What it is like to live in Thailand, the ‘Land of Smiles’
“to form ones features into a pleased, kind or amused expression”
Oxford Dictionary definition
One of my smiles!
From what I’ve experienced, back in my home country, getting angry or raising your voice usually gets people to notice.
It lets people know you are not happy and there’s a situation that needs to be sorted.
In restaurants, in shops, on the street, people shout at anything, a slight misunderstanding, calling the bank, even on public transport – people are angry and irritated. Writing letters of complaint for the smallest of things, asking to speak to managers, demanding discounts when things aren’t up to ‘their standards’ people can get annoyed at pretty much anything and everything.
Here in Thailand, you couldn’t be further from it. Just using your hands to express yourself in a conversation, as is common place in France or Italy, is considered aggressive while innocently waving your hands around is a no-no.
The Thai’s mantra with which they live by is Jai Yen meaning Cool Heart.
Thais are brought up and raised with the understanding that negative emotions should be kept under wraps. Instead, staying calm, not losing their temper and avoiding confrontation is the best way.
However the person may be feeling inside, there is rarely no outward display of frustration or anger, no raised voices or swearing.
The best way to cover how you really feel…..Smile.
‘Saving Face’ is a big thing in Thai culture, if someone doesn’t understand you, they are embarrassed at a situation, there’s a misunderstanding or they want to avoid a confrontation, they just simply smile.
For example, a situation I have had since being here, when sitting in a Thai mechanics with our 40 year old Ford that had developed an unfortunate bone shattering steering wheel vibration every time we went above 40kmph.
A cluster of experienced male mechanics gathered around the car, a full 3 hours went by before we were told that they had sent for a new part and that if we would like to wait it would be done in a couple of hours.
With no way of getting home J and I walked to the nearest shopping mall, had lunch and killed some time while we left the mechanics to work their magic.
When we returned, the car was still floating forlornly above some very confused looking faces and we resumed our wait in the air conditioned lounge, given complimentary water and coffee.
Another 3 hours trickled by before Jmayel was called outside to be told that despite all the work they had done during the course of the day the problem remained.
Four fully trained mechanics and 8 hours was not enough for this troublesome Ford Escort.
The men stated their embarrassment at not being able to fix the problem and humbly told us that there wouldn’t be any labour charge and for us to bring back the car after the weekend.
Despite the language barrier and the failure of the Thai mechanics, the Smile was ever present on their faces as they explained the situation.
Thailand is not named ‘The Land of Smiles’ for no reason.
This doesn’t mean the population is walking around all day, everyday, with smiles plastered to their faces. Thailand is no sickly sweet, everyone’s always happy, living on fluffy white clouds and eating cotton candy dream world, of course people get upset. They have bad days just as much as anyone else.
It is how they deal with it that is the key factor.
Jai Rawn means Hot Heart, known to rear its head on occasion and shove the Jai Yen out of the way in even the coolest of hearts.
However, it is a much less common sight than in other countries.
In Thailand a smile can be an apology, a diffuser, an icebreaker. It can cover embarrassment, mistakes and a multitude of situations.
The majority of smiles you will receive here are genuine.
As a race, Thai people are friendly, inoffensive, easy going, gracious and tolerant.
Thinking back to my time spent working in the City of London, all the hours I clocked up travelling on the ancient London Underground at peak times, what it really needed down there were some Thai Smiles.
If you get onto the tube or a crowded bus and someone accidently steps on your foot, their body a bit too close for comfort. Backpacks, umbrellas, elbows all digging into your weary flesh.
How often do you get a smile?
What would you do if the offending person was to smile at you?
I can’t count the amount of times when waiting for the tube in rush hour amongst the crowds of sweaty workers, down in the bowels of the city.
Shouts of ‘MOVE DOWN THE TRAIN’ followed by an irritated reply of ‘WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO GO?!’
Tension rising in the air.
Profanities expelled through aggressive lips.
Arguments teetering on the edge, just like my vulnerable feet shuffling closer and closer to the end of the platform.
Stressed faces pushing you further towards the tracks in their race to get home.
Must. Squash. On. This. Train.
Personal space violated by the rush to get out of the City.
Not once do I ever remember a happy face.
Not once did anyone smile at me, nor did I smile at anyone.
It’s an un written rule on the underground, don’t make eye contact, looking at anyone could provoke an unwelcome situation ‘WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME FOR?’
Stony faced and in battle mode, arms tensed to prevent anyone from getting by you. Protecting your valuable position, you hold your ground until the next train emerges from the dark abyss, possibly moving a generous millimetre to let some people off.
All the while standing strong. Holding off the hordes at your back.
You’re focused on a point.
You’ve worked out your move and no one will get in your way.
A friendly smile at this point, is unheard of.
So I’m giving my fellow Londoners some words of advice from Thailand, ‘Jai Yen’ – Keep a Cool Heart
If in doubt, do as the Thais do “Mai Pen Rai” – Don’t worry about it!!
Remember a smile can speak a thousand words.
Sacha El-Haj – 8 Miles from Home
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