You could say that I’ve developed a bit of a feet obsession since my visit to Thailand. Since then, I’ve looked at feet in a whole new light. Here’s why.
In Thailand, the head is the most sacred place of the body, while the feet are the lowest and the filthiest. Accidentally patting a child on the head or pointing your feet at someone can get you in some hot water! I believe it has something to do with specific Buddhist texts, about the head pointing to heaven and the soles of the feet connected to the ground . Just focusing on ‘foot culture’, here are some common scenarios this cultural phenomenon leads to:
Leaving your shoes at the door
For us Canadians, it’s common to leave your shoes at the door before entering a home. But how about leaving them at a restaurant? at a Hotel room? At church? At school? At a small store? In Thailand, it’s somewhat predictable and everywhere. If you see a bunch of shoes at the entrance, or a conspicuous shoe rack, that’s your cue to leave those shoes. The only exception I’ve seen is that sometimes a pair of indoor sandals is provided. For the most part I’ve had to get used to getting around in socks.
A common sighting at any entrance. This one is at a Barber’s shop
Corrie and Elmer Sahlberg, former missionaries to Thailand (both gone to be with the Lord) wrote about this whole ordeal in their book Please Leave your Shoes at the Door which you can enjoy for free.
Don’t point your feet
Inadvertently pointing at someone with your feet is not acceptable in Thailand. The key is to keep your legs pointing behind you. But Knowing this and practicing it are two different worlds. I’ve constantly have to train my legs not to doodle in front of me, go cross-legged, or go in some random direction when I want to think about something else. Sitting down amplifies the problem, as it forces me to go into a sitting Japanese seiza. I find this frustrating especially when listening to sermons as the body feels a need to move around. For this, I admire those Thai’s that can sit still and keep composure for long periods of time.
I don’t know all the tricks and am continually watching movies and Thai people to know what is acceptable and what is not. It’s come to the point where the first place I look at is not a person’s face but their feet instead!
Careful not to point your feet at anyone!
Seating elevation denotes social status
Let me start with a story from a fellow missionary to illustrate this point. One time our president David Hearn made a visit to Thailand to meet our Thai CMA pastors and their president. One of David’s nickname is ‘Mr. Huggie’ and he was not aware of Thai social norms. So he did what he loves doing best and greeted the Thai president with a big hug. Everyone in the room was shocked! The Thai president stood there frozen like a tree, not knowing what to do. A big cultural faux pas on three reasons:
- Thai culture avoids physical contact and is high on personal space. One could even say they are possessive about personal space. Keeping a distance of 2-4 feet is important even among family and friends.
- all public displays of affection are considered to be impolite. Even for a couple to be seen holding hands is rare.
- Someone of higher social status should be positioned in elevation above those of lower status. For example, a Pastor should be preaching standing as it communicates higher class (seniority, and in a way superiority) over congregation members
Apparently because of 3. The Thai president tried to bend lower than David Hearn (who is quite short at about 5’3) leading to an awkward situation where one is trying to hug and the other is trying to crouch!
Also to note as ordained, educated missionaries it puts us on a very high social status in the eyes of those in the church. Pastor Aoum told me that it might even be higher than that of a Thai pastor in their own church. So he pointed out to me to be very careful about sitting on the floor (as cool as I find it), as it could be considered impolite due to social status. It runs both ways!
The Thailand King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida attend a coronation ceremony. Note how important seating position is for Thai people.