Generosity and Repayment in Thailand
How many times have we read Stick’s warning of the perils of “cultural differences” between Thais and westerners? Yet we still read many stories where the western writer becomes confused and befuddled by some Thai person or situation. I have written my fair share in this genre. So maybe it’s time to take a step back and really try to understand Thai culture vs. trying to understand the Thai person. Maybe a little more knowledge of the former will help with the latter?
So what is culture? The best definition I found is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” Many of us have certainly been witness to Thai behaviors and are still clueless. So let’s look a little closer at the beliefs and see where this leads.
First, can we all agree that most Thais view the world in a completely different way than we do in the western world? My wife actually brought this to my attention some years ago. She couldn’t explain it, but since then, I think I am starting to understand. To me it’s very much like the movie Rashomon where different characters have different narratives of the same incident. At first, we might think these characters are lying, stupid, or delusional. But if you accept that different people can have different ways to of looking at the same event, then maybe we can understand the dilemma we westerners have in Thailand.
Second, for the purposes of this article, can we all agree that when I use the term Thai people, I am not referring to Thai people outside the mainstream of Thai society, like bar girls, pimps, gangsters, dope dealers, or other outsiders? These people, like in our own societies, are outcasts and operate by rules outside the mainstream of Thai society. Also, some Thai people have different rules for foreigners, like they were beyond the rules of society who can be exploited at will. Yet with other Thais, though, all the rules apply. Or Thais who have so much money, they believe they are a society apart. So, for next few minutes, squint your eyes to clearly see the fuzzy thing I call the Thai mainstream.
I am far from an expert on Thai culture, yet I know there are many moving parts here that are invisible to westerners. One, of course, is “face” which causes Thai people to do almost anything to avoid confrontation and blame. Without having to understand it, most westerners in Thailand quickly learn this and adjust their actions accordingly. A much harder item to understand is the concept of nam jai. It literally means “heart Juice” but a better definition is “generosity”. We westerners also value this quality, but to Thais, it may be the defining value of any person in Thai society. A gross example is when a Thai person gives large sums of money or “merit” to a Thai temple. But the vast majority of it happens in everyday Thai interactions. The friendly words, offers of help, and the always big Thai smile. Sure, some of this masks ill will or conflict avoidance, what some would call a false façade. No matter, it is still the outward display of nam jai.
Here’s how it works. You are a Thai person and have been the fortunate recipient of someone’s generosity. Do you bask in the glow of your good fortune? Maybe a little, but you also have made a huge mental note that you owe this person and are already thinking of ways you can repay their kindness. This repayment, or sam-nuek-boon-koon, is the showing of your gratitude for their generosity. Both nam jai and sam-nuek-boon-koon are equally important, such that anyone who has not displayed enough of either soon find themselves without many friends in Thai society. These concepts have been a part of Thai culture for a long time; perhaps back to the time Buddhism was introduced. As Thailand is only a recent adherent of written laws, some believe these concepts were for many generations, the unwritten laws that formed the glue of Thai society. It remains so today.
Years ago, I wondered how a very poor water buffalo herder was able to survive. He worked the farms near my girlfriend’s house, lived in a shack, but seemed healthy and happy enough when I met him. He must have been paid very little money as the farmers themselves were not doing well. Then my girlfriend told me he survived mostly by the generosity of the community, a free place to live, food donated by farmers, a cut of the harvest, free medical treatment at the clinic, etc. In return, he and his buffalo could always be counted on for any work that needed to done. I didn’t understand it at the time but now I think it was through this ancient barter system of generosity and re-payment he was able to survive. Some years later, the tsunami hit Thailand and the NGO’s gathered their resources and prepared to help Thailand. When they arrived weeks later, they were amazed to find the Thais had recovered faster than they had expected. How did a 3rd world country, with so many impoverished people, perform this minor miracle? Did Thai citizens seize the opportunity to display nam jai on a massive scale? I believe so.
Looking back on 8 years of living with my Thai wife in America, I remember all the times my wife handed me the check when we went out to dinner with her friends. They were mostly service workers struggling to get by in America. But I happily did it for my wife and did not think much of it. A few years ago I broke my collar bone and went through a series of operations that laid me up for weeks. All of a sudden, I had a steady stream of Thai people I barely knew, dropping off food, offering me rides, and generally offering me any help I needed. Were they eager to repay an earlier generosity? I believe this as well.
Now I understand that all those times my wife handed me the check, she was really giving me an opportunity to display nam jai. Then her friends helped me after my accident, displaying sam-nuek-boon-koon. Then I helped her friends with small errands or bought loads of supplies for the Thai temple. Then they invited us to their birthday parties. And on it goes. Having shown myself to be a player in this system of give and receive, I am now a “good” person in the local Thai community. And my wife has good “face” for marrying me.
I know this scenario may describe any “good” person in any society, but I think it’s much more important in Thailand. If you show kindness to a Thai person, they REALLY do want to find a way to repay you. So how do you know if you’re a sucker for picking up checks for your Thai friends? You won’t at first, unless you are silly enough to be doing this for “outsiders”, in which case you are a sucker. But if you start to notice these friends have found ways to repay you, then you have hit gold. But that’s the real fun of Thailand – trial-and-error, discovery, insight – with people who by their very nature, are looking for ways to be generous.
Nam jai does indeed mean generosity, but with no expectation of getting anything in return. This is a key part of it and I think partly explains why some foreigners feel there can be a lack of gratitude in Thailand when they do a local a good turn. With that said, there is indeed a willingness on the part of good Thais to be good to or help out those who have been good to or done them a good turn.
With boon-koon, it's the gratitude and eternal debt to those who raised you – which usually means parents – but in the case of those who were raised by relatives then the boon-koon is to those relatives.