We were gone all week up in the mountains of northeast Thailand. I didn't see a chair, a bed or a bathroom the whole time. We sat on the floor, slept on the floor and ate on the floor. Elmer seems quite adept at those things, but it is hard for me. There were some benches to sit on in the meeting places, but they were very rough and uncomfortable. We ate Thai food with the Thai Christians. It has been extremely hot, even at night.
When Elmer and I arrived in Thailand in 1950 as new missionaries, it was evident that our lifestyle was going to have to change drastically to fit in with the local culture and customs. We soon found out that such upheaval could be most unsettling. We learned that a whole set of social patterns could not be either denied or learned overnight.
To assist in the acclimation process, our Mission, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, produced a sheaf of typed pages entitled "Orientation Notes." Their purpose was to help us to become socially acceptable in this new culture and to avoid offending the citizens of our adopted country.
Western customs, the notes said, were accepted in the larger cities but not in the small towns and villages. We should therefore learn to be adaptable. They further warned: "You will find the pace of life and general outlook considerably different. As a whole, the Thai people are fatalists and possess a general apathy about their spiritual, mental, and physical condition."
We soon found out that the reason the general outlook was considerably different stems from the way Thai people show respect for the head. For instance, a Thai adult would be very offended if someone touched his or her head. Thais believe that the head, being the highest part of the body, should be respected. One must never reach over a person's head without first receiving permission to do so. Even when getting suitcases down from a luggage rack on the train, the rule must be followed.
Neither does one walk near a person's head when be or she is resting on a mat on the floor, nor pass in front of people, either sitting or standing, without excusing oneself and respectfully lowering the head.
Even with the orientation notes to guide us, we often did not understand (or remember) what was proper and expected of us. There were rules for dress, for eating, for gift giving, for receiving guests, for attending weddings and funerals.
Rules, Rules, Rules.
Thailand's most important customs concerned respect for the Buddhist religion and its images. We learned that all Buddha images whether large or small, ruined or not are sacred objects which must be respected. Buddhist Temple This did not mean that we were to take part in Buddhist ceremonies. However, we did not speak against anything connected with Buddha. That would be grounds; we were warned, for an escorted trip to the airport!
Great respect must also be shown towards the king and queen and all members of the royal family. The king is above comparison with anyone, even in a complimentary way. Thailand's king and queen are greatly loved because of their willingness to mix with the populace and their dedication to a variety of special projects.
The law even states that names such as "King," "Queenie," "Prince" or "Princess" must never be given to a dog. Dogs are considered the lowest of all animals. One rebellious man named his dog "King" and received a three month jail sentence!
In spite of the detailed orientation notes, on one occasion, I unknowingly broke a cultural rule. Our family had planned a trip on a river launch on the Mekong River.
Some months later, I unwittingly broke another rule while I was helping to sell some household articles of a former missionary. The items were displayed on tables and racks and on the floor. When a Thai lady asked about a certain item, I pointed my foot in the direction of the article on the floor. "You must never, never point with your foot, " a Thai man scolded. That rule was also in the notes: "The feet are thought to be lowly objects. You must not point them at anyone or anything."
Other cultural mores governed the display of affection between men and women. The Thai do not like public physical contact with the opposite sex. They do not show affection in public. Our orientation notes stated, "Missionary couples should avoid public displays of affection." In this matter of physical contact, we found out that the Thai Christians were offended by the way missionaries conducted baptismal services. One of the Thai leaders told Elmer, "We do not like the way you foreigners hold our women in your arms in the baptismal service."
The correct way to baptize, they said, was to gently push on the head, after receiving permission, of course, and then on the shoulders. The missionaries adapted their baptismal procedures to conform to local custom.
I do not wish to say that all cultural differences were uncomfortable or problematical for us. On the contrary, some local customs are quite delightful. When the Thai greet each other, they put the palms of their hands together graciously; the elbows next to the body and fingers close together and straight. Then they raise their palms up and bend the head at the same time. The more respect one has for the person he meets, the lower he bends his head. It is a beautiful gesture that expresses most eloquently the gentleness of the Thai people.
Elmer adapted easily to the Thai custom of no coats and ties. Under the heading "New Official Government Dress," dated June 29, 1980, the English newspaper in Bangkok announced the official uniform. "The Thai Identity Committee chaired by General Sermna Nakhon has decided to make the costume designed by His Majesty the King the official government uniform."
The costume was a special shirt, made of Thai silk or fine hand woven cotton, which would be worn with regular trousers. A long sleeved shirt would be worn for official occasions and short-sleeved shirts were appropriate at other times. These shirts were never tucked in, so sashes of any color could be added. A black tie affair would dictate a black sash added to a white silk shirt.
Another custom having to do with dress code was that shoes must not be worn in Thai homes or temples.
Signs saying, "Please leave your shoes at the door" are posted at the entrances to all Buddhist temples and a temple guard or policeman is there to enforce the rule. Our notes stated, "Removal of shoes is not necessarily a sign of respect to the image in the temple. If you are reluctant to take off your shoes, don't go in at all."
In larger temples, special shoe racks are provided. Each person receives a numbered ticket and places his or her shoes in the corresponding box in the rack.
Please Leave Your Shoes at the Door
Leaving one's shoes at the door is one of the customs that remained with us as we retired in America after 35 years of missionary service in Thailand.
You will see a sign at our home in Florida which says: PLEASE LEAVE YOUR SHOES AT THE DOOR
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