3. Surviving Thai Culture and Dating
Yak doo naanan (Looking for a long time, specifically said about a prospective partner)
What is culture?
1. Artefacts and Art of a race or society
2. Norms and values of a society
3. Basic Assumptions about behaviour
How do I know which aspects of Thai culture to adopt and which to reject?
None of the following terms are exact translations from Thai as each cultural term is more than the sum of its lexical parts. Kreng-Jai (awe of heart) is an element of Thai culture that encompasses an awareness and respect of other people’s feelings by showing politeness and consideration towards them.
Kreng Jai manifests itself as a general desire not to disrupt the happiness of others, even at the expense of efficiency, honesty, or one’s own interests. When guidebooks describe Thai people as being “accommodating”, they are (perhaps unconsciously) describing the effects of Kreng Jai. Kreng Jai is usually not a factor among nuclear families, or between couples, who are close enough to show their true feelings and avoid formality. While this may sound terrific it can often be used as an excuse to avoid the truth especially if that truth may prove inconvenient to the teller.
There are lots of examples of how and why Kreng Jai can be negative:
Being too Kreng Jai to ask for help. This can result in anything from getting lost in an unfamiliar part of town to missing a train from Hua Lamphong station. Why, because Thai people don’t like to ask for directions in case the person they ask does not know the way, causing them to lose face. Face, or making face is another major Thai preoccupation. Money, relationships and looks lift-up status in Thailand and having them makes face. Your girlfriend may make face by her friends seeing her with a farang boyfriend. She will make face by spending a little or a lot of your money (depending on your sanity/generosity) on friends and family. Making someone lose face is NOT Kreng-Jai. But kreng-jai could mean that a ladyboy who has an issue will not tell you, instead keeping quiet. An example of this happened to a friend who bought tickets for a concert for him and his ladyboy date. The day of the concert at the Impact Arena arrived, but when they were due to leave his house, the ladyboy had not arrived or called. Calling her, he discovered that she could not go because her mother was sick. ‘How long has she been sick,’ my friend asked, ‘A few weeks’, came the reply. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before, the tickets were expensive’? The ladyboy replied, ‘I did not want to disappoint you, I hoped she’d get better’.
Being Kreng Jai to tell someone they are wrong, such as a taxi driver who insists on taking you the long way around because ’too mush traffic’ Kreng Jai decreases the opportunity for honesty. A Thai taxi driver will not take it well if you tell him directly that he is wrong, neither will a Thai ladyboy. They are not used to that kind of confrontational critique. Being Kreng Jai to ask you what is troubling you. A reluctance to ask what concerns another person, as the answer may prove confrontational.
Kreng Jai can suppress open, honest communication, restrict innovation and could prevent the growth of a company OR relationship. But what is most challenging is the excuse it gives some Thai ladyboys to tell lies. When a Thai ladyboy tells you she cannot go on holiday to Samui with you, it may not be because her mother is sick but because she is meeting another man. She is using Kreng Jai to excuse herself from the lie because if she told the truth, you would be hurt.
Cultural Consideration or Cop Out?
Thoey, a ladyboy I know was asked by a farang to accompany him on a tour of the islands acting as his interpreter and having a great holiday with all her expenses paid as well as being paid a salary. She agreed, only to excuse herself on the day of the trip by telling him she was sick. The truth was that she thought the trip would be boring and she was lazy. In her mind she did not lie, but demonstrated Kreng Jai as she did not want to hurt the guy’s feelings by telling him at the outset she was not interested. This is the way Kreng Jai can be twisted by some Thai people.
On the positive side Kreng Jai has the potential to create a strong relationship by demonstrating courtesy, compassion and empathy in the early days of dating. I am sad to say that even amongst some of the most cultured Thai people, these positive elements of Kreng Jai are often exempted from foreigners. This video from the Thailand Family Law Centre is pretty clear but does pose the foreigner as being stupidly in the wrong. While in this case that may be true I believe there must be a line beyond which kreng-jai becomes deception or is simply used as an excuse. It is an interesting subject and one you will come to recognise when you find your perfect ladyboy!
Sam Ruam (travelling the middle way) is another important cultural aspect that you will notice or may have already noticed at work. Sam Ruam is responsible for the extraordinarily high tolerance level of Thai people; they are very good at fending off mounting anger or discomfort over a situation. The average Thai is very calm and doesn’t raise their voice even in potentially heated situations; the Thai smile is often used in a very disarming way that can diffuse a situation. The best outcome for them is nearly always non-confrontational and one of the most common phrases you hear will be mai pen rai or don’t worry. That’s a shock for westerners who usually want to “say it like it is”; if they are angry they will show it, even in public.
But beware. Beyond that high tolerance level is an anger that knows no bounds! Once a Thai “loses it” they can really lose it and they will fight to the end, usually in large numbers. So unless you know what you’re dealing with, it’s definitely best to keep things non-confrontational. While I don’t want to labour the point; lots of foreigners lose their lives in Thailand. Thailand’s foreign minister even said that Thai people need to be educated that foreigners are not targets and that an answer needs to be urgently found to the mystery of why more foreigners visiting Thailand appear to leap / fall off balconies in Pattaya than visitors to anywhere else in the world.
Nam Jai (Water from the heart) or Hen Jai (Look inside the heart) is mercy or tolerance especially when shown to a subordinate, a younger person or an employee. While your date may not be an employee she is almost certainly going to be younger than you and due to your greater experience, education and relative wealth you will be expected to see into her heart and show tolerance. I once waited all night from 11pm until 6am for a certain Thai ladyboy to arrive. She kept calling and giving me updates on her progress until I fell asleep. She never arrived but three days later called me to arrange another date making no mention of what had happened previously. She expected and got my tolerance. She was very pretty but certainly not my idea of girlfriend material. Nevertheless, you will be expected to be a benevolent, tolerant boyfriend and indulge your ladyboy darling’s whims. Just make sure you draw a line in the sand and exercise common sense when dealing with her. Remember her culture but stick to your principles. Bunkhun means kindness and sincerity, helping someone, or doing them a favour, in return the receiver is indebted and feels obligated to ensure that they reciprocate the favour. Remember when you do something selfless for a ladyboy, she is, at least theoretically, indebted to you. You behave as a patron of sorts. Do not give favours or money without being mindful of Thai culture. When a Thai person does not return the favour or respect your help you will know that they are not a person to trust! Remember, Yak doo naanan!
Karma can be both good and bad
For Thais there are two kinds of karma: good or boon and bad or bàap or gamm. Good karma is like money in a bank account. When you tam boon (do good) you accumulate good karma in your spiritual bank account. The more you tam boon the more you accumulate so you will go to sà-wăn/heaven. Consequently you can also accumulate bad karma or tam bàap/gamm from bad deeds as well.
Things that are considered virtuous in the accumulation of tam boon are: chanting and sharing food and necessities with a monk, giving of every kind, meditation and taking care of suffering animals. Interestingly suffering animals are considered to have accumulated a lot bàap/gamm in a past life. If you were born into a well-bred family, you had a lot of tam boon from a previous life. Ladyboys are also considered to have made gamm in a previous life by being an adulteress and or breaking up a marriage.
Knowledge about Thai culture gives you the power to make informed choices
Ghosts, spirits or pee are looked upon as people who are not sure where to go next, are lost, or who don’t have enough tam boon to incarnate into a new life. Thai people can offer tam boon to ghosts, spirits or pee to help them find their way. A Thai will often give offerings for their dead relatives by spreading loving kindness and generosity (through prayer) to all the people they love both alive and deceased. After which follows the very important water pouring ceremony or grùat náam in which water seems to be the medium that carries the boon.
So, how does this help you to find your perfect Thai Ladyboy girlfriend?
Buddhism is such an integral part of Thai culture that even prostitutes regularly tam boon or make merit by visiting a wat (temple) and giving an offering of flowers or burning a candle or two. There is a Buddhist shrine at the entrance to Nana Plaza! Does this mean she is a good person who you can trust? In my experience, no, it does not. Making boon is a little bit like confession and prayer mixed into one act. If someone is making gamm by doing bad things like prostituting them self they need to make boon in equal proportion as a kind of safeguard against bad karma building up and condemning them to hell or reincarnation as something lower in the Thai hierarchy than a ladyboy, like an insect. Going to the temple a lot does not mean they are atoning for sins all the time either. They could be simply paying money into a karmic bank account. I have heard Thai people pray for cars, gold and money so it can be a selfish act too. Whatever Thai people pray for, it is something that is done regularly by a large proportion of Thai people. While we may call it superstition, Thais believe in all manner of pee (ghosts) and monsters waiting to prey on the living. Monks walk the early morning streets of every neighbourhood collecting alms from even the poorest citizens. Religion is not taken lightly here in Thailand and to some degree or another it will certainly make an impact on your life if you have a Thai Ladyboy girlfriend. I have found the faith of others quite moving at times and will kneel alongside Annie when she makes an offering but the cynic in me cannot swallow religion whole. I see too many monks buying mobile phones, drugs and prostitutes. I need a little reason with my religion!