Thought I'd share some fine words from my good friend John Learned, who helped me out of a dark hole recently. If you're planning to travel to SE Asia this year, these words might just help you 'help yourself' AND the locals you meet along the way. At least you'll have a better understanding of what it means to be a falang
"*/“Falang! Falang!”/* You will hear this word directed at you every day in Thailand. What is “/falang”/? Actually the word is “/farang/” with an /r/, but the Thai and Lao are quite loose about their /ars/ and /els/.
The most common and partly correct theory is that it is an indigenous adaptation of the word /Francais/ (pronounced ‘farang-sate’). In Laos, French are called (by those aware of such distinctions) /“falang”/ whereas non-French westerners would be American, /Ahngrit/ (English), etc. In Thailand /falang/ simply means any westerner, with the emphasis on Caucasian.
The word pre-dates French occupation in Indochina though: traders to the region, quite certainly of Persian origin, brought it approximately 2 millenniums ago. If one looks at the etymology of the Malay word /ferringhi/ (/perringhi /in Indonesian), it stems from the Persian /parangi/, meaning foreigner or stranger. In Cambodia foreigner is pronounced /Prang/ (with a rolled /r/) and in Thai and Lao, /Farang. / /Falangs/ were here long before the French.
An interesting English word of the same Indo-Aryan origin is /peregrine/. From the Latin /perigrinus,/ it means wandering, traveling, or a stranger. A /Farang/ is a stranger or traveler from the west.
Walking anywhere in Thailand, it would be surprising if someone didn’t point and say “/falang”./ No, it’s not exactly the height of politeness, but it’s a fact. We are different. Our hair, eyes, our languages and mannerisms, even our body smells are different. We stand out.
It’s a bit like calling Africans Blacks or Asians Orientals. We don’t differentiate between Rwandan and Ugandan or Indonesian and Malay unless we have actually been to those places. It’s the same here. We are /falang/ – English, Spanish or Albanian.
So, people point and stare a lot - with reason. Consider: They’re /big/! They speak unintelligible words and unpronounceable syllables. Most can’t sit cross-legged or squat, and sit with their feet pointing at each other. They don’t cover their mouths when they use toothpicks. You have to tell them to take off their shoes before entering a house. They don’t eat rice everyday and eat with forks, ignoring their spoon. They walk around exposing their bodies shamelessly and lie in the sun, sweating and reading, when delicious cool shade is only metres away. (Mad dogs and /falangs/). They find the most common things incomprehensibly interesting. They take photos of markets, water buffalo, of pigs, bowls of noodles even!
They don’t understand bargaining: either they will pay any amount asked for or they will act insulted, get quite huffy and rude - aggressive even - instead of asking for a lower price. They go to the famous temples but only to take pictures – without paying respect to the Buddha. They don’t bathe as frequently as they might, yet they spend hundreds of dollars a night for hotel rooms with palatial bathrooms.
Perhaps the strangest are those who pay money to hang out in the jungle and stay in remote little villages with no electricity! Why would anybody in his or her right mind, who can afford cars and air-conditioning and servants, go there in the first place? There’s snakes and bugs and diseases and who knows what (It’s a jungle out there!). Sometimes they even insist those people are lucky because they don’t have TVs yet! Totally nuts!
It’s no wonder people point and stare – they’re just waiting to see what we’ll do or say next!
Languages are fun. You should try to learn to speak some Thai or Lao/. Falangs/ learning to speak the local language are a wonderful source of amusement for Thai and Lao alike. They laugh at the way we lacerate the most basic of phrases. We contort our faces, trying to make the simplest of sounds - like /ng/. (Think of the /ng/ in ri-/ng/ing or si-/ng/ing; we actually use this sound all the time).
When /falangs /buy bananas, they’re just as likely to ask for penis or buffalo, conversation or flutes instead! And then they look perplexed and flustered, even offended that they are not understood. What strange people!! No concept of tones at all!
Take heart, however. Don’t be too concerned about the tones. Once you know them, you will be less amusing to locals. They like to laugh and mispronouncing words is value added. Don’t worry – they’re not laughing /with/ you – they’re laughing /at/ you. But if you can make people laugh, you can make them like you
We are /farang./ The word is not usually spoken with rancor, just stated as a fact. It should not be thought of as a pejorative. It is not a derogatory word. Don’t take it too personally. Accept the fact you are western and that you stand out. Learn to laugh at yourself – you’re probably much funnier than you think!
We are peregrine. We are guests – no matter how many years we live in a country. We are guests on this earth and as guests we should be sensitive to environment and try to understand and respect conventions of culture, even if our understanding of them is often imperfect.
Become aware of the exchange being made as soon as we step into a foreign environment. We owe it not only to locals but also to ourselves to travel with awareness and integrity. And a sense of humour!"
- John G Learned