A few months ago, I was watching my students give presentations on their senior projects and one stood out, in particular, a girl who had decided to create a booklet with basic English phrases and translations to teach to first responders to use in their every day jobs as paramedics. One of the reasons she gave for choosing this topic was the typical Thai fear of Farang (ฝรั่ง – which means Western, foreigner and funnily enough, guava) and how the local people avoid encounters with foreigners. Even my girlfriend, who I’ve been with for two and a half years, dreads social interactions with foreigners that she doesn’t already know.
I hadn’t thought much about this fear since moving here in 2013, but things were starting to become more apparent after listening to this girl’s senior project speech. I started thinking about times in bars and restaurants when the wait staff would nudge their colleagues to come and take my order rather than do it themselves, people refusing to listen to me speaking Thai with them, girls turning on their heels when they discovered I could understand them, and even my ex-boss trying to turn the Thai staff against the foreigners by spreading gossip.
There are underlying aspects of Thai culture that do create a xenophobic view of Farang, but they can be explained and understood to some extent. There is a feeling of uneasiness when it comes to the interactions between some Thais and foreigners, but obviously it would be too generalising to label all Thai people as being scared of Farang. So, it’s quite important to remember that I am writing generally and not about the outliers who aren’t afraid.
Thailand is very proud of its military history and boasts about not having been colonised when all of the surrounding nations like Myanmar, Cambodia and Malaysia were colonised. Thailand was spare colonial oppression probably due to a number of factors but most importantly because it acted as somewhat of a buffer state between the British Empire and French Indochina. The fact that Thailand was never officially invaded and colonised did indeed help the country remain traditional culturally and linguistically. Nowadays we see Thailand being behind its neighbours in its level of English proficiency but we also see a lot more media coming from within Thailand than say Cambodia or Laos.
Thailand’s insularity has created a modern problem in the form of a language barrier. English is becoming increasingly important and is even the official language of ASEAN (Southeast Asia’s version of NAFTA or the EU), so it is imperative that the younger generations of Thailand are able to understand and communicate in English. Fortunately, they are addressing this, with hundreds of schools employing native English speakers and there being an uncountable number of language schools around the country. With access to the internet and new technologies, children now have an incredible amount of ways to learn a language and I’m sure we’ll see more and more Thai people speaking English.
However, the Thai employees who don’t work with foreign tourists directly in their daily lives, usually have little motivation to learn English after they leave school and once they see a Farang in their shop/restaurant/bar they will shy away from trying to communicate with them as they believe that they may embarrass themselves in front of their peers. Thai peoples’ biggest fear is ‘losing face’, which means to lose the respect of others; to be humiliated or experience public disgrace.
Having tried my whole adult life to learn new languages and having been slightly successful in a couple, the most important process in learning a new language is just throwing yourself in the deep end and embarrassing yourself by making mistakes and probably saying some stupid things. But this is probably a Thai person’s worst nightmare.
Two of the first phrases I learned when I came to Thailand was ‘jai yen’ (ใจเย็น – cold-hearted) and ‘jai rawn’ (ใจร้อน – hot-hearted). These phrases are best compared to cool-headed and hot-headed. In Thailand it is seen as desirable to be ‘jai yen’ because as I’ve spoken about in earlier posts, they are a non-confrontational culture and would rather avoid conflict.
Most Thai people, from my experience, are under the impression that most Farang are ‘jai rawn’, probably due to our cultures being somewhat more confrontational. Especially tourists who can be easily riled when their holiday doesn’t go exactly as they planned. During my time here, I’ve certainly met a lot of foreign teachers who are confrontational but I have met just as many who would rather avoid conflict, just like the locals.
Working with teachers from all over the English speaking world and even some from other European countries, it would seem that the ones who stay the longest and have the most successful and settled lives here are all relatively conflict-averse but that’s not to say that other people aren’t able to settle here.
Is it Really Fear?
To be honest, the term ‘fear’ is thrown about when talking about Thai peoples’ thoughts on foreigners and it could be due to just poor translation. While ‘na gua’ (น่ากลัว – scary) is often used to describe foreigners and can be overheard in many a social situation, it doesn’t quite convey the whole feeling in my opinion.
The words ‘apprehension’ or ‘weariness’ would better sum up the Thai feelings towards Farang in a much more apt manner. The local people don’t run away screaming from me as I walk down the road like an admittedly pale ghost with a large beard. Instead, they just expect that I can’t understand them and believe that we won’t be able to communicate properly. The expectations of losing face turn Thai people away from Westerners but I’m sure over time, with the level of English amongst the younger generation becoming higher, these misconceptions will fade and Thais will lose their apprehensions when it comes to communicating with foreigners.