Saturday, December 6, 2008


On my first day of class I walked into the school and went up to the office manager's desk. She smiled and greeted me excitedly "Hello Teacher!" and immediately reached out and put both hands on my stomach. Now, being a chubby girl, I'm self conscious enough of my belly without people reaching out and patting it. But she did it so naturally, and her demeanor was so friendly and welcoming that I couldn't take any offense.

Acceptable Public Displays of Affection are one of the most noticable differences between Thailand and the US. The guide books say that Thais shy away from PDA... but this is misleading. I never see couples hugging or kissing while in public, that's true. And I got a bit of a frightened/confused response from Key when I spontaneously hugged her for helping me out.

But in some ways, Thais are far more openly affectionate than some western countries.
When I walk with one of the girls from the office... even just from one room to the other, she'll do the wrist link thing. She'll slide her hand around the inside of my forearm. At first I thought she was reaching around to hold my hand - but again got a confused response when I tried to reciprocate. No... she'll just link her rist around my arm and lay her open hand lightly against my arm. There's a very specific hand position - and now that I've experienced it, I spot it everywhere. Women regularly do the wrist link thing when out shopping for example.

In general, there's just a lot of reaching out and touching each other. They say Thais greet eacher other with a Wai, and that's true. But when they greet me at least, they always reach out and touch some part of me. To avoid the belly rubs, I usually stick my arms out so they'll pat or clasp some random part of my arms or hand. In class, the men will casually drape an arm around the chair of the man sitting next to them, pat them on the back or even on the leg. The first time I saw a Thai man patting another man on the thigh, I admit I was taken aback. But it's not a sexual thing, it's just friendly affection.

My favorite PDA, however, is the arm massage. When I talk to Mrs. Clean, she'll start by grabbing my arm and giving a little squeeze. Then, it's just weird, she'll hold my hand or wrist with one hand and just start squeezing my arm with the other hand while we talk. It's so unconscious, and sometimes she'll stop squeezing to pat my arm as emphasis to what she's saying. It feels really nice, I have to say. Unfortunately, this is often followed by the belly pat, or the even more uncomfortable bottom pat as I walk away. It's not just Mrs. Clean, I see the office gals touching each other on the arm, the butt, the stomach. It's just a sign of friendship.


jovaliquilts said...

So interesting! It's funny how a higher level of touching than we are comfortable with is common, but more intense displays of affection are not ok at all. It would take some getting used to!

Bezzie said...

"The first time I saw a Thai man patting another man on the thigh, I admit I was taken aback. But it's not a sexual thing, it's just friendly affection."

Guess it's kinda like the Thai version of the manly football butt slap. That one still mystifies me!

Exuberant Color said...

It's a good thing you are observant so you can kind of judge what is acceptable and what isn't. I take it that they don't hug.

Cate said...

When I was in Uganda, I was pretty surprised to see men walking down the street holding hands- because I know they don't tolerate homosexuality much at all. But then somebody told me it's just a totally normal thing male friends do.

Karin said...

In Senegal, too, men are very affectionate with each other, as Cate saw in Uganda.

The women wouln't touch my belly in Senegal, but they would touch my chest (the bony area just below the collarbone), which was very alarming the first time and disconcerting always, but as you say, for them it's very warm and natural and genuine, so you know there's nothing to worry about. But still.

They said that only a stranger or an enemy would touch you on the back, presumably as they sneak up to attack you. You know, all those enemies out there.

Rebel said...

jovial - it's just one of those cultural differences that you just don't expect

bezzie - nothin' wrong with a little butt pat between team mates ;)

Exuberant - I wouldn't say I'm observant... I've just learned from trial and error.

Cate - it does seem like American men are far less affectionate than men from other countries - I don't know why.

Karen - what do they say about the girl who comes up to you while you're looking at the Crocodile enclosure and pinches you on your shoulder? OMG I screamed so loud!!