#inspiredbystories

Expat-Talk (1): Working in Bangkok

In this series we've asked expats and former expats to talk about their experiences abroad. The first is Art Director Susanne Achterkamp, who worked from 2006 to 2007 at "Hello Magazine" at Burda International in Bangkok

Bangkok was a culture clash. Although Thailand has long been a tiger economy and Bangkok one of Asia’s metropolises, it is not at the same level of development as Western industrialized countries, nor is Bangkok comparable to Hong Kong or Singapore. For the visitor or tourist, Bangkok first appears to be an unmanageable concrete moloch. But after a short time, one learns to orientate oneself in the city, to avoid the omnipresent traffic chaos, and to notice the many amenities that there are at every corner.

Europeans usually enjoy a privileged position and move both in the working world and in everyday life in the upper Thai middle class. Foreigners, the so-called “falang”, are still treated with great respect by most Thai people. On the other hand, if work becomes difficult or there are problems, the Thai prefer to deal with it among themselves without the Westerner involved – the differences in the methods of conflict resolution are simply too great. For Thais it is enormously important to always save face, to always be polite, to not criticize anyone openly. Directness is avoided at all costs. Unpleasant messages are often conveyed via third parties in order to avoid direct confrontation. Being loud is an absolute no-go. But also this: Thais always think and act strictly hierarchically.

“If there are problems, the Thai prefer to deal with it among themselves – the differences in the methods of conflict resolution are simply too great.”

The super-rich and the aristocracy

It is practically impossible to be properly included in higher society, the inner circle, of Bangkok. The Thai elite are recruited from the old aristocracy and the super-rich class – the mainly Chinese-born Thai money aristocracy. They keep to themselves. A hands-on mentality seems strange. For example, I interviewed the owner of a very large, nationwide restaurant chain at home. He was visibly irritated that I wanted to take over the photo direction myself – I had employees, didn’t I? Even a simple private contact with Thai colleagues or acquaintances is the exception, if only because the language barrier is overcome by few Thai or falang ever, really.

The atmosphere in the team was usually incredibly nice and loving. The colleagues liked to bring snacks for everyone in the morning, or sometimes small presents. Just because. And some Western holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day were celebrated with enthusiasm. The colleagues ran through the office with deer antlers on their heads and Christmas calendars were hung up. Not that they understood what it’s all about but it was just incredibly playful and a lot of fun. In general fun, in Thai “sanuk”, is a kind of state religion, both at work and in private life.

“Yes, things there are often more chaotic than they are here and sometimes we don’t understand how they get things done, but things still get done somehow – and are still good.”

The arrogance of Western Europeans

What impressed me was the positive mood of the Thai people – the openness to approach things, to move things, to improvise. That humbled me and it was only then that I realized how arrogant we as Western Europeans are. Yes, things there are often more chaotic than they are here and sometimes we don’t understand how they get things done, but things still get done somehow – and are still good.

What I have taken from this period is that the typical German view of things, the rage for order and regulation, have shifted into the background. We are not the center of the universe. And one can learn to think more openly, more flexibly, more internationally. Since Bangkok, I know that if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

And the culture of “saving the face”, which we like to smile at naively, often proves to be extremely effective in conflict resolution, placing mutual appreciation at the center of cooperation. “Appreciation”, a word we’ve heard here in Europe… maybe at a team training meeting?

Read also Working in Buenos AiresShanghai and Norway

Tags: , , , , , ,