An Introduction to “Culture”
A typical modern story…
After a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles, Doug arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport for the first time. Man, was he excited! Not only had his company sent him to Asia for the first time to coordinate a project,he was armed with a folder full of photos of Thai women he’d met on the internet. During the next three weeks,he was ready to methodically meet, interview, and evaluate their suitability as his “soul mate.”
Unfortunately, that folder was in his suitcase. And his suitcase wasn’t on the luggage carousel. After watching the same cardboard box and battered blue Samsonite go around for the 18th time,he decided to alert the airline official in the baggage claim area, to make sure his bag could be located and sent on to his hotel. A big,confident man,used to speaking with authority and having people “snap to,”he strode over to the airline counter and said, in aloud,assertive voice, “You need to find my bag. It’s a 28”Travel Pro, black in color,and it needs to be found and delivered to my hotel within the hour.”
The airline official, a woman in her mid-30’s, smiled, raised her hands up, palms touching in a“prayer” position near her forehead, bowed, looked up from under her lashes,and said quietly “So sorry, Mr. But next flight from Los Angeles not until tomorrow. Maybe your suitcase is on it? You wait until tomorrow. We’ll call you if we find it.”
Doug’s frustration turned to outrage. “What do you mean, maybe?” He slapped his hand on the counter, leaning forward and raising his voice. “You get on that phone NOW, Miss,and locate my bag! What do you have a bar code on your luggage tags for?”
The airline official, still smiling, bowed again…and said, “It happens all the time. Your bag will probably be here tomorrow. And besides…the computer system is down now. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I’ll call you tomorrow if it comes. It’s best if you go to your hotel and wait.”
Doug didn’t notice that all the Thai people in the airport, plus the ones behind the counter, began to laugh nervously,and whisper behind their hands. He didn’t notice that the louder he got,and the more he waved his hands, the less help he was getting. All he noticed was that he wasn’t getting what he wanted.
And an Old Thai Story…
Doug’s situation reminds me of an old Thai story about Ko Nan-Ta-Vi-Sal,a cow. It’s a story that almost every Thai child is taught as a lesson in how to treat others.
“Once upon a time in the Kingdom, there was a farmer with a cow named Nan-Ta-Vi-Sal, whose job was to help the farmer harvest rice. One morning Nan just stood there,and would not move.There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him –he looked absolutely normal –he just would not move.The farmer began shouting at Nan over and over again, instructing him to get moving and get on with his work. The louder the farmer shouted, the more Nan just stood there– doing nothing.Frustrated, the farmer began to hit Nan, trying to push him and force him to get on with his work – but still Nan would not move.
A neighbor,hearing the shouting, hurried over to see if he could be of help. When he saw that Nan was “dug in,”and would not move, inspite of being hit and shouted at by the farmer, the neighbor touched Nan gently on the back, and began speaking softly and politely in his ear, saying gently, “Nan, we need to harvest the rice so we can all eat,and we can’t do it without your help. Won’t you please help the farmer and start working now? I’m sure if you do,he will stop shouting.” At the gentle touch, soft voice,and polite request, Nan slowly began to move and started his long working day…”
The modern example of Doug arriving at the airport with missing luggage and the old example of Ko-Nan-Ta-Vi-Sal the cow both show you how easy it could be to arrive in a strange country without knowing the“rules”about how to behave–and how frustrated you could become in the process!
Doug, in these examples, is “the farmer” –and the airline official is “Nan.”The more Doug shouted and the more physically he expressed himself, the further the airline official dug in her heels,unwilling to move or take the initiative to help him. What Doug doesn’t realize is this: when visiting another country, you’ve got to know how to behave if you want to get things done. Doug does not know what he needs to know.
Now just imagine,after this rocky start at the airport, what Doug’s experiences might be like a she meets, interviews, and evaluates the list of Thai ladies he has in the folder in his suitcase (if he’s lucky enough to get his suitcase tomorrow!). He knows nothing about how to get things done in Thailand. He runs the risk of embarrassing himself…and embarrassing the Thai ladies he wants most to impress.
He knows nothing about Thai culture…and doesn’t understand the thousands of years that have shaped its people.
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