Some years ago, I wrote an article about perspectives on the word ‘farang’ in Thailand. It went unpublished, since the magazine in question was afraid of upsetting its advertisers in Thai local government – ironic, given that my conclusion was to be that I didn’t really have a problem with the term.
In the time that has passed, my own view has changed.
Whether the word farang is offensive or benign is one of those topics that gets expats in Thailand in a tizz, though plenty defend its use and are perfectly happy for the ‘f’ word to be used to refer to them, or even to use it to talk about themselves or other white westerners.
Some dismiss those of us who take objection to the term, claiming we’re simply being overly sensitive.
And, of course, the usual brigade of both Thais and expats argue that “if you don’t like it, you can always leave,” rather than engaging in any sort of meaningful discussion.
Why is it even necessary?
It’s true that Thailand isn’t the only country to use a specific term to describe white people. Among other modern-day examples, Indonesians have ‘bule’, Cambodians ‘barang’, and ‘ang mo’ is used in Malaysia and Singapore. The natural direction of that argument is that farang is simply a means of identification, rather than an offensive term used exclusively by prejudiced Thais – but what exactly is it that needs identifying?
An American friend was recently at a restaurant with his Thai partner, who was asked by the waiter in Thai what “the farang” wanted to eat. The American man replied in Thai that he, the farang, was sitting right there (and needless to say, they both then got up and left).
We can make allowances for the fact that the waiter might not have spoken English, or known that the American spoke Thai. But what was the need for the word farang when there were only two customers at the table, and the waiter was already speaking to the other one? What would have been the issue with simply referring to the American as “he” or “your friend”, as the waiter presumably would have done otherwise?
Elsewhere, the word is also commonly used in the media, often placing great emphasis on the victim or perpetrator of a crime being a foreigner, for instance.
But once again, what’s the relevance? Surely the news is that someone has died or killed someone, not whether they grew up in London or Lopburi.
It’s not the same as ‘similar’ English words
It’s often suggested that the Thai use of ‘farang’ is no different to westerners using the English word, ‘Asian’.
For the majority of English-speaking westerners, who aren’t utter bigots, though, ‘Asian’ is a neutral word with few connotations.
‘Farang’, on the other hand, carries baggage with it – of stereotypical perceptions of wealth (and therefore the opportunity for those so inclined to make some money), and perhaps lack of acquaintance with Thai language and culture – in the same way that derogatory English-language terms like ‘c*****’ and ‘s***’ carry racist connotations that lead most of us to avoid ever using them.
It’s not as if the Thai language hasn’t already incorporated less loaded alternative words to use instead – like ‘European’, ‘American’, or just the straight-up dtaeng-chaat, meaning ‘foreigner’.
Though rarely heard, even the word chao-dtawan-dtok can be used to refer to ‘westerners’ – and importantly, not just to those who are white.
Some also argue that the ‘f’ word can feel more offensive than those similar terms in other languages, since in Thailand it’s not only brandished about so much more often, but also comes with the implication of criticism or perceived inferiority of someone who isn’t Thai.
But whether or not you buy those arguments in general terms, it’s difficult to see a situation – like that restaurant scenario – where we would use the word ‘Asian’ to refer to a specific person in a small group.
How would a Thai person visiting or living in the West like to be referred to as ‘the Thai’, or even ‘the Asian’? I for one would find it impolite at the very least.
Yes, it can be meant harmlessly, too
Of course, a lot rests on the intent of the speaker, and there’s little denying that ‘farang’ certainly can be used in an offensive, derogatory manner – just, as some point out, almost any word used to describe a group of people with apparently shared characteristics can.
Derogatory use of the term is most noticeable when it’s altered and employed in forms such as farang kee nok – literally ‘bird shit farang’ – but offensive use is also perfectly possible in the ‘f’ word’s straight-up form.
It might be used by others – even the majority – in an apparently harmless way, but it still seems even in these cases that the word portrays prejudice, perhaps subconsciously, and a sense of ‘otherness’, of distinguishing between Thais, other Asians, white westerners, and foreigners of other skin tones, all largely on the basis of physical appearance and other characteristics.
Yet isn’t there more to each of us than merely what we look like?
‘Farang’ seems to reduce those of us with white skin to nothing more than a generalisation, just as derogatory – and rightly nowadays frowned-upon – English-language terms have been used over the years to imply outrageous generalisations about, say, black people.
I’m reminded of a recent – admittedly tongue-in-cheek and deliberately generalising – piece by BK Magazine listing the ’13 people everyone who works in a Bangkok office will know’.
While some characters are described as having habits that range from eating “really, really smelly food” to dressing “like a nine year old”, being a hipster, and using their trademark business speak “to not get laid” in trendy Silom bars after work, apparently the sole attributes of ‘the farang’ in the piece are that he is white and has a half-Thai baby.
What are we distinguishing between anyway?
In this sense, the use of ‘farang’ to mean westerner might be somewhat reflective of the relative lack of ethnic diversity in Thai society.
After all, for those of us who come from multicultural western societies, being black or Asian is not mutually exclusive from being western. But when naturalisation as a Thai citizen is as difficult to achieve as it is, being of non-Asian ethnicity is – at least in what’s arguably the majority Thai mindset – a barrier to being ‘Thai’.
In an around-the-houses sort of way, we come back to the same keenness to distinguish between Thais and everyone else – it’s not uncommon for even luk kreung ‘half-Thais’ to be called out as such, after all, as if to stress the fact that they’re not ‘fully Thai’ – which in turn leads to that old and much-mocked question of what on earth ‘Thainess’ really is anyway.
Who gets to call the ‘f’ word offensive?
When the topic of the ‘f’ word erupts, it’s not uncommon for Thais to make suggestions like, “as a Thai, I can tell you that it’s not derogatory”.
But is it for the Thai person as a native speaker, or for the white person being called a farang, to decide whether the term is offensive?
Who gets to call the shots on whether other terms are offensive? The gay person being called a ‘p******’, or the straight person calling them it? The black person being called a ‘n*****’, or the white person calling them it?
That’s not to say that all white people are offended by ‘farang’ – we know they’re not, and that of course complicates the issue further. But to suggest that only a native Thai speaker can tell you whether you’re offended by the word surely misinterprets why the term is controversial in the first place.
Perhaps there’s some truth to the argument that the whole thing is simply a case of a different mindset from that prevalent in the west, and one with less emphasis on political correctness. Some who put forward this idea also suggest – and again, maybe they’re not wrong – that the common Thai approach to the issue is no different from widespread attitudes in western countries just a few decades ago.
But does that mean we shouldn’t care?
Some argue that it’s not the place of foreigners in Thailand to object to use of the word – and some even extend that to decreeing that we shouldn’t espouse an opinion about anything. Yet, it’s not just some westerners who dislike the ‘f’ word; plenty of Thais appreciate the issues surrounding it too.
And if other societies had always followed the mantra that as guests in Thailand we should simply shut up or leave – or even of those who less aggressively assert that “life’s too short” to worry about it at all – our own home countries would probably still be using those other terms we now widely agree are inappropriate and offensive.
Where do you stand? Let us know in the comments!
Featured image is by ~d~ and used under a Creative Commons licence