I was waiting for a shop vendor because I wanted to purchase the delightfully calorific banana bread and fruit drink but she was not around. When she did discover me she started speaking in apologetic tones and touching me as if we were best friends.
I always am taken back when Thais engage in physical contact because this isn’t exactly a Latino culture. Sure, the boys and girls hold hands, but it is definitely a hands to yourself society. Certain liberties are given because Thailand has crowded places, but generally it’s a “you don’t touch me and I don’t touch you” culture. Thais find different ways to show kindness.
Another recent incident happened in a public bathroom during the King’s birthday. An older woman accidentally bumped into me while we were waiting in line. She put her hands on my hips and gave me a little shake and said what I gleaned to be Sorry dear. This place is busy, isn’t it? Not many of my friends grab my hips; the intimate contact was – interesting and flattering.
What I immediately loved about Thailand was the fact that if you took a snapshot of me here you wouldn’t be able to tell that I wasn’t Thai. (except on certain days when I dress Japanese, so I’m told) I can be part of the landscape.
The funny thing is, when I lived in Hawaii, I blended in like the rest of the macadamia nuts on the island. But when I left for the Mainland I received all the attention I could possibly want and then some for looking “exotic”. Sometimes life became a game of, Hey I’m the only Asian in this store, at this concert, in this classroom, araigodai.
I must have gotten sick of this because one of the first feelings I got when I arrived back in Thailand is, I belong here. Don’t bother me. And I like the anonymity. When a Muay Thai leaflet handler ignores me at Thae Phae Gate, I smile. And when a local business hands me a leaflet, I know it’s because for that brief moment, I’ve convinced them chan ben kohn Thai.
Nowadays I jump when a tuk tuk driver honks at me only to realize it is because I’m with a farang friend. Oh that’s for you, I say. It’s a different world. I feel bad for Johnny foreigner who is constantly harassed, and I’m grateful that I have a little more leeway and can enter the breathing room in this regard.
Since I’ve done substituting at my school, I’ve had the opportunity to walk into several new classes. Some students immediately wai at my presence and even my students who know me as their English teacher still wai. The respect given to teachers here is grand and I know my fellow farang colleagues get this too, but I’m willing to wager not as much as me. I’ve gotten the wai in the bathroom too.
I don’t wai back because I want to give the same impression that we would in an English classroom environment and this is not something you would do in an English speaking country. Although my boss told me that I should. And while I certainly acknowledge it, with a smile and a nod, I’ve decided I’m going to ask my Thai teacher what I should do. I’m collecting good opinions.*
I’m sure it won’t be too long before my cultural reaction is to wai back. Just like I’m sure one day I’ll speak and read Thai fluently. I mean, I’ve already started to pick my nose in public. Well, a little 😉
*I talked to two of my Thai teachers both gave me a different answer.