|  May 27, 2013

Kreng jai. This ubiquitous verb is uniquely Thai, though its sentiments (in spite of Thailand’s claim to it), are universal. The word itself can be interpreted into many layers of meaning, but roughly it is expressed as a kind of self-conscious awareness of others, a sense of consideration, manners, fear of imposition or respect. Better writers than me have tried and failed to succinctly define it, and frankly I think it would be hubris to attempt to peg such a morally and socially complex word. But we Thais all know what it means and most of us claim to be proud practitioners of this so-called national trait.

Along with millions of other Thai kids, I was taught to be kreng jai.  Always be kreng jai towards your elders, my teachers lectured. Be mindful of your actions and feel kreng jai of how they affect others, said my mother. Basic manners and social norms, really.

Outwardly, my generation and perhaps those which preceded me, were Generation Kreng Jai. We wai-ed our elders with deference, we didn’t impose ourselves or our values upon situations where they would not be appreciated, we made sure that those around us were shown due respect and modesty and manners were drilled into our psyches.

So, it came as a shock a few years back when I was interviewing some young graduate for a job and he – gasp! horror! – didn’t wai me. I received a head nod instead. Since I ban my staff from wai-ing me (after all, I see them every day, and it can become a tedious and redundantly automated action), I shouldn’t have felt such affront. But I did. I felt disrespected and began to have doubts as to the character of this person.

In spite of the inauspicious introduction, it was a good solid hire and he has proven himself over the years to be a highly competent, hard worker who is kind, considerate, and respectful. He simply no longer conforms to traditional social constructs. I feel that perhaps he is imbued with a deep sense of kreng jai without having adopted society’s typical standards of it.

In the days when we lived in a smaller society, where communities were tighter, kreng jai was infused into everyday life. It was also simple to understand. We all knew our place in the social strata, as we knew how we were to interact with others according to their place in the social strata.

Today, as society has become less homogenous and more heterogeneous, traditional structures have been broken down. People leave their villages, the poor refuse to stay poor, women dare to have ambition, ridiculously young upstarts gain success and the previously respected elders act so shamelessly it is hard to extend them any genuine respect, let alone any overt sign of it: see how the politicians today are constantly in a bluster about the new generation daring to oppose them, people having the audacity to protest against them and the media having the affront to question their actions. “It’s not kosher [my sic]; it’s not how things used to be!” they splutter and whine.

Kreng jai as we know it is dying. Thai culture courses still teach it as one of the first lessons to understanding culture, but frankly, they are far behind the times and no longer understand that kreng jai today doesn’t necessarily have to equate the outward manifestations of yore. And facts remain that many Thai people today are driven by other factors than kreng jai in their daily interactions.

Outmoded ideas of how a certain sex, those of any given age, people from each region or social strata are supposed to interact with others have been blown out of the water, decimated by the new multifaceted and increasingly mobile society. TAT brochures are just about the last bastions of these old cultural traits.

We Thai people have fought our way past antediluvian constraints and are in the process of building a new society. Materialism hit full force a few decades back and then much of our material culture was obliterated, only now to be brought back through nostalgia. And the same may happen with cultural traits. We grit our teeth when kids today don’t wai us, we huff in indignation when the new generation doesn’t listen to us and we shake our heads at how the elderly have been abandoned by the young.

But at the end of the day, it comes back to basic morality. It boils down to compassion, kindness, consideration and other universal traits which we all possess to varying degrees as humans. I find it fascinating to see how the next generation develops these traits without the cultural guidelines – and of course restrictions – of their elders.

Kreng jai may no longer have a physical cultural manifestation, but it would be interesting indeed to see its future reincarnations.

Anyway, sorry for blabbering on too long and have a lovely day.

Citylife this month:

We say a fond farewell this month (for the third time!) to our wonderful photo editor Boontawee Russameenin who is leaving us after 11 years…on and off! As his last hurrah, he took on an photography challenge for the ages that we hope you’ll enjoy.