Deeply insightful and well worth getting

Jan 1, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Insightful, accurate, witty and understanding

Cons:Can seem out-of-date - but it is still very relevant.

When I first came to Thailand to stay for more than a couple of weeks, I was living in a fairly rural environment in a small town in the Northeast, staying with an English teacher at a local Teachers' College. I remember the day I walked down the stairs to find this book sitting on the low table where we used to drink our morning coffee together. I was at once horror struck and relieved. I assumed that the English teacher had left the book out for me to read, and therefore felt terrible that I was such a bumbling idiot in the Thai culture that she needed to tell me in this way what I should do in order to fit in better. At the same time, I was relieved to see there was a book I could read that would help me make sense of this gentle, but sometimes quite mysterious Asian culture. I read the book cover to cover in a day, and I can still quote sections from it!

The book was written by a husband and wife team, the husband being a non-Thai, westerner, and the wife Thai. Robert Cooper (the main author) is a Thai studies expert with a couple of decades experience in Thailand. This gives him incredible insight into Thai culture, but perhaps can make the writing a little too academic in style for some. That is not to say that the book is dry - not at all. I remember well his explanation of the many reasons behind the Thai smile. These include apology. He ends with a remark that conjours a terrible but very funny picture: if the non-Thai thinks the numerous meanings to a smile are difficult to get to grips with, imagine the poor Thai student who accidentally drinks from someone else's beer in a London pub, and then SMILES to apologise! Throughout the book, the author handles much of the mystery and contradictions of the Thai culture (from the Western perspective) with humour and respect.

The book is written from what is perhaps a somewhat traditional and rural perspective. Those expatriates and tourists who spend most of their time in the main tourist centres and in Bangkok may think that much of what is written is archaic and irrelevant. I would beg to differ, for while it is true that behaviour in these centres has changed significantly over the last ten years, and many of the assertions about behaviour among men and women, dress codes and so forth may no longer apply to these places, nonetheless this understanding of rural Thailand is invaluable for anyone intending to spend any reasonable length of time in Thailand. Readers should remember that the majority of people living and working in Thailand grew up in these rural and traditional environments. To remember that fact is to see the relevance of everything Robert and Nantipa Cooper write, even if we don't see it in the big cities every day.

The book emphasises the very best in Thai behaviour. It is a guide to behaving well under all circumstances, and as such obviously there will be plenty of times when one will see Thais behave to each other in ways that do not conform to these rules. As with every society, Thailand has its fair share of jaded, cynical and downright rude individuals, and there are plenty of so-called sophisticates in the tourism and urban centres who think they know about western cultures and adapt their behaviour to these norms rather than to Thai norms. Nonetheless, if you truly want to gain respect from your colleagues and hosts in Thailand , then the Culture Shock Thailand provides all the advice you could need to make and maintain a good impression. Of course, it will also help you to see when people are making a special effort to be polite, and to be appreciative of this fact . This is very important in a country where frankly the standards of communication in English can be very low and body language and gentle gestures are the only way that a perfect stranger can communicate their concern for your well-being (assuming you aren't fluent in Thai!).

After over 8 years in Thailand, and now married to a Thai, I still recommend this book to all longer term visitors to the country.

Oh, and by the way, it turned out that my friend the teacher left the book out because she meant to use it in teaching that day and then forgot it! So that was yet another thing I was wrong about...... nonetheless I remain eternally grateful to her for her forgetfulness as it gave me the opportunity to learn so much from this invaluable book.


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