Matt Smith

The word farang

What does this strange word really mean?


I think a good topic for discussion this time around is the word ‘farang'. If you want a few theories about where it comes from, you can check out Wikipedia (and don't I tire of Thai people, whenever you bring the subject up, offering one of these theories as immediate evidence of their exclusive knowledge of the word, when such far more comprehensive overviews are instantly available even in other languages - as if I didn't look at least this far, duh, rather than supporting any assertion about how you think I should understand it you are considerably diminishing in my eyes your ability to grasp the full implications of what you, yourself, are saying - why is it always the ones who are most indiscriminate in their use of this word who tend to do this?). My interest is to make some other observations; the first of these is that, when they completed a survey that asked them about the attitude of all the farangs in their experience towards this word that appears in one of their course books, my students overwhelmingly indicated that they (the farangs), were ‘mostly uncomfortable' with it. So we have some evidence that by and large Caucasians don't like to be called farangs by Thai people. And, that despite their full knowledge of this, Thai people nonetheless continue to feel justified to do so. What the nature of that justification might be is a very complex issue, some of which will be touched upon here later; just this much, though, I am sure you will agree, is actually rather interesting.

Bringing me to the second observation I want to make here; when you look at the popular discourse regarding this word in the English language, you can see that Caucasians actually exhibit a variety of responses to it. Some people hate the word in principle, or think it is altogether bad; certainly, the following posting from ‘Mandrunk', when I discuss it with my students, leaves even the shallowest thinkers disposed to agree that it is not altogether harmless. Any thinking person can, I mean, empathise with Mandrunk, and thus feel sympathy for this person, when we read their lament; at OrientExpat.com (www.orientexpat.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=4468), this is what was posted.

‘How do you feel about being referred to in this way? From my point of view, when I spend long periods in rural Thailand, I grow very weary of locals who see me every day refer to me as 'The Farang', even though they know my name. Worse still, they will often refer to me as such when talking to my partner as though I wasn't even there. To me, it is insulting and I am deeply offended by it in the long term. I feel it is no better in this case than being called n##ger, long nose, roundeyes, whitey, spick, polak, kraut etc etc etc.

However, if you don't spend much time in a country I guess it can be humourous and fun to have a bunch of schoolkids shout 'Farang Farang' at you in the most innocent way possible and to be seen as a curiosity and in that case, what's the problem?... but when does it get too much for you, when your name effectively becomes 'Farang'?'

On the other hand, though, we can see that some Caucasians take a very opposite perspective - there are those, of course, who are inclined to believe that the word farang is not in any way inoffensive, and who would even wear it as a ‘badge of honour'. ‘Wade', on the About.com travel guide (http://www.hobotraveler.com/ni_thailand-nicknames-for-foreigners.php) offers evidence of this mentality; ‘he' (which is presuming quite a lot) tells us that:

‘Many foreigners in Thailand seem to even wear the term Farang as though it were a badge of honor...Thai people will call you it while you walk down the street, your native friends will call you it, and other foreigners even refer to themselves as "Farang." I do not believe that this term is generally meant to be an insult, this is simply our title in Thai society, and, if we do not like it, there is nothing we can do about it.'

So there you go - quite obviously, when you do look at what people are saying about the word in the public forum, there are those who are indeed off it, or who see the word ‘farang' as intrinsically bad. That's certainly not everybody, however; there are definitely those around who would argue quite the opposite. A more compromising perspective, perhaps, is to say that there are uses of the word where offence is neither intended or implied - I don't have an adequate grasp of the full breadth of Thai language discourse by which to offer an educated opinion here, although I must say that people I know who on all other counts treat me very well and sensitively do on occasion refer to me or mine as ‘farangs', which does support this view. But, that there are problems with the word, to the degree moreover that in this case it might become an item of lexicon that will be gradually phased out of use.

Here are a couple of examples of attitude number three, or of the more compromising attitude - at IntoAsia.com (www.into-asia.com/thai_language/farang.php), for instance, we come across the following material:

‘Even if you can speak no other words of Thai, most European and American visitors to Thailand will quickly become familiar with the Thai word farang (often mispronounced (even by Thais) as falang - farang with a slightly trilled 'r' is the correct pronunciation.) It's basically used to describe caucasians, though African-Americans will sometimes also be known as farang or as farang dam ('black farang'). Farang is also the Thai word for the guava fruit, so you can expect to hear farang eating farang 'jokes' if you happen to purchase any.

Other Asians are generally known by their country of origin (e.g. kon jeen - "Chinese people", kon yee-bpun - "Japanese people"), while people from the Indian Subcontinent are often known as kairk (which translates as "guest"). Kairk is used to describe even fluent Thai speakers of Indian descent who have been living in Thailand for generations and consider themselves as Thai - obviously being referred to as a 'guest' in these circumstances, while not particularly offensive, is not exactly complimentary either.

Some people get very offended at being called farang, but whether it's an insult should or not really depends on the context. A few Thais who are uncomfortable with using it will say kon dtahng bpra-tayt ('people from other countries') instead, but this is still pretty rare. Farang is basically a neutral word, but people who respect you (or who should respect you) will not use it - if you hear a work colleague, for example, refer to you as farang they probably mean it as an insult while a taxi driver or market vendor doing the same is unlikely to mean any offense at all.'

The point being, as I say, that while the material definitely doesn't cast the word ‘farang' in the most positive of lights, we do find a firm assertion that whether the word is insulting or not ‘depends on the context', and that in some contexts is unlikely to be intended to cause ‘any offense at all'. ‘The Farang' (I again presume) at TheFarang.com (and who better to give their opinion?), offers a similar interpretation; there (www.thefarang.com/farang), we are told that:

‘Farang is most commonly used to describe white Westerners although black people from the US or UK (or other Western countries) may also be referred to as farang or farang dam (black farang). These is some debate on whether or not the term is offensive. In general it is a neutral word intended as nothing more than a description of the person. It can be used as an insult though which is why there is some debate. It depends on the context of how it's used much like many other descriptors. For instance if someone were to say "She has a farang husband," then it's a neutral word communicating the fact that her husband is non-Thai. If someone who you know well were to use the word in a sentence like "Here comes the farang," it is probably meant as an insult.'

Again, such description doesn't exclude the casting of any negative light on the word; however, again we are told that whether or not we should take offense is context dependent, and that there are possibly instances where the meaning is altogether neutral.

Following on from which it becomes very easy to say what sort of problems might be intrinsically associated with the word, or why, as my students verified, the majority of Caucasian people seem more on the side of Mandrunk than Wade; after giving it some consideration, this is what seems to lie essentially at the heart of this conundrum. Firstly, Thai people are using the same word for a person that they do for a fruit - you don't find English categorising people biologically, or at least not in any polite sense that I can think of, by using words that relate to non-human objects (please someone, correct me if I am wrong) - I guess, because we do feel, like Thais, that to use the same pronoun to refer to people that we do to non-human things is a bad thing, or that there should be some division here of sorts, that subconsciously this lends itself to the generation of angst (the double standards don't help out here either). On top of this, this homonym means that the title chosen for Caucasians is in part inextricably linked to, or in essence is perennially constituted in part by, a joke - that this should be something that doesn't ride well with the people it intrinsically makes fun of is very clearly demonstrated by this posting from theThailandqa.com forum. How is it, the poster (www.thailandqa.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1293) invites us to think, when you buy a yummy guava from the market to appease the basic human instinct of hunger, and someone says:

‘"Farang chob farang", and then they [a whole bunch of people who we might normally expect to mind their own business] all point and laugh and you have this blank look on your face as you try to chew the last bit and swallow it down so you can at least laugh at yourself...'

You don't feel very good at all. It's like yes, let's all laugh at me, even though you don't know me, just because of how I look - this is hardly, we could fairly say, the sort of strategy that if we thought about it is guaranteed, by any standards, to endear other people to us.

Then, we have the dimension that - coming in at problem number two here - the term categorises people too broadly. ‘Capricious', on the Ajarn.com forum (www.ajarnforum.net/vb/the-virtual-pub/29556-category-farang-2.html), demonstrates this quite amusingly; to save you going there, I have included the entire post:

‘Farang...have you ever wondered just how large of a generalization it is? Well I have, and I am bored at work, so let's figure this out.

Countries and Populations Belonging to Farangastan

1. United States - 303,645,612 10. Poland - 38,115,967
2. Russia - 142,499,000 11. Canada - 33,211,200
3. Germany - 82,210,000 12. Uzbekistan - 27,372,000
4. France - 64,473,140 13. Australia - 21,228,525
5. United Kingdom - 60,587,300 14. Netherlands - 16,408,691
6. Italy - 59,337,888 15. Greece - 11,147,000
7. South Africa - 47,850,700 16. Belgium - 10,584,534
8. Ukraine - 46,398,114 17. Czech Republic - 10,349,372
9. Spain - 45,200,737 18. Belarus - 9,714,000
19. Sweden - 9,182,927 29. Ireland - 4,339,000
20. Hungary - 10,053,000 30. New Zealand - 4,260,500
21. Austria - 8,327,709 31. Moldova - 3,794,000
22. Switzerland - 7,591,400 32. Lithuania - 3,366,200
23. Israel - 7,254,500[ 33. Kosovo - 2,126,708
24. Denmark - 5,475,791 34. Slovenia - 2,024,466
25. Slovakia - 5,398,629 35. Estonia - 1,340,600
26. Finland - 5,305,262 36. Iceland - 313,376
27. Norway - 4,748,300 37. Greenland - 58,000
28. Croatia - 4,555,000

So as we can see the word "farang" lumps together at least 37 different countries with at least 37 different cultures....arguably one-third to one-forth of the world's total population. A pretty vast generalization. The sad thing is many Thais feel that people from all of these countries are one in (sic.) the same. I've talked to some Thais that were absolutely shocked when I revealed to them that all "farang" do not speak English. They thought it was one of the inherent abilities that came with white skin. So I asked do you speak bali or tagalog? "No". Well why not, you have a similar shade of skin ?'

As well as ignoring people's national and cultural identities, in other words, or overlooking unique aspects of these identities that people often hold important, the word can also be seen to have a lot of potential here to bother people because it makes one other fatal mistake - it throws non-Americans, and even people like Russians, in with Americans, it throws the French and the Irish in the same basket as the English, and it throws Western European people in with Eastern European people, amongst other such faux pas - regardless of the justifications for ignoring people's objections here, my true objective just being to try and explain why Caucasians burr up at this word, I would guess that this is a generalisation (a perceived attempt at stereotyping, perhaps) that will never go down too well. It almost seems contrived, in fact, in this case, to promote discontent.

Nor is this the extent of the problems - coming in at number three now there is the fact that this word ‘farang' is associated in the general Thai mindset with some very negative impressions. At moments when I have observed resentment boil over, or when I could pinpoint the ‘dark side', semantically speaking, of the word ‘farang', these are the kinds of stereotypes I've generally found on offer; Thai people, to phrase it like this, are thinking (via notes I have taken over time in my journal of some genuine expressions of what kind of people Thais have said they understand farangs to be, as well as the affirmation of my students):

‘Rich tourist coming for a cheap holiday at our expense (because they are rich, and made us poor); Pattaya, Phuket, farang men and bar girls (prostitution, sex shows); old farang men getting a young Thai wife, or even molesting children, because they have the money; teachers with less qualifications than Thais, or even no degree at all, who are very unfairly getting much higher salaries than qualified Thai teachers, and who are able to live a better life in Thailand than they can back home, because they are farang; Christian missionaries pretending to help Thai people while they get more people who will pay money to their church; someone who has more money than sense, and who is too stupid to realise, let alone resent the fact, they are being cheated by special high prices in Thailand....'

Amongst a whole bunch of other altogether very uncomplimentary things - the point is, if this is some of the ‘cultural baggage' that hangs off the word in their minds, and one doesn't happen to belong to any of these categories, to be called a farang, especially if putting you in one of these categories seems to be their obvious intention, is highly offensive. I have particular experience of this - my wife is Korean, not Thai, and if you heard some of the lewd and rude things that complete strangers said to her because they wrongly assumed she was some bargirl (which fortunately she cannot understand), just because she was with a ‘farang'...well, quite obviously, if it reflects like this on my wife, there are definitely times I don't want to be called a farang.

The final problem being, of course, as Mandrunk already demonstrated, or the final reason the word ‘farang' might be inclined to produce resentment amongst the people to whom it is applied (problem number four that I can think of)...the final problem we can see with the word ‘farang' is that it seems suspiciously like words that, in my country Australia, for example, formerly rolled off people's tongues without the slightest inclination on their behalf that there could be anything wrong with them, but that we have since reconsidered to the extent that they are now prohibited. I'm talking, of course, about words like ‘gook' (to describe ‘han-gook saram', or Korean people), or ‘nip' (to describe ‘nipponese', or Japanese people). Which, while they just seem like abbreviations, or something you wouldn't imagine anyone (with your big red neck, ho, ho, ho) would get all het up about, for reasons touched on here already in fact, when we looked past our own noses, were highly offensive to the people we once used to think nothing of calling such things. Again, I don't know how much of a comparison can be drawn here, because my knowledge of Thai discourse is insufficient to do anything more really than speculate, and my students weren't able to be of much help because they similarly do not understand the English words enough to comment - the point is though, there are some grounds to draw, and people obviously are drawing, these comparisons, again we have here a definite perceived, if not real reason, to say the word ‘farang' has some problems.

Which about wraps up everything I wanted to say here. I'll just go through the main points again, to keep things in perspective - my observations were that in Thai people's experiences they know most Caucasians don't like to be called farangs, but for the most part continue to feel justified to continue doing so, which suggests they have reasons. Maybe these reasons are legitimate, maybe the word is essentially neutral - or maybe, they justify it as a postcolonial backlash, or as a valid generalization in terms of the sample of Caucasians with which they are familiar, you wouldn't say that they would be completely without grounds to do so. Not all Caucasians, however, are actually offended by the word, there are people who are proud to be ‘The Farang' - certainly, it is not too difficult to see where the observed angst derives from, there are a lot of things about the word, including some things in its very nature, that are going to make the people to whom it is applied feel prickly (and, as I said in introduction here, that might one day signal the demise of the word). As a final word of my own, I, personally, have never felt comfortable with the term, mainly on the grounds that most of what people think when you say the word ‘farang' are the negative stereotypes, and while I understand the Thai people's positions I don't like to be thrown in these categories - also, one of the most respected Thai educationalists in my acquaintance once told me very convincingly that the word is intrinsically ‘teu leung', or ‘cheeky', if you have a full and introspective feel for it, one of the reasons people who often use it are so staunch in its defense is because of the sneaking suspicion they themselves uphold that what they are doing is wrong. I don't spin out at anyone, though, unless slight is obviously intended (I err on the side of caution, often, I guess, at my own expense) - like I say, I don't have enough of an understanding here to get on my high horse about anything.




Comments

Very well written, comprehensive article. It has given me food for thought as I though I fell into the group that did not mind being call farang, but part of me has always had a sneaking suspicion that the term is also derogatory.

By Dave, Thailand (13th May 2014)

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