Text: Scott McNabb, College of Education, The University of Iowa Commentary: Porntip Kanjananiyot, Executive Director, Thailand-U.S. Educational Foundation (Fulbright)
The following essay has been written to provide orientation thoughts for American scholars who are embarking on a Fulbright assignment in Thailand. I hope that it will provide insights that will help Fulbrighters to understand, appreciate, and engage fully with their academic colleagues and other Thais they will encounter. It is not meant only as a “survival” guide; our hopes are far greater than that. It is written to help individuals maximize the cross-cultural gift that they have been given—to live and work among the Thai people for a significant period of time.
This essay is based on my 19 trips to Thailand which span the period 1968 to 2011, from Peace Corps teaching at Thammasat University through two Fulbrights and multiple other teaching, evaluation and research trips. I have taught International Education and qualitative research classes at The University of Iowa since 1979.
In this essay, I will indulge in the kind of generalizations I never allow my students to make. In my classes, I encourage my students to think tentatively and carefully about cross-cultural issues, and make few if any broad conclusions. Here, in the interests of encouraging discussion and giving usable advice, I will risk making general comments about Thai culture. This essay, then, is written less as an academic piece than as a kind of user’s manual.
I have asked my colleague and friend Porntip Kanjananiyot to provide commentary from her perspective of being deeply engaged in Thai-American educational exchange work for a number of years. Porntip is currently the Executive Director of the Fulbright program in Thailand. We hope that our discussion back and forth will provide additional insights.
This article includes advice on language learning, behavior to help you engage in Thai culture, and some responses to issues that you may well encounter with your Thai colleagues and other Thais whom you get to know.
Opening Advice and Questions
In general, the more “out there” you can be—learning the language, trying all kinds of food, engaging with all kinds of people (monks, market people, academics, and so on), learning to joke Thai-style (including making jokes about yourself), taking unwarranted compliments without resisting them too much, and so on—the more you will learn about and appreciate various aspects of the “Thai view of the world.”
The “authentic” Thailand is surprisingly close physically to the “tourist” Thailand—it’s just under a bridge or around a corner or down an alley where tourists typically don’ venture. . .or it’s on full display before most tourists typically wake up, like watching the monks make their early morning rounds. Within a relatively short walk from Khaosan Road, the backpacker mecca in Bangkok, there are amulet markets near Thammasat University that are rarely visited by foreigners, where one can venture deeply into the spiritual beliefs of the Thai people.
Don’t be afraid to wander (within reason) wherever your curiosity takes you. If you are actively searching for something, cultivating the “treasure hunt mind,” you may well find what you are searching for, or something equally interesting. Or your quest may bring additional questions about the initial “treasure” you were seeking. For example, if you go to the amulet market in search of a small statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman, you will certainly find many other intriguing deities along the way—all of whom demonstrate incorporation of the Hindu religious figures, and Mahayana Buddhism, in Thai Buddhism. Why is Ganesh so popular in Thailand? Or Kwan Yin (Yao Mae Kuan Im)? With whom are the various deities popular?
In many ways, Fulbrighters can benefit from the outlook and skills...