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The Culture of Thailand

Posted by Claudio on July 25, 2009 in Living in Thailand |

Thai culture differs vastly from the Western way of life.

Teaching in Thailand demands a solid knowledge of Thai customs to be effective in the classroom. This article covers some of the cultural aspects of Thailand and what they mean in the classroom. To learn more about Thai culture, visit the informative website of the Thai Ministry of Culture.

The Monarchy

The people of Thailand do not just like their king, they love him with deep affection — for good reason. He has done and is doing many great things for the people of Thailand.

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As the longest standing monarch today, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is revered by all Thais and people will simply not tolerate any lack of respect towards any members of the royal family – past or present. If you come from a culture like that in the United Kingdom, where royals are often in the news and are sometimes subject to criticism, be especially careful. Criticism of the king and royal family is not just frowned upon in Thailand; it is against Thailand’s tough lèse majesté law.

Every classroom in Thailand displays pictures of the king and queen. Typically these images are placed higher than any other image in the room. When you place posters on the wall, make sure you always hang them lower than the images of the members of the royal family.

Schools are closed on August 12th to observe the birthday of H.M. The Queen (which is also Mother’s Day in Thailand) and on December 5th to observe the birthday of H.M. The King.

Religion

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The culture of Thailand is strongly influenced by Buddhism, which respects ancestral and natural spirits. Most Thai people own spirit houses, miniature wooden houses in which the household spirits live. They present food and drink as offerings to these spirits to keep them happy. If these spirits aren’t happy, it is believed that they will inhabit the larger household, and cause chaos. These spirit houses can also be found in public places and in the streets of Thailand, where the public make offerings.

Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school, though Buddhism in this country has become integrated with folk beliefs such as ancestor worship as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese population. Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stupas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand shares cultural and historical heritage.

There are numerous buddhist holidays throughout the year. Schools are typically closed during those celebrations.

Food and Drink

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Thai cuisine is famous for blending four basic tastes: sweet, spicy hot, sour, and salty. Many of the dishes in Thailand combine many, if not all, of these tastes. This is accomplished by using a wide variety of herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Some of the distinct ingredients of Thai cuisine are coconut milk, chili, peanuts, and Nam Pla, a fermented fish sauce used instead of salt. Some Thai dishes can be ultra spicy. If you have a low tolerance for spicy food, be sure the ask for non-spicy (Mai Phet) before ordering.

Many Thai dishes contain a good amount of garlic and onions. Needless to say, as a teacher you should always carry mints to ensure your breath in the classroom won’t give away what you had for lunch.

Sport

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In general, many Thais like sports. There are some sports specific to Thailand, such as Muay Thai (Thai Boxing), and Takraw, which is similar to volleyball, but played with the feet and a light rattan ball. The most popular sport in Thailand, however, is football (soccer). Not national football, but rather European football. English clubs have large followings in Thailand with Manchester United and Liverpool topping the list of favorites.

As a teacher, even if you’re not interested in football, it’s worthwhile to become vaguely familiar with some of the names out there. Turn to the sports section once in a while and see what’s going on in the world of English football. It can only help you build rapport with your students…

Customs

The Wai

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One of the most distinctive Thai customs is the wai, which consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. Showing greeting, farewell, or acknowledgment, it comes in several forms reflecting the relative status of those involved. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing.

In the picture, you see Ronald McDonald greeting customers to his burger shop with a customary wai. It’s paying attention to those details and understanding the culture (while still being uniquely foreign) that makes McDonalds popular all over the world.

In general, you do not wai a child and a younger person should wai an older person first. At school, return a wai from your students with a nod and, of course, a big smile.

Head and Feet

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Whereas in the west a friendly pat on the head, especially the head of someone a bit younger than you, will be regarded as a friendly and supportive gesture, in Thailand any gesture towards the head will cause Thais to recoil and will be greeted with shock and possibly annoyance. Thais regard the head as the highest part of the body – the temple of the body as it were. As such touching someone’s head is entirely unacceptable. Also, don’t pass out material over the heads of your student’s.

Whereas the head is the highest point of the body, the feet are the lowest. Do not point at things with your feet, and do not point the palms of your feet at anyone. Do not expose the sole of your shoes. If you want to teach parts of a shoe, do not lift up your foot and start pointing. Rather, bring in one shoe as a model. Bring a funny shoe, perhaps an oversize clown shoe, and you’ll get some extra laughs.

Although students often take off their shoes (and line them up neatly outside) before entering a classroom, as a teacher, you will keep your shoes on.

Teeth and Mouth

sbp_students113Generally, Thais do not like to expose their teeth and mouth, except for a heart warming smile. Showing ones tongue seems out of the question. After a meal, if in need for a toothpick, they will use one hand to cover up their mouth carefully. Sometimes you’ll even notice people (especially women) covering their mouths while laughing.

In the classroom, however, you simply have to show your teeth and mouth. Acknowledge that you understand that this is not natural for Thai people, but that it’s okay in the classroom. Speaking English often requires making funny faces while speaking and making some jokes about this will loosen the classroom and get the students over a resistance to show their teeth and tongue.

General Tips for the Thai Classroom

Always smile and take things easy. Thais are of a very laid back nature, which is expressed through language with “Mai Pen Rai – never mind” and “Jai Yen Yen – take it easy”.

Be patient and tolerant. Thais display a commendable amount of these qualities. Observe and learn!

Don’t point to people with your index finger or a pen. Rather, use an open-handed gesture to point in someone’s direction.

Never, ever, ever lose your temper or shout. For some people, this is easier said than done, but Thais do not easily lose their heads at anything or everything. To lose one’s temper is most unbecoming of the person and thought of as a person with low character or poor upbringing.

Don’t ask students “Do you understand?” You never get a “no” answer. Rather check for understanding. Instead of asking “Do you understand the word beach?”, ask “Where are some of the best beaches in Thailand?” This will give you the information you’re looking for without the need for direct questions and the possibility of somebody losing face.

Unless you speak it well, keep away from using the Thai language in the classroom. There is a very high chance that those words you know in Thai are already part of your student’s English vocabulary. If not, they most likely should be. Let them hear and speak the English version of those words.

Understanding your host country’s culture will be a never ending process of discovery. There will be some times when you might step into an embarrassing situation because your unfamiliarity with a certain aspect of the Thai culture. Don’t dwell on it. Learn from it, laugh about it, add it to your collection of experiences, and — if you have the time — write about it here by leaving a comment.

To read further about Thai culture, visit the informative website of the Thai Ministry of Culture.

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