There has long been a debate over the word “farang” (ฝรั่ง) and its usage. For now, we are discussing its use to describe a person and not a guava fruit, though the word is used in both ways.
So, is it an insult, or is it just a normal term that we Thais use to describe Westerners?
The origin of these words however came from the Franks.
Who are the Franks? Here’s a very brief history:
The Franks were a group of Germanic people that conquered, and settled in, Western Europe in the fifth century, when the Roman Empire in the West was falling into pieces. They established Francia, or the Kingdom of the Franks, which centuries later was divided into Western Frankia and Eastern Frankia. The former eventually became modern France, the latter eventually became modern Germany.
The First Crusade (1096-1099) was predominantly French. The crusaders who established the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1244) were also predominantly French. Back in those days, the French called themselves the Franks.
Hence, from Arabia to Central Asia to the sub-continent and to Thailand, different variations of the word “Franks” are used to describe one collective group of people: Westerners, those of European descent, caucasians, or in common everyday tongue, “white people”.
In the past, we Thais also used the word farang to describe people of African descent:
“ฝรั่งดำ” (farang dum), which literally translates to “black farang”. But this is no longer used. In common everyday tongue, we would say “black person” (คนดํา, khon dum).
The word farang is also used to describe Western imports that became Thai staples. For example, chewing gum is called “หมากฝรั่ง” (mhaag farang), as opposed to
หมากพลู (mhaag plu), which is a betel plant that we Thais in the past loved to chew.
Is the word “farang” an insult?
Last week, Thisrupt did two polls on the question: When referring to a Westerner, is the word “farang” derogatory?
On Facebook, out of 373 votes, 36% said yes, 64% said no.
On Twitter, out of 359 votes, 36.5% said yes, 63.5% said no.
(Bear in mind, we are not factoring in how many Westerners versus how many Thais voted.)
There are many forms of racism that exist in Thailand, as with anywhere else in the world. But specific to the word farang, if the polls tell us anything, it’s that the racism of the word farang in and of itself is subjective.
Some think it’s racist, some think it’s not, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
However, browsing through the more than one hundred comments (when combined both polls), there’s a common theme: It depends on how you use the word.
Context is everything.
There’s the context of intent.
To use the word farang in anger and with venom, or to mock and to jeer, then that qualifies as racism. To speak it casually in referring to a person or a collective group of people, is simply just that, casual speech.
There’s the context of experience.
Is it racism to blanket all Westerners as farangs without recognizing the different nationality?
If so, then saying “Westerners” would also be racist. Or Easterners. Or Asians. Or Africans. Or Europeans. Etc. Think about it.
A Thai living his entire life in Thailand can no more tell the difference between an Australian and an American, than an American living in Lynchburg, Virginia can tell the difference between a Chinese and a Vietnamese.
If however you are well traveled, and especially having lived abroad, you might have learned to spot the difference between nationality and ethnicity.
From physical characteristics, to clothing attires, to body language and most obviously, spoken language. You might not understand the language, but you might recognize what Japanese sounds like versus what Korean sounds like, or what Italian sounds like versus what Spanish sounds like.
But unless you have lived abroad and/or travelled the world — which requires money that most people don’t have — then it’s pretty much:
“Dudes, you all look alike,” or “Dudes, you all sound alike.”
On the other hand, to say “ฝรั่งขี้นก” (farang khee-nok, farang bird shit) or “ฝรั่งตาน้ำข้าว” (farang taa naam-kao, farang eyes of rice water, farang pale eyes) is decidedly insulting.
My 7th Grade teacher in Austin, Texas, asked me where I was from.
Voranai: No, Thailand.
Teacher: Oh, Taiwan?
Voranai: It’s Thailand.
Teacher: Yes, Taiwan.
Voranai: Okay, sure.
A student in class later said, “But you don’t look like Bruce Lee. You look Mexican.”
She was a great teacher and a lovely person. She just did not know Thailand. The student was a good friend. He just did not know Thailand either.
In high school, in my group of truck-driving, tobacco-chewing, gun-toting jocks, there was always a fun debate that came up every now and then:
“He looks just like a Mexican.”
“No, he’s Chinese to me.”