From Thailand to The Philippines…culture shock? Not what I expected but here’s what I scribbled in my notebook as my mind unraveled my first week in.
What Threw Me
1. Being Literate
Billboards, storefronts, ingredients on packaging, t-shirts and receipts are among the beautiful expressions of one’s surroundings that ceased being objects with interesting long-tailed symbols and blossomed into direct communicative transmissions.
2. Being Touched
My experience of Thai culture has been one where the parameters of one’s personal space with non relatives in the public sphere are very defined. For example, I recall watching a YouTube piece where a Foreign female friend of mine engaged in a mutual pinky swear with a Thai male whom she was neither related to nor dating. I gasped. Out loud. In shock and in horror like some weird, repressed version of myself I never want to be.
Because without thinking with my Western brain, I viewed the act as bold flirting, not the pinky swear in itself, but the touching of hands between the two of them. I instantly thought of her boyfriend and wondered how he felt about it. My own reaction surprised and frankly horrified me (i.e. there was judgement in my reaction), but was indicative of a small part of my cultural assimilation (unbeknownst to me).
Generally, these definitions are more prominent between males and females but aside from a blindly drunk lesbian pinching my ass, a few Thai guys filled with liquid courage putting an arm or two around me for iPhone pics and my thirteen year old clinching partner trying to wrestle my head to the floor, the last Thai national I remember making contact with me was Mama Lek at Sitmonchai Gym at least five months ago (I got a hug). Incidentally, I got hit with a hug approximately sixteen hours after stepping off the plane in Manila (by Elaine of Surfista Travels). How did I react? Awkwardly. How did I react two days later when the female owner of Lola Nanny’s, a San Juan resort warmly clasped my forearm after I thanked her? I flinched.
3. Catching Myself Trying To Imitate The Pinoy Accent
Thai language is tonal, meaning a mono-syllabic word can have five tonal manifestations, with definitions not remotely relating to one another. As an extension of this, the majority of Thais I’ve met hear English in the same manner. What this means is, it isn’t uncommon to meet people who will ask you the one basic question the majority have retained from school, What is your name? always said with the same tone and timed spaces between the words. If you respond the way you speak English in your home country (native English speakers included), there’s a definite shot your answer, if replied in a sentence will be received with a blank stare.
What is effective, if not mandatory, is replying exactly (tone, etc.) how you’ve heard the majority of locals speak, not how you’ve been speaking your entire life, should you choose to answer in a sentence. This is also true of most English words that are present in Thai language (i.e. ice cream) when speaking to people with standardized education and limited experience with Foreigners. I’ve adapted by acutely listening and trying to mimic what I hear with no deviation.
I didn’t realize how natural this had become until I was doing it in the back of a jeepney a few hours after hitting Manila. I asked the Filipina sitting beside me if we were en-route to a specific destination. She responded sounding more Western than I did (she was local).
4. Sleeping In The Same Room As A Boy
One Filipina, one Filipino, me and four bunk beds (two sets) all in one room. No screwfaces, no long stares, no giggles received from those witnessing us going in and out of our hotel room. The weirdness came when I realized I was expecting it.
5. Creepers at the ATM.
I got hit up by a chick begging at the first ATM I hit, located in San Fernando. I think she was rocked on some substance and felt comfortable standing beside me while I tried to get my money and wouldn’t leave despite me ordering her to. Another chick eventually stood beside her, watching my hands on the ATM console. My personal space was definitely invaded, my patience tried. Annoying, but in retrospect not a big deal, other than the fact that I silently freaked out on the trip back with the Filipino (guy) that accompanied me.
My reaction shocked me.
After arriving at the hotel we were staying at and venting to the group I made the trip with from Manila (thanks for listening guys) in addition to some introspection, I realized what shook me wasn’t so much the fear of being mugged, rather it was the complete (perceived) loss of power.
The Thailand I’ve become accustomed to is one where as a Foreigner you must accept the fact that Western ideals of justice have little to no bearing on your life here. For example, based on my experiences multiplied by the experiences of friends and acquaintances who live here (not travelers, people) consistently met over the years, should anything go down, in any manner, from a motor vehicle accident, to slander, to a physical confrontation, it will be deemed the Foreigner’s fault the vast majority of times, if not close to all. Locals, on average seem to protect one another regardless of circumstance. This may include witnesses.
For example, should the San Fernando ATM situation have occurred in Thailand and one or both of the women had laid a hand on me and I reacted aggressively (including shoving or backhanding one of them), there is a large shot that would be justification for any number of locals in the vicinity to lay a beating on me. Then me landing in the station, should the police arrive.
They, meaning anyone involved, may have not witnessed the initial act that caused my response, but they would clearly see or hear a Foreigner (a.k.a. Outsider) laying her hands on one of their people. Group mentality is a definite threat in Thailand, which became more real to me as the years passed here, and the travel book portrayal of the Land of Smiles became one of many possibilities, not reality.
So what does this all mean? I got hit with a hard reality check and deep within the confines of the unconscious, fear manifested in the following two questions:
1. If this is what happens when I’m accompanied by a local male (gender often plays a role from my experience, meaning traveling with a male often protects a woman traveling alone from BS), then what will happen when I’m alone?
2. If the women had moved from begging to mugging me, what were my choices?
Anyone I’ve relayed the story to at time of writing both local and Foreign have told me that my story in unusual, uncommon. Either way, it was one heavy peek into what has become naturalized in my brain.
What was no longer compartmentalized to one culture but followed me to another.
Read the next memoir, How I Overdosed In A Filipino Hospital, here.
Read the previous memoir, Notes From The Road, Bangkok, here.
For San Juan hotel reviews and info, check out my post Surfing The Philippines.
Shama Kern says
The trick to being understood in Thailand in my experience is this:
1. Speak slowly
2. Don’t use tenses, only the present tense, just as in the Thai language
3. Don’t use the -s- in the plural and the third person
4. Cut out all unnecessary filler words
5. Only use simple words
I have watched so many foreigners here in Thailand violate all those rules, and it was funny for me watching the Thais smile and act as it they understood while the foreigner kept talking although I could clearly see that it totally went right past the Thai’s comprehension.
Joni Francisco says
Hi! I found your story very interesting (including your posts about Thai). I’m a Filipina living in Manila and I went to La Union to surf. I actually traveled alone and experienced some BS moments too, while I was there.