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 way of the
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
After a couple of days of being completely Wai happy, I was told that in fact you dont continue to Wai to people throughout the day. You Wai only when you see them for the first time that day, or when youre 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
Things start to get a little complicated when other people enter the school. Should we Wai to childrens 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 peoples 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!
Some 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.