Mai Pen Rai: A Remarkable Journey in Thailand
You have to admit there are a lot of trash books in the “Thailand” section of any book store around the world. If you are like me, an unabashed Thai-ophile always looking for the next new Thai book, I am always confronted with some silly manuscript written by someone who never set foot in Thailand or, if they did, it was in a boozy glow of wonder. Some time ago, I noticed a book with a cutesy title and a colorful glossy cover. Skeptically, I picked up the book and started to examine it. Thus was the context, some years ago, when I first encountered the book “Mai Pen Rai – Means Never Mind” by Carol Hollinger. The cover was pleasant enough with smiling Thai children in a boat, but when I read the subtitle, “An American Housewife’s Honest Love Affair with the Irrepressible People of Thailand”, I jammed the book back in shelf and debated whether I should immediately run to the restroom and wash my hands.
Fast-forward to a month ago. Desperate for some iPad reading material to keep me occupied as I chugged away on a cycle at my gym, I downloaded an anthology of articles on Thailand titled, “Travelers’ Tales: Thailand”. This is a tome of ancient stories that were way past their “best before” date but the writing was smooth and the stories were mildly interesting. One day, about halfway through the book, I realized the article I was reading was truly insightful about today’s Thai people. After I finished, I checked where it came from and was shocked to find its source was “Mai Pen Rai”. I tried to order it from Amazon and found it new for $85 US. Yikes! I ended up finding a European seller for a more reasonable $10 US. After it arrived and I read the first chapter, I knew I had made a horrible mistake in that bookstore so many years before.
Her book began as an idea for a master’s thesis, which made the subtitle more than a little silly as this was no book written by mere American housewife on a trip abroad. Carol’s husband worked in the American embassy in Bangkok and the time was the mid-60s. The Vietnam War was going full tilt. With the embassy jammed with CIA, one can only suppose what his real job was. Carol is soon immersed in the social life of an embassy wife; surrounded by servants and amahs, going from one party to another to listen to other embassy wives drone on about “the Thais”, who they consider coming from another planet. Quickly bored and desperately wanting to know more about the exotic world she now lived in, she finds work as an instructor at Chulalongkorn; her entrance into Thai society. There is something intriguing about “the Thais” and now that she has direct access to real Thais, she wants to find out who they really are.
Her thesis, which was supposed to examine the Thai phrase “mai pen rai” (hence the title) soon turns into a journal of her Thai experiences. She was in a 3rd world country but she knew the Thais were more than the uneducated mass her peers thought them. The Thais she met at every social level were shrewd and knowledgeable and very much beyond her initial expectations. Undaunted, she moves further away from the safe embassy enclave to discover the real Thailand. As she does, she not only learns more about the Thais but also about her peers. Looking from outside the fish bowl, she is equally critical of the embassy clique as well as her Thai hosts. But it is her quest to learn about the Thais that consumes her and her stories. Written in a clear voice of intelligent observation, much as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about early America, Carol Hollinger’s stories examine the Thais without prejudice but without mercy as well. And as de Tocqueville’s comments on the early Americans still ring true today, so too do Carol’s on today’s modern Thailand.
Here are some examples of her writing. Having decided to venture forth into Thai society, she soon realizes her knowledge of Thailand will not come easy.
“After a few safaris out amongst the Thais, I realized that integration had its hazards. Not in danger, but in a bewilderment so intense that you had to give with the culture or avoid it. Adrift in a muddle of six-feet wide shops, festivities only dimly comprehended, towering, colorful heights of mysterious merchandise, staring Thais, and a cacophony of unintelligible din, the American has the sensation of struggling through a nightmare where all familiar symbols have vanished. In this environment, a search for a paper of bobby pins is as harrowing as an effort to keep yourself in heroin would be in America. No road is straight in Bangkok and the most ordinary pursuit has the habit of ending in extraordinary chaos.”
Carol’s journey was obviously getting off to a shaky start. But to readers who are now well traveled in Thailand, do you remember your first foray into the streets of Bangkok? Mine was similar to Carol’s, like I was a Stranger in a Strange Land. But she persevered, recording the unusual education practices at Chula and her interactions with all the interesting Thai people she met. Though she desperately wanted to know more about Thailand, she realized she was up against great odds.
“I was a foreigner … a farang. I peered through a glass darkly and I understood nothing. I felt drowned, battered, besieged, and intimidated by the Thais. A dark world loomed between me and the safe paths of tourists, and the cultured haunts of the diplomatically immune.”
She recognizes what she sees in Thailand may not be what is actually happening. The dark world is the deep gulf between western and eastern cultures. Does she dare enter, leaving behind the safety of the diplomatic community? Luckily for her readers, she decides to go forward with eyes wide open and recording every wonderful detail. What follows are some terrifically written adventures at Chula, her ex-pat life, and even her short stint as a fortune teller. But as she nears the end of her journey, she abandons narrative to make her personal views on her Thai experience perfectly clear. Commenting on what was publicly printed about Thailand, she wrote this.
“Current reports are equally suspicious. After meeting the correspondents and the men responsible for the stories in our most respected newspapers, I regard everything in print as suspect. It isn’t because I think I know more; I am simply aware of how little anyone knows… I am merely pointing out a complexity largely unrealized by the American public. You have to be God to distinguish truth from fiction in Thailand. And on second thought, I think God might have difficulty unless he was Thai.”
This statement still resonates today. Consider all the different viewpoints about Thailand written by westerners, especially those in this forum. Which are right and which are wrong? Who really knows? Maybe not even the Thais themselves. So Carol has recognized that the first step to understanding Thailand is to recognize you don’t know anything at all. In the next paragraph, she lays it out as plainly, even starkly, as she can.
“American matrons, who played bridge all day long with other American matrons, discussed the Thais with the utmost authority. After all, they were there weren’t they? I found myself, up to my ears in Thais around the clock, growing ever more confused. In no way but the most superficial did I ever understand the Thais. No westerner comprehends an Oriental country because he has lived there a few years. Even those who spend a decade or so in the East, and who “go (ostentatiously) native,” are deluding themselves if they claim to understand the country. The delusion is complete if they think they are accepted by the Asians. Orientals are the worst snobs on earth. You are called a farang (white foreigner) by the Thais the first day you set foot on Thai soil, and the term will still apply if your face is white although you remain a score of years. In the most familiar situations, the unfathomable will suddenly arise, a specter to confront the smug who believe themselves assimilated. Even those who learn to speak fluent Thai find that their real friends are either Western educated or from the upper class. There are few exceptions, but very few.”
When I read her “American matrons” sentence I thought of all the foreign ex-pats who spend their days on Sukhumvit and their nights in the bars. But because they have been in-country for many years, they are the experts on Thailand. Carol is not angry at the Thais, who hide the truth of Thailand behind a smile, she is angry at the pompous foreigners who refuse to leave their familiar enclaves and venture out into the real Thailand.
This paragraph made me remember a job interview I had early in my career. After talking about what I thought was a glorious first 5 years of computer programming, my interviewer dryly asked did I have 5 years’ experience or 1 years’ experience 5 times. It is a lesson I have never forgot. Knowledge is accumulated, not re-experienced over and over again. Anyone can move to Thailand and learn to live on the edge of their society, but do you really understand what is going on? In the end, I believe we westerners are mere spectators to the spectacle that is Thailand. If you recognize your place, it can be quite an experience, as Carol’s book shows. Demanding more can destroy the illusion.
I am not the first to discover the genius of Carol’s writings. Others have preceded me and have asked the obvious question. Who is she and why are there no other books? Looking as much as one can in Google, the only thing I can find is a short blurb on ThaiOasis.com. Apparently, after returning to America and writing her book, Carol succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at age 45 and did not live to see her book published. It must have been a great loss to her family but it was also to those of us who appreciated her clear-eyed observations and writings. Mai pen rai.