7 Things Thais Think Westerners Do (That We Almost Always Don’t)
In a land whose capital is ranked the “most visited city in the world,” racial and national stereotypes necessarily abound. To be fair, even this article is an exhibition of cultural generalizations. As most will agree, however, generalizations are often rooted in reality. Let’s examine seven of the most untrue generalizations that Thai people often make about Westerners and perhaps shed some light on the perspectives and underlying assumptions that have brought them into being.
1. We put ketchup on everything.
We have all been there: eating at Pizza Company or a similar establishment with Thai friends. When the pizza comes, one of your local mates douses a slice of it with ketchup and sweet Thai mayonnaise and seems surprised when you don’t do the same. Now, despite the fact that I am from New York, I am not a pizza purist. I enjoy deep dish as much as thin crust, pineapple is completely acceptable on pizza, and I’m not bothered by what other people put on their own slices. But there is something that seems inherently wrong with expecting me to cheapen a slice of cheesy goodness with the most basic and utilitarian of condiments.
Consider a second example: I was eating at a Thai owned and operated Italian restaurant, which I had already visited and enjoyed several times before. As I was exploring their redesigned menu, I came across a dish that immediately diminished my appetite: “Spaghetti with Ketchop [sic] Sauce.” It occurred to me that perhaps many Thai people think ketchup and tomato sauce are the same thing.
To me, ketchup is something that is eaten with fries or chips and can be used to enhance the flavor of cheap, tasteless food. In the states, my sauce of choice is cayenne pepper sauce, but I would prefer HP or even Thai sweet Chilli sauce over ketchup in almost any situation.
2. We wave with both hands simultaneously.
The generic Western wave does not have rules of hierarchically dictated social etiquette like the Thai Wai, but you can certainly do it wrong. Flapping your limp-wristed flippers out in front of you like a half-trained Sea Lion is one way.
Dear Thai people: don’t do this. It looks ridiculous.
3. We come to Thailand because we are wealthy back home.
I’m not going to moan about scammers preying on tourists or the infamous dual pricing system. What I want to address is the misconception that a Westerner with deep pockets seeking to expatriate their country would be likely to choose Thailand. True it is that many of us (myself included) are attracted by the easy-going lifestyle and loose social mores of the land of smiles. Most often, however, a prospective expat chooses Thailand as their new home for exactly the opposite reason: because their income or pension does not go far enough in their home country. Despite all the charms of this place, if I had a USD six-figure salary and the ability to live wherever I wanted, it would probably be in a country where I’m less likely to die on the roads and where I can get an education for my children which meets with international standards.
4. We can’t eat spicy food.
Okay, there is some truth in this. A fair number of fair-skinned foreigners have no tolerance for capsaicin and avoid spicy food like the plague. I’ve never understood those people. Most Westerners have some tolerance and taste for dishes that are “pet-pet.” Even the winner of the this year’s Som Tam Chilli Challenge was a Westerner and fellow New Yorker, who consumed a plate of papaya salad with a staggering 45 bird chillies. Problems arise, however, when EVERY dish is spicy.
Thai food is arguably my favorite world cuisine, but it is characterized by very particular practices. The five major flavors, spicy (“pet”), sweet (“wahn”), salty (“khem”), bitter (“khom”), and sour (“preeow”) are added liberally together in almost every national dish, from Pad Thai to Tom Yum Goong. For Westerners, it becomes an issue not of intensity, but variety. Western cuisine often separates these flavors between dishes or courses. This becomes most evident with the number of dishes here that are loaded with sugar: soups, stir-fries, salads, steak sauces, breads, even the mayonnaise is sickly sweet. Sugar has its place. So too do chillies. Just not in every dish, please.
5. We can’t speak Thai.
I’ve lived in Thailand for half a decade now, and while I’m no expert in the Thai language, I’ve taken the time to learn basic conversation and reading skills. This is largely for my own convenience (as I live up-country), but also because I wish to show respect to the culture and people who have hosted me. But hen I go into a shop, order food or a drink (in Thai), and the server silently retreats into the back to find the owner or a coworker who speaks a few words of English, only to return and discover that I had been addressing them in their mother tongue the entire time, I become visibly annoyed.
I understand that my pronunciation is not perfect, but I’m also convinced that many Thais, especially those who are young and have never lived in a tourist area, have difficulty rationalizing Thai words coming out of a foreign mouth. To be honest, I prefer when someone hears me speak a few words in Thai and launches into full-speed colloquial Isaan, because at least this presents me with a potential learning experience.
6. We need to be driven everywhere.
I was walking down Sukhumvit during one particularly quiet low season, when a Tuk Tuk driver blocked my path. “Where you go?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just walking.”
“No. Not good for you, Farang. Too hot. Your skin will be dark.”
I had to duck around him to get past. It seems that walking any considerable distance is considered low class. The idea of walking for leisure must be completely foreign. Heaven forbid you get a tan.
That brings me to my last point…
7. We think light skin is more beautiful.
You see them everywhere: On billboards, Thai television, Facebook videos. They are the tall, light-skinned, absurdly augmented (breasts, nose, lips, chin, eyes, etc.), light-skinned Thai “pretties” of every man’s dream. Correction: of every THAI man’s dream.
For my part, I am turned off. Every time I see a viral Facebook live stream of one of these “pretties” showing off, she seems to spend several minutes pretending to check her makeup, before maybe gyrating half-heartedly and biting her lip in some talentless “sexy dance” that does little to mask the sheer narcissism lying just below the surface of her artificially whitened skin.
The persistent commonality is that none of these women seem to have any discernable life skills. Another example: you are scrolling down your news feed, and you catch sight of a Thai pretty with excessive silicone attempting to make use of the ever-phallic Thai pestle to make Som Tam. It matters little that she handles the pestle with a limp wrist and her little finger in the air, having clearly never used one before. It seems light skin and a couple of plastic accessories qualify as life skills, and if a man can woo one of these trophy wives, it will cement his status as “hi-so.”
When a Westerner marries a Thai lady, however, she is more often petite, has attained a functional knowledge of English through extensive practice, and either has dark skin or isn’t striving toward the goal of becoming a lily-white status symbol. It is worth noting that we come from countries where both men and women pay good money to bake themselves in human-sized ovens until their skin is bronze in color.
I suppose the grass is indeed always greener on the other side…
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