When ever you go to a new country, there is undoubtably going to be a culture shock. Thai culture is no exception to that rule. I loved learning and living in Thai culture when I was there. The one thing about Thai culture, that I always found interesting was how Thais could be so polite and respectful one moment( This is called เกรงใจ kreng jai in Thai) and then they will turn around and tell you that you are fat the next moment. In fact I was called fat, or some variation of fat, by almost everyone I was introduced to in Thailand.
I soon realized that physical characteristics are fair game in Thailand. I also quickly learned that words like fat don’t always have the negative implication that automatically goes with the same word in English. To a Thai, saying “you are looking kinda round today” is no more offensive than saying “you are looking very lovely today.” Both are just observations. In fact, bothare usually said with a sense of endearment. Me being called fat all the time, helped me get one of my favorite nicknames that I ever received, while in Thailand.
Nicknames in Thailand
Let me step back for a moment and talk about another bit of Thai culture. Thai people always have nicknames. That is just what Thai people do. If you ask a Thai person his or her name, unless its a formal situation like a business meeting, they probably won’t give you their real name. Everyone in Thailand has a ชื่อเล่น(nickname). If you have to fill out a form in Thailand, it will probably have a field for your real name and your nickname. That is just how common it is to have nicknames in Thailand. So it is very common for a farang to receive a nickname from their Thai buddies, especially if you are a farang with a difficult to pronounce name.
As missionaries, we were allways officially known by our last names. My last name, Mair, was written in Thai like this: แมร์. Even though this is easy enough to pronounce in Thai, the way it is written is too much like other words in Thai, that I got two very Interesting nicknames from it.
The first nickname, I recieved, was แมว, which means a cat. This is common in Thailand to be called an animal name. In fact I knew about a dozen ‘chickens’ while I was in Thailand. The other name I was often called was แม่ which means Mom. Yes, I was called Mom by many a Thai friend. You would think that would be weird and to be honest it was at first. However, it soon became something very normal. It was just what my name was. It did make some awkward situations when a kid would call out for his mom and I would turn my head thinking he was calling me.
How I got named after a Disney character.
My favorite name, however, had nothing to do with my last name. Near the end of my two-year mission I was in Phitsanulok. As usual I was told that I was fat by everyone, but one person told me that I was ลงพุง(long pung). I had never heard of that, but I asked them to spell it and I looked it up when I got a chance. It meant that I had a a pot belly. Little did I know that because I asked about the word, I drew everyones attention to it. Everyone remembered me as the farang ลงพุง. I was basically told I was fat all the time every day.
Then one fateful day, one of my Thai friends said I was like Winnie the Pooh, and then she said I was like Winnie the พุง. The cute cuddly bear forever became associated with me. I even got a stuffed Winnie the Pooh on my birthday, dressed up like a little missionary.
There is my little walk down memory lane. Here is my question to all who read this. I know many of you are or have been in a foreign land. Have you ever had an experience like mine? If so I would love to hear about it. Please share.