The limits of intimacy and the impact of Western culture

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit

Nicky and M picked me up at the Riverside B&B the day after New Year's Day, so I could worship with them at the Nong Bua Sam Church.

At the end of the service Sanit , as usual, asked me if I wanted to greet the congregation. Even though I'd been with them six times in the last two weeks, Thai courtesy demands that visitors be acknowledged.

I decided to try being funny. I did so with a little trepidation, because often in the past when I told jokes in multicultural settings, they had bombed. People from non-Western cultures just couldn't get the humor.

"I have a new name," I said and waited for Sanit to translate. Looking around at the faces of the Nong Bua Sam members, I knew that at least I had gotten their attention. "My new name is Ajahn Cha Chaa."

It took most of the people sitting in the pews a few seconds to cut through my bad pronunciation, but when they finally understood, most smiled and I think two even laughed. "Ajahn Cha Chaa—Pastor Slowly," they kept repeating. The self-deprecating humor had worked!

I then told them that their church felt like a home away from home. I had been with them so many times since 1994 and had been welcomed with such generosity and respect that I really did feel that I belonged and was safe in this place and with these people. That made them smile again.

Likewise, as we were eating lunch together after the service, they all understood my frustration at not being able to explain the concept of grace to the monk at Wat Chedi Luang. I felt comfortable being with people who viewed life through the same set of theological lenses that I did.

My feeling at home with these people, however, was tempered by an awareness which had been growing in me for years that I didn't know one single Thai well on a personal level. I had been working with Thais back in Forest Park since they began sharing our church building in 1992, and had gone on retreats and overnight trips with many of them, yet I knew little or about their personal lives or feelings.

The language barrier was hard to overcome, of course, but increasingly I was coming to think that the cultural wall was even higher. Thai culture, for example, looks down on expressions of intense emotion. To answer the question "who am I" traditional Thais look not to self-expression and finding the "real me" but to their role in the family and their status in the social hierarchy.

Dr. Niels Mulder refers to this outward looking approach to personal identity as "social presentation." He writes,
Whatever is behind the social presentation is secretive, both for the other and for the person concerned. Presentation masks the latent whirlpool of emotions and drives. These should be left alone and out of sight: they may be explosive, threatening, and no good can come from them. (Inside Thai Society, pp 90-91)

To keep all of the internal psychological magma from erupting, Thais tend to cultivate a kind of self-mastery involving two concepts: choei or remaining indifferent and chaiyen, maintaining a cool heart. (Mulder, pp. 89-91)

Whereas the primary criterion for judging a church or a family to be healthy for a Thai is the concern for everyone getting along by knowing their place in the social order, the American culture in which I am embedded keeps asking the questions, "can I be myself" and "is there closeness and even intimacy".

As my awareness of this tension increased—ie that I felt at home at Nong Bua Sam and at the same time was a farang, a foreigner--Sanit told me that a young woman nicknamed Oat would be driving me back to my guesthouse in town. I had noticed Oat during the service—cute as a bug's ear and looking to be about eighteen years old. Now, that's not saying much, because I find most Thai women to be attractive and much older than they look.

During the forty minute drive back to the Riverside B&B, Oat managed to smash some of my generalizations about Thais. First, she let me know that she was a professor of psychology at a university in Chiang Rai, a couple hundred kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Her English was quite good, which helped the communication between us.

What I experience, however, in a little more than half an hour was a Thai adult who was quite open with me about very personal matters. The daughter of a Christian pastor in Chiang Rai, she confessed to having questions about her relationship with God recently and that the sermon that day had been helpful. When I told her about my not feeling close to any Thai people, she talked freely about her own attempts at openness, intimacy and expression of emotion.

"Thailand is changing," she said. "Globalization has changed everything." Indeed, I remembered several occasions during this trip when I had seen young Thai couples holding hands as they walked down the street, something I never saw in 1994 when I first visited Thailand.

When she dropped me off at the guesthouse, she said that she had really enjoyed our conversation and gave me her professional card so we could stay in touch. As I waddled through the courtyard to my room I naturally felt good about being able to connect with an attractive Thai woman who was half my age.

It also impressed me how the new imperialism which the West brings to the East is not political but cultural. The means are not military action but the mass media.

All of this is for better and for worse. My son, who was an anthropology and archaeology major in college at the time, said that many scholars in his field are critical of Christian missionaries for intruding on a culture and trying to change it.

The irony of it all is that even though Protestant missionaries have been in Thailand since 1828, the country is still only 1% Christian. Yet, Western culture has managed to foment a cultural revolution in old Siam. Perfectly capable of resisting efforts to convert them to Christianity, Thais seem to be increasing powerless against on the onslaught of Western individualism and consumerism.

McDonalds and KFC are everywhere. Young professionals can be seen sipping cups of gourmet coffee as they negotiate the omnipresent traffic jams on their drive to workplaces in an air conditioned high rise office buildings. One monk I was talking to mentioned that he was a fan of Manchester United. When I asked him how he knew about English soccer, he replied in good English, "Oh, I watch it on satellite TV."

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