The concept of Thainess is being used and discussed in various media, often under the headline: ‘Foreigners don’t understand Thainess’, or ‘Foreigners are not able to reach the core of Thainess’. Meanwhile, what this seemingly supernatural core consists of remains unanswered; there does not seem to be a common definition among the contributors.
After 12 years in the country I confess that I don’t understand this specific ‘Thainess’, I see a palette with many colours.
Sometimes we have to push things a bit in order to move the thinking out of the box and not get trapped in ideology.Therefore, are there realities behind the Mantra?
The melting pot
The Thai population is a mixture of ethnicities. More than 25% are Thai by birth but Chinese by ethnicity, heritage and cultural patterns that they exercise in their daily lives.They can hardly be the ones defining genuine Thainess. Some of my ‘Chinese’ sources believe that ethnic Thais, often of dark complexion, are simple, rustic folks who cannot think more than two moves ahead; that they belong to their own culture and tradition, taking one day at a time, not worrying too much. My ethnic Thai sources tell me that the Chinese families are engulfed in hoarding up money; using all sorts of chemicals to make their skin even whiter and forgetting to live while they can. Then you have the Thais of Laotian origin, preferring to speak Laotian; they are looked down upon by the rest – it is always reassuring to have scapegoats. We all have prejudices and annoyances about ‘the others’ of course, but the universal and almost supernatural ‘Thainess’ is a trifle difficult to recognize in this.
Our Lady in the tree
Supernatural – that’s another reason why Westerners will never fully understand Thainess.
At a private university I know well there is a tree, a big Banyan tree. Many colored ribbons are draped around this esteemed tree and others are hanging from the branches. Students, mostly of Chinese origin, pay respect to it, wishing for better results at exams and occasionally there is a procession led by the Rector followed by all the academics, they also honour and pay respect to this animistic wonder of nature. In the tree resides the spiritual lady called Nang Mai, she expects worshipping and respect, otherwise she will harm and hurt people around her.
Visiting Western academics either get angry or laugh when they hear the story and are confronted with the tree. A visiting German scholar used just one word when he spotted the tree: ‘Quatsch’ (nonsense, or rubbish, but stronger).Well, this German didn’t have much sense of humour. But nevertheless; as a Western academic you cannot acknowledge something that is without ‘weights and measures’.
Then my neighbor, a gentle man, and Thai. He repairs cars and is known as an outstanding diagnostician. Without sophisticated tools he finds the problem fast and repairs the cheapest way. They would be proud of him in Stuttgart! Every morning his family is visited by the monk, he drones and is given generous alms for his bowl. But just before the monk arrives my neighbor goes to his Spirit House also offering to the spirits of the house and land–at surface level and to those living underground. Maybe this combination of offers and blessings is what makes him an excellent repairman and such a friendly character, but to put that in a definition would be a bit hazardous.
I can only agree. For us Westerners, rigid and square headed as we are, it is not possible to give a valid definition of a concept that includes spirits and ghosts – and peaceful old Banyan trees.
Therefore: Forget that talk about exclusive Thainess, it belongs to ‘The Department for Beliefs’. Thais are not a homogenous mass, Thailand is a melting pot and the spirits are maybe among us. Why not enjoy the fantastic elasticity among people. All sorts of happenings are taking place, exiting and filled with surprises, enjoy them.