It may be easy to claim that life as a kru ang-grit (English teacher) travelling an exotic country is easy, and while living in Thailand isn’t all about sipping cocktails on the beach, life certainly feels slower on this side of the world.
In the West, we are taught to be unwavering in our pursuit of completing work goals. Achieve your grades, find a job, and keep working. Studies have shown that work related stress and job insecurity can drastically alter personalities, and one could even argue that this is visible.
We’re used to seeing people disillusioned and hurrying through the streets as they try to meet time constraints and complete essential tasks. It’s almost as if stressing about work has become a personality trait. While I am by no means saying that Thais don’t fret about their work, they work with an aura of calmness.
A phrase that travellers often come across within Thai communities is mai bpen rai which means “never mind”, “don’t worry”, “whatever” among other things. Not only do travellers commonly hear this phrase in Thailand, they reside in a culture which consistently practises it. Another common phrase which is used among Thai communities is sabai sabai. “Sabai” means ‘comfortable’, and the phrase sabai sabai is often used to tell people to relax.
It may be counterproductive to limit a culture to one phrase, however, it is difficult to find a phrase other than mai bpen rai which is so apt to describe life in Thailand. And while the mai bpen rai attitude may be a complete polarisation to what we’re used to back home, it can help us minimise and overcome culture shock.
Mai Pen Rai - It doesn’t matter / Don’t worry / Nevermind
Sabai [Sabai] - Comfortable / Relax
Mai Bpen Rai - A Product of Buddhism?
Theravada Buddhism is Thailand’s predominant religion, with 95% of the population practising it as of 2015. What are the key principles of Theravada Buddhism? It places immense emphasis on spirituality, self-enlightenment, and self-discipline.
There are over 41,000 Buddhist wats or temples in Thailand, with around 33,000 still active. Of those that are still active, most offer guidance and instruction on how to meditate effectively.
Meditation is integral to Theravada Buddhism. Some of the benefits of meditation include increased self-awareness, new perspectives, reduced levels of stress and anxiety, and so on. With around 41,000 wats scattered all over Thailand and over 300,000 monks, Buddhist identity is ubiquitous in Thailand which reinforces their zen cultural identity.
The Concept of “Face”
While in the West you could go on a single night out and witness countless altercations, I am yet to see one among Thais. In Thai culture, “losing face” is a sure way to diminish your credibility and lose respect among people in the community.
Raising your voice at someone is an example of “losing face”. Rarely do Thais display extreme emotions in a negative way. For a Thai person to demonstrate an outburst of displeasure in public would be extremely rare as it may cause a loss of “face”.
Instead, their dignity is maintained in a relaxed way. It helps create a feeling of safety while living in the Thai community if the local population has a rooted habit of avoiding confrontation. If, for whatever reason, you find yourself agitated at someone or something, remember to think like the Thais and mai bpen rai.
One thing that is important is that you try not to take offence to some of the quirky traits of Thai culture. If you’re relentlessly regimented, it might take a while to adjust to some of the informalities of Thai culture.
If you try to communicate with Thai people in their own tongue, you’ll probably be met with a response of amusement or even laughter. Thai people may laugh at your broken Thai and inability to convey what you’re thinking in their language, but don’t take this to heart. If they do laugh, embrace it! It is endearing, and they will genuinely appreciate your attempts at communication through their mother tongue.
However, there are instances where it is difficult not to take offence or “lose face”, which is completely understandable. Some of the social taboos of our home countries (e.g. weight or gender roles) may be commonplace among discussions in Thailand. This can make it difficult to navigate particular conversations that we want to avoid but are deemed appropriate in Thailand.
Despite this, it isn’t anarchy on the social front in Thailand. While social taboos and boundaries may appear to be relaxed, respect plays a significant role in day to day life. Members of the community often greet each other by doing the wai, showing an acknowledgement of seniority or displaying respect to the person they’re greeting.
Additionally, the head is considered to be the sacred part of the body, and the cleanest, whereas the foot is the dirtiest. To point your feet at someone may be considered offensive, as would touching someone’s sacred head. While Thais are very forgiving, be considerate before you gallivant Thailand without a care in the world.
Mai Bpen Rai in the Workplace
Mai bpen rai is also an effective way to manage dynamics in the workplace, especially if you’re a kru. If you try to pronounce your students’ names and butcher the pronunciations (like I always do), you’ll be met with an eruption of laughter. Don’t take offence to this. It’s another instance of mai pen rai as opposed to laughing at your expense.
Another thing you will come to realise is the lack of punctuality among your students. There have been instances where I’ve showed up to my class to see it completely empty, with students turning up at around the 20-minute mark.
While this may ‘trigger’ strict teachers or those who believe students are late because of their lack of enthusiasm towards their lessons, it’s actually quite common. And while I’d like to consider myself to be a good teacher, I’ve even seen a student sleeping in my class before. What am I to do? Wake him up and force him to learn when he’s sleep deprived? Mai bpen rai… If anything, teachers should take this as a reason to not stress too much over work related responsibilities.
The mai bpen rai attitude is also present in other areas of the workplace. Thai teachers arrive at work with smiles from ear to ear with only generosity to offer despite the pandemic. Morale in the workplace remains incredibly high even as the Thais are extremely dutiful and abide by the rules of social distancing and mask wearing.
Go With The Flow
Of course, while the mai bpen rai mentality can ease culture shock, it can also exacerbate it, especially if you’re not culturally adaptable. If you are unbending in your discipline and approach as a teacher, you might become frustrated with Thai informalities.
Along with quirks in the classroom, there are many instances where you can’t help but be puzzled or even frustrated by the lack of punctuality or the informalities of Thai culture. One of the most bizarre instances of mai bpen rai I have witnessed is an ambulance patiently waiting at the traffic lights with its sirens flashing. The sirens scream urgent while the red light says stop, and the ambulance obeys the latter. If there was one instance where haste was necessary in Thailand, it was then.
Another bizarre incident I witnessed was a taxi driver stepping out of his car only to recoil at a snake crossing the road like a pedestrian. We went low to peer from underneath the car to see where the snake was, only to realise that it had vanished. While the snake must have been clung to the undercarriage of the car, the taxi driver laughed hysterically and offered “taxi?”
Embrace Its Informalities or Refuse To Change
Ultimately, like with any culture, the aspects that will entice you at first might just be as the aspects that you struggle to adapt to. However, the mai bpen rai lifestyle has many aspects of it in which we could all adopt to become more relaxed in certain areas of our lives.
In my experience, people in Thailand appear to be much more approachable than people in the West, even when they don’t speak the same language. They also appear to be working at a capacity that doesn’t diminish their demeanour or respect towards others. The mai bpen rai attitude can certainly teach us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to relax when the going gets tough.