Thailand’s Taboos: Beware of Bare Feet and Too Much Skin
By Declan Taggart
Thailand, you know I love you. You know that I can’t get enough of your springs, waterfalls, islands, quirky little villages, temples, and the way you engage in civil disorder when you’re angry. But we have to talk.
You try your best, and sometimes we only disagree because we were brought up differently. My parents taught me to shake hands when greeting people; yours taught you to wait.
My parents made me use a knife and fork; yours went with a fork and spoon combo that leaves you dangerously unprepared for when food rises up against its hungry masters and demands vengeance (unless it’s ice cream). The thing with your knees is a bit weird, but I guess that’s a medical condition.
When I do make a fool of myself by sitting wrongly or misunderstanding something, I appreciate the way you just smile beneficently, tell me I’m a silly buffalo foreigner and stick another banana, coconut, or insect-based snack in my mouth. It’s very sweet and hardly patronizing at all.
But I know that you lose a bit of respect for me every time that happens, so, please, help me understand your quirks.
Your Feet Thing: A Thai Taboo
My friends warned me about this before I got to know you, and I don’t blame you for being a bit squeamish about them because feet seem so unnatural. They’re just mucky hunks of flesh with ugly, dangly bits at one end.
All the same, maybe you should see someone. This is quite a list of foot phobias: You dislike people pointing at things with their feet, especially with their soles, and especially, especially at other people or sacred objects like images of Buddha.
Shoes are generally taken off in peoples’ homes, in temples, and in a lot of shops. Generally, you do not allow people to lift their feet up onto furniture, though you do sit cross-legged even on seats. (Fair enough. My mum was always telling me off for doing this too).
Stepping over food or other people is taboo. This seems silly given that you usually eat food while sitting on the floor. Feet must be tucked away when sitting, either by sitting cross-legged or by hiding them under your bum.
Your Head Thing
Heads too? Really? When you are so keen to grab me in the street, to feel my elbow, to hold my hand when I think all you want is a handshake, and to stroke my luminous arm hair, why do you get so weird when I touch your head?
Fine, it’s important. I’ll stop touching your head…
Your Heads and Feet Thing…unless it’s with my feet obviously, because you should see how angry you look right now.
I think it’s sweet the way that you get so annoyed by people shouting or being angry. Nevertheless, and I know you’re only being playful, it is a teensy bit hypocritical to then yell “Hello!” or “FARANG!!!” (“white person”) at me in the street.
15 Years in Jail
In fairness, your King does seem like a nice guy. And I’m not just saying that because I’m deeply terrified by you and your strict lèse majesté laws. Any head of state that
can wail on the sax like he’s John Coltrane is all right by me, plus, given your… err… slightly suspect political temperament (love you), I appreciate that he has helped you and your poorest people through some difficult times.
So I’m just going to not say anything about him in case I offend you by accident and spend the next 15 years in dirty, brown prison pajamas.
Your radical anti-foot, pro-head, pro-king stance does mean I’m not surprised that standing on anything that bears his face, like money, is an issue, though it still makes me laugh (later and very, very quietly) when you get annoyed because I’ve licked the back of a stamp.
I get that respecting social status is really important to you, dear, and it’s nice that your mum always thinks she has to pay at restaurants because she’s kind of decrepit at this stage, but the idea of someone sitting higher up than me or of having to duck when I walk past them because they are older, earn more money than me or have a respectable job, like a teacher, seems a bit much.
Also, as you know, I have a vast and jolly belly, the sight of which entertains orphans and enriches lives. Making it obligatory that people who have good jobs should dress smartly means hiding my tummy away, punishing people and making me sad.
Canoodling and Getting Naked
Thailand, this relationship is already quite unconventional, what with me being a human person and you being a country – I don’t think there’s a church in the world that would marry us – so would people really be much more shocked by us kissing in public?
Or even just holding hands? I’ve actually seen some of the kids holding hands (along with the amusingly disgruntled gazes of their elders), so I’m sure we could get away with it, even if we are supposed to be respectable. No? Fine.
The way you freak out at bared female skin, foreign or Thai, to the extent that most girls swim in a t-shirt and trousers, is kind of cute, even if it is also a sign of cultural double standards, given that generally you just tut insincerely at exposed male torsos. You are a mixed-up kind of prude, but we can work on it.
Look, I wouldn’t bug you about it if you were in a Christian church, riding a saddled idol of the sweet baby Jesus and screaming at others to take a photo of you. I don’t know why you get so worked up when I take my funny pictures with Buddha.
He’s a smiley guy and I think he’s into it. Though maybe he’s only laughing because you force me to wear a t-shirt that covers my shoulders and long bottoms in temples, making me sweat so much that small fish swim me upstream to spawn behind my ears.
I can understand why you don’t like it when I stand on the threshold of temples if ghosts are supposed to live in there, but I’m not sure why monks are not allowed to be touched by a woman or to take anything directly from one. Men are cooties carriers too.
Things I should only call children when their parents are out of earshot:
Water monitor lizard (the worst possible thing you can call someone)
Slow Loris (slutty)
Rhino (sluttier. See also: strawberries)
Rat (see also: all other cultures)
Turtle (also means BO)
Elephant (big and stupid)
Buffalo (also big and stupid; the word alone is enough to cripple most Thai people with laughter but, still, not one for the job interview)
Darling, what have you got against animals?
I’m not allowed to tell anyone that their baby is beautiful in case an evil spirit comes along and steals it, just like you feel you have to give babies silly nicknames, like Pig, Beer, or Strange, to convince ghosts that the babies are not worth much.
I have only one problem with this: do you genuinely think ghosts are that stupid?
If they’re hankering for some baby and all the babies have silly names, what makes you think that they wouldn’t check? I guess, given that lots of people have equally funny nicknames and most ignore the rule about not complimenting other peoples’ children (because they’re not monsters), it doesn’t matter that much. But, still.
There are other things I don’t understand too: is it actually a taboo to yawn or do you simply think it’s impolite? Because you are really not into yawning. And why do you have one style of drinks pouring that is reserved for funerals? Sometimes I like to pour my drinks with my hand under the bottle rather than over the top.
Telling me I can’t isn’t quirky, dearest, it’s irritating. Why can’t I open gifts when you give them to me? Why do I always have to wait? Also, your thing about never using black ink on envelopes that contain wedding gifts is just pedantic.
Sweetheart, I’m not angry or anything, and I don’t want this to cause us to fight. I’m just saying that I don’t always understand your idiosyncrasies – you are very different from my last girlfriend.
A lot of the time, that is a good thing. She always got annoyed when I picked my nose, for example, but I see you at it all the time. When I’m with you, I can completely disregard whole concepts, like punctuality, planning ahead or health and safety. And I love the way you leave the tail on the mole when we’re barbecuing.
Don’t worry, Thailand, you’re beautiful. I think we’re going to be ok. Kisses.
Declan Taggart spent seven months living in Thailand. He is studying for a Ph.D. in Literature.
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