The July 2005 edition of the slick upscale magazine for English-speaking foreigners called The Big Chilli ran an article with interviews of prominent Bangkok residents to get their views of what constitutes Thai culture. Two were Thai and two were western expats living permanently in Bangkok. This is what they had to say.
Korn Chatkavanij, a member of the Thai Parliament, believes that the Thai language and way of life has more to do with the soul than the surface. There is no English equivalent to the Thai word “jai” he says, but the closest you can come is “heart.” William J. Kausner, Professor at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University adds that the core element of the traditional Thai persona is the “cool heart” where “one is enjoined to preserve a sense of emotional equilibrium, treading the Buddhist ideal of the Middle Path, avoiding both extremes and overt expressions of socially disruptive emotions such as anger, displeasure, annoyance, and hatred. Confrontation is to be avoided at all costs as any open and direct conflict makes Thais psychologically uncomfortable, says Professor Kausner.
Mr. Chatikavanji says that this lack of confrontation makes Thai culture more tolerant…willing “to roll with the punches.” This, then, makes Thais traditionally adept at indirect expressions of antisocial emotions through gossip, anonymous letter, pamphlets, etc. says Professor Klausner.
On the other hand, Ms. Khunying Chamnongsri, an author, poet, social worker and Chairperson of the Rutnin Eye Hospital says that tolerance comes naturally from the inside. “It doesn’t count if it is done consciously. This can be seen through the Thai ‘wai’ (bowing to another in greeting with hands together as if in prayer,) not touching people’s heads or pointing with your feet.
Relationships and Inclusion
“Foreigners are often surprised when Thais ask them their age, because their ego feels that their privacy has been invaded. But Thais ask this question, Ms. Chamnongsri says, out of a sense of friendliness and inclusion, extending sister and brotherhood. In the old days, and often even now, a friend will immediately ask if you have had something to eat and if not you will be offered food…even if it is only a glass of water. In rural areas you see jugs of water in front of homes with long stemmed ladles so that people can help themselves to a drink. “This all shows a sense of inclusion, concern and welcome. We don’t have a strong sense of self-centeredness or egocentricity since throughout our history people have lived together very much as communities creating a notion of extended family,” says the professor.
Philip Cornwell-Smith, author, says that Thainess is all about relationships which will trump the economics or rules of the situation every time. It comes from a different logic based on a sense of loyalty and kinship rather than on abstract principles, leaving people from other cultures startled by Thai choices and behaviors.
Way Of Life
Thais are not an ideological people, says Mr. Chatkkavanji…adding that most of the world’s problems have been caused by ideology. “We talk more about a way of life and have a general feel of what we need to do to get along. Since we don’t confront we try to find ways to compromise. This is a key word in Thai society and it infuriates ideological youth.” Equilibrium, anti-confrontation and emotional detachment are seen by Thais as positive aspects of Thai society.
Sanuk (Fun and Play)
Play, says Philip Cornwell-Smith is a fundamental Thai value that continues all the way through life and is not viewed as being a childish thing. Len (play), and deun len (walk play) means going around just wandering and looking at things. My son’s wife is always saying “lets go look around.”
Professor Klausner goes on to say that Thais accept their hierarchical order of society whether a person is on the lower or upper rungs of the socio-political ladder. It is interpreted as a justification for continued unaccountable control by those in power and acceptance by the disadvantaged of their exploitation.
Respect For Others
An innate respect for others is a part of Thainess, says Khunying Chamnongsri. “You can see it in gestures, smiles and what you do for others and that this contributes to Thai success in the service industry. “Krengjai” is the moral imperative to be considerate towards and avoid bothering or offending others, as well as the traditional value of “katanyu” or gratefulness towards one’s parents, teachers, and others who have protected or supported you. The Four Sublime States of Consciousness: compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equilibrium are central to Thai culture so they value not hurting or impinging on the well-being of others,
Contact With The West
At present, Professor Klausner says, there is a burgeoning civil society which wants to change the rules of the game by substituting equality and individual civil and political rights, for status; and popular participation, the rule of law and good governance, for unaccountable power.
Ms Chamnongsri laments that Thai values are not as present as they used to be. “Times change,” she says, “and there are both positive and negative influences that come with the dynamics of cultural interchange that contribute to today’s fast paced life, the breaking-up of extended families and the new values of materialism.” “Copying the ways of the West, believes Korn Chatikavanji, “will inherently destroy the Thai way of life. Politicians don’t think about happiness as much as they do about development and economic growth. Do people really want to create an ‘American way of life’ here in Thailand,” he asks? “90% of Thais would say no, so we really need to define Thainess. As Anand Panyarahchun said 15 years ago, ‘There is no Thai or Farang way. There is only the right or wrong way.’” Professor Klausner believes that Thai traditional attributes will assure that a more individualistic and egalitarian society that emerges is still one where respect, graciousness, gentility and civility prevails.
Exposure to Thai culture is a gift to those of us from the West who visit Thailand.
It is July 2005 and the end of this travel segment…I will fly back to Los Angeles from Bangkok on China Air and then on to Oregon for a month where we will repack and fly to New York on JetBlue at the end of August to sublet an apartment in Brooklyn until January 2006.