Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Thailand
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Thailand, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Thailand.
Outside of Thailand’s capital and other cities, many residents have had relatively little sustained exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles, though they may have had some contact with the many tourists who visit each year. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes.
The people of Thailand are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners. However, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Thailand, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Thailand
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in Thailand
Although the majority of Thailand’s population is both Buddhist and ethnically and linguistically Thai, there are regional linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. The presence of many non-Thai groups also contributes to the diversity of the country. Thais generally emphasize their commonalities and the strengths that diversity contributes to their country. When differences are expressed, it is generally in subtle ways that require linguistic and cultural understanding to grasp. Thais’ emphasis on tolerance, maintaining smooth relationships, and a sense of order creates a generally welcome environment for Volunteers.
Despite the ideal of social harmony, there are some conflicts, which are readily apparent in the tabloid press. Thailand’s social structure includes an inherent hierarchy, with competing beliefs about who is entitled to what. Thais often attempt to hide conflict from guests, something you may experience with your colleagues. Nevertheless, Thais manage to find extraordinarily beautiful ways to maintain harmony in the face of diversity, many of which you will no doubt find intriguing.
The Peace Corps staff in Thailand recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Thai hospitality is legendary. You are unlikely to experience direct confrontation if you practice the basic do’s and don’ts introduced in pre-service training and balance your needs with those of your Thai co-workers and community members. Of course, the Peace Corps cannot control every host country national’s treatment of you, nor would you want such intrusion. You should be able to handle most situations on your own. Some Volunteers may experience blatant bigotry, but subtle discrimination is more common. Part of your role as a Volunteer is to promote, through your actions and behavior, a more thorough understanding of the United States and Americans among the people in your community.
Thai people are very direct in regards to physical appearance in a manner that may be considered rude by American standards. Volunteers should expect to hear comments about their height, weight, hair, etc.
The following information is provided to help you prepare for challenges you may encounter in Thailand based on your gender, ethnic or racial background, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or disabilities.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
In recent years, the proportion of female Volunteers in Thailand has reached close to 75 percent, including those who are married. Most female Volunteers experience a high degree of security in their communities and when they travel within the country. Physical harassment is not common, but precautions still need to be taken. The higher status of men compared with women can manifest in both subtle and not-sosubtle ways. For example, women are often expected to take on more work than men are, and they often do so. This can be frustrating for both female and male Volunteers. Additionally, young females may face an uphill battle to gain the respect of their male Thai counterparts as age and experience is often valued over youth and enthusiasm—especially for women.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Many Thais are not well-informed about the ethnic and racial diversity of the United States, and they therefore expect Volunteers to be Caucasian. In addition, many Thais view lighter skin as more beautiful, a perception based more on an aesthetic bias than any racial prejudice and one that existed long before encounters between Thailand and the West. African-American Volunteers, in particular, should not take Thais’ views of skin color personally and should try to see them within this context. In addition, people in villages may have a difficult time seeing some people of color as Americans.
Unfortunately, in recent years, heroin smugglers have used West-African nationals to smuggle drugs out of Thailand, which has led to a belief among some Thais that American blacks are Africans who smuggle drugs. Fortunately, professional and personal relationships between African-American Volunteers and their Thai counterparts have broken down these stereotypes.
It is common for Asian Americans to be mistaken for Thais, which can have both benefits and drawbacks. One advantage is that Asian Americans blend better into the community and thus may not receive as much unwanted attention in public. A disadvantage is that Thais may initially expect you to have the language skills of a native speaker. Thai friends told one Asian-American Volunteer that they were disappointed they did not get a “real American” as they had requested. This Volunteer also felt that her Thai co-workers initially valued her less than they valued Caucasian Volunteers because they thought an Asian American was not very different from a Thai. But once people know you are not Thai, you are likely receive the same celebrity treatment that most foreigners receive in Thailand.
If you are an Asian American, Thais may ask you about your ethnic origin, wanting to know the country of your ancestors. Thailand is home to many Asian minority groups related to contemporary Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, and Lao peoples, many of whom lived in the area before there was a distinct country known as Siam (later Thailand). The small Vietnamese population arrived primarily in the 1950s, and most have remained in the northeastern Thai towns and cities where they took refuge.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Thai government workers are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 60 (with exceptions for some with specialized skills), so Volunteers over 60 will have Thai coworkers who are younger than they are. Thais give great respect and importance to senior family members, and senior Volunteers often receive similar deference and respect, though this does not necessarily translate to greater respect for their professional competence or technical knowledge. Your co-workers may smile, nod, and appear to agree with you when the opposite is true, perhaps because they do not want to offend you.
Although more seniors are joining the Peace Corps nowadays, most of your fellow trainees are likely to be under age 30, and the Thai training staff is largely composed of recent college graduates. Generally, seniors are warmly accepted by other trainees; still, there may be times when you miss interacting with people of your own age, especially in social situations.
The Thai language trainers recognize the different learning styles and needs of seniors and will endeavor to provide the most suitable training for older trainees.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Thais do not usually view bisexuality and homosexuality as sinful or unnatural, nor are there criminal penalties against sexual acts between members of the same sex. However, some bisexual and homosexual Volunteers have found it necessary to adjust their behavior to be effective in their jobs and respected by members of their communities. Most choose to remain “in the closet” to Thai friends and co-workers at their sites.
Physical contact in public between members of the same sex (such as linking arms while walking down the street) is a common way for Thais to show affection, and it is important for Volunteers to realize that such displays of affection likely are nonsexual in nature. Volunteers who are accustomed to being part of a large gay community in the United States may not get the support to which they are accustomed. However, gay communities do exist in urban centers such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and you will probably find significant support within the Peace Corps community.
All women will have to deal with questions or teasing about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. All men will have to deal with questions about American women and girl watching and may be pressured by co-workers to visit brothels. During pre-service training, trainees are encouraged to think through these issues and plan possible responses.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
A high degree of religious tolerance exists in Thailand. It is doubtful that any religious issues will arise, unless one breaks the Peace Corps’ prohibition against proselytizing by Volunteers.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
Thais’ respect for others extends to individuals with disabilities, and the country has made efforts to help disabled individuals have productive jobs and lives. One example is the tradition of blind masseuses and masseurs in Thailand. In addition, schools are beginning to mainstream those with disabilities into regular classrooms.
Volunteers with disabilities need to be aware of the rigors of the Peace Corps/Thailand program during both training and service. Trainees and Volunteers are expected to arrange their own transportation to the various training venues and workplaces. Any special accommodations needed during training and when at one’s site, such as an alternative to travel by bicycle, should be made known during the placement process in the United States, prior to arrival in Thailand.