From Head to Toe

September 25, 2000

Gone are the days where I toss my feet up on my desk or table. No longer do I pat a child’s or friend’s head in a gesture of friendship. Well, at least I try not to. Sometimes I catch myself in a moment of automatic pilot about to make a blunder and then I say “Oops!”” Rules about head and feet have changed now that I live in Thailand. I have learned that the extreme ends of the body have extreme rules. Let me explain.

In Thailand the head is seen as the highest and holiest of body parts and is treated with due respect. A pillow used to sit on is never used as a head pillow. Objects such as books and drinks are not passed directly over someone’s head. If crossing in front of another person, it is a polite gesture to slightly bow your head. It is also a taboo to pat someone on the head except a small child or a really good friend. My rule of thumb is to pat no one on the head except for my dog.

Feet are seen as the lowest and dirtiest body part. In Thailand minding your250900k1.jpg feet is like minding your manners. To have the bottom of your foot exposed and pointing at someone is akin to flipping someone off. It is actually not even polite to talk about your feet in Thailand, so please excuse me as I continue.

While sitting on the ground, sitting in a temple, or sitting sharing a meal, feet should be kept neatly tucked to the side of the body. I have chosen to follow the basic rule of when in doubt and sitting in a chair, keep them planted firmly on the ground. If your feet are under a table and out of sight then you have more leeway with where you can place them. Other rules of thumb follow: showing someone a blister on your toe, moving aside objects with your feet or stepping over someone is also considered rude.

Pointing your feet at a monk or a Buddha image is the biggest of no-no’s. Thais pay respect to His Majesty the King and to the Lord Buddha by lowering their heads to the ground. In a sense this means “My head is beneath your250900k2.jpg feet.”

I have my own philosophy about this whole thing. I believe that as the goal of Buddhism is enlightenment, by using our minds in meditation (i.e. our heads) there is the ability to obtain this goal. Our feet are what attach us to the ground, to our realities, and hence to our suffering. I have seen some statues of the Lord Buddha where the scenes from his life are engraved on the bottoms of his feet. It somehow seems fitting.

On a side note, some Thais and some foreigners went on a trip together and I got to see the pictures one of the Thais took later. I noticed one photo very out of place from all the other scenery shots. There were two pictures of a foreign man riding in the back of an open tour-bus like vehicle. He had his feet up on the back of the seat in front of him and the bottoms of his shoes were pointing directly at a Thai person’s head a few seats forward. I believe this was a “Can you believe this?” photograph. The foreigner had no idea what he was250900k3.jpg doing.

I have also noticed that I often see Thai people dressed up very nicely and then just wearing a pair of simple flip-flops. This looks funny to me, but in Thailand feet are importantly not important. I would like to take a moment to talk about the flip-flop.

The flip-flop is the Thai national shoe. It is the most common, the most practical, and the cheapest form of foot wear. Shoes are removed before going into someone’s home or into a temple and flip-flops provide a quick exit. Flip-flops also dry quickly.

Thailand is famous for massage and specialized foot massage is a major feature. I gleefully attend a one-hour session every week. So, yes, in Thailand there is a time and a place for feet, it is just good to know where and when. The rules about foot and head conduct are a given in Thai society. They are as clear as eating with a knife and a fork would be for most western societies. Well, in Thailand it is also clear that you eat your food not with a fork, but with a spoon.

When I am back home in the States and someone sticks their feet up on the table, my first reaction is “OH NO! Don’t do that!” but then I remember where I am. I love to rub my brothers’ heads and tell them how adorable they are. Home sweet home. Time to put my feet up and relax. There is a time and a place for everything.

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