When Talking Politics Abroad… Maybe Don’t
Sometimes, the biggest culture shock is what you can and can't openly discuss.
One of my favourite travel moments occurred when I was on a slow boat in the backwaters of Borneo. Having run out of the usual small talk topics, I turned to the captain and asked, “What do you think is the weirdest Western food?”
Without hesitation, he responded, “Sandwiches.”
Culture shock is one of the most exciting and challenging elements of travel, and the natural questions that arise—“But… why?”—often encourage you to ask the same of your own social norms.
Friendly chitchat is great, but be wary of speaking too freely when you're new to a country. (Photo: Outpost/John Price)
However, not being aware of or adhering to these cultural practices can land you in trouble. For example, while on a boat between Egypt and Jordan with my dad, I was chatting in what I thought was a harmless manner with two local truckers—and nearly started a riot because of the taboo for young women to talk amicably with strange men.
By Western standards, in many ways, Thailand is an extremely progressive country, yet this can lead travellers into a false sense of security. For instance, although there’s a café on Koh Phangan devoted to selling magic mushroom milkshakes, Thailand’s drug laws are much harsher than, say, Canada’s.
What surprised me most about Thailand was its lese-majeste laws, which are some of the strictest in the world. According to the national criminal code, anybody who “defames, insults, or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent” may be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
Chatting on the train. (Photo: Outpost/John Price)
In 2007, a Swiss man was sentenced to jail for a decade—though pardoned after a month—for spray painting posters of the (now late) King Bhumibol Adulyadej while drunk. Meanwhile, in 2011, a sexagenarian grandfather received a 20-year sentence after sending texts that were deemed insulting to the queen.
As Lena discussed in her post about the Thai monarchy, we were in Thailand during its period of national mourning after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I was amazed at how genuinely affected people were by the loss, and by the repeated comparison of their love for the King to that for a family member. As a journalist, I yearned to ask in-depth questions about the late monarch, but instead kept it light out of fear of offending somebody… or accidentally committing a felony.
Mourning the late king in Bangkok. (Photo: Outpost/John Price)
This kind of culture shock was exacerbated by the fact that, half a world away, during November, the American president-elect Donald Trump was being ruthlessly insulted by, well, everybody. I can only imagine what the Thai people would think if they saw how vehemently the U.S. public was raging against the machine, or how a man like that got elected in the first place.
Their main question, I imagined, would sound a lot like any foreigner’s natural curiosity, for example, about why sandwiches are weird: “But… why?”