Sunday, March 21, 2010

Extreme hospitality in ‘Land of Smiles’

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 3/21/2010

“Sa wad dee kha!” This is the almost universal greeting one hears in Thailand. It is a very pleasant greeting and the Thai language does not seem to have as many hard sounds in it, like German and Japanese. The result is a pleasing and welcoming sound when added to a “wai,” hands held in prayer-like form with fingertips someplace between one’s nose and forehead with a slight bow, is an obvious welcome, even if one doesn’t understand the language. I returned recently from eight days in Thailand (Bangkok) and Cambodia (Siem Reap).

Thailand, sometimes referred to as the “Land of Smiles”, is appropriately named. The culture is one of extreme hospitality. It is no wonder that so many “farang,” (western foreigners) become enchanted by Thailand. Me, known for being serious, found myself smiling along with so many happy people. It was infectious.

Bangkok is a seemingly modern city with street markets that seem unchanged from hundreds of years ago except that cell phones are for sale within sight of hogs’ heads; one could get their hair dyed green and get a custom tailored silk suit two stalls down next to a table of lemongrass.

Other than rice, I don’t think there is any bland food in Thailand. Chilis, lime, and tamarind leaves seem to be the most common flavors. Lots of fresh fruit. I’ve never known people who like to eat like the Thais do. Several times our Thai hosts made light of how Thais organize everything around eating. I believe it. Skipping meals in Thailand might be evidence of mental illness.

Even to someone like me who was raised in the south and has lived much of my life in the “Bible Belt,” Thais appear to be a religiously observant people. The dominant religion is Buddhism, and often the most striking building in sight is the “wat,” or Buddhist temple. The “wat” is gleaming white, red, and gold, often the biggest and tallest building in its area. The smell of burning sandalwood is everywhere, in part, because sandalwood sticks are burning at the foot of Buddha or other Hindu deities. The seamless blending of Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand is obvious everywhere. Every building had an offering for Buddha and a “spirit house.” The spirit house was always outside, often in the front of the building, I believe there is a specified placement for it, and the spirits are to be taken care of, lest they invade the building.

The result of the many religious rituals that Thais appear to practice on a regular, if not daily basis, are people who seem very spiritual. I was struck by how “happiness” figures into so much of the culture of Thailand. I wonder what they think of our Declaration of Independence, with its “pursuit of happiness?” I suspect they would not understand “pursuing happiness.” “Attaining happiness” would be more Thai, I think.

The Thai scholars and the ISU faculty I was part of will be working together on several research projects on environmentally and culturally sustainable local economic development. A short visit to another country, especially as one as different for an American as Thailand, is a bare scratch of the surface. Ongoing collaboration with the Thai scholars and póok mit (building friendship) may lead to some level of what sociologists call “verstehen” which doesn’t translate easily into English, but comes closest to “sympathetic understanding.”

These observations are obvious to anyone who visits Thailand and is paying attention. I hope “mú-dtì” (understanding) comes through developing friendships with the Thai scholars. I am especially interested in trying to understand what seems to be an outward contentment but which surely masks the sadness that does accompany life. Americans live in the future. We are busy, always moving, never satisfied with the present. We put so much pressure on our children at such young ages to achieve in the future that we are robbing them of the beauty and play of childhood. The Thai scholars are hard workers and seem to work all the time, but also seem to make the everyday and mundane, like eating, joyful events to look forward to, not dash through.

My mother used to tell me when I was very young “to stop and smell the roses.” Thais seem to follow the advice. Over the next year, in addition to collaborating on some interesting research projects, I hope to learn how this industrializing people have managed to “stay in the moment.”
Blog Directory - Blogged The Steiger Counter at Blogged