Kreng Jai and Sanuk

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

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 waited outside the Riverside guesthouse for Nicky and M to pick me up.  On Sunday, Sanit had announced that he was hosting a goodbye dinner for me at the Airport Restaurant and that all the twenty somethings in the congregation were invited.

This was fine with me, since most of the young adults at Nong Bua Sam are female and very attractive.  What made me feel even better is that the young women got excited about the prospect of a fun outing.  And went so far as to declare that everyone should wear si faa (light blue) clothing to make the outing more fun. 

My first reaction was to get excited myself, but on the way home my anticipation got tempered by memories of Thais not doing what they said they would do.  It wasn’t that they had been malicious or deceitful.  It was, I learned, partly due to a Thai mindset called kreng jai.

I have asked many Thais to explain kreng jai to me and everyone gives me a slightly different definition.  It’s one of those characteristics which is endearing to Westerners when they first experience it and drives some of them crazy when they’re with Thais for a long time. I’m going to go with Niels Mulder’s definition.  He uses words like awareness and anticipation of the feelings of others; kindness, self-restraint, tolerance; avoidance of interpersonal irritation; putting much thought and effort into maintaining a smooth social atmosphere. (Inside Thai Society, p. 88)

If you put a negative spin on kreng jai you might describe it as not saying what you really think; telling people what you think they want to hear; avoidance of even small conflicts; fear of being an individual. 

I’ve learned that when Thais say something nice to me, they have an honest desire to make me feel good.  If you are Thai, you understand how the game works.  You understand that if Thai friends say they will take you to the beach at Pattaya on Saturday, they are showing you that they are sensitive to what you would enjoy doing, but that doesn’t mean they will actually follow up and do that.  Thais understand that an initial expression of interest in doing something is not the same as a firm commitment.  To a Westerner, it could feel like being dishonest.

Nicky and M came right on time, and we arrived at the Airport Restaurant on time.  No one else was there.  In fact, we waited for half an hour alone, and I was starving.  What’s more, mosquitoes were coming out and it was getting uncomfortably cool.  Nicky and M were working on Western time.  The rest were following Thai time.

Sanit arrived with two of the young women, and two more came later on.  That was all.  I knew Sanit would be there like he said he would.  So would Nicky and M.  They are bi-cultural enough to be able to function according to both Western and Eastern values. 

In spite of knowing that the big send off party might not materialize as advertised, I still felt some irritation.  “Why can’t these people do things the right way?” I muttered to myself and then immediately felt guilty for being so insensitive to another culture. 

Sanit, as always, was a gracious host and ordered up a banquet of delicious sea food.  Many members of Nong Bua Sam refer to him as pi (elder).  Some even say Kuhn (an even more respectful term) before his name when addressing him or talking about him, and he takes his role very seriously.  He and Jiraporn have no children yet, much like Bill Yoder, they take care of the members of the church as if they were family.

After the meal, the group wanted to have some sanuk, a concept that’s easier for me to understand than kreng jai.  It means having fun, but more than that it means having fun in almost everything you do.  Mulder calls it an antidote to the status consciousness and expectations of proper presentation in Thai society.  I have been in many situations where Thais have played the silliest games and have so much fun.  (p. 65)

I was with a youth group at a church in Nakon Protom and they decided to play a game called “bip, bop, bup.”  We divided into teams of three and when the leader pointed at a team they had to quickly stand and one would say “bip,” the next “bop,” and the third “bup.”  Then they would point to another team who would have to do the same.  When your team messed up the drill, you were out of the game, but that wasn’t a big deal, because you could still have fun laughing at how the other teams would mess up the same way your team did.

The teams were mildly competitive, but the main idea was to laugh at each other and yourself and simply have a playful good time.  The Thais are so good at this, and I’m so uncomfortable, even after eighteen years of being with them.  I feel so self-conscious, so anal as some of my friends would say.  I try.  I really try to let go of my inhibitions, but to this day I have to work hard at becoming playful.

So the group decided that to have fun, I would go around the table and ask each individual a question.  I knew the rules and tried hard to think of questions which would allow these young adults to respond with light hearted, silly answers.  But I didn’t quite get to where they wanted to be.  They were very gracious and laughed dutifully but everyone was just a little bit uncomfortable with the realization that we were dancing to slightly different rhythms.

On the one hand, the discomfort I felt made me want to return to the cultural comforts of home even more.  On the other hand, the discomfort was one more reminder of how difficult multicultural living is.  People back home proudly boast that their kids’ school is multicultural.  What they mean is that it is multiracial, which is no mean accomplishment given America’s history.

But, those who say their kids’ school is multicultural don’t seem to realize that the people of color and whose primary language is other than English have probably come 90% of the way across the bridge to facilitate the diversity and we whites have come out of our comfort zone only a few steps.  Having a day on which the children wear traditional ethnic costumes and bring their favorite food from home does not make the school’s culture “multi.”  It’s still a mono-culture as long as the kids who are from different cultures are doing 90% of the adapting.

There at the Airport Restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand the Thai people at my table were speaking English so that I could feel part of the group.  Even the worst English speaker in my group was far more fluent in my language than I was in theirs. 

Over the years I’ve received a lot of praise for being the pastor of a congregation which was 20% black, 10% Hispanic and 70% white and which had been a partner in ministry for 18 years with the Thai congregation which shared the same building.  The reality is that the only thing that I and the white members did was to open the door.  After those minority folks got inside, they did most of the hard work.

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