I finally asked John Moretti, whose been here on and off for much of the year post-tsunami, why the motorbikes insist on riding on the shoulder of the road. I often have to get off the shoulder and onto the grass.
"That's the motorbike lane you're walking in," John replies.
"Uh, oh, I see."
I assumed. For whatever reason. Maybe because the foreigners blindly walked three abreast on this motorbike lane without regard to traffic. No matter why. I just assumed it was my walking lane.
Misunderstandings happen not just in multicultural exchanges, of course. But they seem to escalate across cultures. Some people adjust in their own ways. I've heard responses to cultural bafflement from the who-knows-why shrug "That's just Thailand" to the frustrated "I fucking hate this country!" and everything in between.
Sometimes the misunderstanding is a bit more fundamental and profound than simply not being privy to a type of highway lane.
A European business owner that's lived here for nearly twenty years tells me that sometimes Thais have such petty concerns. (You must understand this is after a nerve-wracking telephone exchange with a clueless customer service rep at the cell phone company: "I must have interrupted her from filing her fingernails.") The griping continues: "Even here, the staff often have no better topic of conversation than when they're eating next. Sadly, a common greeting literally translates to 'Have you had your rice yet?' They actually go around asking, 'Have you eaten rice yet?'"
It's taken me two weeks to realize how deeply misunderstood that greeting 'Have you had rice yet?' is. And it would be so easy to never have truly been enlightened to its meaning but go on believing that I might know.
The National Identity Board of the Royal Thai Government (yeah, sounds officious and it is) recently published a book "Tsunami 2004: Nam Chai Thai". In its preface they explain the subtitle. I won't need to say more after their explanation, but it kind of makes you wonder how often we miss the profundity and fecundity around us because we already know all the answers.
The closing statement is ambiguous and maybe I'm forced to make an assumption: "This is evidence that old values have remained deeply ingrained in Thai society and culture." I can only assume "this is evidence" refers to the rally of generosity I witnessed after the tsunami for myself.
Nam Chai (nam meaning water, the source of life, and chai meaning mind as well as heart) has the broadest and deepest meaning in Thai society that cannot be explained in just one or two words of English. Let us briefly retrace our steps into Thai history to gain some perspective.
In rural Thailand, as early as the Sukhothai Period (13th into 14th centuries AD), each household would have a water jar placed on a low, wooden platform in front of its house. This jar was closed with a wooden lid, on which was placed a ladle made of halved coconut shell attached to a stick. By custom, anyone thirsty passing by, locals as well as strangers, would be welcome to quench their thirst from this jar and ladle. This being an open invitation, the ones partaking of the refreshment did not have to ask permission. This custom has been upheld in the countryside of northern Thailand to this day.
In the event of personal encounters, the house owners would greet passers-by literally asking, 'Have you eaten any rice yet?' If the latter signalled that they were hungry, they would be given helpings of sticky rice along with a spicy dip, wrapped into pieces of banana leaves. This kind of provision for the journey, known as 'khao ho', is common to this day.
Farmers have also upheld the tradition of accomplishing major work, requiring a large labour force, through mutual assistance. In the rice harvesting period, for example, when time is of the essence, farmers would, in turn, come to each others' assistance. This has been upheld to the day, covering a whole range of activities and known by corresponding terms. These terms include 'chuay luea', helping; 'kho raeng', requesting help; and 'long khaek', rotating help.
These traditional practices are manifestations of an innate tendency encapsulated in the term 'nam chai'. Adhering to the principle of 'nam chai' has been of great benefit to society-at-large. With the passage of time, modernization propelled by the advancement of technology has made for rapid changes, which in turn affected the Thai outlook and value system. Some have bemoaned these changes that give more weight to material achievements and successes, power and prestige, shunting other values like sharing and doing good without showing off, an attitude circumscribed as 'pit thong lang Phra', attaching the gold leaves onto the back of the Buddha image when worshipping. This is evidence that old values have remained deeply ingrained in Thai society and culture.