When you’re studying abroad in another country you’re expected to learn and respect the culture of your new home.
In some locations, this isn’t much different than the United States, but USAC sends students to more than 50 program sites across the world and some come with varying degrees of cultural differences.
A Traditional Thai Greeting
When you embark on the Chiang Mai study abroad program you will be introduced to “wai”. Wai is a form of Thai culture which represents various aspects of the Thai honor system. For natives, wai is learned from the earliest days of childhood and is part of the daily routine. The wai shows Thai politeness, respect, honor, and friendship as Thais value appearance and behavior. For example, it is customary for Thais to wai when greeting or leaving. However, the wai is not a way of saying hello without using words, it is an action of respect. Along with a wai, Thais usually say ‘sawasdee’ which means “hello” in English.
The wai can also be used in articulating an apology or gratitude. For these purposes, a person who wais usually says ‘khor-thod’ (apologize) or ‘khob-khun’ (thank you) respectively.
The Position of the Wai
The position of the wai shows that your hands are empty of weapons and, in this aspect, the wai probably shares a common history with the Western handshake. However, handshakes are between equals, and the wai is more often than not, an expression of inequality. Most of the gesture is associated with being polite, so even without speaking a word, you can establish yourself as a good person who knows how to behave while you make a good first impression on Thais.
The wai may also be thought of as a respect continuum. More respect is shown the lower your head comes down to meet the fingertips of both hands below your chin, the more pressed your palms are together and close to the body, and the more your fingers are held upwards while bowing slightly. For slightly more respect, the fingertips climb to the tip of your nose.
Using the Wai in Daily Life
In daily life, the wai is used for objects as well as people. For example, on any long-distance bus, you will notice the passengers waiing sacred places as they speed by. Also, when meeting a standing monk, your best wai is enough but don’t expect one in return.
Once you feel comfortable with the basics, it’s very interesting to try in this respectful gesture. At first, you may feel awkward, but the attempt will still be most appreciated by Thai people. Soon, this charming greeting will become second nature for you in Thailand. Sawasdee ka.