thai because subsequent retaliation can be harsh.  For this reason no Thai will say "no" to any question.  Saying "no" for a Thai is the same thing as saying "I am stupid for not knowing", thus "losing face".  For the same reason no Thai can say "I don't know", or "I'm not sure".  Instead when asked a question, Thais will just make something up.  If you are in a store and ask "where is the milk", if they don't know they will just point in any direction, or it's also common for them to say "we don't have it".  I particularly enjoy when asking a question getting an answer completely off-topic.  This makes it easy to determine they don't know instead of their making up an answer.  Again, westerners, especially new-to-the-country westerners, misinterpret this as "lying".  They complain that Thais would rather lie to you than give the right answer.

After all is said and done, it is misunderstanding and misinterpreting of cultural differences that keep us from enjoying each other. 

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