Friday, October 19, 2012
Evaluating Intercultural Behaviour
I was fortunate to have gone to Thailand for a series of military exercises when I was serving in the 3rd Battalion, Singapore Guards (for more information on the unit, refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore_Guards) during my time in National Service (NS). This unique personal experience allowed me to observe and deepen my understanding of the Thai culture, as well as realising the fundamentals of effective communication.
My vocation in the Guards battalion is an elite infantry reconnaissance trooper (recce for short, pronounced as 'rackey', also known as scout). The main role of a Guards recce during missions is to either gather intelligence on the enemies or carry out other specified tasks and transmit these valuable information back to the battalion. In order to do that, recces have to be deployed in the outskirts of enemy terrain days before the rest of the battalion sets out to battle, and then travel deep into enemy territory to collect the required intelligence. A mission usually lasts 3 days, with the recce troopers surviving on very little sleep (often only a few hours per night) and relying solely on their own food and water rations. Due to the amount of stealth required, scouts operate in small isolated teams of 4 to 6 men, and try to avoid interaction with any other people to prevent from giving away their locations. In addition, it is common for scout troopers to carry equipment loads of up to 30 kg and traverse on foot for almost 20 km while navigating towards point objectives. For the special military missions in Thailand, each scout team had a Thai liaison officer attached to it to resolve any possible conflict with the native Thai villagers (such as trespassing of fields) when carrying out our mission in the rural areas.
During one of the missions, my team had finally closed in on our objective 36 hours after our deployment. However, night was approaching and we struggled to find a suitable place to both rest and perform our task of battle surveillance early next morning, since we were stranded in a particularly rural spot in the fields. Drenched in sweat, down with fatigue, out of rations and fearing for our safety (there were rumours that Thai farmers had not hesitated to shoot at trespassers of their fields), our team morale was unbelievably low. Even though our soft-spoken Thai liaison officer, who was attached to us impromptu, could only speak basic English and had difficulties in communicating with us, he understood our concerns and gestured to us to follow him to a nearby village. Upon arrival at the village, the liaison officer entered the house of the village chief and negotiated with him. When he reappeared, my teammates and I were surprised to find out that we were allowed to take refuge in the backyard of the village chief's house. My whole team was so exhausted that we fell asleep almost immediately after removing our heavy baggage.
When we woke up a few hours later, we were astonished to find out that there was a huge pot of sizzling curry sardine noodles in front of us. From the animated gestures demonstrated and the fragmented words uttered by the liaison officer, we understood that while we were sound asleep, he wanted to prepare a pot of curry chicken for us. Although the village chief allowed him to gather the curry spices from the vegetation planted in his backyard, he was unwilling to sell his morning rooster. Therefore, the officer borrowed a scooter from the chief and rode it to the nearest town to purchase sardine cans and instant noodles from a convenience store. He even cooked the pot of noodles personally for us.
This was one of the many memorable experiences I have had during my time in Thailand. Other examples include helpful villagers who gave us directions when we were lost in navigation exercises, as well as the friendly ninja-van drivers operating businesses in the rural areas, who not only supplied us with tasty food cooked on the spot (for instance, pad thai, fried rice) and cooling bottled drinks, but also assisted us in navigation and intelligence collection. The actions of the liaison officer embodies the various good traits of many Thai -- warmth in receiving strangers, while also being considerate and thoughtful for the welfare of others, so much so that they are willing to go all out in helping people they are not related to, despite the existing language barrier (since many Thai don't speak English).
From this outfield incident, I have learnt two things.
Firstly, cultural values and differences can be formed through geographical divides. It is quite hard to imagine Singaporeans behaving in the same way the Thais react towards visitors, regardless of the fact that many of us can communicate with most foreigners in English. It is just not part of the Singaporean culture to be overwhelming friendly towards people whom we are not close to.
Secondly, in spite of language differences, it is still possible to communicate effectively through the show of good intentions and genuine affection via what we do. In this case, the Thai liaison officer could not even form proper English sentences, yet we were able to understand and feel his kind intent through his conduct and attitude.