Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Totally Different Culture

Where to begin?  One of my mentors told me that if I didn't know where to begin then I should just start, so here we go.  The cultural differences between Thailand and other nations, especially those in the West are vast indeed.  One American friend who has lived and worked in Asia for most of his adult life commented that Thai culture is less similar to ours than other Asian cultures.  No wonder I didn't know where to begin.

Somewhere near my 3rd anniversary in Thailand I received an email from my son in which he used the phrase “A Totally Different Culture”.  It stuck.  Several mornings each month I walk down to Suan Buaak Haad park to meet with friends.  Recently I've started being more mindful of my surroundings and taking notice of things that we might not see elsewhere.  Tourists come here and snap thousands of pictures; we all know I still do the same thing.  But what are we actually seeing?  How deep are we looking?   Do we see what is important?  Important is, of course, a relative judgment made by each individual.  Perhaps this will become a series important to some and not to others. If that be the case, how best to organize the content and how deep to go will be the questions of the hour. For our purposes I will borrow a definition of culture from and modify it for focus. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the Thai culture.  

No discussion of Thailand would be possible without mentioning Buddhism.  When I  try and make sense out of what’s available to read and observe what is actually practiced, the subject of Buddhism becomes over whelming.  For today, let’s just say that there are five precepts which constitute the minimum moral obligation of a practicing lay Buddhist. They are:
  1. abstaining from the destruction of life.
  2. abstaining from taking that which is not given.
  3. abstaining from sexual misconduct.
  4. abstaining from falsehood.
  5. abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause carelessness.
There are good Buddhists and not so good Buddhists, just as there are good Christians and not so good Christians.
Wat Phathathariphunchai, Lamphun
Another cultural aspect is the constitutional monarchy and its effect on the belief system of the Thai people. In Thailand the watch word is respect. To say that the Thai people respect His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) would be a serious understatement. They revere him!  His reign began on 9 June 1946, making him the and the world’s longest serving head of state and longest reigning monarch.  Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was on 2 June 1953.

What about economic conditions in Thailand?  How do they affect the daily life of the people here?  We, the foreigner, see the surface but rarely do we see anything deeper.  I for one know that the tourist dollar has an impact on the people in my community.  Much discussion can be heard about the quality of the high season and differences in revenues during the low season. Three years ago much was written about the adverse effect of the political demonstrations on the tourism industry.  Two years ago it was the floods that seemed to divert the tourists and their money.   One personal observation:  Three years ago most of the tourists in Chiang Mai were English speaking white people.  Today they are Chinese.

Stalls at the Chiang Mai Night Market, hours before opening
As we go forward a few of the things we might want to address are:  The idea of saving or losing face, Thai style communication, the importance of family, Thai circles of friends and associates, ethnic minorities, regional differences, the Thai education system and much more.

Abundant Blessings,