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.


anuj said...

It's great to read your blog. I heard about Thailand it’s a nice place for holidays. I know you enjoyed a lot because it’s a very lovely place where we can relax and enjoy.

Hui Xuan said...

Hey OXY,

you mention that "Even when Thais expressed their unhappiness, they never failed to wear their smiles and that it is important to look closely at their smiles so as to decipher the meaning behind the different smiles."

It sounds like you really need to be skilled at non-verbal communication skills in order to really understand the real meaning behind their smile. I think this is a bit scary. I would rather they show me their unhappy faces when they are displease. At least I would be very certain that they are unhappy with me. Probably this is due to the cultural difference between me and them.

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, Oxy, for presenting this astute analysis of a scenario from your Youth Expedition Project. Yes, I agree, too that your age might have been a factor in the displeasure your Thai hosts showed.

Were you actually doing a work project? Was it service travel? I'd like to know more about this.

Oxy said...

although I do not know who you are, thanks for commenting. Yes, it was a very lovely place with warm and friendly folks. I believe that it was more so because I went to the village instead of tourist attractions. Hopefully, the recent political unrest have not tarnish the beautiful image that Thailand had in people's mind.

Oxy said...

Hello Hui Xuan,

Yes it is definitely challenging, but being Chinese, I feel that this is actually not new to us. At times, Chinese can be pretty non-confrontational as well, and it is not hard to come by smiles with hidden messages, to hide anger or embarrassment, in Singapore as well.

Oxy said...

Hi Brad,

I did not take their displeasure to heart because I felt that they meant no malice, it was more like a 'concern' for an elder to a younger. Moreover, I was glad that they showed their displeasure rather than hide them because that made it easier for us to understand them.

I was there for a 'community service' to help the village in their waste management. They did not have proper was disposal system and they simply threw rubbish into streams or along the roads.
Our job there was to teach them about sorting rubbish such that they can make compost out of their wet waste, reuse whatever that can be reused, collect all those that can be recycled and finally burn the remaining. Thus we also built two small incinerators(simple brick structures without air filters/converters) and a multi-purpose hall for them to store their recyclables.

Although it was claimed to be a community service, I felt that we have gained so much more ourselves in terms of character building, team work, leadership and also learning to respect others and embracing differences.

Brad Blackstone said...

Interesting project!

Did village people "listen" to you regarding their waste practices, you being so much younger, and a foreigner?

Yu Ming said...

Dear Oxy,

I think another reason why your host thought it would be a waste to buy the instant noodles is due to the fact that you were all guest at their village then. Usually, making sure that the guest are well treated and given more than enough to eat is a norm in Asia. Hence, possibly by purchasing the noodles you implied that your host were not capable of treating you all well enough. That is why whenever I stay with a friend's family while traveling around, I make sure to pack my 'emergency food' along beforehand and hide it from their sights:)