Today we are excited to begin the fourth year of our Motherhood Around The World series! To kick things off, we’re heading to Thailand. Ciana Hardwick lives in Phuket with her husband, Ek, and their adorable two-year-old daughter, Aerina — and they’re expecting daughter number two any day now. Here, Ciana shares 18 surprising things about living in Thailand, including how people hold babies differently and the importance of showing respect for elders…
Ciana’s background: I grew up in Maryland and went to college in Philadelphia. I had always wanted to live abroad, and I ended up choosing Thailand because it’s a relatively easy place to get a job and a visa. I traveled around the country for the first six months, then I settled in as a teacher in a mid-size city in Central Thailand called Suphanburi. This is where I began to get an inside look at the country. I learned Thai, made Thai friends and dated Thai men. I ate local foods, visited temples, and hung out where local young people went at night. Originally, I hadn’t planned on being here longer than a year — but I fell in love with country and realized I wanted to stay.
I moved to Bangkok, where I worked as a tutor and met my husband, who is a police officer. After we got married, he got transferred to Chiang Saen, a small town on the Mekong river. (I quit my job to go with him, but plan on going back to teaching once our children are in school.) It was a beautiful but quiet place with not much to do. We lived there for two and half years, during which our first daughter was born. A year ago, we moved to Phuket, an island city.
On coming to Thailand: This country is beautiful – with gorgeous islands, mountains and jungles, bustling cities, the greenest rice fields, flavorful fresh food, and a vibrant culture that’s kept very much alive through holidays and traditions. Phuket, where we live now, is Thailand’s biggest island. It’s quite mountainous, and there are many sandy and rocky beaches. Our apartment is in Phuket City, the provincial capital.
On family sleeping arrangements: Our daughter Aerina is two-and-a-half and still sleeps with us, which is not unusual here. It’s very common for a family to sleep in the same room, although usually the mom will sleep with the baby and the dad will sleep on a mattress on the floor or even in another room. Thai mothers generally don’t want to be separated from their children, so that takes priority over the husbands. I know a family where the younger child sleeps with the mom, and the older child sleeps with the dad in a bed on the floor. Ek loves to tell people about how my parents kicked me out of their bedroom at two weeks old, because Thai parents would never do that!
On date nights: Since Aerina was born, we haven’t really done date nights. Like all the Thai parents we know, we go out as a family instead. Some American friends in Chiang Saen offered to watch our daughter so we could have a date night for just the two of us, but Ek couldn’t wrap his head around leaving Aerina behind. It is such a kid-loving culture that the popular evening venues are usually big outdoor restaurants with live music where children can run around wherever they want and everyone plays with them.
On maternity fashion: Women here are mostly pretty stylish and are heavily influenced by Korean fashion, but the choices for maternity clothes are limited. When women (even celebrities) get pregnant, they have no real options other than smock dresses with little cartoons on them. Breastfeeding shirts are usually big and loose with a zipper down the front and a patterned design or cartoon. It’s definitely not a time Thai women expect to feel sexy.
On C-sections: C-sections are extremely common here, so after someone asks you how many months along you are, they’ll typically ask you if you’re going to operate or go natural. When I say I’m hoping for another natural birth, people are quite surprised. Many women I know here are scared of labor pain and recovery — if the baby seems big or there is any type of risk at all, a C-section is much more common.
On lucky numbers: People we know here are really into lucky numbers, so they might go to a fortune teller or monk (depending on their beliefs) to choose the best time and date for a C-section for their baby. My daughter was born on Christmas Eve, and the hospital was full of women with C-sections scheduled for Christmas Day. Even for those who don’t celebrate the holiday, December 25th is a special lucky number day. After Aerina was born, everyone asked me the number of the delivery room, the exact time of her birth and her weight because they wanted to know her numbers. Some people pay to get special phone numbers or license plates. My husband went to a monk to find out the best day for our wedding and when to buy a car.
On grandmothers helping with babies: After taking about a month off after a baby is born — during which traditionally they are not supposed to do anything or go outside so their body can heal — mothers will typically go back to work and the maternal grandmother will come to take care of the baby until he or she starts school. This is basically expected, and in this baby-loving culture, most grandmothers seem happy to do it. If the mom isn’t working or the grandmother is too frail, then the mom may move home near the end of her pregnancy to stay at her parents’ house for the birth and for several months to a year after. The father will visit whenever he’s free. It’s just kind of understood that taking care of a baby is hard work, and you need the help of your mom.
On the importance of education: Ek’s parents died years ago, and my parents are in the States, so we’ve been raising Aerina without the help of grandparents. People here are surprised that we don’t plan to send Aerina to live with my parents in the States. Education is paramount in Thai culture; if our friends here had a chance to educate their child in America they would absolutely do it. But, of course, I don’t want to be separated from her, and my parents have their own busy lives.
On greeting people: Showing proper respect is a huge aspect of this culture. When you greet people, you put your hands together in front of you in a hand motion that is called “wai.” You also wai to say thank you. Children learn to wai very early on — at around nine months old. Parents will bring their child’s hands together for them, until they learn to do it themselves. Aerina will wai when she meets people.
On knowing everyone’s ages: The younger (or lower status) person always does the wai first. So, it’s important to know how old people are here, and it’s not rude to ask someone, even a woman. If you ask Ek how old any of his friends or coworkers are, he always knows. People also often know how much money their friends and relatives make; and whoever makes the most typically pays the bill at a group meal.
On addressing people by age: In Thailand, at least where we’ve lived, you rarely call anyone by just their name. In casual settings, you call someone a bit older than you “big brother” or “big sister.” Much older men would be “uncle” and older women are usually “grandma.” Some of the first words Thai babies learn might be the words for older and younger sibling, so when we meet a young child, the mom or grandma will always want to know exactly how old Aerina is so they can instruct their child what to call her as a sign of respect.
Ek’s aunt holding Aerina Thai-style, with the legs in front, mostly straight, and not spread apart at all.
On straight legs: Many Thai parents I’ve met are very concerned with their babies not being bowlegged. Every time you give a baby a bath, you’re supposed pull and massage them straight, and some older people won’t even let them wear diapers because it causes too much separation between the legs. But what surprised me most is that no one holds babies or even toddlers on their hips. It’s always hard for me when I pick up Aerina’s little friends because they’re just a passive deadweight in your arms — they don’t help grip onto your hip, like American kids do. There was also huge concern when I went out with my daughter in the Moby wrap and later an Ergo carrier, since her legs were spread out — I got a comment from everyone I encountered.
On disciplining children in public: You never see parents get cross with their children in public — displays of anger are not very accepted. I think the fact that there is rarely just one adult taking care of a child makes a huge difference. You never see the exasperated sleep-deprived mom trying to wrangle her child into the shopping cart, because the dad or grandma are there too. I’ve definitely been that mom, though, and I know people sometimes stare at me, but trying to grocery shop with a toddler is hard work and sometimes Aerina needs to know that she can’t always have her way!
On birthday parties: Birthdays here are very low key. My Thai friend explained to me that some people think it’s rude to have a big celebration on the day the mother had to go through so much pain. Birthdays are seen as a time to do something good for others, so they can have good luck through the rest of the year. Often people will go to the temple and make a donation, and receive a blessing from a monk. Ek donates blood on his birthday. I went to a kid’s birthday party where the adults mostly sat around eating and drinking and the birthday boy didn’t seem bothered at all that the focus wasn’t on him.
On Buddhism in everyday life: Buddhism is a central part of the culture — my husband and most people we know are Buddhist — and beautiful temples are everywhere. Kids have Buddhism classes at school, and monks do weddings (ours, too!), funerals, ceremonies at schools and work events. There are small shrines in many houses, too. We aren’t teaching Aerina to be Buddhist (she can make that decision when she’s older), but she will definitely learn all about how to properly respect monks and Buddha images.
On being careful with your feet: The Buddhist belief is that the head is sacred and clean, but the feet are dirty. You have to take off your shoes before you enter most places — not a mall or a big restaurant, but definitely a small shop. When you visit monks, you have to sit with your feet behind you, so they are never even pointing at a monk. And no one puts their bags or purses on the floor, since that’s where people’s feet have been. It now feels a bit weird to me when I go to expats’ houses and everyone just throws their bag in the corner, because I’ve gotten used to always keeping mine on a chair or my lap.
On meals: There’s not a huge differentiation in meals here and I still can’t get used to a full rice, meat and vegetable breakfast, so I usually eat toast and oatmeal. Even in the morning, food stands will sell sticky rice and grilled pork skewers, which Aerina and Ek love. Moms might make their kids a rice soup, or fried rice, or an omelet on top of rice. Occasionally, if we have some leftover meat, I’ll make rice for Ek and Aerina in the morning, and when we visit Ek’s family they set out vegetables and curry and whatever they have left from the night before.
On loving the Thai approach: For me, living in Thailand is much easier than living in the States. Thai people are so friendly and kind, and being aggressive is really looked down on. Rarely do you hear horns being honked or people yelling, and everything just feels calmer, which I love. For the first time in my adult life, I feel relaxed and at ease. I’d like to stay here forever.
(Photos courtesy Ciana Hardwick. Interview by Megan Cahn.)