Nick Tarver

The pee, the nong and the wai

Aspects of Thai culture


The last article I wrote for ajarn.com was highly critical of what I termed the ‘superficial aspects' of the Thai education system. This was an unsurprising rant: if an ex-pat doesn't grumble about the local population then something's wrong. Although ajarn.com has never shirked from handing out some just criticism on Thai education and culture I felt it was only fair to balance worthy criticism with worthy praise. Consequently, I have decided to brush the "I will never be accepted as anything other than a foreigner" chip off my Farang shoulder and praise the admirable aspects of Thai culture. Now this isn't as easy as it sounds, not because choices are lacking, but because it's always easier to moan and detract, rather than praise and promote. Similar sentiments are expressed by musicians who find that the hardest songs to write are the cheerful uplifting ones, and the easiest songs to write resemble a melancholic dirge. For some obscure reason it seems more genuine and heartfelt to criticize, but bogus and dare I say ‘superficial' to praise. Nevertheless, below is a brief description of some of best and most interesting parts of Thai culture. I have declined from talking about two of the biggest pulling factors to Thailand - the beaches and the weather - as praising a culture for its geography and climate makes as much sense as damning a population for living in a country with boring geography and a poor climate, or more specifically, Belgium. Anyway, I will proceed.

The Food
I could write an essay on the various dishes of Thailand, and there are many already written, but instead, I'll limit myself to saying that it's cheap and fantastic, and without doubt deserves its reputation as a world food along side the likes of Italian, French and Indian food. Thai food is delicious (aloy mak), apart from the dessert, which is definitely disgusting (mai aloy).

Muay Thai
Muay Thai is a great sport, though I have to confess that I am biased in this appraisal. A couple of fellow teachers and I have been allowed to train in the art at the Provincial Sport College. Being a person who has in the past shunned exercise in favour of a really comfy seat, this sport has captivated my imagination, getting me off the really comfy seat and into the gym. Muay Thai is another of those classic Thai contradictions. Thailand is a country where the head of the person is most revered and should rarely be touched by anyone else. The foot of the person is seen literally and spiritually as the lowest point of the body, and the saving of face and the preservation of face of others is imperative. Yet in Muay Thai - Thailand's national sport - the aim is to put your foot (leg, knee, elbow or fist) on the head of the opponent in such a way that the opponent loses face by, er, having it broken. I may have exaggerated the violent aspect of this for pure journalistic fun, but Muay Thai remains a magnificent sport which is deeply rooted within Thai culture and steeped in a thousand years of history making it one of the oldest martial arts in the world.

The Language
The Thai language and the sound that is created when spoken, has a dual action: its squawks can either reduce a man into a quivering murderous wreck or its hypnotic tonal undulations can lull him into a blissful sleep. Therefore I commend the Thai's on having a thoroughly interesting sound to their language. Foreigners might smirk at the problems the Thai's have when speaking English by mispronouncing ‘V' as a ‘W', mixing up their ‘R' and ‘L' sounds, and pronouncing ‘S' as ‘Sa'. Does it matter though if they want to watch a ‘wideo' or that their favourite colour is ‘led', or that ‘sa-wimming' is their favourite ‘sa-port', after which they might enjoy a nice ‘i-sa-cream'. Easy to mock, hey? But, their minor discrepancies in pronunciation pale into insignificance compared to the overall mangling of the Thai language by foreigners. The tonal system is certainly a problem for non-tonal speakers. For those of you you're not acquainted with it, there are five tones when speaking in Thai: high, low, middle, rising and falling. This leaves the possibly that one word can mean five different things depending on the tone in which it is spoken. When we get a tone wrong we must sound ridiculous to say the least, as we are in genuine danger of not only mispronouncing a word but also pronouncing a completely different word from the one intended, or turning a statement into a question, or a question into a statement.

Sonkran
They certainly know how to party in Thailand. Sonkran, which takes place in April is the biggest water fight in the world. No one who leaves their house will come back dry, as the streets are lined with willing assassins armed with water pistols and buckets of iced water, and the roads are congested with trucks full of people also armed and executing drive-by attacks. It's the hottest part of the year in Thailand (which is a great time to have a water festival), but also the driest with droughts raging all over the country (which is maybe not a great time to have a water festival).

Cigarette Packs
I like the ‘old lady' and the ‘skulls', but hate the ‘intensive care man' and the ‘open chest cavity', the ‘teeth', well, they just make me laugh. For those of you who have not been to Thailand recently, the country has now become one of the few to give their cigarette packs health warnings in the form of pictures as well as words. This is obviously an attempt to try and dissuade the smoker from continuing his or her habit, but to my knowledge it has not dissuaded a single one, and has only affected the length of queue in 7 Eleven when the customer asks for a different pack then the one originally given. One counterproductive result from this measure is that it has now given each pack a certain cartoonish character of its own; turning something that should be serious information into a macabre joke. Ok, I'd be hard pushed to argue that cigarette packs are an important part of the culture, so why then have I listed this as one of the characteristics to be praised? Firstly, it's a novel feature which has only just been implemented. Secondly, Thailand is one of the first countries to introduce this measure which can certainly be viewed as groundbreaking. Thirdly, and most importantly, it is the intent of the measure and not the effectiveness that I believe is significant. In a country where change is usually small due to fear of offence, the extremeness of this measure is refreshing. Also, I have to confess I do find them quite funny.

The Smiles
"Thailand: the land of smiles". It's very hard not to agree with this slogan, as in Thailand if all else fails then smile: an excellent way to shrug off any unfortunate situation. Smiling is clinically proven to increase happiness and is also known to be infectious. Therefore, smiling can be seen as a contagious disease that increases the well being and happiness of those infected, which is certainly better than contracting bird-flu.

The Pee, the Nong, and the ‘Wai'
To ‘wai' or not to ‘wai': that is the question. The ‘wai' is a beautifully submissive greeting (the placing of both palms together in front of the face accompanied with slight bow), which I think is to the benefit of Thai culture. There are rules accompanying the position of the ‘wai' in relation to the face (the higher up the more respectful), and also who should ‘wai' whom, and who you should not ‘wai'. This is clearly a minefield for the Farang, as these ‘rules' are learnt by the Thai progressively through life. The respect for elders within Thai culture is something that is lacking within western culture. The proper term of address for anyone who is older is Pee (placed before their name), which literally translates as older brother or sister, and anyone younger is Nong, which translates as younger brother or sister. This can also be troubling for the foreigner as gauging the age of a Thai person is difficult at the best of times, and you easily risk causing offence. A general rule of thumb to go by if you are not sure of the age, is to flatter the other person by addressing the male as Pee and the female as Nong.

The above list is highly subjective and only touches lightly on certain aspects of Thai culture; anything more in depth would be a dissertation and not an article. I have refrained from mentioning Buddhism and the monarchy, which are both intrinsic characteristics of Thailand, owing to the fact that I know relatively little about these two subjects, which deserve to be covered in detail and with the up most respect, as anything less would be insulting. Above all Thai culture is unique, and it is something that the Thai people treasure, and I believe rightly so.




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