Kwai, The Thai Water Buffalo

Lovely creature kind and loyal
All your life so full of toil
You prepare the earth for rice
And pay the price for paradise.

Though, we can see that you have tilled
With your master in the field,
Yet, to your work we seem so blind
Though all can see you're good and kind.

So, when we see you lovely Kwai
Why don't we make respectful Wai?
Is it that we are too shy,
Or is it that we feel too high?
                                                                                                                            © Thomas Albert Fox

This little song is an attempt to encapsulate an interesting cross-cultural difference between westerners and Thais. The Water Buffalo (Kwai, pronounced kwhy) is certainly a lovely, delightful creature with soft, intelligent eyes and a supremely gentle disposition. It seems obvious to a westerner that such a creature should be loved and respected and that comparison to a water buffalo would be complimentary. However, to a Thai such comparison is a deadly insult. The Kwai is felt to be slow and stupid. While Thais are entirely happy to be nicknamed Moo (pig), Gop (frog), Noo (rat), and many other names westerners would certainly find unacceptable, to a Thai the nickname Kwai is deeply unacceptable. Perhaps, it is as if you called someone a donkey in the west and, although donkeys are in fact lovely, hard working, if stubborn, creatures, fisticuffs might not be too far away. Such prejudices of nations have little to do with the true nature and character of the common creatures themselves that are familiar in their countries and with whom we share the earth. Yet, they become easy sources of insult and derogation such that their names are used as weapons in the common wars of words so many humans seem committed to pursuing, as if earth’s creatures were not only ours to kill and to eat, but also ours to abuse even in the way we think of them.

In the song the rhyming of Kwai with Wai draws the fullest possible attention to the anomaly between the lovely, sleek, black and gentle Water Buffalo upon whose back the wealth of the land is made and the Wai which is the standard gesture used by Thais and other Asians to signal respect. The Wai is the bringing together of the two hands pointing upwards with palms flat together inwards and raised to the front of the lower face.

It is easy to see from this difference that the assumptions formed in cultures run deep and sometimes manifest themselves in ways unexpected by the unwary. It is certainly the case, for example, that all creatures in local environments are part of and represent well established value systems. For westerners these assumptions are usually as unconscious and innocent of malice as the Thai valuation of Kwai. Yet, some awareness that such assumptions are made and that they inevitably colour our thoughts and behaviours can be a help in being a successful cross-cultural traveler.

The world seems to be our oyster, and presumably we are its pearl. In business as well as pleasure such awareness can be helped by cross-cultural briefings such as those provided by translators and interpreters AThaiS Ltd in regard to Thailand. Individuals and major companies such as ICI, Matra Marconi, Westlands and others have successfully availed themselves of this expertise.