Thai culture lessons I’ve learned in passing

According to Buddhist culture, a select male is chosen to shave their heads and their eyebrows whenever a member of their family dies. This act is a reminder of the triviality of worldly desires and is a symbol of commemoration for the deceased. In two months, I have seen three mourning students.

Students wear white powder on their faces not to protect from the heat, as I had once thought, but to serve as protection against evil spirits. Thai culture is fraught with superstitions and folklore. A Filipino teacher, Lei, taught me this after I had been confused by the surprising number of students caked with white powder on a particularly cool and rainy day.

Students are scolded and often whipped with a ruler for keeping their nails too long or their hair the wrong length (boys’ should be cut short, almost shaved, and girls’ should be no longer than chin-length). Both are viewed as a distraction from learning and as signs of laziness, uncleanliness and non-conformity. (A relevant article revealing the current student opinion on this issue can be found at: http://asiancorrespondent.com/95321/thailand-whats-hair-got-to-do-with-childrens-rights/)

The teachers will make fun of you if you wai (bow) back to students. Waiing is a sign of respect and is reserved strictly for elders and those in positions of authority. But, I do it anyway, seeking to show a mutual feeling of respect. I do not believe in hierarchies.

Accepting hand shakes from men, especially strangers, is seen as an extremely forward gesture. I was reprimanded and promptly slapped on the hand by my Thai friend Yuey for this–for showing what I thought to be an offering of friendship.

It is tactless to pour a drink with your palm face up. This act is traditionally practiced in Thai funeral ceremonies and should be used only when pouring out water for the dead.

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