Written by Rupert Sully
I once had the pleasure of living and working in Thailand. One thing that really struck me were their traditions around gifting. I taught English in a high school there for close on a year and would often be presented with gifts (usually consisting of juicy fruits, the wonders of which seem extra good in Thailand). Often I would come into my classroom on a morning and find the most sumptuous bounty piled on my desk. With no air conditioning and tons of Thai kids who seemed to be in perpetual motion the fruit was a great relief especially after singing ‘one green bottle’ the 100th time (I have to go hide under my bed when I hear that hideous song now).
However it wasn’t all joy. These offers brought with them a volley of problems, enhanced by my rusty Thai. Who had brought me the gift? How was I supposed to reciprocate? Teacher politics is bad enough any where but throw in the ignorance of young farang and you can spark Armageddon. What needs to be reciprocated and how? And if you gift one person will that mean someone else has been left out that should not be?
Looking back I should have taken a more active role to seek out this knowledge rather then stumbling through it like a rhinoceros trying to use chop sticks.
I am always weary of hearing foreigner’s accounts of other’s traditions (sure the locals are often having a laugh or at least think that foreigners over simplify things – which I as a South African can testify to). But this is what I pieced together while in Thailand from reading and pure trial and error.
It’s a good idea to bring a gift when visiting a Thai house. Flowers, chocolate or fruit are good choices. Good wrapping shows a true gift connoisseur. Go for the bright bold colors. Yellow is always a popular one (like in so many aspects of Thailand being the Kings birth color). However, I did find that you should stick to red for Chinese Thais. Avoid green, blue and black as these are colors associated with mourning (something I found out the hard way when I wrapped some chocolate in a lovely olive green piece of silk). Likewise with flowers do not give carnations or marigolds.
Next thing to note is not to be shy with bows and ribbons they are going to get you serious kudos points. The more the thing looks like an explosion of happiness the better. Don’t be disappointed if they do not open the gift in front of you; this treat is usually kept for a personal moment after you are gone. In the same way it is very rude for you to just rip off the wrapping when presented with something (no matter how delectable you think the content might be).
These were all invaluable things to learn and exciting customs to behold but it still didn’t answer my fears of whether I gave the right gifts to the right fellow teachers! Suppose I’ll just have to go back and find out one day…