World Savvy: Frankly speaking

I am busily involved in writing a memoir on the life of my wife, Margo, called Till the River Runs Dry. She spent a lot of time in Thailand and wrote frequently of Thai dealings with farangs, or foreigners.

It is generally believed that the word farang originated with the Indo-Persian word farangi, meaning foreigner, which may come from the word Frank via the Arabic word firinjıyah. Due to the fact that the Frankish Empire ruled Western Europe for centuries, the word Frank became deeply associated, by the Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners, with Latins who professed the Roman Catholic faith. By another account, the word comes through the Arabic afranj. Either way, I became familiar with the similar Persian word faranghi when I worked in Iran. In the 1970s, I, like thousands of faranghi, came to Iran to help build up the economy according to the Shah of Iran’s grand plan. But Iran didn’t need tourism to keep the economy growing — it had oil. When the Shah was booted, most of the faranghis were booted out as well. Through the writings of my wife in Thailand and my own experience in the Middle East during that time, I got extremely interested in etymology. Both words are similar to firangi in India, for example — also meaning foreigner. And since all of us are foreign somewhere on this planet, these are world-savvy terms to be aware of.

Maybe because so many foreigners end up living in Thailand, there is this volume of written material about the word farang and its meaning — is it an insult when used by Thais or isn’t it? A native Thai writing on explained it this way: “‘farang’ is a term loosely used to describe white Europeans. Although the Americans came much later, why not refer to them as Farang as well? . . . The word ‘farang,’ to me, is neither derogatory or complimentary to white people. To me, the connotation is roughly neutral. On the other hand, ‘Ai Lian’ for Italian is definitely derogatory since it sounds like the word LIAN in Thai, meaning to overeat or eating so much one wants to throw up.” So there.

Some experts living in Thailand take exception to that. One blogger wrote “having lived and worked in Thailand for some time, I dislike being called farang. For me it shows disrespect . . . I have a name. If you don’t want to know it that’s fine but there is no need to refer to me by the color of my skin.” Usually when I hear the word, I hear its negative sense like “farangs can pay more because they are farangs.” But sometimes people use it intending to be helpful — my wife recalls a tour bus driver asking all “farang” visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai outside of Bangkok to sit up front so that he could give them a big spiel on what to see and what restaurants to visit when they got back to town.

But perhaps the best assessment was to be found in a website called Sometimes you can learn more about a people by studying how it views other people. Compared to Thais we are exceedingly large — it freaked people out to see my six-foot wife Margo when she roamed Thailand from Ko Samui to Chiang Mai. This is what ThingsAsian writes about concerning a Thai’s conception of farangs: “First of all, farangs are extraordinarily large; this and their pale skin and variably-colored eyes and hair contribute to their otherworldliness — and, to many Thais, their resemblance to ghosts. Farangs are also rich. While it may be true that the income of an average person of European ancestry far surpasses that of the average Thai, many farangs in Thailand are there precisely because they have little money. But good luck trying to tell a Thai this. Gouging foreigners wouldn’t be nearly so much fun if it were known that often they too have to struggle to make ends meet.”

But this author is not done. “Westerners as experienced by Thais in Thailand are a world apart from Westerners everywhere else. Many if not most farangs in Thailand are oddballs, rejects, runaways: hippies, druggies, alcoholics, sex maniacs, beach bums. Asked to describe a farang, a Thai is likely to imagine one of two creatures: the odiferous, long-haired backpacker, or the pot-bellied, beet-red barfly. And he may be surprised to learn that he has more in common with the average Westerner — a regular job, a stable family life — than the average Westerner has in common with farangs.” Are you ready to go to Thailand for your vacation yet?