Saturday, September 27, 2008
Intercultural Differences-- An experience in Thailand
This took place several years ago when I was doing the Youth Expedition Project in Thailand, Chiang Mai. During our stay in the village, we had a pair of guides from the village, who were husband and wife, to serve as a bridge between the villagers, the village head and us.
On our second day there, they volunteered to drive a few of us to town to do our grocery shopping. In the supermarket, we were happily placing bread into the trolley but were stopped by our guides (we called them Pii Ann and Pii Tom, Pii being a respectful term used for somebody who is older than you). Pi Tom told us that the bread was expensive and that we should have bought bread from the village instead. In fact, we did not mind paying a little bit more for the bread for the sake of convenience; moreover it was also cheaper than what we paid for in Singapore. However out of respect for his opinion and business opportunities for the villagers, we agreed to buy bread of dubious origins from the village instead (it turned out to be pretty fresh and tasty).
As cooked food cannot be readily bought from the village (we have to cook our own meals), we wanted to buy some cup noodles for anybody who might be hungry between or after meals. However, our guides looked unhappy and said that we were being very wasteful. From our point of view, we felt that we have been thrifty as we picked the ones that were among the cheapest in the supermarket.
From this simple incident, I have observed a few cross-cultural differences, with the most obvious difference being the concept of thrift. There is a Chinese saying that “thrift is a virtue”. I have always thought that being a Chinese and an Asian, we are generally thrifty. Moreover, being budget-constrained students, I thought that my friends and I had been thriftier than the average Singaporeans. I realized that thrift is only a relative concept, affected by not only our values (assuming that my guides viewed thrift as a virtue too) but also our differences in standard of living and expectations.
Thais are generally polite and non confrontational. I feel that the reason why they were willing to show their disapproval in front of us was because we were only 17 years old then, and were viewed as youths/children whom they felt responsible to educate. However, even when they expressed their unhappiness, they never failed to wear their smiles. Over half a month that I’ve spent with the villagers, I have learnt that it is important to look closely at their smiles so as to decipher the meaning behind the different smiles.