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Lessons in Life

Thailand Transforms the Way One Thinks

I lived in Thailand for nearly 10 years, yet many people--Thai and farang, or Westerners--say I remain almost unaffected by it. My spoken Thai is rudimentary, and I have never mastered the rules of daily life that govern such seemingly simple things as to whom to display the traditional Thai greeting of hands with palms together held high.

Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of my language and manners, Thailand shaped me in ways both profound and incidental. An appreciation for the architecture and a well-developed taste for Thai food were the incidental consequences; more importantly, working and socializing with Thais changed the way I thought about things.

I arrived as prickly as any newcomer, but over time I learned something of the common Thai strategy for coping with the unpleasantnesses of daily life--to be kreng jai, to be watchful of other people’s feelings; to say mai pen rai, "never mind," and to move on. Thais realize that nothing is often a good thing to do and almost always the best thing to say when confronted with a slight.

When I arrived in Thailand my values were relentlessly egalitarian. During the first days of my stay, I helped the movers carry cartons of books into my university office. I wouldn’t do that today. The well-ordered hierarchy of the Thai cultural map recognizes that to do someone else’s work is often to demean them.

Once an older friend and I, someone I address as Pi, or "older sister," were on the same flight from Bangkok to New Delhi. I had a business class ticket. Pi Yaw was booked to travel in economy. We exchanged seats because younger brothers defer to older sisters.

The acceptance of hierarchy is in part an acceptance of the way things are. If I bargained and paid 50 baht for some fruit and later found the same fruit for 10 baht, I’d complain and feel cheated. Confronted with the same situation, my Thai friends would think "What a great deal!" and buy more fruit.

Many of the Thai traits I enjoyed most are expressed in the propensity of people in Thailand to smile. Thailand is called the "Land of Smiles" for a reason. Thais smile when they are amused, of course, but they also smile when they are embarrassed, or when they are bargaining, or as a means of saying thank you, or indeed when they are in doubt about what to say or do.

The important part of Thailand’s influence is that my cultural map has been altered. I have become more kreng jai, and more inclined to say "mai pen rai." I appreciate the accord that social hierarchies can provide, and I’m more inclined to smile and accept the way things are.

I have changed since I first arrived in Bangkok, and Thailand has changed as well. The Mahidol Univ. department I joined when I arrived was staffed by a few, mostly part-time, people. Recently, walking with me across Mahidol’s new campus in Nakornpathom, Professor Boonlert Leoprapai told me that every year things at the university get better.

Professor Boonlert’s account of the steady improvements at Mahidol reflects the way many Thais view the past 25 years. The positive aspects of Thai development were a delight for those of us who lived through the country’s economic modernization. But for me Thailand’s transformation is less important than my own.

PETER J. DONALDSON lived in Thailand for nearly 10 years. He now lives in Washington, DC.

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