By Sam Sarvis, Former National Director of YWAM Thailand and Phil Porter, National Director of YWAM Thailand
Our hope is that the C&L program we have established will aid you greatly as you adjust to living in Thailand. The requirements we ask you to fulfill have been set with your best interests at heart. We do feel that one "rule" needs further explanation and thus, we are including this article to that end. Specifically, we wish to discuss the requirement that states, "Refrain from any romantic relationship with locals within the first two years." We would like to clarify some of the reasons behind this rule.
It must be noted up front that IN NO WAY is the leadership of YWAM Thailand against romantic relationships or against mixed-culture marriages. We DO believe that God often creates mixed-culture marriages and we celebrate these. However, the bottom line, in our opinion, is that most newcomers arriving from the West cannot understand the implications of marrying a Thai national. Of course, the following information does not only apply to new C&L staff. It also is for others who may have lived in Thailand for several years already and who are now interested in pursuing a relationship with a Thai of the opposite sex.
There are primarily two reasons for the general dating rule.
1) We believe that the first 12-18 months of a missionary's time in the country is extremely important in setting the tone for the rest of that person’s life here. There are so many things to learn and absorb. It is also a time for developing and deepening our understanding of God's call on our lives as it relates to Thailand. We need to really be able to focus on these things without the added stress/time of working through a cross-cultural relationship. We must recognize that ANY romantic relationship (even in our own culture) will naturally take up an incredible amount of emotional time and energy. We feel that if one's C&L Phase is heavily focused on a relationship, it will severely limit the ability to really "get" a lot of the other important things.
2) More importantly, however, life, relationships, and especially the development of romantic relationships here is SO, SO different than in the West. The way that men and women relate, communicate and understand that communication, and the hidden messages in body language are extremely different than in the West. As well, unwritten (or un-communicated, but very much assumed) expectations from a Thai perspective are greatly different than the West. Some of these things might be learned from books but most of them can only be learned from being here for an extended period of time. Most of the Western men who have married Thai ladies would probably have appreciated having a better understanding of Thai culture/ways/thinking before starting a relationship if they were to do it over again. Not that they wouldn't do it, but a lot of unnecessary stress and relationship challenges would have been avoided if there had been a better understanding on their part when they started the relationship.
A few thoughts to ponder regarding cultural differences between Thais and Westerners in regards to girl/guy relationships:
- Looking into a Thai girl’s eyes, if for more than a second or two, communicates something very clearly to her about your thoughts/feelings toward her.
- Spending time alone with a girl, whether at her work place, a restaurant, or just about anywhere, says to her very clearly that you are romantically interested in her.
- Buying or bringing any type of gift to a girl also communicates romantic interest.
- Going to visit a girl’s family/village, in their eyes, communicates to her and her family that you have intentions to marry. It is basically the final step before setting a date for the wedding ceremony.
- A Western guy giving an unmarried Thai girl a ride on a motorcycle will make most people who see this assume that she's doing what certain other Thai girls do with Western guys.
- It is most likely assumed by the Thai girl's family that all Western men are rich and that the Western man will assume responsibility for the needs of the girl’s entire family (and perhaps even extended family) from then on.
- The girl’s parents may well expect to live with the newly married couple for the rest of their lives and will certainly expect that the girl and her Western husband will meet any of their financial needs.
- A generous dowry is expected to be paid by the guy to the girl's parents. Although the amounts can vary, the very minimum would be approximately US$1700 (and this amount would only be accepted by a Thai family who fully understood that the man is a missionary with very little financial resources). To refuse or balk at giving a dowry would be roughly the same as telling the parents that their daughter doesn't have any value.
These issues are not necessarily “negative” aspects of Thai culture. It’s neither better nor worse than Western, just different. And, this is not an exhaustive list of differences. There are many other cultural differences as well. These are just a few that a new missionary should be aware of. As Westerners, we may think that our biggest cultural struggle will be the language. But actually, the spoken language is a lot easier to understand and learn than some of these other differences. We may feel that once we’ve learned to speak and recognize a few obvious cultural differences (such as not pointing our feet) that we can court or date here as we would in our home country. However, it doesn’t work that way.
There are some other things to consider before becoming romantically involved with a Thai, such as, what are your long-term plans? Are you thinking of staying here from now on or is there a good chance that you might end up returning to your home country in a couple of years? This is something that would need to be seriously considered and discussed before a relationship goes very far. It is a major issue for a Thai person to consider moving to a new country where they know no one, don't eat the food, etc., for the rest of their life. If there’s a possibility that the missionary may be moving back to his/her home country long term, the Thai person should understand that very clearly (even if it's not definite) before the relationship progresses at all. It is important that the Thai person think through the implications of such a move on their own life and on their relationships with their family, etc. On the other hand, many Thais are looking for a Western spouse specifically so they can move to a Western country. This makes them extremely prone to the temptation of pursuing a romantic relationship with a Westerner for the wrong reasons. A multi-millionaire has a hard time knowing who his/her friends really are. A Westerner in Thailand is in a similar vulnerable position.
With regards to ministry vision, what is the Thai person’s long-term calling? Do they know what your ministry vision is? What is their commitment to their current ministry or church? One of the difficulties with an issue like this is that it can seem to some like a "control" thing. Actually, no one has the right to tell you whom you can or cannot marry. There are times when a girl will let go of her vision to follow her husband (or future husband). We cannot judge if that is right or wrong. However, it is extremely important, before two people pursue a deep relationship, that both people know what God's calling on each of their lives is and how this relationship might affect that calling. The reality is that once our emotions get involved, it can be a lot more difficult to clearly and objectively hear from God about anything that doesn't directly involve the other person.
The primary factor in the "no dating locals" rule for the C&L time is the major differences between the Thai and Western culture. If an C&L staff guy from the West started getting interested in a missionary lady from the West, it wouldn’t be such a big thing. The relationship rules we have are not just to help you get married in a culturally appropriate way in Thailand. They are to protect both the new missionaries that are coming AND the local Thais. By this, we do NOT mean to "protect" them from falling into sin but rather to protect them from getting into something that they know nothing about--in other words, a romantic relationship with someone from almost "another world", with a totally different world view, way of thinking, way of relating, way of viewing relationships, way of communicating, way of giving/receiving affection, and many, many more differences that aren't necessarily evident in the beginning.
This rule was put into our policies because of a number of very, very difficult situations where Western men arrived here and fell in love with a Thai girl immediately. They weren't "difficult” situations because of sin but rather because of major challenges. Most of these challenges (if not all) came from the fact that both parties became attracted to one another and then (naturally) proceeded on with the relationship in the same way they would have proceeded in a relationship with someone of their own culture, in their own country. However, they didn't realize at the time that they didn't have a clue about where the other person was coming from in regards to their ways of relating, outlook on life, and ways of communicating, etc.
Finally, one of the common challenges that most new missionaries will experience in the first couple of years is a sense of loneliness. You are away from all your close relationships, your family, your support system, etc., and you can be very vulnerable. At times like this, it is extremely easy to subconsciously meet that need by getting involved in a romantic relationship. Doing this during the C&L time can seriously hinder your progress, not only in learning the language, but also in learning other important cultural things. And more importantly, it can hinder you from really getting God’s heart for the people you are called to here in Thailand. We realize that two years can seem like an eternity, particularly if you have to wait that long for something. However, that has to do with perspective as well. If you compare waiting two years for a relationship so that for the next 40 years you will be where God wants you to be, doing what He wants, and doing it together with the one He wants, it’s not really that big of a sacrifice. Please know that more than anything else, we want God's perfect will to be fully accomplished in your life, and His kingdom to be established in Thailand just as it is in Heaven.