Can you speak the language? Do you eat the local food? How many real Thai friends do you have? Would you feel comfortable as the only foreigner in a room full of Thais? Do you often complain about our hosts?
I saw a post on Facebook the other day from a friend saying, in effect, that if Muslims can’t assimilate in the West they should go to countries where their beliefs are in the majority.
Now I’m confident that the editor will breathe a sigh of relief to know that I am not planning to hotly pursue the rights or wrongs of such a statement – it’s way too contentious.
However, I think it did, by implication, suggest that Westerners are far more willing to fit in wherever they go.
But is that really the case, I wonder?
I believe that before I can really get into questioning this perhaps it would be an idea to explore the word “assimilate”. My online dictionary says it is to “take in (information, ideas or culture) and fully understand” and to “absorb and integrate”.
Fully assimilated those definitions? Okay, let’s press on.
For me, the key word above is integrate.
So be honest with yourself. How integrated do you feel in Thailand?
I’ll answer for myself. What of my time in the Kingdom?
Like most of my school reports I think the honest overall answer would be: Could try harder!
I posed several questions at the start of this article. I’ll bid to respond to them in order.
Can you speak the language?
If pushed, I would describe my Thai-speaking ability as “good tourist”. I can order food, be polite to those who serve me and ask important things like directions to the toilet. I can hold a very simple “where are you from and what do you do” conversation in Thai. But that’s about it, which, when you consider that I lived in Thailand for the best part of a decade, is pretty poor really.
There is no shortage of people in the UK who say that if you can’t speak the English language, you shouldn’t live there. If the same reasoning were applied to me in Thailand, I’m not sure I would be allowed to stay, which, given I hope to return there sometime, might be a problem.
How is your Thai?
Certainly, I have friends much younger than I who have learned the language pretty well. I take my hat off to them. I don’t feel I can say the same for those of my own age.
Inability to speak the language reduces the ability to claim to be assimilated considerably.
Do you eat the local food?
I score a fair bit better here. I really like Thai food. When I starting visiting Thailand around the turn of the millennium I drank Singha beer and ordered just about everything that had chili in it. It was completely normal for me to eat a Thai curry while my girlfriend (now wife) would tuck into a pepper steak. It’s a familiar story. Over the years my chili tolerance has lowered, but to this day I remain more than happy to eat Thai food. Lunch, when I have finished writing this, will comprise Phad Thai (mai phed).
But I know a few expats who will not touch Thai food. Their shopping basket nearly always contains pork sausages, bacon, baked beans, steak and kidney pies and Coleman’s mustard. Sweeping generalisation, I’m sure.
When I started going to Thailand a friend used to ask me to bring several large jars of Marmite over for him. He was more than happy with Thai food but he missed his Marmite which, I seem to remember, is more readily available now.
Another mate really is not keen on Thai food at all. I can recall one of his birthdays was spoiled when we went to a restaurant that had very few English-style dishes. He found something to fit the bill although he was a tad disappointed by the lack of choice. That disappointment intensified when the waitress brought out his wife’s Thai food then informed him that his English dish was no longer available. Of course, by then his wife was already tucking in. He ended up eating very little on his birthday due to his reluctance to eat Thai.
Does he feel assimilated?
I’ll ask him when I’m next over.
I’m a little way through my subjective test. How am I doing so far? If giving myself marks out of 10, I’d say a very optimistic five – no more.
How about you?
How many real Thai friends do you have?
Much depends on your definition of a friend as opposed to an acquaintance. I have numerous Thai acquaintances – some gained through introductions from my wife, many via the business of being involved in producing a publication.
Would I be happy to wander over to them for a chat at an event or in a bar?
Sure, no problem whatsoever. Delighted, in fact!
But how many could I ring up and say: Do you fancy going for a beer, I need to talk?
I’m struggling to think of anyone. It pains me to admit that.
Assimilation marks out of 10 for this category?
Maybe a three or four.
Would you feel comfortable as the only foreigner in a room full of Thais?
I often find myself in this situation when visiting my wife’s family. Because I don’t speak the language, it can be awkward. Once I have used up my four (same) topics of Thai conversation that’s me out of the discussion. Two or three hours of smiling inanely and nodding is not my idea of fun. The beer usually takes a bashing on such occasions. So, they are not good for me on a few levels. Of course, my inability to speak Thai to any good level is at the core of this awkwardness.
Do you often complain about our hosts?
Quite a lot?
There are times when living in Thailand that I thought it was a national sport for farangs.
I can’t contend I have never engaged in this ‘sport’. No one would believe me and, anyway, it would be a bare-faced lie. But I do try not to ‘play’ the moaning game too often. Many is the time I wished others did the same.
I tried hard to apply to myself what a former finance director of mine called the FIFO principle, which, basically, is “fit in, or (rude word starting with ‘f’) off. If I didn’t like it in Thailand, I knew what I could do, I felt.
It is easy when living in your home country to attempt to apply the FIFO approach to foreigners. But, when you are the foreigner, how much do you really fit in?
This is not a written test and there is no ‘pass mark’ as such, but I urge you not to fool yourself if I have set you thinking.
I would give myself a ‘soft’ four out of 10 overall – not good enough.
How about you?
By Dave Buckley