Why “Wai”? Are you a Thai?
You should know right outta the gate that I am not endeared to, enchanted by or enamored with either this country or its indigenous native inhabitants. I choose to live here by choice, not blind luck and both the Thaiz and I hafta make the best of it. Over the time I've been here I learned to speak / understand, read / write & type Thai. NOT because I wanted to "fit in" but because most of the people in this country have abysmal engrish skills. Learning to speak to these people in their language became a necessary skill-set to get stuff done. Unlike the plethora of foreigners I see here I don't have a Thai significant other or a “long haired talking Thai dictionary” shadowing my every move here, acting as “my voice” or watering down what I wanna say to the Thaiz in Thai for me.
In the 10+ years I've been living in the glorious "Land 'O Thaiz" I've never wai'd a single Thai! In this time I've had the occasion to meet the last 6 government leaders, all the big dogz of both the red and yellow shirted factions, more Thai police, high ranking governmental bureaucratz, various military officerz (in their oh-so tight uniforms with all that colored string and the doo-dads hanging off them) and a TON of really rich Thaiz who run successful business here. Yet in all that time, I've never wai'd a Thai even a single time. It also appears to have not negatively impacted me in the least during the interactions I've had with these people.
I continually run across foreigners who wai every limbless beggar, soi dog, door man, 7/11 worker, waitress and waiter in this country. It totally befuddles me that foreigners can totally bollox up the action of the wai, yet think they are somehow paying respect to the country, the Thaiz or the mythical beast known as Thai culture.
The other night sitting soi side drinking beer Leo on tap (hard to find soi side in Bangkok) I was talking to my Thai friends. These are Thai guys close to my age, who're married, have kids, houses, car payments, etc. I mean they’re just blue collar working class stiffs. I decided to ask them what they thought of foreigners’ wai'ing here in Thailand. Their replies were interesting and I'm sure runs totally contrary to the crock of shit you’ve been spoon-fed by your Thai significant other about "Thai culture" and the action known as that 'wai'.
Now this was a group of almost 10 guys and to a person they thought foreigners look like total idiots when they wai. They said foreigners don't know the first thing about something as intricate as the "Thai wai". First off, foreigners don't know the parameters of whom to wai. They don't know how high to hold their hands on their chest to show the degree of respect. They don't know how deep to bow. They don’t know how long to hold a wai. In fact they don’t know any of the myriad of other criteria regarding the action of wai'ing which was pounded into these people's heads since birth. Wai'ing is so brain-washed into the Thaiz that that they don’t waste even a second thinking about it because they’re on "auto-pilot" when they wai. Face it, if Thai mothers grab their little bitty baby’s hands and press them into a wai when they meet people, it’s brain-washing, plain and simple.
These guys also felt that foreigners who do wai were sometimes taking the piss because to the Thaiz it's such a poor parody of the action. They said it'd be far better for everyone concerned if foreigners didn't wai, EVER as in NEVER. Now I know the wanna-b-Thai foreign sock puppet contingent will come out of the woodwork. However any statement which starts with "My Thai wife or my Thai g/f told me…" doesn't cut any ice with me. The reason that doesn’t work on me is; I grew up a dumb, poor hillbilly in rural Ohio. All around our farm were other farms with dumb hillbilly gurlz. However in all my years on the farm, I never saw a single rich foreigner come there, meet one of those dumb hillbilly gurlz, marry them, buy land for them or build houses for them. I mean it didn’t happen even once!
What is strange is nearly every single time I meet a foreigner here they have the obligatory dark skinned, flat nosed, splayed toed, 6th grade drop-out rice farmer's daughter in tow as their Thai significant other. I mean when you were playing with your G.I Joe toy soldier in the sandbox in your back yard as a kid did you say, "When I grow up, I'm gonna move to a developing third world country and marry a hillbilly?
This is off the topic of the wai, but anecdotally interesting. The other day I met a foreigner who told me with all sincerity, "Thai guys are jealous because we come here and marry their women." I about pissed myself laughing at him. I told him he was sorely mistaken if he thought Thai guys were the least bit jealous that foreigners marry one of their dark hillbilly women. They can't even begin to wrap their heads around the fact that someone (who by Thai standards is well off) would even contemplate having sex with those women let alone marry one! A Thai friend of mine told me, “you screw whores, you don’t marry them!” A couple years back I took my Thai guy friends to Nana Plaza and they couldn't wait to get outta there. They said, those gurls were the ugliest Thai whores they'd ever seen! Then as a reciprocal deal they took me to a Thai only karaoke bar where they're regular customers. The difference was like night and day. I've never seen more slender, white-skinned, really attractive Thai whores in my life! In talking to them it appeared that NONE of the gurls working there cared in the slightest that they “catch” one of the Thaiz who patronizes the place. I talked to several of the gurls and they just worked there as a “side line”. In fact that term is so endemic in Thai culture that it’s a bona fide trade now known as ไสด ไลน์
Believe me, it's not that you marry their hillbilly women that rankles the Thai guyz. It's the fact that this society is so regimented, so systematically categorized that most people stay in the class they're born into. Foreigners come here, take someone from one demographic of society and simply because of the foreigners earning parity or income move her to a demographic of society where she doesn't belong. I've been to more big Thai company dinners where a foreigner will show up with their Thai girlfriend or wife only to see that she's ill-equipped to interact with that level of Thai society. I mean you can take a hillbilly outta the "hillz" but man you can't hardly beat the "billy" outta them. The soi where I sit has a famous restaurant down at the end, and so every night we get the parade of foreigners with their Thai (in)significant others marching past. The guys are just flummoxed that foreigners pick such ugly Thai women, not just to screw, but to walk hand in hand with down a soi.
Anyway, back on the subject of the 'Thai wai', there's abso-tively posi-lutely NO good reason a foreigner could give me where they'd have a situation where wai’ing a Thai would result in a better outcome. Not at Immigration, not at the Police station, not at the road side checkpoint, not your Thai boss and certainly not your wife's parents. I mean, after all, you took them and the assorted Thai in-laws and out-laws on board when you married her, so those people shouldn't be wai'ing you, they should be prostrating themselves at your feet for the chance they have to better their lives!. If a Thai wai's you, just nod your head in acknowledgement, it's fine, end of story. The Thaiz honestly doesn't give two shits if you wai them or not, because that's not what the wai is about. It does not ingrate you with these people when you wai, you don’t get special treatment, you are still looked at with the distain or disinterest Thaiz look at all foreigners here. It’s just what they do, who they are. You aren’t ever gonna convince these people that you’re Thai or you’re respecting their “culture”. They’re also less than impressed you’ve managed to procreate with their women and produce half-breed offspring. Just an FYI; that term ลูกครึ่ง which literally translates as “half a child” means that half the kid is Thai. These people don’t care what the other half is, it’s the Thai part that counts to them.
I remember when I first moved here some know it all foreigner was regaling me with all thingz to do with the Thaiz and Thai culture (which I’ve come to find out were 100% percent FALSE). He told me the Thai wai is given as a sign of respect. I replied, as soon as I meet a Thai I respect I promise I'll wai 'em. Ten plus years here and… I even made up two t-shirts, one says, "Why wai? R u Thai?" the other is a word play on the old Tricks cereal commercial and it says, "Silly foreigner! Wai'z r 4 Thaiz.."
Anyway, that's my two satang's worth on the topic. I know every forum related to Thailand has had thread after thread where the Thai wai was parsed out to the n-th degree and beaten to death. I'm here to tell you, just forget everything you've been told about it and stop doin' it, because these people plain and simple don't care one bit.
There are arguments for and against foreigners in Thailand waiing. It should be pointed out that there certainly ARE instances when waiing can go a long way. Senior, influential or older Thais such as government officials / your girlfriend's parents or senior family members will be very appreciative of a wai and it can really break the ice and get things off to a good start.
Typically I don't tend to wai, but there are situations when I certainly do. It's a judgment call.