I’d like to examine the typical grievances Westerners share when living in Thailand. In attempting to find a common thread through these complaints, it seems to me the traits that westerners find so unpalatable often originate from, or are side-effects of, the average Thais’ fundamental reluctance to make an effort. By ‘effort’ I mean expending energy for non-sanuk ends. It seems they want to either have fun, or be static – in both body and mind. And while we can all identify with the urge to do nothing, I think we struggle to accept their reluctance to even think.
In time this tendency cripples their analytical skills and leaves them with little appetite for debate. Any attempts to engage them in discussion will tax this mental weak point, causing them to flip-flop this way and that as they seek to deflect attention or throw us off track. This frustrates the average farang no end who may end up ranting and raving in a futile attempt to conduct what he feels is a sensible debate.
To Thais, this agitation is symptomatic of that most grave of errors, ‘thinking too much’, which in turn provides safe grounds for them to dismiss us as hopelessly jai-ron and end the discussion forthwith.
Discussions like these can leave farangs feeling we’ve hit a brick wall, and in many ways maybe we have. We tend to automatically assume this wall as just another part of the age-old East-West divide, but it may in fact stem from reasons far more mundane.
Here is a recent experience to illustrate my point: I am the only Westerner in an office of Thais. While they are all good people and we make an effort to get along, there is nonetheless a big culture gap that prevents our friendship becoming more intimate. Still, we say hello every day, buy each other sweets, and generally do our best to keep the distance between us warm. Every couple of months or so the company will attempt to foist some tedious training course on us, and on one such occasion I approached a Thai colleague to cast around for possible ways of escape. My relationship with this particular person was always civil but certainly not close, however, as I conspiratorially slunk up beside her and dropped some hints about skiving off, I was amazed to find that despite my broken Thai she instantly perceived what I was up to and her eyes began to sparkle. The yawning gap between us fell away and we were suddenly thick as thieves; my colleague and her group had indeed been working on an escape plan, and they welcomed me into their little scheme. For a few moments there was unspoken communion between us and I was one of the gang.
The next day it was back to work the gap returned, but the experience helped me better understand what keeps us apart. If we could truly embrace the Thai way and stop being so busy all the time perhaps we would be better accepted by them, regardless of the culture gap between us. Unfortunately we farang will insist on thinking too much, and that always spoils things in the end.
But as westerners we are much more result-orientated, and feel uneasy when things don’t have a ‘point’. Any teacher in Thailand will have their own tales of schools bending rules to the point of farce in order to save the poor student the effort of having to actually study. They all seem comfortable with the charade, providing nobody rocks the boat, but it often leaves the farang wondering what the point is. This confusion may lead to further jai-ron episodes, which only serve to spook the locals and push us father apart.
I’d also like to make an observation on the modernisation Thailand is undergoing, and the affects of this on the rural Thai.
Looking to the future of the country, I’m sure everyone agrees the onus is on Thailand to adjust its thinking in order to better align itself with the industrial aspirations it holds. But this is easier said than done, and may force them to leave behind rural traditions and negate the values with which they were raised.
Another example: I was taking a break at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, and one morning her father disappeared into the surrounding mountains to hunt. He returned later that evening with a pig he’d shot, and the whole family were delighted – the pig was worth a lot of money, my girlfriend exclaimed, and would feed us for weeks to come. To celebrate, a party was hastily arranged and the neighbours were invited. That night they all rolled up and proceeded to eat said pig while getting slowly paralytic. By midnight the pig was gone, the garden was littered with unconscious peasants, and the local shop had been drunk dry.
In the morning I raised the issue with the family, but they just shrugged in resignation. It was traditional they said, and would be considered selfish to keep the pig for themselves. While this tradition may have worked in days of yore, I couldn’t help thinking it no longer makes sense when the guests drink their weight in beer and run up a five figure bar bill.
To be fair it’s not just the farang and the pig that get the bum deal at times like this – even if I wasn’t there, there would still be nearby shops in which to spend far more than the pig was worth, rendering the whole exercise pointless.
But rural Thais love to forage and hunt, whether it makes sense or not. The girls spend hours poking and beating bald trees, while the boys creep through the jungle in search of increasingly paranoid foul. Deep down they must realise it no longer makes economic sense, but they cling to it as part of their identity and way of life.
It can be a little sad to watch these people struggle with the realisation their traditional lifestyle is fast becoming redundant, and you wonder if it’s really for the best. But for better or worse Thailand is changing, and they may soon have to let go of their old ways of thinking or risk being left behind.
Going back to my original point: Why are Thais so loathe to make an effort? As obvious as it may sound, I put it down to nothing more than the weather. We all know what it’s like here – try doing anything energetic and sooner or later the weather will grind you down. We’ve all at one time been that farang stomping up and down Sukhumvit, attempting a brisk walk while sheets of sweat course down our bodies and our shirtsleeves cling to our arms. How long before we give it up? Maybe six months tops. Thais have had to put up with this from the very start – with no air-conditioned shopping malls to offer relief. It’s only natural any race forged under such sapping heat is bound to become accomplished at taking it easy in both body and mind.
Granted it’s hardly the most original point I’m making, but I often feel that the weather factor is too easily dismissed in our efforts to explain the Thais’ work ethic and mental sloth. We were all hostage to our environment and must finally yield to its superior strength. The Thais have found a compromise that works for them, and who are we to criticise that?
This compromise is best summed up in two expressions farang know all too well: the first is yah kit mahk which translates as ‘don’t think a lot’, but in reality means ‘don’t think’. In other words, whenever you hear this it means ‘whatever you’re thinking about, stop it (and don’t start again)’.
The second expression is that old chestnut mai pen rai. This is often translated as ‘it doesn’t matter / never mind’, to which you could also add ‘who cares / whatever / fuck it’ as harsh but fair equivalents.
Now let’s face it, with maxims like these as keystones in your world-view, it’s hardly surprising nothing gets done.
Bearing these points ready to mind helps me better understand the Thai mindset and the forces that shape it, while also helping to keep the toys in the pram when things don’t go according to plan.
I have to say that when I am back in my corner of Farangland (where of course it is much, much cooler than it is here) I feel more energetic and simply get more things done. Yep, there is something in what you say!