One year ago I moved to Thailand with the intension of only staying for 5 -6 months. With such a short time span in mind I admit I was a little less engaged when it came to learning Thai culture and language. Don’t get me wrong I definitely wanted to learn as much as I could, taking intensive Thai language courses and living in a home stay for a month, however I wasx just not aware or ready for the minutia and subtleties of working and living in Thailand.
Coming from a western mindset I expected everything to run smoothly, people to be direct with communication and emotions, and take responsibility. At first I was ignorant to what I was doing wrong, for instance trying to shake peoples hands instead of “whying” or pointing my feet at people (the feet are considered dirty and its disrespectful to point them at others.) For the most part people accepted my childlike behavior, however when I was asked to come back to CMRCA after my initial internship period there was a shift in the way people in the office viewed me. By agreeing to come back people saw that I was here for the long haul and as such were more critical of my cultural faux pas.
Some things still are hard for me to conceptualize. The big ones I have encountered are ideas of responsibility, communication, and motivation. Most of these issues have to do with a complicated cultural history. Thailand is an industrial country, unlike many western countries which have shifted to non-industrialization in recent years, exporting manufacturing to SE Asia. This shift is primarily due to the rapid economic growth that has happened in the last 30 - 40 years. This rapid change has not only affected the standard of living, but also a large migration of rural residents to larger cities. Imagine being a rice farmer with no education and moving to a city where wages are higher. Now imagine that you have no proper training in any discipline except farming, having to pick up plumbing, welding, construction, working with computers, etc on the fly. This is a huge socio-economic and intellectual leap for anyone. Agrarian systems also promoted a sense of dependence on a number of uncontrollable factors, such as rainfall, flooding, natural disasters, etc. Classic Thai style is to just say "mai pben rai," or no worries. That attitude is what people fall in love with Thailand, but in the long run its a bit harder to deal with, especially when this attitude is attributed to fixing things.
Most westerners have a perception of what responsibility is, however in Thailand that perception is a bit different. From feudal times until 1932, when the country started becoming industrialized, Thais were ranked based on their socio-economic condition. As such, if you were a lowly farmer you had to listen and wait for answers from your Pu Yai (big boss.) In this system the boss is supposed to know everything that is going on, regardless of if he receives information or updates. Responsibility of an entire village may be put on the Pu Yais shoulders alone, gaining and loosing respect based on his decisions alone. Again this is still a cultural norm in Thailand. The term for this sort of behavior is what the Thai call "kreng jai," which encompasses many other things westerners find difficult when dealing in Thai culture. It took me a long time to figure that out, but once I did it became evident where I was lacking in my management. First thing I started doing was asking more and more questions, asking for others opinions, and most importantly constantly following up with all tasks assigned. Don't get me wrong I am still a long way off from assimilating, but at least now I understand how the system works.........sort of.
Thailand, formally Siam, unlike its SE Asian neighbors has never been colonized by a western power. The word Tai in fact means freedom in the Thai language. There are deep cultural ties to this sense of freedom, and it sometimes pops up in the work place. Occasionally you will ask for help or try to give constructive feedback to an employee and hit a brick wall. The employee will hear you but not listen or take on any of the advice that is given. I guess this scenario is true in most cultures, however in the west people are direct and tell you to stop talking to them. Being able to recognize when and where to speak is sometimes paramount.
Unlike western cultures, where people have segregated personal and professional lives, there is no distinction between work or home. This was always a parent even at CMRCA, hell half of the staff are dating each other, but I overlooked something. I was still in western mode, rarely talking about my family or asking questions of co-workers family. In hindsight I believe this put distance between some of my co-workers and I because I was not being personable. Recently I have made greater and greater efforts to get to know my co-workers by going to dinner, clubs, just chatting about life and family, or just going out to climb. The trust and sense of community around me has increased significantly from 1 year ago.
Now, it took me awhile to just realize what was going on around me beyond the facade. Oddly enough I knew everything the entire time but just never put the dots together. Talking to other farang that have lived and worked in Thailand for a longer period I realize that this is a process everyone must go through. I have also been able to find a few great books that have helped me approach managing kon Thais better, including “Working with the Thais” and “Bridging the Gap”.
All of these things came together right at the apex of my frustration, now I am more excited and motivated then ever to delve into my job. Funny how that works.