5 Culture Shocks I Experience While Living and Teaching in Thailand

I’m a rather adaptable individual. Being a Malaysian having stayed and taught in Thailand for over a year now, as much as I think I can handle cultural differences like a pro partly due to the common Asian values that the two countries are sharing, still there are moments when things I’ve never anticipated hit me right in my face and leave me screaming inside my head,


Don’t get me wrong, though. I love Thailand. I love the Thai culture and I love EVERYTHING Thai. My writing this entry isn’t at all meant to belittle the Thai culture or to claim superiority of my own. It’s just to share some of my encounters while in Thailand in a light-hearted manner.

Well, I’m not talking about the kind of culture shock arising from, say, seeing my Thai better half enjoying her favourite snack away – fried coconut worms, that is. Nor is it the kind where you get to read news about a 14-year-old riding a horse to school everyday, beating traffic in a badass fashion.

Image: Wonder Green (Facebook)
Image: Wonder Green (Facebook)

Things like these no longer get me too thrilled to be “culturally shocked.” My awkward encounters of culture shock have mostly stemmed from the difference between the habits and mindset of the Thais, and mine.

So below, ladies and gents, are five major cultural shocks I’ve experienced as a Malaysian, whether at work or while spending time with my significant other, in the land of all smiles.

1. Sex isn’t a taboo subject

Malaysians in general, especially Gen X that grew up on the Borneon side of Malaysia like myself, keep the topic of sex and sexuality to ourselves. I don’t broach it often. But when I do, a topic like this would certainly fit better with my guy friends than my female friends.

On the other hand, it’s not that the Thais have zero sense of self-control when it comes to introducing sexual themes to a conversation. Of course, you don’t expect them to talk about sex with their parents or strangers.

What I’m trying to say is that comparatively, the Thais are more open to talk about it. Also, for some reason Thai girls are more prone to exploring intimate conversation topics or sharing their sexual experiences with their friends, than their male counterpart.

2. Why so serious?

The Thais live by the sabai-sabai (“easy-going; relaxed”) attitude. They don’t take everything too seriously.

Malaysians, on the other hand, especially Chinese like myself, tend to be a little more serious about everything as if the sky is going to collapse on us anytime. Now that I have a Thai significant other, I get to learn to let go of unneeded thoughts and feelings and worry less about every single thing in the universe.

So if anyone happens to get too tensed up, keep calm and listen to this “Sabai Sabai” song:

3. The Thais can REALLY drink

By that, I don’t mean to say that Malaysians don’t or can’t drink. We all know for a fact that Muslims, who account for over half of Malaysia’s population, don’t consume alcohol. But there are also non-Muslims who find happiness in drinking.

Except I feel that the Thais generally consume more alcohol and are better drinkers than fellow Malaysians.

Perhaps the higher prices of alcoholic beverages in Malaysia being one reason — while Malaysians are better known for their lim teh (“Teh Tarik“) culture, the Thais prefer to gin lao (“drink alcohol”).

Occasionally sitting in a group and being indulged in some chit-chat and cups after cups of whisky diluted with ice, water, and soda because that’s cheaper than beer, is something I have yet to come to terms with if not get used to. Being a Buddhist, often I find myself struggling to strike a balance between upholding one of the five precepts in Buddhism, which is to abstain from the use of intoxicating drink or drugs, and fitting myself into the local culture.

4. Single motherhood? Well, who cares?

The divorce rate in Thailand is crazy. Yet the scary part is that it has witnessed a drastic rise over the past decade!

Since coming to Thailand, I’ve seen school children who are living with single parents more than anywhere else, mostly because their parents were/are too young to be ready for a family.

Then I slowly learned that Thai men are rather flirtatious because apparently the society here sees it as being playful rather than being disloyal. That is, of course, until when cheating happens. Also, a considerate number of ladies really don’t mind being a mia noi or minor wife; some of them see nothing wrong about it.

I don’t want to be a moral police. I think it’s okay to be bit of a flirt sometimes. After being in Thailand for a while, I think I’ve become more accepting of people being flirtatious. But then again when the line is crossed and when the family comes tumbling down, children are the ones to suffer the most.

While most girls in the Asian context rush to be married off before late 20’s for they don’t want to be seen as “leftover” women, I stand by my principle that we only marry when both parties are mentally and financially ready, and that we don’t marry for the sake of the often judgemental society.

5. The confidentiality of salaries? What does that smell like?

At least in my work setting and this may not be generalised to include other areas, everyone seems to know how much wage everyone is getting. It’s pretty common for colleagues at my workplace to ask me, or to disclose to others, how much I’m getting. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being nosy and I’ll tell you why.

In Malaysia, there are still people who ask about salaries, but the companies that I had worked for and my former colleagues tended to honour and respect the confidential nature of salaries to a greater degree.

However, Malaysians in general tend to compare salaries more among their peers. The competitive mindset in them is strong and they would probably be pleased to know that they’ve outdone their peers in terms of salary. My Thai colleagues, in contrast, don’t compare as much even when they know about another person’s salary. They make do with what they’re getting.