Befuddled@Kaam Pen Thai

 |  January 28, 2009

Now, we all know what khwaam pen Thai means. You learned this in your Thai language class, right? But just in case you were absent that day, it means ‘Thai-ness’ – all things Thai, all those things which have you stumped to this very day.

Or maybe not. Perhaps in your very first week you were so eager to get a handle on this, you ran right out and purchased the all-time favourite read, Thai Ways by the prolific Denis Segaller. That would have been a start. You would have learned how to wai correctly and to understand that when someone prefaced your name by khun, they were not comparing you to a masked furry animal.

Or maybe you consulted the excellent hip primer, Culture Shock, Thailand. There you would have learned why hierarchy still lingers as a major player in modern-day etiquette by reading a bit of arcana regarding the death of King Chulalongkorn’s (1853-1910) queen consort. Drowning tragically in the Chao Phraya River, just metres away from devoted subjects, no one was permitted to come to her rescue. Why? Because monarchical tradition prohibited anyone from touching royals (although tossing out coconuts as buoys would have been permissible). ‘If they lay hold of him to rescue him, they are to be executed,’

So many books, so little time

Exactly. So, why don’t you now do yourself a favour and cut to the next level. Thailand is, after all, like those nested wooden Russian dolls: open one, only to find another exact replica inside, repeat. To get you to that next ‘doll’ give some serious attention to Wondering into Thai Culture, by Mont Redmond. A long term Thailand resident, Redmond compares the country to an inscrutable dancer; what does she feel about all this? She smiles; spectators smile. ‘Good enough. Her demonstration is complete. The charming dancer turns and disappears from sight.’

As Redmond compares the dancer analogy to the Buddhist concept of Maya (illusion), you can see why I would dub this book the reflective person’s Thai Ways. Still an overview, but embellished with a lot more cultural fat around the edges, Redmond writes about Thailand as if he means it. As if he really likes it, wants you to understand it, but in the end knows that none of us farangs really will. Redmond’s stance is examined praise with thoughtful critique; a no illusions author.

To test drive the book, turn to the chapter on ‘Greetings.’ Apparently, food is not just for eating but also for saying ‘hello.’ Here’s how it worked for me: I was sitting on a friend’s front porch in a backwater village outside Lamphun, when a neighbour drove by and called out to us, ‘kin khao ruu yang?’ My friend explained that the neighbour was asking if we had eaten yet or, literally speaking, have you had rice yet. Finding this a rather personal question, I wondered, ‘can’t we just say ‘hi’? Not as sweet.

Niels Mulder’s Inside Thai Society, is similar to Redmond’s and equally informative. He’s a 30 year veteran of Thai studies with a doctorate in anthropology, but don’t let this put you off. Where Redmond presents information in a more personal style (befitting his familial roots here), embellished with his wide philosophical observations, Mulder’s small book has a very slight academic whiff to it, but most definitely not a textbook. And unlike Redmond, Mulder organises his book around ideas/concepts instead of discrete subjects.

This allows Mulder to hold forth at length on concepts that incorporate several subjects, like khwaam pen gan-eng. So-o-o-o very important to understand if this is the first time you’ve placed foot in the kingdom and will be working here. Translated as cozy, comfortable, trusting feelings of togetherness, khwaam pen gan-eng defines the ultimate relationship inside a family and, not incidentally, also the ideal workplace situation. This concept might explain why you can’t quite understand why your Thai friends have yet to invite you to their house for dinner. There is an inside and an outside to Thai culture and, as a farang, you are on the outside until deemed fit to come in.

In fact, if you’ll be working here, I would run – not walk – to get an essential book, Working with the Thais, by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy. A couple whose long experience in Thailand spans the professional fields of business, sociology, anthropology, they now conduct cross-cultural management training for multinationals. But you don’t have to be an employee here to benefit from the wisdom of this book. All farang residents have experienced frustration when we attempt to measure Thais against western standards of motivation, urgency, accountability, communication, and ability to accept feedback. My high regard for this book is only exceeded by my own mistakes while ‘working with the Thais’ before I read this book. Pay attention.

Same, same but different

Maybe a good way to start a discussion of Buddhism is with a little tale. Remember back in your home country when you would go to your favourite meditation centre? Meditating for an hour or so, then a little socialising in hopes of meeting that ‘special someone’, more meditation, and then lunch of brown rice and fresh veggies (organic of course). Afternoons spent in walking meditation followed by a short dharma talk as wind-up, with a very gentle appeal for dana as a chaser.

And you thought this was Buddhism. California dreamer, you’re forgiven. Let’s listen to a quote from Mont Redmond: ‘The world in which Thais have always lived is not where God works in mysterious ways, but where mysterious forces work in mechanical ways.’ These forces have formulas for appeasement and, in Thailand, that’s normally done with incense and a few josh sticks. And money. In rural areas, the appeasement might be a bit more exotic: a pig’s head or a strategic placement of wooden phalli or, more prosaically, just a plate of sticky rice. Or money.

But to get the real low-down on the current state of Thai Buddhism, you need to consult Sanitsuda Ekachai’s Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads. Sanitsuda is an editorial writer for The Bangkok Post and a righteous pundit about the political scene. I wouldn’t miss her weekly column on the Op-Ed pages for the world.

Keeping the Faith enlightens us, among many things, about scandals and sexuality in the Sangha, how the powerful state-controlled Sangha exerts an end-game for female nuns who want proper ordination, and the rise of new sects in response to official rigidity.

Fading smiles

In 1990, Sanitsuda compiled her first book, Behind the Smile: Voices of Thailand.

Visiting three major sections of Thailand – Issan, the south, the north – she reported on the lives of traditional villagers and how globalisation and foreign influence had changed their communities. Here, you’ll get a full understanding of those fleeting news items casually read in daily papers. For example, how commercially planted eucalyptus trees (for cash crop export) literally uprooted indigenous forests and thus the livelihood of entire communities. Need we say that villagers were not consulted?

A recent news item in the English dailies reported on fake monks and nuns being arrested in Bangkok for street begging. What’s behind this unusual situation? Not a new event _ over 15 years ago in an Isaan village, Behind the Smile related that, first, the men donned the saffron robes, then the women followed in white – all going to Bangkok to beg ‘alms.’ According to the resident monk of the village, the issue is greed and quick gain, but the villagers themselves see it another way. Jobless after the rice harvest, too old to follow the young ones into the city to drive tuk-tuks, work in factories or the sex industry, the monk business appears as a viable solution. ‘I know this is sinful and I’m afraid I’ll to go to hell,’ says one old man, ‘but everyone is doing it.’ You judge.

The world of illusion

Shall we go deeper into khwaam pen Thai? Then let’s go to Bangkok, the centre of money politics, the ultimate world of Buddhist illusion. And confusion. But over the past 20 years, a Thai scholar has stood out for her work in trying to elucidate the complexity of this illusion – Thailand’s political economy. This would be Dr. Pasuk Phongpaichit, Professor of Economics at Chulalongkorn with a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

In 1998, along with two of her colleagues, she published a seminal work that surprised the Thai establishment, Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja, exposing the extent of Thailand’s illegal underground economy. According to her research, this illegal economy is huge – conservatively equivalent to 8-13% of GNP. In studying six major illegal economic activities ‘we also uncovered a regular pattern of linkages to powerful figures in the bureaucracy, military, police, and politics who provide protection to businessmen.’ In return for this expos?, Dr. Pasuk was warned to ‘be careful’ when going out.

But perhaps Dr. Pasuk’s most popular book to date has been Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, co-authored with Chris Baker. This book and several others by Pasuk and Baker are unvarnished assessments of the nexus of Thai politics/money/corruption – the story behind the story of boom-or-bust capitalist development. Understanding Thailand’s political situation is a challenge – everyone’s befuddled, even the British Ambassador to Thailand. He was quoted in an August issue of The Bangkok Post: ‘The more you know, the more you don’t know. . . There’s always a layer below.’ Indeed.

Unlike Europe and America, Asia doesn’t have a tradition of the public intellectual – individuals like the late Michel Foucault of France or Noam Chomsky in America. These are people who straddle both the worlds of academia and public discourse, who can speak convincingly to the public at large about complex issues that affect their lives. In Thailand, perhaps Pasuk and Baker could be considered such.

There is another. A less well known individual, Sulak Sivaraksa, is a teacher, organiser, devoted Buddhist, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee who, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, maintains that any developmental goals must necessarily be imbued with human rights and equality. His book, Loyalty Demands Dissent: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist, is a fascinating and important read for anyone interested in Thailand’s current scene.

Can you go even further into a deeper understanding of khwaam pen Thai? You can. Full stop.

AUA Library has a good Thai Studies section. All books mentioned here are there.