I was young once in Thailand. I lived here as a 22-25 year old, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and after that working in refugee camps. In these roles, I tried to blend into Thai society as well as possible, despite my long nose, height, blondish hair and the fact that my Thai language tones were far from accentless (or, as my Thai teacher told me last year “three out of five tones—not bad…”).
Part of blending in was getting used to the Thai focus on age and hierarchy. As a 22-25 year old, I developed the skill and reflexes to initiate a “wai” greeting at the appropriate time—which means when seeing someone for the first time who is older than me. At age 22-25, this was most of the people I worked with. The whole social process was reflexive by the end of my time in Thailand which was in (dare I admit it?) 1980-1983. I would enter a social situation, calculate age, and wai, and get a wai in return.
In the summers of 2010 and 2011, I began spending time in Thailand again. I found my Thai to be a bit rusty, and took Thai lessons to compensate (the result: the three tones mentioned above rather than the 1.5 tones I started with). The wai reflex though turned with a vengeance. The problem though was that it was the wai of a 24 or maybe 28 year old, and not someone who was 53 with a distinguished head full of now white hair. This led to confusion among random Thais who received my wai, even thought hey were 15 or 20 years younger than me. Note to self on the current trip to Thailand: Sit on hands!