Richard Constable

Why the f-word doesn't upset me

Sometimes you have to admire Thai people's directness


Recently on Ajarn, Phil the Webmaster shared his views about being referred to as a 'farang' not only by Thai people in general but also by none other than his wife's 'skin and blister' his Thai sister-in-law. 

He stated that he didn't mind a bit and that he is basically more than comfortable with it. Good for you Phil, I never doubted that you had it in you.

Pardon my French

You are probably all well aware as ex-pats in Thailand that the Thai word 'farang' stands not only for foreigner; which derives from 'farangset' meaning someone of French nationality but also a guava fruit. 

And why French? Well, according to local legend, French people were the first Europeans to come to Siam as Thailand was known back then.

What about me? 'We are not in the least bit interested!' I hear you shout. Well, be that as it may, to tell you the truth it all depends on the circumstances, by whom, and very much the tone of the delivery. If I am called 'farang' by a young Thai person I instantly point at them and snap 'sadparot! In case you didn't know, 'sadparot' is Thai for pineapple - so the young Thai on seeing the irony in this is usually amused.

I frequently take motorcycle taxis to and from the schools where I work for convenience and I often overhear myself being referred to as 'farang'; not only that but also, 'Hua lan' (bald head), 'Tad pom' (hair cut), or occasionally 'kawaii' (buffalo). 

Banter

Of course I rarely take offence to any of the above, mainly as they would never suspect that I could possibly understand them. Plus, these boys are 'cut of the same cloth' as myself - north-eastern country boys. I am originally from the East Anglian Fens. I mean it has always been the favoured pastime of country people to rip each others' backs out. Still, it's all more often than not just good-hearted banter.

On the other hand, if I am being referred to as 'farang' in the third person, in a restaurant by a waiter, such as something along the lines of 'what farang want to drink?' with an emphasis on the word 'farang' as though it's offensive  and if he is asking one of my daughters, I might have to repress a strong impulse to prevent myself from taking hold of his left ear lobe.

Allow me to explain. My family ran and owned a restaurant in the UK for a number of years and I would sometimes be employed as a waiter. We worked not unusually on the principle that a customer is always someone to be respected. First of all, we never assumed that someone couldn't speak English or that they were incapable of ordering a drink for themselves.

However, if on occasion I found that a customer could speak only in a foreign tongue, or if a person had difficulties in expressing his or herself, then I would find out the relationship between the diners and then perhaps; what would your father like to drink? or what would your second-cousin once removed fancy as a tipple? or a similar interrogative.

Other interesting phrases

On a slightly different note, the phrase 'farang kee nook' can be roughly translated to 'a bird crap foreigner'. More to the point, a farang fruit which comes from a self-sown farang plant that is one that a bird unknowingly sowed while relieving its bladder. In other words, a foreigner that doesn't make the grade; a financially poor foreigner.

Humourous or what? Honestly, I find this an absolute classic and have never failed to titter when I've been christened it.

All of this got me to thinking about some of the more amusing aspects of the Thai language. Moreover, those words and phrases that your Thai language teacher didn't share, so I thought I might enlighten at least some of you as to their virtues. 

For example, 'dern kee' (direct translation 'walk crap'). I had twisted my ankle on this particular occasion and was manoeuvring up a flight of steps when an old native lady made that comment to a young boy who was accompanying her.

Following this, 'luk mha' (roundabout translation into English 'baby dog') - a colloquial metaphor for a person who is easily manipulated, as in, 'I can play you like a puppy dog'.

I am sure many of you will know the phrase 'khao niaow, (translation 'sticky rice'). Who among us hasn't enjoyed the combination of succulent Issarn barbecue chicken and kneaded sticky rice? Although, it is never to be confused with 'kee niaow' (translation 'sticky turd); a person who money sticks to - as in cheap and not generous with his friends.

Obscurely, 'hiya!' (translation 'anus of a monitor lizard'), this is what the young Thai males yell in each others' faces when they want to fight. The monitor lizard is the ugliest animal I have ever seen, and when I have witnessed these confrontations, it seems that they are both calling each other it. As in both challengers feel so insulted that it inevitably ends in a scuffle.

I asked a Thai relative about this Hiya thing and he said that it was because in more traditional housing times, the monitor lizards were horrible varmints raiding their house's food stash and no doubt making things very 'sukkaprok' (dirty) while doing so.

My own personal favourite in the land of the gossiping tongues; 'taa mha mai gin mun kong mai kee, (which grammatically translates to 'If the dog hadn't eaten it wouldn't have crapped). The English version is 'There's no smoke without fire' as in there must be some truth in it or people wouldn't be talking.

Thai people are no more than a generation or three from an agrarian society so naturally, they can be blunt and uncouth at times Even so, you have to admire their honesty and directness. On the whole, I am sure they don't mean any ill-feeling towards us 'pale-skinned' ex-pats of European descent by referring to us as 'farang'.




Comments

I don't care about hearing the word 'farang' when I'm out and about walking around food vendors and security guards, etc. I don't know these people and they don't know me. It would bother me if my Thai family, work colleagues or people in higher-end establishments were using it. I guess it depends on what kind of circles you hang around in. My Thai friends and family reference my home country 'The UK' when talking about my mannerisms and ways.

A Thai I met once said to me, "You farangs. You like the dark-skinned ladies, don't you?" I just told him that I don't care. If a girl is hot, she's hot. I told him that where I come from we're told not to judge people by the colour of their skin. That's not to say we don't have plenty of racists. There are unfortunately plenty of racists the world over; it's just something we are strongly educated on and something I would never waiver on no matter where in the world I live. It's a universal truth.

It reminded me of being back home in London in my local pub. It's the pub I grew up near which I occasionally go into for nostalgic reasons. When you overhear people talking, you will hear lots of swearing, poor grammar and racial epithets. It's sadly what you hear in areas of the UK like where I come from. It most certainly isn't what you'd hear in nicer areas.

I remember bout 12 years ago I taught a Thai/German girl in pratom 5. She was quite small for her age, or should I say she was talked about as being quite small for a "half farang", and she had this very brownie blonde hair. A lovely girl and a pleasure to teach. Her name was Jasmine but the kitchen staff and cleaners used to call her "farang noi". The Thai teachers didn't, but they often couldn't help but touch her when she was in their presence. I remember overhearing a cleaner call her "farang noi". I told the cleaner that her name is Jasmine. Please refer to her as her name. The cleaner just laughed and said in Thai, "But she looks like a small farang". I explained that if the parents heard you saying it they wouldn't be best pleased. And it stopped. It's all about learning and exposure.

My last thoughts on the word 'farang' come from when I was travelling back to Thailand from Vienna Airport. I bumped into a Thai guy I knew from my old cycling club. We met in the cafe and started talking. As we were walking near to our gate getting onto the same flight, we heard some Thais speaking. We must have heard the word 'farang' about 3 or 4 times. The Thai guy I was with just laughed, rolled his eyes and said, "Welcome back to Thailand". I guess even he knew that some Thais can be a little overkill with the word.

"Farang" - a single word that can most definitely be used with a negative connotation. Not always, but very often. Take a look at the health minister using the disgusting term, "ai farang". It wasn't surprising to me that he had those thoughts. What surprised me is that he was stupid enough to convey these thoughts in public. A man at the helm of a department which we are hoping can contain a serious virus.

By Aaron, Thailand (20th February 2020)

The more you understand Thai the more will realise that the f word is used in a derogatory way much more than you may think. As the writer explained, it's about the tone of delivery. I dislike it's use because it's a racial slur, when a far more polite option is available i.e. 'Kon Tang Pratet' a foreign person. Thais are terrible at hiding behind their own language to express their opinions about you in Thai, even though you are standing right there among them. As I understand Thai probably to 80 per cent, I can tell you that it's rare to walk past a group of Thais without them directing a comment about me to their friends, usually just to garner a laugh. It never fails to depress me, and I'll even on occasion confront them in Thai. If you think this is a lovely and ideal situation to be in, fine, keep your head in the sand. There also dozens of other racial slurs that they know they can fire of with impunity at you. "Gluay" ,banana, and paksida, both of which I hate are heard on a daily basis in the neighbourhood where I live, as I inoffensively go about my business.

By Rory, udon (20th February 2020)

Sometimes it's necessary for Thais to use this word without despising you and wanting you out of their country.

eg.

If you want to try on some pants at Robinsons, you would ask the lady nearby. Her english might be inadequate so she'll call a colleague.
''Tell Lek there's a farang wanting to try on a size 36''
Nothing bad here as Lek may have the best english skills in that department, that's why she's being summoned. so it makes sense, no hatred intended.

Similar scenario would happen at Foodland. You want an omlette minus the egg yolks, so the confused trainee summons an english skilled colleague to help her out in a similar way. Job done, ''weird farang'' the chef mutters to himself.
Afterwards the girls might have a giggle at the ''fussy farang'' being a pain in the arse.

By Pat, Bangkok (16th February 2020)

Funny to me that I heard this right wing conservative whining about being called a farang. Same guy who is always calling out liberals as being snowflakes.

By Lee Lepper, Thailand (14th February 2020)

All races have nicknames around the world with positive or negative connotation. The average Thai has no bad intention using the word farang. It's the same discussion as decades ago and will be like this for more to come..

By chris, thailand (13th February 2020)

Tim, Jack, we'll draw a line under this and end the argument there. Thank you.

By Phil, Samut Prakan (12th February 2020)

Tim

“caucasian apologists for Thailand”

Wow, I assume this is meant as an insult? I am not sure the exact meaning though. What does “Thailand” have to apologize for? For being a developing country? For having a different culture than found in the West? For not being found a paradise by every English teacher who passes through? For being Thailand?

I really don’t know what “Thailand” has to apologize for and therefore I wouldn’t know what I have every apologized for in the name of Thailand.

If the term means a person who tries (and often fails) to be tolerant, open minded, and less judgmental, than I agree with you and take it as a compliment.

These attitudes have served me pretty well, has your judgmental, close-minded and intolerant attitudes helped you?

By Jack, LOS (12th February 2020)

And why is it that caucasian apologists for Thailand lurk waiting to be offended by any less than glowing opinion about Thailand then try to turn the tables on whoever said it? It doesn't give the impression of having a happy and rewarding life in Thailand....

By Tim, Kaohsiung (11th February 2020)

Tim “Those who can't refute inconvenient and painful truths”

Do not equate opinion or perception with truth.

The “truth” is when using Westerner economies as the benchmark, Thailand is very much a developing country with much lower average incomes and has the types of institutions one would expect in a developing country.

The belief that Thais are inferior to Westerners is an opinion and a perception. It is not a fact nor the “truth.”

We live in a world of the perceptions we create. I cannot see how considering Thailand and Thais inferior to one’s own country and oneself would be helpful in having a profitable or enjoyable experience living and working in Thailand.

But, if you think the use of negative stereotypes of entire Asian nations will produce more benefits than problems in your career and life, than go ahead.

(Why is it so many people who freely criticize entire nations and are extremely judgmental are so sensitive and get so upset when their own negative worldviews are challenged?)

By Jack, LOS or close by (11th February 2020)

Jack "This statement did nothing to change my opinion of my family, friends, co-workers and people in general in Thailand, but it sure shaped my opinion of the person writing such a comment."

Those who can't refute inconvenient and painful truths usually turn on the author with snide personal comments.

I'm not trying to change your opinion, despite your belief that everything's about you. I'm expressing my own, and I've no need to bow down to prickly types like you.

Thais lack manners, empathy, and sophistication. One only needs to look at the way they drive for compelling further evidence - selfishlessly and recklessly, making their roads among the most dangerous on the planet.

By Tim, Kaohsiung (11th February 2020)

Yes Tim, and if I were going to write about the same subject with a very negative slant, I would have written something similiar to yourself. And, if you are going to criticise someone's relatively well balanced blog, you would do yourself more credit by reading it in its entirety.

As 'pale-skinned epats of European descent' can only ever equate to caucasians.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (11th February 2020)

Tim: "Thais for all their smiles and forced charm, lack manners, empathy, and sophistication."

Wow! This statement did nothing to change my opinion of my family, friends, co-workers and people in general in Thailand, but it sure shaped my opinion of the person writing such a comment.

We live in the world as we perceive it, I am happy I don't have such a negative perception. I don't see how thinking I was superior to 98% of the people I ran across everyday based on an accident of birth would make my life better. But if it boosts your ego, go ahead and retain your ethnocentric views.

By Jack, LOS (10th February 2020)

The word means caucasian, not foreigner. With the definition being wrong, there wasn't much hope for the rest of the article.

The term is not derogatory in the sense that the N word is, as it isn't used in hatred. However, what it does is exclude and label in a highly ignorant manner. Thailand's lack of any real multiculturalism causes insularism. You're either Thai, or your an outsider. And outsiders need to be labelled as such, in pretty blatant and untactful ways.

No Brit working in a shop would call out to their colleague "This Asian wants to know if we sell light bulbs. Do we?" yet that is exactly what Thais do. They use an ethnic label when it is simply not necessary, because it's a bad habit, and Thais for all their smiles and forced charm, lack manners, empathy, and sophistication.

By Tim, Kaohsiung (10th February 2020)

This is a recurring topic, whether they're doing their best to offend you or not.

Visit 3 different parts of the UK and talk to 3 different classes of folks about foreigners.

@James

''I would like to ask the author if the Thai community in London, which is quite substantial, would tolerate being referred to as "Thai, Thai" by complete strangers, or worse the English equivalent of the insults described above''

I think they'd be referred to as the ''thai lady'' or ''thai bloke'' by anyone who didn't know them. That wouldn't be meant in a spiteful racist way at all.

By Pat, Bangkok (7th February 2020)

Interesting article

I have been called a farang, barang, gaijun, laowei and probably a few others (I was always struck there does not seem to be any catch-all informal phrase for Westerners in Vietnam). I find these terms are used far more often in a descriptive than an evaluative way. I have used them myself often enough. But of course they can, like any word used to classify people, be used as an insult.

It is probably a good idea to acknowledge the differences in acceptable behaviors coming from a more racially heterogeneous country where race and nationality are considered separate and a more racially homogeneous country where race and nationality are intertwined.

I remember one time I was in China (in a fairly small city without many foreigners) at a zoo. There was a little girl who was pointing at the animals and calling out their names (In Chinese of course). She would point and say, tiger, bird, monkey, and then pointed at me and yelled LAOWEI. Her mother tried to apologize, but instead we had a good laugh about it. Take your kids to the zoo and see all kinds of exotic animals, lions, tigers, monkeys and white people!

Maybe I should be more judgmental of the local cultures where I live, work and travel and be offended more often, but I am not sure how that would make my life here in Asia more profitable or enjoyable.

By Jack, LOS or close by. (7th February 2020)

A very humorous and well written article that provides some great insights into the Thai psyche. As I lived in Thailand for many years I enjoyed reading this and resonated with some of the examples given.

However, I do disagree with the author that the usage of the term farang is completely benign and innocent. On many occasion I have heard this used as a disparaging term that, quite frankly is inappropriate for a country competing as global citizens in the 21st Century which is dependent upon diversity and mutual respect for all groups contributions.

To put it into context, I would like to ask the author if the Thai community in London, which is quite substantial, would tolerate being referred to as "Thai, Thai" by complete strangers, or worse the English equivalent of the insults described above. Of course, these terms used in banter between friends can be taken as a joke, but to use them as judgemental terms against innocent bystanders is different.

Thailand, like most other countries in the world has benefited economically, educationally and socially from the freedom of movement of people from around the world. Isn't it about time foreigners are accepted in Thai society, as Thai expats are, by and large, accepted in Western countries? After all, as the old saying goes, what is good for the goose is good for the gander....

By James, Cambodia (6th February 2020)

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