Thailand

Teaching in Thailand Etiquette

No, I’m not teaching etiquette. I don’t work at an all-girls finishing school. I’m talking about what you need to know as a foreign teacher in the Land of Smiles.

Years ago, foreign or farang teachers had to partake in a Thai language, culture and ethics course. Now, it seems, you don’t have to. I think the course was a good idea, although I’ve heard complaints and snickers that it was unnecessary and expensive.

But even for a half-Thai like myself, I’m constantly learning, and readjusting how I interact with my students to meet Thai standards and expectations.

To wai or not to wai?

A while ago, I asked this question to the Thai teachers, and recently I posed this question to my intermediate students. Should you wai back when your students wai to you?

students-wai
Two of my intermediate students

The Thai teachers said I could, but it wasn’t necessary. One class said, don’t do it, but the other class thought it was rude not to return the wai. Usually I don’t, because my hands are full and they are wai-ing me when I’m walking to and from class. Sometimes they wai me when I hand them a worksheet, and I know they are doing that to be polite.

I was told in my TEFL course (which I did in BKK) that we are here to teach our culture too, so we have a bit of an excuse if we are ignorant. However, I don’t want to offend them either, so for me, the compromise is to nod and smile in acknowledgement of the wai. I find in most cases this is acceptable.

Baring tattoos (not fangs).

bri-tattoo
Thanks Bri for the use of your beautiful tattoo!

Believe it or not, tattoos are commonplace and the students are not offended if you have one and want to show it off.  In other words, it’s up to you, yo. Although, I live in Chiang Mai. It’s probably safe to say that the smaller rural towns will be more conservative about these things, along with body piercings.

Watch your head.

In Thai culture, the head is the most sacred part of the body, and the feet are the lowliest. So you should avoid sitting lower or kneeling down to help your students. I think this is a very Western thing to do. We want to show we are “on their level” so we engage them by doing this, but your head should not dip lower than your students’.

teaching-etiquette
Please, look past how fabulously I’m dressed. I’m trying to demo the improper way of helping Thai students.

*The exception is when you are comforting a student (their idea, not mine) who is in tears over her broken heart. 555

When I first started working at the lovely language school, I did this often because I had previously worked with 5-7year olds and this is actually recommended practice back in the States, but here I noticed their discomfort when I did.

I started to figure this out though, when we took group pictures at the end of the term. Whenever I crouched low so we could all fit, they said, “No, no, no” and would pull me up. Soon, I realized I needed to stand tall, and they should be the ones to sit on the floor or ‘make themselves small’ for the photo.

Not so happy feet.

Yeah, so don’t point with your feet. I guess Westerners do this, but this is a ginormous NO NO. If this is a habit of yours, I’d recommend trying to be aware of what your feet are doing. In other words, control your body language and remember that your feet are considered ‘dirty’ in Thailand.  When sitting on the floor, keep your feet tucked behind you…it’s damned uncomfortable after a long time, but sitting cross-legged is okay sometimes, just don’t sit with your knees raised and your feet pointing at someone, especially the Buddha. That would be ghastly.

watch-those-feet
BTW, it’s okay for male teachers to sit like this but not for the ladies.

Conquering the cleavage kingdom.

I don’t know why, but bearing your bosom is considered eye-brow raising and – well, slutty. Thais can get away with showing a lot of leg but you should keep your Noam Chomsky’s* under linguistic lock down when teaching (or whenever, really).

Bear in mind, appearances count – a lot. Dress professionally. You won’t regret overdressing. In fact, you’ll regret under-dressing more than anything.

* Noam sounds like the Thai word for milk and breast.(The author is in no way responsible for the damage this imagery may have caused.)

A final note.

After confirming these dos-and-don’ts with my classes, I asked my students if there was anything else I was missing, and was surprised to hear, “don’t swear.”  Of course, the temptation to ask, “Who the fuck is swearing?” was great, but instead I just opened my mouth then closed it again.

I’m afraid I’ve had this lesson already, back in my summer camp work days when the director told me I needed to clean up my mouth before the kids arrived. This was after I said an expletive while dealing with the ever temperamental folding machine. Ever since I started working with children, my “language” hasn’t been a problem. Jing, jing.

I also think it’s important to represent your country well. Perhaps that’s old school thinking, but I’m still for manners and etiquette.

3ss
Enjoy the cultural exchange and experience! @the US Embassy 4th of July

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*any ad that appears after this line is WP, not me. sorry*

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14 thoughts on “Teaching in Thailand Etiquette

  1. I am surprised to hear the course is not considered compulsory here. My school signed me up for it three weeks ago and insisted we all did it!

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    1. Really? How interesting. Sounds like it all depends on where you work. Perhaps it is compulsory if you work for a gov’t school? I work at a lang school, so that might be the difference. Thanks for letting me know!

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  2. Thank you for your article! I would like to add that sitting on classroom tables/desks is unacceptable… and pointing is a bit dubious (Thais use their whole hand, not a finger). Also, licking fingers to separate sheets of paper… I can literally see the disgust on my students’ faces!

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    1. Thank you! We don’t have desks at our school so I wouldn’t have known that but I probably wouldn’t have done that anyway, as it seems ‘unlady-like’ 😛 I wear dresses!

      And OMG, I totally forgot to mention the finger licking! Someone in our TEFL training did that and my friend Debbie (who is from Cambodia) leaned over and said, That’s a definite NO-NO!

      Cheers.

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  3. one that drives me nuts is not being able to show my shoulders. i’m not even talking tank top, i’m talking, just something without sleeves. i have allot of dresses that are very modest, but show shoulders & i have to throw on a sweater even though it’s crazy hot. this drives me up the wall b/c i’ll see old ladies walking around in those post shower sheets, but they are old so it’s ok. for me? slut, hooker. but then girls’ skirts are so short & fluffy i am constantly seeing underwear, something i think should probably be a little more racy than a simple joint that’s not connected to anything mildly reproductive. but then a thai man can whip his junk out for peeing on the side of the road or eh hmmmm other solo activities right out in the open & it’s no big deal. *pulls hair out* i do it anyway so as not to offend & to get treated w/ slightly more respect, but still … when i see thai tv, the sales displays at tesco or something w/ some girl prancing around in platforms & a minuscule dress, i can’t help but get angry about being forced to fit into this pretty sexist double standard where women are only allowed to look feminine if we are selling stuff, on tv, or in a parade, but men can walk around shirtless in shorty shorts playing sepak takraw.

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    1. Absolutely. Double standard. You bring up very good points and if I may be honest, I wear my sleeveless dresses without worrying too much. I bring a shrug or a light sweater but sometimes if it’s too hot, I take those cover ups off. I feel as though a lot of ‘dress codes’ have relaxed. I see open toe shoes and outfits that really are past their prime 😛 but I think overall, you should be comfortable. Students understand what is acceptable and what is old fashioned and what is too much or too little. And they certainly understand when we are feeling too hot!

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      1. yeah, i’m not even a teacher. i was just informed by my thai friends that i was not allowed. i do hope it relaxes more. i let myself get away with it if i’m at the beach or in my garden.

        *keep up the posts

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  4. So, feet are dirty but sneezy, toilet-hand massages are okay? (sorry, I will never be able to let that go) And “Noam Chomskys?” You’ve just burned the retinas of my minds eye. Hope you’re happy, now.

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  5. Awesome! I love hearing about random dos and donts for countries. It’s so interesting to compare the little things. Also, Noam Chomsky lolololol.

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  6. This was a really informative article, thank you! It is so important to arm yourself with knowledge about another culture before you actually go teach/live there; as it makes the transition much easier and enjoyable! I am really looking forward to my time in Thailand 🙂

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