The Wai Greeting
When we arrived in Thailand we were greeted by people raising both hands, palms touching with the fingers pointing upwards as if in prayer but touching the body somewhere on their head or chest. This called wai – pronounced ‘why’.
The wai is a sign of greeting but also respect in Thai culture. These people are extremely respectful of hierarchical relationships and during our time in Thailand I sensed people we met were trying to place where we fit within a hierarchy so they know how we should be treated.
There are many variations of the wai depending on the difference in status or level. The heights of the palms are the most crucial criteria of respect to be demonstrated to another. The higher the more respect is paid. Here is a list I found that summarizes the rules for wai:
- With less important: Thumbs about on breast height.
- With ones of equal rank: Thumbs about on chin level.
- With important and older people: Thumbs on level of the upper lip.
- With very important people: Thumbs on level of the nose tip.
- With monks (and members of the royal family): Thumbs on level of the eyebrows.
When Bob and I came through security at the Chiang Mai airport, we received a different kind of welcome. My niece Christy and her husband Cahtaw were there to greet us with their children Isaiah and Celina. They were all excited to see Uncle Carson. There was no questioning where we fit in a hierarchy – we were family.
No wai here – just lots of hugs.
Family seems to be the cornerstone that holds Thai society together. It reminds me of Ireland where family relationships are more closely knit than in most western cultures.
However, in Thailand, as with most Asian cultures, there is a strong hierarchy within the family structure with males and older individuals occupying a higher status. The role of the wife is to be passive and to adhere to husband’s family, be subservient to the male, take care of the home, and to have children (preferably sons). The role of the male is to provide for the family however the primary duty is to be a good son; obligations to be a good husband and father come second to duty as a son.
Present and the Past – at the same time
Now it is one thing to live with this in the present, but in Thailand you see many ‘spirit houses’ on display outside homes. I found this interesting because Buddhism dominates Thailand and yet spirit worship (animism) are found side by side. In Thailand devotion to Buddhism most often shows itself in ritual within a temple while Thai devotion to spirits most often shows itself in their own front yards. There can be a statue of Buddha in the doorway and a spirit house outside.
It is not uncommon for Thai’s to worship the spirits of ancestors and therefore live in a constant “past present” time orientation. So this ‘respect’ for family members can transcend even death. I witnessed people give wai towards a spirit house in respect of the ancestor or spirit they thought was occupying the house.
It is for reasons like this that Christian believers in Thailand have questions about whether they should use the wai or respond when waied (if that is a word?). It can symbolize belief in spirits or be viewed as an act of worship – hence the problem. This is perhaps a topic for a separate blog, let me instead get back to familial hierarchy.
I have been pondering this as a follower of Jesus, and as a leader in a multi-ethnic church where we are trying to create community in the heart of the city. Hierarchy does not flow from the mandate and example of Jesus. He emphasizes servant leadership – “first shall be last” modelling.
The doctrine of the Trinity itself – three equal while different persons – challenges hierarchical structures of power. The word hierarchy is not found anywhere in the New Testament. So is it right for Asian Christians, or Irish Christians for that matter to place more importance of family and hierarchy than on what Jesus desires for us?
More pondering required on this.
In other countries where Bob and I have visited we have been greeted with a “holy kiss”. In South America, people are fairly tactile: they hug and kiss (on the cheek) and hold hands all the time. This men-kissing-men takes a lot of getting used to, especially for us reserved Canadians.
In Peru they kissed twice, once on each cheek, and in Argentina it was three times – a formulae I always seemed to get wrong. Do you go for the right cheek, the left cheek? Do you hold back and wait? Do you lunge and embarrassingly kiss mid-air or bump heads? It was safer in Kuwait. There, kissing outside the home can land you in jail for a week, but then again so can driving a jet ski inside a little red buoy – but that is another story. 🙂
While I loved the graceful gesture of the wai in Thailand, it will not be a practice I am encouraging back home.
I think we need to kiss more.