Pattanasi Saengsi (Maem) is a Bangkok native who has been teaching Thai to business executives and expat housewives since 1995 and has worked both independently and for various language schools. In addition to her extensive teaching experience, Khun Maem has also developed or worked on various Thai language curricula. She talked candidly to Naked Farang about the strange aliens who have landed in her beautiful country.
Khun Pattanasi (aka Maem) is a Thai who finds herself surrounded by farangs in her native Bangkok. She works with them, teaches them the Thai language and has many farang friends. I decided to find out just what she really thinks of these crazy aliens, and I got more than a few surprises.
I was initially worried that Maem would be too graeng jai (considerate) and that she might not give me her true feelings for fear of offending me, but all that time spent with farangs seems to have taken its toll on her cultural identity and she spoke surprisingly frankly.
Maem’s first observation was that she found farangs to be more proactive than Thais. OK, this is a good start, I thought. She said that Thais have a very “mai pen rai” (it doesn’t matter) attitude. They are more laid back, and this means that they will wait until something goes wrong before trying to do something about it. Farangs, on the other hand, would often try to predict potential pitfalls so that they could prevent them from happening.
Another distinction between Thais and farangs that she highlighted was our diverse attitudes to punctuality. Anyone who has spent time in Thailand has encountered this particular distinction and may well have lost face as a result through letting their annoyance show. Oh, it’s a cultural minefield we tread!
Again, Thais have a more relaxed attitude and will regularly arrive late for appointments without thinking anything of it. This is just the way it is in Thailand, and many farangs find this hard to come to terms with at first. Maem explained how she had found herself having to adapt her Thainess when she began teaching farangs after a Swiss student would not wait for her if she was even two minutes late for a lesson. We shared a quip about cuckoo clocks at this point, but I’ll leave you to make your own jokes here so as not to offend cultural sensitivities.
While farangs might sometimes view Thais as being lazy, Thais see farangs as being too uptight and this was further exemplified by Maem’s next comments. “Farangs care much more about safety than Thais.” I felt that this needed some clarification, which I duly received as she made me realise how desensitized I had become to the Thai psyche.
She showed me a photograph of a Bangkok street scene with a whole mess of electricity wires dangling and badly connected like some manic squid-ink spaghetti sculpture. It should have shocked me but somehow didn’t. An obvious point that I had clearly overlooked was also explained to me when Maem mentioned that Thai plugs only have two pins because Thais don’t feel the need to have an earth point. Thais do like to gamble, I know, but maybe it’s more innate than I had realised.
When I asked Maem if she had any cultural anecdotes to share, she showed me more pictures she had recently taken of things that she found strange. The first was of two English teachers sitting and chatting. To the untrained farang observer, there seemed nothing out of the ordinary but, on adopting the Thai perspective, a cultural taboo was being carelessly broken. One of the teachers in the picture was sitting with his left ankle resting on his right knee in a position that many farangs adopt when relaxing. This stance meant that the sole of his foot was directly facing the second teacher, something that is considered extremely rude in Thai culture.
Even though I am well aware of this custom, the fact that Maem had been compelled to snap it underlined just how strongly Thais feel about this, and made me think about the social blunders we farangs blithely bestow on our hosts. It makes me cringe sometimes to see it, and ignorance is an excuse that quickly wears thin.
In Thai culture, the soles of the feet are deemed unclean and the lowest part of the body, spiritually as well as physically – something to remember next time you cross your legs on the sky-train or put your feet on the back of the drivers seat in a tuk-tuk.
Next, I decided to find out what working with farangs was like from the Thai viewpoint. Maem told me that farangs seem able to separate work from their personal lives more easily than Thais. For example, if a farang didn’t like someone, they could still work with that person and be productive. In contrast, Thais find it very hard to work with someone if they disapprove of their lifestyle or habits, whether these are work-related or not.
There was more. “Farangs will try to do things themselves even if they can afford to pay someone else to do it.” Again, I was confused and needed help with this one. I was shown another photo of a company director attempting some very basic DIY in the office. To me this seemed reasonable, but to Maem it was strange that a director wouldn’t just hire someone to do the work for him. I have known Maem for about eight years, but I was learning a lot during this short interview.
I asked her if she had any advice for farangs so that they might blend in more easily, and she offered up some gems. “Farangs should be prepared to climb down and not explode when things don’t go their way,” she said in direct reference to the loss of face caused in Thai culture by showing anger or frustration in public.
Maem’s final two tips were not to use a fork to shovel food into the mouth because it looks ridiculous, and not to kiss in public because it makes her jealous. The first was partially intended as a friendly jibe at the farang acquaintance eating within earshot of us. Her sense of humour has certainly developed from continued exposure to farangs it seems.
Khun Pattanasi Saengsi was talking to Paul Snowdon (October 2007)