When I planned my first trip to Thailand, I came across Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet articles explaining an aspect of Thai culture that I found both intriguing and seemingly nonexistent once I came here. They talked about how Thais are often embarrassed to admit they don’t know something. So when you ask for directions, they’ll give you wrong directions instead of telling you they don’t know. And if you ask for mustard at a restaurant, they’ll say, “Yes, but ketchup.”
What these anecdotes are demonstrating is what we foreigners have termed “Saving Face.” It’s the idea that Thai people don’t want to “Lose Face” by demonstrating ignorance or incompetence (oh, the irony!). While I’ve rarely run into saving face in the minor, inconvenient ways described in tourist guides, I’ve seen it take most egregious turns.
Example 1. I had this student last year who, despite painstaking efforts on his part, just could not learn English. He wasn’t one of the slackers in class that just goofed off. For every task, activity, or assignment, he applied himself to the point of breaking a proverbial sweat. But he just couldn’t seem to advance. Since we were an English-programme school, and are now an international school, I began to realize that his inability to learn English could really hinder his academic progress; all his classes were in English, so he was failing all of them. What was worse, the school provided us teachers few resources to address students like him. I concluded that he’d be better off in a Thai school, where he could stick to mastering subjects in his own language and have a better shot at scoring well on the O-Net (Thailand’s SAT, if you will).
So I called his parents. This initial attempt to reach out was unsuccessful, as his parents were hopelessly incapable of understanding English—they couldn’t even understand the name of the school. So I involved the school principal, a well-educated Thai woman who is nearly fluent in English. She called the parents and explained the problem I had raised.
Concerned, they had their older son who was studying at a university in America call me directly. I explained to him the problem. He asked what I advised them to do about it. I told him that unless they could foot the bill for him to get an English tutor, they might want to consider transferring him to a Thai school. He scoffed, and that was the end of the conversation. As it turned out, the boy’s parents were completely satisfied with their son’s lack of progress. What mattered more to them was that the neighbors saw him coming home in the British-style uniform—plaid shorts and a necktie. For the neighbors to see him suddenly wearing the standard Thai uniform would be losing face. Outsiders’ opinion of their boy was more important than his actual academic success.
Example 2. A young girl moved away from her mother living abroad to live with her grandmother in rural Thailand. We’ll call her Dina. She’s 17 years old. Recently Dina has been skiving off from school and coming home well into the evenings. She claimed it was because her teachers were keeping her at school late.
But upon investigation, her grandmother learned that she was actually hanging out with some 22-year-old guy. And by hanging out, I mean sleeping with him.
Dina’s grandmother chastised her to no avail. Then she decided to have a sit-down with the young man’s family, and plead that they either talk some sense into their son or financially provide for her granddaughter, since she was skipping out on a basic high school education for this “love affair.” They essentially told her off and said their son was a grown man and was responsible for his own actions, and anyway her granddaughter was the one coming to him.
Others in the family urged Dina’s grandmother to call the police, as statutory rape laws are about the same in Thailand as they are in the U.S. But Dina’s grandmother refused. Why? Because then the whole village would know her granddaughter was sleeping around. The family would lose face. So in interest of saving face, she has kept quiet about it.
Example 3. Some students at my school wanted to put on a Christmas fair. They petitioned the school owner for funds and were flatly denied. So they got creative. They sought sponsorship from local business on the stipulation that they would allow these businesses to advertise at their fair. When they approached the finance office to ask permission to put up banners around school property with the logos of their sponsors, they were expressly prohibited from doing so. The school manager stated that doing so would belie the owner’s lack of support. In essence, she’d lose face.
Luckily, the students eventually won this game of financial chicken. Since contracts were involved, the school is obligated by law to fulfill its end of the bargain and allow sponsor advertising. But this certainly isn’t the first time resources have been denied to enhance the education of tuition-paying students at a for-profit school. Much like this most recent event, those that have sought to solve such deficiencies using their own funds have been accused of theft and/or undermining the owner.
If these examples seem like isolated anecdotes, they’re not. Saving face is a destructive obsession that courses its way even into governance and administration. People refuse to admit errors, take advice, or learn something new. Anyone that would have the audacity to “defy” authority by suggesting a different course of action is castigated from that circle. It’s one of the many reasons for the inefficacy of government in this country.
To sum it up, it’s fucking stupid, and it perpetuates the ignorance and arrogance that wracks this country and keeps it from progressing out of the developing world.
One the other hand, Thai culture upholds some essential charms inspired by religious belief. It isn’t wholly consistent, but where it shows it shines.
For most of my adult life, I haven’t been much of a respecter of religion. But I find something completely charming and uplifting about Buddhism. In part, I think my fascination with the religion stems from an intellectual curiosity. However, I think there are aspects of the dogma that I find totally resonate with my worldview.
At its core, Buddhism provides a model for explaining and overcoming suffering. It emphasizes an upright lifestyle that seeks to transcend the trappings and foils of human experience. Buddhism holds that suffering is a part of life, and often comes from clinging to that which changes. Life is impermanent, so attaching oneself to anything is a guaranteed way to cause oneself, and others, mental and physical anguish. Craving and clinging to what is temporarily pleasurable and aversion to that which isn’t pleasurable leads to ugly results. By ceasing the craving and the clinging, one can free oneself from the ugliness—that is, the suffering.
In a way this explains why restaurants open and close freely, leaving foreigners accustomed to consistency and predictability frustrated. Buddhism would point out that I shouldn’t focus on the craving, that the inability to satisfy that craving allows me to transcend the craving altogether. It’s a nice thought, philosophically speaking.
So how does one put an end to the craving and the clinging? There’s an eightfold path, which includes developing wisdom through the right view and right intention, adjusting behavior in speech, action, and livelihood, and meditating to improve mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
There are other fascinating elements, too, such as karmic law and making merit. Merit making is inseparable from Buddhist society—especially Thai society. It’s literally the economy of the religion. Temples are built, alms given, monks’ bellies filled, royal projects funded, and more, thanks to the system of making merit. It has hypocritical expressions, such as wealthy elites trampling the lower class, only to “make up” for it by buying a large golden image of the Buddha or funding a temple upgrade. But overall, Thais are a generous people, often focusing more on altruism than selfishness.
Thai Buddhism in particular has other interesting elements. For one, Hinduism is inextricably part of the Thai cosmic model. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism take a particularly unique shape and role in the art, architecture, culture, and social hierarchy. For example, the king is both the devaraja and dhamaraja to his people. He’s a second Buddha, and a Hindu god. Merely being in his presence elevates one’s dharmic status, and he’s buried in a structure that symbolizes Mount Meru.
I am constantly exploring Thai Buddhism, trying to understand its idiosyncrasies and apparent contradictions. My discoveries continue as I read translated texts, visit temples, and partake in rituals, all with the sweet aroma of incense entering my nostrils. I don’t buy it 100%—there are certain eschatological elements that I find completely unfounded, even if they sound nice. But even where it’s wrong it’s still pleasant and nonjudgmental. Better than I can say of the religion I was raised in.