Red light means stop; green light means go; and yellow light is proceed with caution. Except Thai drivers have a way of blurring the meaning of traffic lights. Signaling what is expected, what is wanted, or what one can get away with are mentally built from the cultural bricks of education, family, friends and neighbors. Simple signals such as yes, and no, like traffic signals aren’t always to be relied upon.
In Thai culture, it is a well-established tradition that before you enter the house of a Thai, you first remove your shoes. The feet, according to local custom, are the lowest part of the body. Walking on streets and pavements makes for dirty shoes. There are a couple of levels at work. First, your feet (and everybody else’s) occupy the lowest realm (pointing with your foot at someone is a major cultural gaff). Second, there are some practical health issues packaged with living in the tropics. Dog shit is one. Along with various parasites and bacteria which have been known to hitch a ride on people’s shoes and into their houses.
Even though this ‘shoe’ feature of Thai culture (it’s more like a fetish) can be found in every travel guide ever written about Thailand, it is not uncommon to find a foreigner walking straight into a Thai house as the horrified Thai hosts watch the clump, clump of shoes leaving the equivalent of CSI chalk lines outlining a dead body.
I have a good Thai friend who tells the story of his mother, one of those well-educated, well-read, articulate women I’ve met. A couple of foreigners were taken by my Thai friend to visit his mother. At the door, the foreigners (obviously having read a guidebook) had begun to remove their shoes. The mother insisted that wasn’t necessary. They looked at each other, they looked at the mother, and she repeated that they were welcome to keep on their shoes. So inside the house they went wearing their shoes.
An hour later the foreigners left, and mother and son closed the door. The mother sighed, shaking her head.
“What’s wrong, mother?” my Thai friend asked.
“You know what’s wrong,” she said.
He had an idea what she was getting at but at the same time didn’t want to guess.
“I don’t understand, mother.”
“Your friends walked through my house in their shoes. Why are foreigners so rude? Don’t they understand the most simple thing about Thai culture?”
“But you told them not to remove their shoes. I heard you, mother.”
She looked at him, slowly shaking her head, as if the foreigners had infected his mind.
“Aren’t they aware in Thai culture, that you always remove your shoes? I thought you said these foreigners knew Thailand.”
“They thought you’d made an exception,” he said.
“There are no exceptions. Shoes off. Always.”
He had to admit that she was right. His mother had, as an act of graciousness and courtesy had made a concession to their foreign ways, which she understood to be different. Westerners had no problem trampling over the floors of others with their shoes on leaving a trail of dirt and disease. But they, if they knew Thailand, then these foreigners would also understand that his mother’s concession was not to be acted upon. In her mind, the situation was perfectly clear. The foreigners should have known that in reality her “yes, please keep your shoes on,” should have been translated by the foreigners as, “yes, let me remove my shoes.”
As the son later told me, his mother had assumed the foreigners could “read her mind” and instead they merely heard her words and took them at face value. In a culture where face does have a high value, a mind reading an essential element in social relationships, a foreigner should understand that it is often necessary to go behind the words and into the interior desire and real intention of the person. No one should expect a Thai to spell out her true wish when the rules are plainly, obviously clear and without ambiguity.
This story isn’t just about shoes. It is about the intentions of people communicating in a public space where political and social relationships demand everyone is working from the same cultural rulebook. Paying a restaurant bill is another variation on this theme. Mind reading is a definite plus in Thailand (and most places) but foreigners can rest assured that often Thais are no better than reading each others minds than someone from Kansas fresh from the airport racing into Bangkok to find the real Thailand.
Originally published 30 July 2010 as Christopher is traveling abroad.