culture shock, but not what you think

After spending a full month in India, coming to Thailand has been a culture shock. This is actually my third time in Bangkok. It feels really, really weird to say that, but it’s true. Six months ago, I’d never set foot in Asia and now I’ve been to Bangkok three times. Admittedly all three of those visits only add up to less than two weeks, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable going out and doing regular stuff now – shopping for a new belt, buying a metro pass, finding and ordering cha yen on the street, chatting with the folks in the neighborhood, etc.

But a day or two after our arrival on December 29, I realized I was having a bit of culture shock adapting to the change from India to Thailand. And so I thought I should jot down some of those feelings, as naive as they may be, since I may never feel this way again.

Gender Roles

The first time the culture shock really hit me was when I was using the men’s room at the cinema. Beth and I were there to see the new Star Wars movie, which wasn’t possible when we were in India. In India, some restrooms in busy locations have full time attendants who keep the restrooms clean, mopping up messes, emptying the trash, pointing out which soap dispensers work and which don’t, and pulling out paper towels for you. In some busy restrooms in Thailand (well, at least in Bangkok) there are also attendants.

In India, the restroom attendants are always the same sex as the customers. The women’s bathroom has a woman attendant, and the men’s bathroom has a man attendant. But at the movie theater, one of the two attendants in the men’s room was a woman. Nobody seemed to think twice about it. She was right there in the midst of the urinals, with her mop and bucket as guys all around did their business. Beth says she hasn’t seen a male restroom attendant in a women’s restroom, so I wonder if that happens. But since going to the movie theater that day, I’ve already used another public restroom that had a female janitor working inside, this time at the department store near our hotel. That’s twice in three days.

From what I’ve read, gender in Thailand is a much more fluid thing than in America. And from what I’ve seen, it’s way more fluid than in India. It seems India has very distinct gender roles. Men and women dress very differently, act differently, have different jobs, and so on. There was never a time in the month I was there when I saw someone, even at a great distance, and wasn’t sure whether it was a man or woman based on how they dressed, something that happens from time to time when I’m in America. But in Thailand, men and women often dress much more the same, at least in the public places I’ve seen. Skinny jeans and shorts and short sleeve t-shirts are all equally common on young women as on young men.

Our server at a Japanese restaurant we visited yesterday appeared to be what I think of as a trans woman. She had a male body shape and facial features, but wore the the uniform and makeup of a female. I say “what I think of as a trans woman” because in Thailand there is pretty wide acceptance of a third gender, kathoey, often called ladyboys, that is totally outside my experience. Later that same day, one of the clerks at Mister Donut looked and sounded female, but dressed male – hair style, clothes, and makeup; she was a Thai Justin Bieber lesbian, if you know what that means. Then there’s the immigration control supervisor at the Bangkok international airport. I’ve encountered her twice now. She sounds and mostly looks female, but wears the same uniform as men and acts much more “macho” than any of the female officers we’ve dealt with. In America many would call her “butch”. Lastly, our server at lunch today also looked like she had a male body and face but wore female clothes, hair, and makeup. All four of these people wouldn’t be all that out of place in most of the civilized parts of the United States. But we didn’t encounter a single person like this in a month of travel in India, and then we encountered these four in the first four days we were in Bangkok.

Before I go on, I’m going to remind you that my impressions of India were from only a small number of data points. We only visited a handful of cities (and one village), all in northern India. This covered areas with different ethnic and religious makeup – some areas mainly Muslim, some areas mainly Sikh, and some areas mainly Hindu. But of the 10 most “advanced” cities in India, we only saw two of them. How would things be different if we spent more time in the modern places like Hyderabad or Bangalore or Mumbai? Are gender roles less rigid there? I don’t know.


Another thing that I’ve realized in these first few days of being back in Thailand is how traffic is totally different. Streets are crowded in Bangkok, but they are all in good condition. They’re all paved, without random holes, without cows or other barnyard animals, and for the most part without the incessant honking that we heard in nearly ever Indian city. The highways are very well designed and maintained. Unlike India (and the Philippines and Indonesia), there isn’t a swarm of motorcycles weaving between cars and trucks.

In Bangkok near our hotel, there’s a crosswalk without a stoplight and people actually honor it. You can just step out into the crosswalk and four lanes of traffic will stop for you. None of them will speed up or swerve into the other lane to avoid you. They just stop until the pedestrians are all passed, and then they start driving again.

Taxis and Drivers

In the month we spent in India, I never saw a taxi – either a car or tuk-tuk – use a meter. Every fare was negotiated up front. If you love haggling, this is awesome. If you are a clueless tourist who doesn’t know what a fair price is from point A to point B, this sucks because you always pay more than you should.

On the other hand, here in Bangkok, all taxis have meters. They’re required to! Now, your driver may to try to negotiate a flat fee for a ride, but you’re under no obligation to do so. Case in point: The driver we got at the airport to take us to our hotel wanted to offer me a flat rate of 550 baht (about 15 US dollars) for the journey, to include the highway tolls. But having taken a taxi from the same point A to the same point B before, I knew it wasn’t likely to exceed 375, and the tolls only add up to about 70 or so. So I declined his offer, and said I’ll just pay what’s on the meter plus the toll fees. That turned out to total about 415, so I gave him an even 500 baht note, and wished him a happy New Year. He got paid what he should have by law, he got a very generous tip, and it still cost less than what he originally quoted me. To me, that’s a win-win.

Lots More Skin

In the parts of India we visited, women dress very modestly. We almost never saw a woman wearing shorts or skirts above the knee, except for tourists. I don’t know how the rest of Thailand is, but here in Bangkok, maybe 1/2 of women wear shorts, 1/4 wear skirts, and 1/4 wear long pants. Young women especially wear very revealing clothes in public places, and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

Here are some photos to help show what I’m talking about.

Here are some Indian women in northern Indian cities going about their business – riding trains or being tourists. I shot three of these photos and stole the fourth.

For comparison, these are photos taken of normal women around Bangkok. These photos don’t belong to me.

I think you can see the difference. Can it all be attributed to latitude? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it was a big change.

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