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Friday, February 03, 2006


Who pays?

The Thai etiquette books tell you that when you go out to dinner with a group of people the person with the highest status pays the bill. This is usually the oldest person there or perhaps the oldest male. Occasionally there may be someone younger whose status is higher by virtue of wealth or position.

However, my experience with younger Thais is that they do not usually follow this tradition. When a group of students has a meal together they will normally follow the practice that they call 'American share' ie what we might call 'Dutch'. I would often eat a meal with a group of students and at first I wondered if they were expecting me to pay the bill. But no, everyone paid for their own meal.

One day there was only one student to go for a meal with me. She took me on her motorcycle and I made the gesture to pay for her meal. (It would have cost less than $A1.) 'No. You not my boyfriend. You not pay for me.'

I asked if, when she went out with her boyfriend, he always paid the bill. She said yes. I asked why. She could not tell me.

I wonder if it is seen as payment for services rendered. I am not sure but this appears to be a fairly common practice.

Incidentally, the words 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' are commonly used by Thais when speaking English. If I use the word 'partner' it will rarely be understood. I think this says more about the types of farung who visit Thailand than about Thais themselves. In Thai language there is only one word, 'fan', for a male or a female. It may be used to indicate ones husband or wife as well as a bf or gf. So perhaps it is closer to our word 'partner' which, meaning 'sharer', is my preferred word.

When I stay at the home of friends in Australia for a few days I will usually take them to dinner at a nice restaurant as a way of saying thank you. It is not meant to compensate them but is simply a gesture of thanks. If I attempt to do this with my friends in Thailand they appear to be uneasy about it. When we go out to a restaurant they will usually insist on paying even though I am older. Maybe it is something about their status as host. I'm not sure. Eventually they let me pay somewhere and when I do, even though it has been a nice meal, I invariably find it is very cheap.

Perhaps one of my Thai readers can explain this point of Thai etiquette for me. I once read, in a book by an English monk in Thailand, a discussion of the issue of monks begging for their food and accepting much more than they can possibly eat. When it was suggested that they should not accept food when they had sufficient, both Thai monks and laypeople disagreed. They said that the monks were giving people the opportunity to make merit (good karma) and that they should accept whatever people are able to give.

I would not like to take away from my friends the opportunity to make merit by their generosity towards me. On the other hand Thais have an interesting word for 'stingy'. A direct translation of 'kee-neow' is 'sticky shit'. And I certainly don't want to be seen by them as a sticky shit.

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