The WAI is a traditional greeting in Thailand that shows you respect and honor the person in front of you.
A wai can be given in different ways depending on the person who stands before you and the respect you have for that person.
The basic rule of thumb is that the higher the person sits on the wisdom/respect level, then the higher your hands that are joined together prayer style will reach up to your forehead and the lower your body will be.
In Thailand the highest person is Buddha, followed by monks, and then followed by teachers who, like monks, are thegivers of knowledge.
This meant that I could not walk two steps down the halls of school without receiving 10 wais.
At times the students would be almost crawling on the floor with their hands way above their heads to ensure that they were definitely lower than me and showing their utmost respect for me.
I found this really difficult to take at first. Being Australian, our egalitarian culture had firmly ingrained in me that I was in no way shape or form better than anyone else.
We were all equal, and I better not think otherwise.
It was Thailand that began to unravel this belief from me and taught me a better way of looking at it.
Respecting those who are older than you, or who have more wisdom than you, is not saying that they are better than you. You can still believe we are all equal and worthy of the same things in life, but it is important to show your respect to those who can offer you something of value.
It is a recognition of the wisdom someone else holds and all they can teach you. If you don’t acknowledge and respect this then you can never learn and improve.
Ma’am and Sir
Teaching in the US also reaffirmed this for me. I was always called ‘Ma’am” and Craig was called “Sir.” It took us awhile to come to terms with this and even longer to start addressing people in this way.
I grew to love it and saw it for what it was, a simple recognition of someone else’s worth and a sign of respect. Something so simple yet so powerful.
I remember returning home last year and we were down at a local government building. Craig, out of habit, addressed the man as “Sir” He quickly jumped onto that…
“No mate. Not sir. My name is John. Don’t call me sir.”
Yep. We were home alright. Australians don’t ever want to be made out to be more important. Craig wasn’t saying he was better than him, he was just showing his respect and gratitude for all he was doing to help us out in this moment.
Now when I am at school here and the kids are telling me to “Fuck off,” and “Get stuffed,” and “You can’t tell me what to do, you are not my Mum,” I really long to be back teaching in Thailand, where they were carrying my books, and listening to my “wisdom” or my polite US students who would use their manners and show respect.
Even if they had their meltdown moments they would always at least put “Ma’am” at the end of it, signifying that even though they were going crazy right now they still believed I was a person that deserved some respect.
I would love my culture to embrace this more. I want my children to understand that it is important to respect those older than you and recognize all the knowledge and wisdom they can pass to you in order to help you live a balanced and fulfilled life.
Showing respect to others, especially those who are older or wiser than you , is not a sign of weakness, nor saying you are better than me, it is just a way of saying I value you and all you can offer.
The Divine in me honors the divine in you.