Thai people are extremely concerned about losing face and it dictates very much how people react in different situations. And when alcohol plays a role things can easily escalate to very hostile and dangerous situations.
We, people from the West, are also concerned about losing face but that does not lead to aggressive behavior, at least not in my case.
We tend to talk about it and / or show very clearly that we are not very happy with what happened. But showing your emotions is something that is not done in the Thai culture, they keep smiling but underneath there can be a volcano ready to erupt. That is for the average farang very difficult to deal with because it's so different to what we learned, what we know and how we are used to read body language.
Open and upfront, that's how we are, closed and with hidden emotions, that's how Thais are, a world of differences and you are never sure when you cross that fine red line…
And I (apparently) crossed that line last week and without knowing it. I was pretty close to getting beaten-up badly. Let me explain…
Almost year-end and my wife and I decided that we had to get ourselves a looking back and looking forward evening. Making up the balance of our first 3 months in Thailand, discussing things we could improve and making plans for the future.
The Nongsung steak restaurant was chosen and, because of circumstances, I went ahead on my motorbike and my wife was to follow a bit later by car.
Arriving at the restaurant I immediately felt that something was wrong. The restaurant was pretty full but for some reason the atmosphere was different than before. I sat down and ordered a Pepsi, explaining to the waiter that I was not going to order food yet because my wife was on her way.
At a table to the opposite left there were four guys drinking whiskey and I heard one of them shouting 'hey you farang', 'hey you'! Laughing all around.
I just smiled and tried to ignore them as much as possible.
I don't speak or understand Thai very well but I know a lot of words and can, when people speak slowly or loudly, generally understand the subject of their discussions.
In the restaurant I suddenly became the subject but in a very impolite way. I started to feel a bit uneasy.
The guy who shouted at me got up in an attempt to go to the toilet, but as drunk as he was he could not keep his balance very well. He passed my table with his glass of whiskey in his hand and pointed with disgust to my Pepsi.
'You drink whiskey'? he asked and offered his glass. I politely declined.
Then he tried to shake hands with me and that was fine with me as long he was going away. 'You no have lady?' he asked and before I could answer he told me that he could take care of that. I politely declined again.
He then tried to shake hands again and again I went with the flow wishing he would finally go to the toilet and collapse over there.
I was glad that he staggered to the toilet and I crossed my fingers that my wife would soon be there because she can handle these things much better because after all she's Thai and I'm not. And, I can't stand drunk people. I can't stand their smell, can't stand the hugs, the handshakes, the blood-shot eyes and their slurred speech once they try to talk to you. Certainly not when I'm stone cold sober.
But, after the guy came back he invited me to their table to drink whiskey. I got fed up with them but smiled and politely declined again. Then suddenly I saw my wife arriving and I got up to greet her and inform her of what was going on.
But the guy was blocking my path and tried to shake hands with me again and I kind of ignored him by not letting him to get hold of my hand and made a bee-line to get to my wife.
Although I expressed my gut feelings to my wife she was not convinced that it would lead to trouble; she said she would take care.
We ordered our food and my wife listened to what was said at the other table and said to me that they were talking about me and in a very rude way. Then suddenly another guy from that same table came to us to, yes, shake hands with me and invited me (again) at their table. In Thai he said to my wife ‘he can be our friend if he sit with us, he will be our enemy if he declines’. Then the drunk one declared (in Thai) that he was going to kick my face in if I stayed any longer. We had to make our escape plan…
The problem with these macho Thai guys is that they never fight alone, they hunt in packs (like dogs). For whatever reason they don’t have the guts to fight one on one. I could have floored the drunk one. He was a big guy, but slow and drunk, I could have taken him on.
But he was there with a couple of mates and they sure would help him to kick the living shit out of me. Fair? What is fair in Thailand?
The next problem is the fact that nobody will step in. You are on your own because it’s not their problem. Even the waiters in the restaurant didn’t do anything to cool these guys down. They just kind of ignored the situation by hiding in the kitchen. So my wife went there to ask them to help us get out of the restaurant unharmed. Well, they said that if I received the first punch they might step in…yeah, great!
So the plan was that I would try to leave the place, get on my bike and wait for my wife at the parking lot. So I did and luck came my way!
One of the four heavily drinking guys apparently felt a bit uneasy with what had happened and came to my rescue by wai-ing me on my way out. The ‘wai’ is the Thai way of greeting each other and is a sign of respect. Since you can’t ignore people who ‘wai’ to you I immediately ‘wai-ed’ back to him. Now I was standing near their table and was eye to eye with the guy that promised to kick the shit out of me. Instantly I shook his hand and said ‘have a nice evening, I’m leaving’. I shook hands with the other guys as well and left the place.
My wife left seconds later through the back of the restaurant escorted by one of the waiters. Really cool to let me go alone through the line of fire and play the gentleman / bodyguard when it’s not necessary anymore!
Well, at home my wife explained to me that the drunk guy was way out of line by harassing and insulting me and that, when the police would be involved, they would be on my side. But I however crossed that fine red line by avoiding his ‘shake hands’ when I went to greet my wife. He lost face in front of his ‘friends’… But, without realizing it I balanced his anger by shaking his hands on my way out. Because of that he could not go after me anymore without losing his face to his friends again, but this time the other way around.
This aggressiveness and the nasty comments is rather unusual. My own experiences with Thais drinking have been that they are friendly and obliging with foreigners and they quite like the idea of a foreigner joining them.
I personally have never experienced anything like this. I guess they were seriously pissed and / or questionable characters.