By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com 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 OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I woke up on Saturday morning knowing that I needed to buy a gift for Kampan and M. They had been gracious hosts when I had arrived in Chiang Mai a month earlier. I wanted to say thank you to them for letting me sleep in their home for five days and knew that they would never accept money. Since I would be leaving Chiang Mai the next Thursday, the next day at Nong Bua Sam Church would be my last chance to express my gratitude.
Giving gifts is a very Thai thing to do. Perhaps more than alcohol, feeding people and giving them gifts is the social lubricant in the Land of Smiles. I called Nicky and asked her what would be an appropriate gift. She said flowers or a fruit basket would be nice, and then she added that Kampan would also appreciate me praying for her.
Nicky’s suggestion made sense to the small part of my brain that had some understanding of Thai culture. I had been working with the Thai congregation back home for 18 years and had been to Thailand seven times now and was no longer embarrassed by the number of gifts showered on me.
During that time I had been given eight Thai dress shirts--one of them hand made out of silk by a tailor in Chiang Mai—and six polo shirts. I had been taken out to dinner at fancy restaurants. One, The Gallery on the banks of the Mae Ping in Chiang Mai, boasted that Hillary Clinton had dined there. My condo was decorated with wood carvings, vases, a statue and a royal flag, all of which had been given to me as presents. Two years after I began working with the Thai congregation, they gave me an all expenses paid 17 day educational trip to Thailand with a three day stop in Tokyo.
At one point I had said to Pongsak, the pastor of the Thai congregation in Forest Park, “I never give you and Monta presents, but you keep giving them to me.”
His face took on a serious look as he replied, “I know, I know, and I don’t expect anything from you. It’s not part of your culture, except on special occasions like Christmas or birthdays. But, I’m a Thai, and I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t give you gifts and take you out to eat.”
What Pastor Pongsak touched on had been one of the major themes in my nearly two decade long relationship with the Thai congregation. When I was with them or in Thailand, I was constantly bumping up against behaviors and attitudes which, frankly, sometimes irritated me or made me feel uncomfortable.
One source of discomfort for me was that Thais tended to look outward for personal orientation in life, while Westerners are conditioned to look inward. Detective Sonchai in Bangkok Eight put it this way as he tried to explain how Thai culture worked to an American: “There are cultures of guilt and cultures of shame. Yours is a culture of guilt, mine is one of shame.”(p. 246)
One example of this outward orientation is the Thai obsession with face. Anthropologist Niels Mulder wrote, “The Thai person is highly involved with his presentation. . .as a means of achieving acceptance and status. . . .Often, it appears that outward acceptance spells inner security, and that the distance between one’s accepted presentation (‘face’) and one’s emotional self is small.”
This looking to others for validation and identity results in a cultural characteristic called krengchai which, according to Mulder, is an “awareness and anticipation of the feelings of others.” “Krengchai behaviour manifests itself in kindness, self-restraint, tolerance, and the avoidance of interpersonal irritation.” Many people I’ve talked to attribute krengchai to the rural roots of Thai culture where maintaining a harmonious social atmosphere is paramount.
When I first became involved with the Thai congregation and then made my first trip to Thailand, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Here I was surrounded by people catering to me and trying to anticipate my every need. The more I was with them, however, the more I became frustrated by the lack of intimacy in our relationships. Conversations never got to the level of “how do I feel about that.” I didn’t feel like I “really knew them.”
The irony of my frustration is that I had been raised in a German-American culture in Wisconsin in which self-control was one of the highest virtues, and I had invested many years and thousands of dollars on psycho-therapy in an attempt to get in touch with my inner SELF and learn how to express my feelings. A joke I often told to explain what growing up was like for me goes: “Did you hear about the German who loved his wife so much that once he almost told her?”
Buying a gift for Kampan and M was one of those Thai customs which I didn’t find irritating. In this case, my instincts and Thai culture sang in harmony.
As I made my way through the tropical courtyard from my room to the breakfast area, I decided that I would walk to the Rimping Market later in the day. It was only a block away, and I could do my shopping for Kampan on the way home from dinner at my favorite mom and pop restaurant.
As I enjoyed my breakfast of fresh papaya, pineapple and those sweet four inch long bananas, I struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to me. Turns out they had been living in Beijing for seven years and had come to Chiang Mai for some R & R and continuing education. When I admitted to still feeling like a learner in Thai culture after so many years, they laughed and said that even after seven years of living in China, they felt the same way.
I had heard those same words from many people during my travels, but I needed to hear them again. It’s like I had them in my head but couldn’t get them into my gut. Hearing someone who shared my experience of reality somehow freed me to feel OK about being a permanent learner in a foreign culture.
My conversation with those ex pats at breakfast made me recall what Dr. Ian Corness had written about living and working as a farang in Thailand. As he talked about his inability to figure out Thai women, he wrote,
“It is back to the ‘the more you know, the less you understand’ situation, as is always the case with farangs attempting to comprehend the convoluted Thai culture. . . .As a foreigner living here, you have to be prepared to drop your own preconceived ideas. Unless you have grown up in the village, speak Thai as your first language, and understand the Thai family culture, you will never, ever, really know. As my [Thai] wife says, ‘Farang, they think too much.’ (Farang, Thailand through the eyes of an ex-pat, pp. 229-230)
As I thought about always feeling a little disoriented and slightly off balance in Thai culture, I realized how much I depended on the perspective of Western writers who “knew” Thailand better than I did to help me, if not understand this foreign way of life, to at least find some sense of equilibrium.
Kimberly, the FBI agent with whom Detective Sonchai was working in Bangkok Eight, was trying to explain to her temporary colleague how she felt after only a few weeks in Thailand, when she said, “I guess culture shock is more powerful than anyone realizes. . . .I’ve never felt that way before, like being in a place with no references.” (Burdett, p. 221)
Twenty-four pages later, she articulated how I still feel sometimes even after having been with Thais for eighteen years:
You know, back in my country I’m accustomed to thinking of myself as a pretty bright person. Then for a few days over here I wondered if I’d been deceiving myself, and maybe I was a pretty dumb person. I got over that when I realized I was just suffering from culture shock, that everyone is dumb outside their own frame of references. (p. 245)
I realized that many years ago I had moved out of the “tourist stage,” that almost intoxicating feeling people get when they first visit Thailand that everything there is exotic, dreamy and beautiful. The honeymoon had ended for me years ago, and, as with most relationships, there had been times of disillusionment. Letting go of illusions is a wonderful antidote to disillusionment. Now, whenever I begin to feel irritation rising in my spleen, I try to say to myself what Thais often say to each other, “Mai pen rai,” i.e. never mind or no problem or no big deal.
I also realized that Thailand wasn’t home. I found myself thinking more about hamburgers and pizza, watching football on Sunday afternoons, feeling affection from my kids when I visit them, talking about feelings in my Thursday evening men’s group and being in a place where, for at least some of the time, I would intuitively understand what was going on around me.