Ten things that are ‘normal’* in Thailand, but not elsewhere… and vice versa

* By ‘normal’, I mean ‘socially accepted’ rather than ‘common’.

Ten things that are ‘normal’ in Thailand, but not elsewhere

1. Eating disorders
When you visit Thailand, you notice soon enough that everyone is pretty slim or even skinny. When I first arrived, I thought this was a natural thing – generally speaking, Asians have a smaller build than Europeans or Africans, for example. Soon, one of my friends told me this is certainly not a natural phenomenon, at least, not in most of the cases. Being superskinny is one of the beauty ideals of Thailand. When telling people here about ‘fat camps’ (as in, people go there to get fat, rather than losing fat) in certain places in Africa, they are rather shocked. Being skin over bone is the ideal. Period. Therefore, despite Thailand being a country with tons of delicious food and Thai society being quite food-focused, females as well as males will go through a lot to lose weight. There are slimming products everywhere and people who are seriously not fat in my book, announce for the 15th time that they are on a diet. Muay Thai fighters are known to be at risk of developing eating disorders due to the specific weight categories. During lunch, some girls leave 90% of their plate untouched. Socially, I find this quite disturbing, not just for the sake of the girls’ health, but also due to the fact that less than 1km away, there is probably a homeless person starving involuntarily. And the behaviour of not eating much or dieting all the time is not frowned upon at all. On more than one occasion, I have heard people throwing up in public toilets. There is even a commercial that promotes skipping dinner so you can stay skinny and use the money for shopping…! Eating disorders are defined as serious disturbances of eating behaviour, coupled with a disturbed self-image. They are serious illnesses and should not be encouraged or approved of. Of course they are common or occur elsewhere as well, but I have never heard of a place where they are socially accepted. Except maybe in LA?

2. Skin whitening products
The beauty ideal that is coupled to being superskinny is being superwhite. As in, the whiter your skin, the better. While this is common across Asia and in Africa, it’s much more common for the US and Europe to prefer being tan. So rather than tanning salons, tanning oils, etc., there are whitening creams, chemical bleach treatments, etc. In fact, when searching for facial creams or bodylotions, it is hard to find products that do not contain whitening ingredients. Since I don’t know how harmful these ingredients are, especially in the long term, it takes forever to find appropriate products – also since most descriptions are in Thai…

3. Photoshop
When you go to have your passport photos taken for a new visa or work permit, don’t expect to look like yourself on the photo. The first time I picked up my photos, I realised they had photoshopped me: my hair looked totally nice and in place, my skin was a few skin tones lighter, and they did something to make my eyes pop. I looked like a doll or something. Honestly, I felt like they had taken my soul out of the photo, and in combination with my pale skin, I knew then what I would look like when I am dead with make-up on…
There are plenty of Photoshop options in Thailand. You can have your photo taken in a wife beater vest and choose to have a suit photoshopped onto your passport photo.

4. Umbrellas
“Ooh baby it’s raining, raining… You can stand under my umbrella”, but in Thailand umbrellas are not only to protect against rain. Literally, rain or shine (to protect against heat and tanning), or drizzle – umbrellas will be out and you’ll have to dodge your way to work… or home.

5. Long office hours
Long hours at work are the norm in Thailand. In the past, staying late for just one hour would already mean you’re doing much more than you should (depending on the industry you’re in). I guess in combination with the labour laws in Europe, you don’t have to work late much at all, unless you work in a senior position in the corporate sector. Since I started working with EDC, new personal records of long office hours are set about every month. Last Friday, I was in the office for 15,5 hours. Without trying to complain too much, I did want to express how ridiculous I found the situation. Yet, it was explained to me that this is nothing unusual. Yet, my European friends agree this is not normal. I remember as a child that my dad would be home at 5.20pm, on the clock. No traffic, no working late. Even while working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the latest time I, and most of my colleagues, would leave the office would be around 6pm. In my first week of working at Kluwer Law, I met all the seniors in my department because they were the only ones staying late, and me. So, no – working late is fine with me and I am sort of a workaholic. But with European labour laws in mind, working until these very late hours is a situation I will need to get used to.

6. Very personal information on CVs
Besides doing project management and business development, some HR tasks are part of my job as well. This is a very interesting and new area for me. When screening CVs for available positions, I noticed that in Thailand, under the personal information section, some people will not only include their photo, nationality, gender, marital status and date of birth (which information could in Europe already be considered as possible discrimination grounds, and therefore not relevant for the CV), but also information on their height, weight and health status. Some CVs look more like a dating profile or city council registration than an application for a job…

7. Road unsafety
It it no news that in Bangkok, people drive around like crazy. Taxi drivers especially, although I remember a Brussels taxi driver going 120 km/h within the city as well. Road safety seems to be of minor concern to most people and traffic accidents are very common. Cars are driving fast when they can and have no regard for motorbikes and motorbikes have no regard for cars and will overtake whenever they can. Taking motorbike taxis may be the most dangerous way of transport, but it’s also the quickest. Personally, I enjoy motorbikes, but I know some Thai friends who have never taken one due to the risks. An additional risk is that you don’t wear a helmet when you’re on the back of these bikes. Further, when wearing a dress, a female will have to sit sideways, meaning the balance is slightly off and you may get injured more easily. It surprises me when I see four people on one motorbike – two adults and squashed in between them are two kids. None with helmets. My biggest surprise was seeing a baby, who could barely sit up straight so it must have been between one or two years old (my knowledge of children is not very well developed), sitting in front of the motorbike driver. No special seat, no helmet. The baby was just sitting there, hands on the dashboard, but that couldn’t have been secure enough. And the guy just drove off with the kid. Thing is, if the baby loses its balance, it won’t just fall off the couch or whatever, it’ll be falling from a moving vehicle in the middle of road madness in Bangkok… Crazy!
I’m still not very well integrated into Thai road culture. Although I’m not crazy enough to buy a bike (there are barely bikes around and I miss them), I still think cars should stop for pedestrians. So, I walk in front of cars or demand drivers to stop for pedestrian crossings – I might be causing some road rage doing this… Oh, well.

8. Soi dogs and cats
Stray dogs and cats are part of the daily street scene in Thailand. People sometimes feed these animals, but it is clear they don’t live anywhere particular and they are often infected with diseases. There are animal shelters, run mostly by foreigners, but they lack the funding to do more against the problem. The King once started a sterilisation project to bring a solution to this problem, but the project was discontinued for some reason. It’s a sad reality.

9. Taking photos of oneself everywhere
A few weeks ago, I was out for dinner with some out of country friends and the waiter kept insisting to take a photo for us. We kept telling him we don’t want a photo, but he kept offering. I explained to my friends that in Thailand, people love taking photos. Whenever a group of friend are going out or having dinner, there will always be some ‘strike-a-pose’ moments (often with the V sign). But what is funny is seeing people on the BTS or just anywhere in public, taking a photo of themselves on their smart phone to be posted on Facebook. While I like photos with no people in them, many Thais mainly post photos of themselves. Maybe that’s what it should be like and that’s why it’s called ‘Face’book. Update on 1 January 2017: I guess they were ahead when it comes to selfies! There was no term for these yet.

10. Texting on the toilet
Or maybe it’s a general addiction to mobile phones? Many times at work, I have heard people texting (or at least pressing their mobile phone keypads) while they are on the toilet. And it’s not just that. I have heard people engaged in a phone conversation while they are on the toilet and talk like it’s all ok and then, while talking, flush. I think that’s rather awkward. I know bathroom manners are different per country. I had very funny toilet experiences in Mozambique. But it didn’t involve a phone. I mean, When doing something that requires proper hand-washing afterwards, why would anyone want to touch their phone? The phone is placed right on your face!

Update on February 10, 2012:

I forgot about another thing… Number 11: nose picking! It’s totally normal to pick your nose in public, at work, anywhere. Without tissues, just sticking the fingers up and there you go. So weird! And nasty… At least use a tissue when cleaning your nose…

And a few things that are ‘normal’ elsewhere, but not in Thailand…

1. PDA
Public display of affection is a strict no-no in Thailand. You barely see people holding hands, but you never see people kissing (and when people do, it’s foreigners who probably just arrived). Even hugging is not done when it’s between a male and female.

2. Going solo
Thai society is quite group-oriented. Friends will meet in a group and plan trips together. I love travelling solo and doing things on my own. When I thought I couldn’t make it to Silverlake Music Festival, I wanted to sell my ticket. Some colleagues were interested, but they were surprised when I told them I only had one ticket. I’ve been told I’m ‘too independent’, not sure if that’s considered a negative trait, but it’s considered weird for sure.

3. Male-female friendships
This is one aspect that is uncommon in Thailand. Of course there are male-female friendships, but it’s not the most common thing. Growing up with mainly guy friends, I really miss this.

4. Feet
Head over feet has a literal meaning here. Feet are the lowest part of your body, so you may not point your feet to someone. Putting your feet on the table is a big no-no! The head is the highest part of your body and your should not touch a Thai person’s head. If this happens, you must apologise immediately. I wonder if kids ever play by doing handstands or headstands – probably not?

5. (Foreign) men
Somehow Thailand, or maybe it’s just Bangkok and Pattaya, attracts the most dodgy (foreign) men. It’s not fair to say this applies to all foreign men, but maybe 80-90% of single foreign men seem to come here to find cheap/easy ‘love’ or ‘real love’ – both are equally sketchy. So, while I think foreign men can be quite fine in other parts of the world, I find foreign men rather disgusting here. So, no chance for romance for as long as I’m here. I’m too ‘independent’ anyways.

6. Walking home
Thai people don’t like to walk long distances. In London, I used to walk home every day, which was 4.5km. The distance between my office and home in Bangkok is about 2km, which is easily walkable, but even this is considered too far to walk- why walk when you can take other forms of transportation? I agree when it’s too hot outside and you have to start your day, but at the end of the day, why not? So, on cool evenings, I sometimes walk home. On the way, it’s very clear that pedestrians have no place – there are barely any pavements and I have to cross four highways to get home (without any pedestrian bridge or anything). Luckily, rush hour will make sure most cars don’t go too fast, so it’s easy to cross. Ironically though, when leaving the office early (around 6 or 7pm), it’s much faster to walk home than to take the MRT or a taxi.

7. Dancing and singing in public
I love music. So, I didn’t even realise I did something strange until I went to the Weekend Market with my friend Bing. We were shopping for new clothes for him and I was just accompanying. Some stalls were playing nice music, so I would move/dance a little – how can you stay still when you hear a good beat?! Anyways, apparently this woman looked at me, horrified. And Bing pretended he didn’t know me – great. He only told me about this after the Adele incident: They were playing an Adele song, so I started singing along and the second I opened my mouth, I got three people staring straight at me, in shock. So, I bursted out laughing. Bing said that Thai people won’t do anything ‘strange’ or anything that makes them noticeable. I can’t stop enjoying music. It may become apparent sometimes… In those cases, I think people will know soon enough that I’m not from here and I hope I’ll be excused.

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