Work ethic vs life ethic
Is it possible to find the perfect balance?
It's a dog eat dog world out there and sometimes good things don't always happen to good people. In general, we have a tough time understanding why this is so, but many cultures have different ways to shrug of the stress of unfairness.
In Swahili, people say "Hakuna Matata" meaning "No Worries". In French, "C'est La Vie" translating to "That's life!". In Italian, "La merda succede" which means "Shit Happens!" . In Thailand, people say "Mai Bpen Lai" which literally translates to "Don't worry about it".
In Thailand, people here are SO easygoing. No one is ever in a rush, everyone trusts each other, it is rare to see anyone actually get mad at anything and people just seem generally relaxed. What a wonderful attitude - if we had that attitude in the West, imagine how much more content we could all just be.
Over here, when something bad happens, everyone says "Mai Bpen Lai". If someone takes your parking spot..."Mai Bpen Lai". Even if someone dies... just shrug and say "Mai Bpen Lai".
It's a great attitude because it keeps them so happy. People here are always just shrugging of the negatives of life. It sounds amazing, right?
But on the flip side, is it that complacent attitude that keeps Thailand a developing country? When business deals go awry - "Mai Bpen Lai". When people are charged with corruption - "Mai Bpen Lai". When a crappy school system is accepted and not challenged - "Mai Bpen Lai".
A fresh start
I moved to Thailand looking for a radical change - I wanted to belong to a world that didn't need material things to make them happy. I wanted to see people who truly appreciated the simple things. I definitely got the eye-opener that was needed, but rather than supporting my negative view towards our "serious" attitudes in the west, I found myself actually..... appreciating them!
There are no doubts many positives to having such a laid back attitude. It must be so refreshing and relaxing to be able to just take a deep breath, say "No Worries" and not be controlled by the negatives. I wish I could say I was that zenned out, but I still have such a long way to go.
If someone were to cut in front of me at Taco Bell and then place an order for the last Cheesy Gordita Crunch, I'd like to tell you guys that I have enough peace in me to just breath and say "Mai Bpen Lai", but the truth is I'd go ape shit crazy on the dude and probably steal his gordita after throwing hot sauce at him.
Things get done
And that's our society. We have road rage, anger management, arbitration, suing, law suits, custody battles... in the west, we are always rushed, stressed and irritable (or so the stereotype goes). We worry too much. But that sense of urgency to get stuff done (everything from business deals to personal errands) ensures exactly that - shit gets done!
The international community, business partners and colleagues who rely on us expect us to deliver on our promises. When things don't get done, it's not ok to just say "that's life". There are reports to file, things to fix and management-ass to kiss. We have to guarantee the same mistake never happens again. We have to do even better at everything around us so people don't lose faith in our ability.
This creates more stress because we are wholly accountable for our actions and whether we succeed (as individuals or as a nation) depends on us. It is because of this work ethic that the west prospers.
It's just interesting to note that it is the relaxed attitude that keeps the East "developing" while it's our go-go attitude that makes us "prosperous". The same attitude that hinders them in business allows them to be happily content with life, whereas it's our work ethic that erodes at our physical and emotional well being.
We create lives of luxury, but we're not happy. They're happy, but they don't have the attitude to work for a life of luxury. The quest to find the equilibrium is one that fascinates me.
This is one of my favourite quotes from the Dalai Lama when he was asked what surprised him the most about human nature:
"Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived."
Of course, we should try and adopt the good part of the eastern philosophy but what I've come to question is whether it is possible for us to ever truly get the best of both worlds.
We seem to always be in an internal struggle to balance our lives. Is there any way we can have it all.... Can we live in a materialistic world but still find inner peace?
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This is an imaginary version of Thailand. Look into the murder rate and then go from there. The "Mai Bpen Rai" is often just face-saving, not wanting to make a scene. Yes there is a laid back attitude from many, but you've really only scratched the surface if you think they're less materialistic than the west on the whole.
By John, Bangkok (1st November 2017)
Thai people have become just as materialistic as the West, if not more so. And what about all the man pen rais that are said just to avoid the loss of face for all involved? Not really healthy if you ask me.
By Jon Brown, Thailand (1st November 2017)
Nice to live an easy going life while living in a wealthy environment created by those with a solid work ethic.
By Jack, Online (2nd October 2012)
Take a good look around the NE of Thailand.
There's 'progress' everywhere!
By Jeff, Thailand (31st August 2012)
Very well written, Maya!
I agree that Thai people are very easygoing. Materialism has gone too far in the West. The Economic Crisis we are now facing is the consequence of our greed.
We can find a happy medium and learn to find inner peace. When you stop to think, we often cannot remember what made us angry last week. That goes to show that this little incident is not going to matter in the long run!
My favourite phrases are, "This too shall pass" and "Its not the end of the world, is it?"
By Naina Sodha, Birmingham UK (31st August 2012)
Very nicely written article. I've been here over 20 years now and Thais have changed me so much I'll never be able to return and live again in the West. The only thing I cannot "Mai Pen Rai" is when things turn dangerous and deadly; i.e. on the highways when people do crazy shi* that endangers my life. Aside from that, I can forgive and forget anything these days. My favorite Thai quote was from one of my Prathom 2 students my first year teaching. I was angry at a student from some crap he gave me the day before and wouldn't let him participate in that day's activity when another student tugged on my shirt and said (in Thai), "But teacher, yesterday is finished why are you angry today?". From then on I was a changed man. Let's hope ASEAN does not ruin this attitude and let us all lose our sense of peace and well being as I, for one, love MAI PEN RAI.
By Mr.M.Ed., Singburi (27th August 2012)
I liked this article. Although I just want to disagree, and hope that the East and West is not taken generally into the culture or mindset that it has had. Truly, Thailand has been so laid back, worry-free yet lacks real progress. I also have been staying here for quite some time. But coming from some other Asian countries too makes me want to compare that there are varying degrees of progress as depends on varying degrees of all this attitudes. And also look at what is happening on the West now, it is suffering the effects of materialism right? It is greatly in debt.
By Michael, Bangkok (21st August 2012)
This is a great blog and it really got me thinking.
One thing I don't agree with, though, is that Asians are less materialistic than Westerners. If anything, most people living in the West have become jaded with consumerism and find fulfillment giving to charities and reducing their carbon footprint. It's the Thais (and Asians in general) who are clamoring for the latest designer bag, flashy car, new iPhone and all of those other evil material things.
Don't believe me? Do a simple survey! Ask the average Thai what they think they need to be happy. If money isn't mentioned within the first 5 seconds and luxury brands within the next seconds then I'll take back everything I said.
By Dave, Bangkok (19th August 2012)
This is a great article! You summarize your complex experiences so simply, yet end on a deeply philosophical note which has left me soul searching. Thanks for writing!
By Bill C, BC, Canada (17th August 2012)
Very insightful Maya. Clearly different people have different impressions of Thai culture, and this is yours after living in your region for over a year. I wouldn't consider it naive or simplified, just as I wouldn't consider Del's or anyone else's to be pessimistic. Great work :)
By Neil, Canada (17th August 2012)
You should write a blog yourself!
Go on, you know we won't rip you to bits, LOL.
By Jeff, Thailand (17th August 2012)
Some very good theories being put forward here. I think we can all agree on one thing - Thai culture's a tough one to analyze innit?
By philip, (17th August 2012)
A very cute piece of writing but, as others have suggested, very far from the truth. It is evident that you have barely scratched the surface of the niceties of everyday life in Thailand. Actually I have rarely heard a Thai person say "mai bpen rai", and on these few occasions it has never been about anything of importance or consequence. Look a little deeper and you'll discover that it is more often than not used as excuse, but rarely as a pardon. For example, if someone hits another's car and sees only minor damage they are likely to say "mai bpen rai" BUT not the person who has been hit! They will demand some compensation or call the police. Tradesmen use the phrase more often than others, usually after the completion of a shoddy piece of work, but you can bet your life that the affected customer won't be saying it when things go wrong soon after.
I don't see Thai people as being any more laid-back than their western counterparts. We have all experienced their inability to queue and their impatience in traffic etc. The main reason for the slower pace of life here is simply that it is a hot country - similar to Italy, Spain and Greece. That coupled with the average Thai's lack of ambition can give the impression that it is a cultural thing. Not so, the main problem is that most Thais want a good standard of life, but lack the drive to achieve it. Of course there are exception, but if there is one phrase which sums up the mentality of the nation it is not "mai bpen rai" I think "arai kaw dai"(whatever) would be more accurate!
By Del, Thailand (17th August 2012)
@David in Bangkok - Isn't the antithesis of east and west one that is shared by the people in Thailand about countries in the west being part of "farangland". If that attitude is one kept where the people are allegedly more peaceful or happy then isn't it worthwhile to consider that view as possibly having some truth? I guess I'm just saying, don't be such a know-it-all dick or else write your own article.
By Calan, Chachoengsao (16th August 2012)
Great read, Maya.
Probably the first time I've ever seen something that hasn't got I KNOW SUCH AND SUCH A CULTURE BECAUSE I'VE BEEN WORKING HERE FOR 3 MONTHS all over it!
I love your inclusion of the Dalai Lama's comment.
Completely off topic, but kind of along the same lines, legendary Brit musician, Paul Weller, was once asked what he thought to being called the 'Modfather'. He replied that it was better than being called a 'c@#t'.
By Jeff, Thailand (15th August 2012)
Some thought-provoking angles here. The perspective you takes is quite myopic on one level but very deep on another.
Taking your experience of Thailand and lumping it into "the East" is a faulty generalization to make. That "go go" work ethic you speak of - what about China? Talk about "getting things done", and that's by far the biggest "Eastern" country. Your points are interesting, but speaking only from your own experience with Thailand (and the western countries your actually familiar with) would have been a more succinct approach. You could have highlighted the larger issues you point towards without turning it into this whole "the East is laid back" and "the West is busy" thing. The reality is so much more complex than that.
I think there's a lot more to "mai pen rai" than meets the eye. I certainly find your statement that "in Thailand, everyone trusts each other" to be way out of line with reality. There's so much corruption and deception in Thailand. My experience is that, while there's generosity and plenty of smiles on the surface, people are extremely skeptical and distrustful of one another when you get down to it, perhaps even more so than in the States.
Still, it's a thoughtful piece and you certainly raising some evocative deeper issues about life that transcend "East" and "West" entirely, which you exemplify in that great Dalai Lama quote.
By David, Bangkok (14th August 2012)
Have you ever been to Korea or Japan? What about Italy and Spain? Korea and Japan have the exact same "go-go" as you say, work effort and even higher work standards than some western countries.(They are eastern countries and definitely not developing countries either!) While Spain and Italy and other EU countries are very relaxed in their work habits and lifestyles. Why are you romanticizing the entire east as this zen like place? Additionally, how many Thai friends do you have in politics and business here. It is not all mai bpen rai...Yes situations like deadlines and organizational things tend to get the common mai bpen rai attitude and yes Thais can tend to be very relaxed and easy going, but this is as much to do with saving face and knowing how to bend the rules. When it comes to money and business it's not so easygoing and is extremely demanding and stressful. Capitalism is Capitalism no matter where you are. I am shocked that you can write Thailand off as a place where everyone is happy with getting nothing and we don't need material things...hmmmmm? Thailand is ranked as a "newly industrialized country" for a reason and not because we say mai ben rai for everything. If you don't think Thais want or need material things I don't know what Thailand you are living in. From cars to clothes brand names are everywhere here, even in very remote places.
Anyway, just wanted to ask a few questions and give my opinion about the subject.
Check out this book "Orientalism" by Edwars Said...in it reads: "A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies. This discourse establishes "the East" as antithetical to "the West"
By Tyler, Bangkok (14th August 2012)
Good to read your views. I am an English lecturer teaching at a government university in Thailand. Moved to Thailand from Kolkatta in 2002, been teaching since then and there has been no looking back. What a great country to be in. So much to learn from the Thais and am still learning.
No matter how distressed,upset,disappointed or angry one is the Thais have the beautiful inner spirit to see positivity in negativity. What a great attitude. I smile more often and take life as it comes. I am so happy and thankful to be where I am –in The Land Of Smiles.
By Sudharani Subramanian, Mahasarakham,Thailand (13th August 2012)
Great work Maya. You should write more of these things.It is always interesting to read about your new experiences. Keep it up. Very proud of you.
By Nayna, Ontario (13th August 2012)
"Can we live in a materialistic world but still find inner peace?"
If you replace 'we' with 'I' in that question and then "live the question" - as Rilke suggests in Letter to a Young Poet - you may eventually find out. And if you can do it, than you'll have the best possible answer to the impossibly idealistic original question asked.
By Matthew, New England (13th August 2012)
Interesting angle on Work-Life-Balance. Some work places in the western society encourage this via flexible working hours. Yet expectations to perform and excel while coping with other stresses simultaneously is becoming a norm rather than exception. Raising kids, long commutes, peer pressures, financial issues in a faltering economy, and yes, trying to keep up with the Jones (!), all contribute to the pressures of a modern society. It may take more than a generation to make any dents in the current situation. You raise an important debate on which you would prefer - Western World with its luxuries and stresses or Developing World with less emphasis on material things and more contentment!
By Gita Lakhani, Markham, Canada (13th August 2012)
While visiting Thailand last year, I heard of a "Mai Bpen Lai" attitude that Maya describes so aptly.
An American living there told me: If the workers build your roof and the two ends at the top do not meet, i.e. the roof is crooked, when you complain they simply say - Mai Bpen Lai! I thought that was cute.
By Dinesh, Somewhere in Canada (13th August 2012)
Excellent read...I just came back last month from spending 37 days in Thailand....my main reason for going was for Muay Thai training (been doing it for 6 months here in US)...but I also went to clear my head since I just completed my MBA part-time while also juggling a full time job on Wall St. Needless to say, I was pretty stressed out and my doc for past year kept asking me about my coritsol levels everytime we did blood work..."no i'm not stressed out, this is normal..." Being there and experiencing the Thai people and culture helped my mental training...i slowed myself down and started taking Qigong meditation classes out there...Now that I'm back to the "rat-race" I'm trying to carry with me the "Sabai-sabai" attitude and not get so stressed out...u dnt see me running to the subway stop or getting all pissy when the sheep-tourist are clogging the sidewalk. The biggest test is not letting these Wall. St pr1cks ruin my day or get me stressed out...I plan on moving back to THailand in Jan to live perm...trying to setup digital marketing gig w/ the people I networked with.
By Christopher Chiu, NYC/ NJ (13th August 2012)
I would never EVER consider crossing you at a Taco Bell, just saying.
I hope you continue to find happiness in life. Life can be so beautiful if you take time to enjoy the simple things.
By Candace MacKenzie, Canada (13th August 2012)
An important topic about balancing life, touched in a very balanced way. This is food for thought to all: miss the balance and miss happiness. Very well done Maya.
By Surendra D. Dattani, Canada (13th August 2012)
Great comparison with the advantages and drawbacks of the proactive mindset that we have here in the West.
Makes me wonder whether the "progress" we make here is worthwhile with the peace of mind that it costs. At the same time, it would be tragic if human civilization became stagnated for the sake of the same
peace of mind..
I definitely agree that it's a matter of finding a balance.
Side note: Love the analogy where someone cutting you off in line can change you from a sophisticated human being to a hot sauce flinging primate.
By Ashok, Toronto (13th August 2012)
Great outlook. You notice people look so much happier in thatose parts of the world....less stressed.
By Dipak Dhrona, Toronto, Canada (13th August 2012)
Another good post by Maya. Thought-provoking and laced with humor. It is only by experiencing new cultures and challenging our own values that we grow as a society. Well done Maya.
By Dinesh, Somewhere in Canada (13th August 2012)
I really enjoyed this article because it's a question I've pondered during my time teaching in Thailand and now currently in South Africa. A little generalized but it does get at some truths about our different cultures. I liked the dali lama quote as well. Keep up the good work!
By Zack, (13th August 2012)
Enjoyed reading that Maya. That was just my kind of blog. I'm fascinated by any topic that is about making life more enjoyable and less stressful. I guess it's because I'm almost 50 and slowing down a bit LOL
I think you're always going to have type A people and type B people in the world. In every country. The type A people get frustrated by the type Bs and often vice versa. I've morphed into more of a 'go-with-the-flow, 'manyana' type person over the last half a decade. And now I see people with cell phones stuck to their ear, checking their watches, dripping with sweat in the midday sun as they try and juggle appointments around, and I think "was that really me?"
I'm reading an interesting book at the moment by an American guy who improves the quality of his life by only possessing a maximum of 100 items. Again, it's all about 'decluttering' and 'destressing'. There's a hell of a lot to it.
Can you ever find the perfect balance? Such a tough question.
By philip, (13th August 2012)