farang (or falang, if you get into a tonal conversation with The Polyglot) is an appellation for foreigners heard frequently in Thailand. It manifests as a solitary moment of understanding in a stream of cheerful invective in a taxi, an overheard snippet amongst giggling teenagers on the BTS, a random utterance of false bravado in strutting young men, a soft call from one masseuse to another over a Thai gurgling fountain. It is whispered at the entrance to street markets, it is a license to inflate costs “for surely all farang are rich?”; it is a shout across honking streets by taxi mopeds calling for a ride; it is used out the corners of mouths by locals wanting to speak in a language a westerner can’t follow; it is sung as a greeting by street hawkers; it is muttered as an excuse for crazy “moon parties”; it is a reason for everything that is alien, inexcusable, different about the West.
Curiously neutral in its vocabulary it is a word that explains anything and everything that is Western. If a picture be worth a thousand words, then farang is worth a million pictures.
As other have said:
“I heard the word faranji, for foreigner, in Ethiopia when I was on my Dark Star Safari trip, and remembered farang in Thailand, ferangi in Iran, and firringhi in India and Malaysia” Paul Theroux
“I heard frequently muttered by the red-headed spearmen the ominous term “Faranj”” Richard Burton
“”Indian traders in Africa were called faranji if they happened to be wearing trousers (shalwar), since trouser-wearing was associated with outsiders” Paul Theroux
“Forgetting, not remembering. You Farangs become encumbered with your past. The past drives you mad. It keeps you from acting sensibly” John Speed
“I was followed by children chanting, “Faranji! Faranji! Faranji!” Sometimes older people bellowed it at me, and now and then as I was driving slowly down the road a crazed-looking Harari would rush from his doorstep into the window of my car and stand, spitting and screaming the word into my face.” Paul Theroux
“Farang, I’ll bet you Wall Street against a Thai mango he’ll be back, if for no other reason than to play the card of virile youth against Hudson’s superior rank and thus restore his ego after that humiliating reprimand” John Burdett
The term farang has its origins in the medieval term “Franks” – those who hailed from the Kingdom of the Franks. These were a Germanic tribe who peregrinated western Europe during the decline of the Roman Empire. At their peak during the Crusades, their invasions of the Levantine coastline and establishment of the Kingdom of Outremer brought them into violent conflict with the Byzantine Empires and the Sultanate of Rum. From these crusading hosts came those described as farang – a word claimed as Persian. The sobriquet metamorphosed into its current international flavours stemming from phonetic variations as words travel from culture to culture.
Oh, it is also the Thai word for guava fruit. But rest assured if you hear it you’re not being offered food. And you don’t want to hear yourself being called a farang khi nok. If you do, go get better dressed and comb your hair.
Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist once told me a story of he and the Professor waiting patiently in an elevator. They were going to the ground floor in a hotel for a swim. Attired appropriately for such a venture the elevator stopped and some young Thais got in. The next 45 seconds or so as the elevator descended was punctured by some rapid-fire conversation amongst the entrants after gazing at them. In there was a sentence that can be translated as “the monkeys are going for a swim”. With quiet dignity, on leaving the elevator when it reached the ground, he turned to the eternal thoughtlessness of youth and said in perfect Thai:
“Sometimes farang understand what you are saying.”
Indeed. You’d be amazed how truly global this planet is quickly becoming. None of us are truly farang these days even if we think each other might just be.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?