Rude or acceptable? Depends what lens you’re looking through

I’ve been toying for a few days now about what topic I should write about next. I have a list of topics that I’d like to write about, but I want to be sure that my first few topics cover a range that reflects who I am. I was flicking through some blogs and found this post Talk about the weather, not my weight about an Aussie girl following her Italian beau and struggling with some of the culture clashes – Bingo! It became the genesis of this post.

The saying goes that if you can understand the humour of another language then you become pretty much native. Being fluent in both Thai and English I can assure you that there are a few other hurdles to watch out for. Norms and taboos are particularly interesting obstacles, where a misunderstanding can result in hilarity, awkwardness or even hurt either party’s feelings.

fat cartoonA casing point is the weight commentary, as per With Italian Love’s experiences. In Thailand (and apparently in Italy), it is perfectly acceptable to say hello and then comment on your weight – “Gee, you’ve put on a bit of weight. You must be living it up!” or “You’ve lost some weight haven’t you? You’re looking good”. Obviously the latter is preferable to the former, but people serve it up to you either way, and may even throw in a few pointers to assist you in achieving what they would consider their optimum weight for you.

I recall when I was a fragile teenager I was outraged that my mum’s friends felt that it was their place to comment to point out the muffin tops protruding from my jeans, or when they thought it was fine to announce to the whole market in Bangkok that I’d never fit into medium sized pants and they better get the large ones out. You never would have categorised me as fat, but it’s easy to feel large when you tower over everyone and they’re all size 6.

Strangers, even customers, aren’t immune. When Hubby and I were shopping for shorts in a Phuket market, he was met with a shop keeper who told him that he was “very big” and he would need “elephant size” shorts! He is 6 ft 5″ and about 120kgs so the description wasn’t inaccurate, but you’d only never venture down that road in Australia. Lucky for us the shop keeper stocked elephant size so we managed to get some shorts out of the encounter.

Eventually I started to find the regular weight updates quite funny, and the honesty almost refreshing. ALMOST. I recognised that no malice was meant, and it was more like an observation a la “How’s this rain at the moment?”

The social filters and taboos in the Thai culture are there, just as they are in Italian culture. They just are in different places! What is acceptable and what is rude is determined by your frame of reference. Being exposed to two cultures means that I’m lucky enough to have more than one lens to process the world. If there is one thing that I can pass on from my (not so) unique position, it would be tolerance. Just because you believe something is right or wrong doesn’t mean it is so everywhere.

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