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“When in Rome … ” begins the truism about how to behave in foreign lands. We’ve all heard and understood this. It makes sense. When visiting another place, one will fit in and be loved by embracing the customs of those living there.
But what may start as an endearing and commendable effort – learning some language, meeting some social expectations – can become annoying to the very natives whose approval is sought. Behind one’s back, the whispers begin: You’ve gone native.
For Thais, navigating society’s ground rules is difficult enough. But those rules are learned from birth, enabling people to find their peg in the social hierarchy. As junior members slowly work their way up through age and position, the rituals become easier. To wai or receive a wai, to stoop when passing, to never stand over someone your senior – all of these teachings are ingrained.
Keen observers can instantly read who’s who from body language, without needing introductions to know everyone’s place in the pecking order.
Enter the foreigner, who upon arrival in the kingdom hears or reads about the many cultural dos and dont’s and substitutes hard cultural learning with a travel blog post titled “Top 10 Thailand Dos and Don’ts.”
Soon positive feedback is won for a few superficial gestures as novelty and intrigue leads to a false sense of being accepted.
Most Thais react warmly to efforts to learn the language and customs. It’s a great show-off to friends and family to derive much “face” from. From foreign ambassadors to engineers and teachers, newcomers who demonstrate they’ve learned some subtleties of custom are applauded.
Take “James,” a towering American hunk of upper middle-class upbringing with an Ivy League education. For all his good intentions, he looks awkward when he hunches over to wai someone clearly his junior. Or clumsy when he only offers one wai while everyone is trading them in multiple upon saying goodbye, because he thinks one should be enough.
After years in Thailand, indications of his Christian upbringing are replaced by meditation, traditional medicine and sunrise alms-giving at his local temple. His determined stride is replaced by a shuffled gait and opinionated philosophy become internal monologue no longer expressed to others.
Then there’s those who feast on the attention and just keep going. Like those with Viking spirit from the northern hemisphere who gain fame and fortune as acclaimed country singers. Or the loved-and-hated American YouTubers or droll Australian writers, all admirable for their Herculean efforts to be as Thai as possible.
Here’s where I’d urge restraint to: Lavish them with too much praise and risk seeing them “go native.”
When people “go native,” they risk partially entering an unfamiliar group only to find their own kind also don’t like it. Shedding one’s identity so effortlessly suggests little value placed on one’s tribe in the first place. People wonder why and question where the line is drawn. To please the natives, that’s understood, but if it’s to shed despised traits for complete reinvention of self?
What was endearing to the natives may eventually become annoying, even demeaning.
As Thais, we are small in stature, admire Western success, send our children overseas for education if we can, and try to hold on to our traditions while moving toward modern Western success. To suddenly see those we admire abandon their personas and take ours to the n’th degree confounds the mind. Have they moved so far forward only to step back? Surely if our culture and traditions are so coveted by Western ideals, why are we so slow to succeed?
So go ahead and show some thoughtful deference to your adopted country, but stay committed to your legacy, keep your identity and find your dignity intact and much-admired for doing so.