Leaving home to move to a different country, whether it be for teaching, volunteering, or studying, can be a stressful and sometimes overwhelming endeavor. When the country you're moving to is completely foreign and different than your own, it makes that move even more challenging.
The challenges of becoming an expat are also part of the fun, but it pays to do your research beforehand and learn as much as possible about the culture of the country you're moving to. Thailand, while very much on the tourist trail and with plenty of western amenities and cultural influence, is still much different than what we're used to at home. Simple acts and movements that seem normal to us can be offensive to the Thai people, so it's important to read up and educate yourself on the nuances of this completely different culture.
Learning the Language
Exercising a bit of common sense is the first step to fitting in while moving to a place like Thailand. A smile and friendly demeanor can go a long way, and while the language is completely different, it is still important to try to at least learn the basics. Taking a language class or two will get you even further and will enable you to immerse yourself more fully into their culture. You'll be amazed at the impact trying to speak the language has on the local people. The Thais are extremely friendly and are used to westerners visiting and living in their country, so many can speak and understand English. But entering a restaurant or shop and trying to speak Thai will be met with smiles and enthusiasm. They love to hear a foreigner give it a shot, and most will try their hardest to help you out, making the effort well worth the anxiety.
Society and Culture in Thailand
Religion and family are at the forefront of Thai culture, and both impact how you should act. Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand, and the country is littered with beautiful, ornate temples that you are sure to visit during your time there. Dressing appropriately when visiting a temple in Thailand is of the utmost importance. Shoes must be taken off before entering, and you should show as little skin as possible.
Family is the cornerstone of Thai society, and families seem to be much closer in Thailand than in most western cultures. Children are taught to respect and honor their parents, and that hierarchical model blends to the rest of society as well. Even in social relationships, one person is typically superior to the other, based on things like age and status. Employees are taught to respect and be subordinate to their bosses, students to teachers, and children to parents. When first meeting a Thai, you may be asked questions that seem much too personal for an initial encounter. They do this so they can try to place you within a certain hierarchy and thus know how to properly treat you. Things like clothing, age, education, and career all have an effect on social status and how people are treated, and it's important to know and understand this part of the society, particularly if you will be living and working with Thais.
Thai Etiquette and Customs
The Thai people are generally very courteous and friendly, hence the moniker Land of Smiles. Being outwardly polite and respectful is expected in Thailand, and public displays of anger and frustration, particularly while being loud, is greatly frowned upon. The Thai people are very non-confrontational, so if you ever have a dispute with a local, raising your voice and getting angry is not the way to handle it. Losing face is seen as a disgrace, so compromising is of the utmost importance. Remaining calm, smiling, and not raising your voice during any type of conflict is the way to handle tough situations in Thailand. No matter how mad you are or how wronged you feel, it's crucial to remember this aspect of their culture. Your dispute will be settled much quicker by remaining calm and friendly.
Important Differences Between Cultures
The wai, which is the traditional form of greeting in Thailand, is given by the person with lower social status. The wai is a sign of respect, and learning how to properly do it is important. You raise both hands with palms together and fingers pointing upwards as if you are praying, then you bow your head until it touches your thumbs. If a local Thai person offers the wai, it is respectful to return it.
If you are ever invited to a local's house, it may be a good idea to bring a gift. It is certainly not expected, but it is very much appreciated. When arriving, pay attention to what the host is wearing. If he or she is not wearing shoes inside, then you should also take your shoes off before entering. If there for a meal, leaving a little bit of food on your plate shows that you are full, though leaving rice on the place is seen as wasteful. It also considered rude to take the last portion from a serving bowl, and it's important to wait to be asked before serving yourself seconds.
There are countless small things that we do without thinking on an everyday basis that could greatly offend a Thai person. For instance, the head is seen as sacred, so you should never touch the head of a Thai person (you shouldn't even touch the head of an inanimate object-like a statue or painting). On the flip side, the foot is seen as low, so you should never touch the foot or point your foot in the direction of someone or something, particularly a picture of the royal family or any Buddha statue. It's also important never to put your feet up on a table or anything similar.
When it comes to the king and royal family, not only is it impolite to criticize or disparage, it's a crime. You should probably just avoid speaking about the king, the royal family, or the monarchy all together.
Moving to a country where the traditions, cultures, and daily interactions are completely different can be stressful. But with a little preparation and education, you could be well on your way to fitting in perfectly when you make that move to Thailand.