20: To Wai or not to Wai. That is the question.

On my first visit to Jindaratana school I was told by a hurried and irritated Thai member of staff to “remember to Wai (pronounced “why”) to the head mistress of the school.” When I inquired what exactly she meant by “Wai,” she displayed a melodramatic role of the eyes and gave me a 2 minute lesson on this age old Thai custom.

The waiThe ‘way’ of the Wai
To perform the Wai, firstly you place your hands palms together almost in prayer motion. With your fingers pointing to the sky, your two thumbs should be pointing directly at your chin, thus creating a kind of v shape with one elongated side. You then raise your hands to your face, the ends of your index finger should rest just under your nose, the knuckles of said finger should be perpendicular to your lips and the thumbs should slot snugly under the chin. The Wai should be accompanied with the greeting, “Sawadee khrap” for men, and “Sawadee kaa” for women.

Thais are common sense people and forgive Westerners for not performing the Wai entirely correctly. I have generally found them happy that I have at least tried to adopt this custom which is so important to them.

The ‘why’ of the Wai
The Wai is used as both a greeting at the beginning of the day and a farewell at the end. My understanding of the Wai is that it is a sign of respect for the person whom you are greeting, a similar gesture perhaps to the ‘curtsy’ or ‘bow’ we give when we meet very important people in England. While in England this gesticulation is now reserved for members of the royal family or eminent politicians, here the Wai is used by most Thais on a daily basis.

After a couple of days of being completely “Wai happy,” I was told that in fact you don’t continue to Wai to people throughout the day. You Wai only when you see them for the first time that day, or when you’re leaving at the end. This explained the hidden grins and stifled chortling I had been receiving for the past two days.

The ‘whom’ of the Wai
Having mastered the physical ability to perform the Wai, the problems were just beginning. You do not simply Wai to everyone. The Wai follows a kind of hierarchal structure which is second nature when you’re a Thai and have grown up amongst it, when you’re not, it’s completely baffling. As a ‘farang’ teacher at a Thai school I am expected to actively search for, find, and Wai to the principle every morning. I am also expected to Wai to other teachers should I see them. However, I am not expected to (indeed I am expected not to) Wai to other people at the school such as the caretakers or the kitchen staff. If these people Wai to me then I can either Wai back to them or just offer them a nod and a “Sawadee Khrap.”

Things start to get a little complicated when other people enter the school. Should we Wai to children’s parents? Receptionists? Government inspectors? The lady who makes the sticky rice? The 4-year-old son of the school proprietor? As you can see, I am operating within a minefield of etiquette without a map. The only option is to learn from my mistakes, that means a lot of learning.

Age also features highly in the ‘whom’ of the Wai. Older people, no matter their social status, receive the Wai from everyone. I find that Thai people’s age is impossible to estimate from distance of more than five meters. This led to a farcical situation yesterday morning. In a haze of sleepiness, compounded by the morning heat, I saw what I thought was a Thai English teacher coming down the stairs toward me, I quickly offered the Wai with “Sawadee Khrap” to which her cheeks reddened a little with surprise, I soon realised why as her primary six friends were giggling behind her!

Clown waiSome of the more familiar faces you see doing the wai to attract customers are Ronald McDonald, The KFC Colonel and the Michelin Man, along with thousands of people on every advert, poster or sign that you see.


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