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The word farang, ฝรั่ง, specifically refers to the ‘white foreigner’. English doesn’t have a good word for it, however it’s the equivalent to the Spanish ‘gringo’ or the Japanese ‘gaijin’ (if you’re familiar with either).
It’s a very charged, very controversial word. You can find forum threads that rant on for pages about what it means, or doesn’t mean. I’m quite positive that after reading this blog post, many of you will feel a strong urge to comment.
Well, being a farang who speaks Thai well enough to understand the intricacies of the language, I’m going to offer the definitive word on the F word.
Let’s start with a bit of Thai history. Thais generally do not understand the concept of racism. They’ve had no civil rights movements, and 95% of the country speaks Thai, looks Thai, and practices only Buddhism. Only in very recent times have some learned about the unfair prejudices they’ve held over the southern Muslims, or the darker skinned Thais in Isaan. Historically, Thais had a period of strong racism against Chinese immigrants. But the Chinese are now fully integrated into Thai society, and Thais know little of their darker history.
Now, I’m not saying Thais are racist haters because they aren’t, I’m just saying it’s not a concept that has crossed their minds. As such, they have not developed the cultural sensitivities and understandings you can find in the west, and especially in the US. They don’t know that when they say ‘look at that farang’ that to us it feels like ‘look at that white honky’ . . . or that particular ‘n’ word which my own culture forbids me from repeating.
I’ve explained to Thai friends/family how in western culture calling people names that point out skin color or generally say ‘you are not one of us’ is rude and offending. They always seem a bit perplexed by this concept, but they respect my wishes and then refer to me by my name – not as ‘the farang.’
Point being, decent Thai people won’t use the word farang if they knew it could offend you.
That said, there are Thais who aren’t decent. I’ve heard the word used negatively, and meant as an insult. They might do it because they are angry, or because they are unable to properly verbalize a political frustration, or because they’ve seen too many sex-pats in Pattaya with 15 year old girls.
You can also use the term more neutrally. Sometimes when I speak Thai, the word farang just seems to work best as a catch-all phrase for westerners in Thailand. I could say ชาวต่างชาติ (people from other countries), which I occasionally hear from the more politically-correct Thais, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily.
And I admit, I sometimes use the word when referring to farang I don’t like, such as those moron farang that give the rest of us farang a bad name (fyi, that was an example of both negative and neutral word usage). I don’t feel racist using a racist term describing my own race . . . it’s even a bit funny to Thais when I (a farang) say something like ‘เกลียดฝรั่งว่ะ’ as a joke, meaning ‘I f’in hate farang.’
There you have it, the definitive definition to the word farang. It can be a neutral word, an offensive word, or just a simple ‘catch all’ word because no other word fits best.
And besides, maybe when you overheard the word, they were just talking about ‘mak farang’ (bubble gum), ‘mun farang’ (potatoes), or farangset (France).
Make sure you turn on CC (closed captions) before watching. It’s a very informative mockumentary: