Why Wai?

By November 17, 20102010, Asia

“Wai: The Thai greeting referred to as the wai consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.”

The wai is a huge thing in Thailand.  You do it to elders, people who are richer than you, who have better (higher status) jobs than you, to people you want to honour.  You do it when you are introduced, say goodbye, or meet randomly in an elevator. You do it when you receive a gift, to the teacher at the start of a class, to the shopkeeper you are about to barter with. You always do it to monks.  As I said, the wai is a big thing in Thailand.

I am for the most part a fan of the wai. I notice a difference when I go into a store and honor the old shopkeeper by waiing her; all of a sudden I move from an ignorant tourist to someone who is making some sort of effort to meet the people in their culture and traditions, I make a connection.  There is now an air of familiarity between us despite the language barrier and everything else that comes in between, all because of this simple gesture.  It is because of this that I love the wai.

But the wai is also one of the things that keeps Thailand as a hierarchical focused country, it is a source of division.  The minute you meet someone you are instantly judging them, trying to figure out who should wai first, you or them.  I have learned that besides age, the main factor that comes into this decision is wealth; how rich you are in comparison to the other person determines your social status.  And the thing is, if you make a mistake and do not wai someone who is “above” you, you lose face.  So while there is this wonderful tradition here of honouring and respecting your elders, there  is also the belief that those who are richer than  you command greater respect, which I feel causes a greater division between the rich and poor social classes.

How can this be reconciled? How can the tension I feel about this defining action of Thailand be resolved? Can it? So much to think about.


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