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What Makes Thais Tick?

By Bertil Lintner

Cornwel-Smith provides some entertaining insights.

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, photographs by John Godd. Riverbooks, Bangkok: 2005. 256 pages

A crash course in cultural orientation is the first introduction to Thailand that American Peace Corps volunteers get when they arrive in the kingdom. High-society ladies of noble standing teach them that Thai girls are very shy and conservative.

They spend their entire adolescence cooking food, cleaning their houses, and, for relaxation, painting umbrellas. Every young woman is a virgin until she gets married to a hardworking man, who is deeply devoted to traditional Asian family values. The reality confronting the young Americans when they arrive in a small village in the Northeast, therefore, comes as a shock. Half the teenage girls are either single mothers or pregnant, and their boyfriends have escaped their responsibilities and fled to Bangkok. Every married adult, man or woman, seems to be having an affair with somebody else. Family relations in rural Thailand can, in fact, be even more confused and bewildering than in America's inner cities.

Then there are the academics--anthropologists, sociologists and others--who like to "conceptualize" societies like the Thai. They select a few words that describe societal values such as napteuh (to respect) or jaibun (good, benevolent) and, by repeating them in Thai, turn them into magic formulas meant to explain certain supposedly unique characteristics rather than being just Thai for "to respect" and "benevolent."

The worst are superficial, fluffy descriptions of Thai society like "mai pen rai means never mind," and constant references to carefree, happy-go-lucky people in "the Land of Smiles"--without taking into consideration that Thais smile for a variety of reasons, and being happy is only one of them. Just take pictures in Thai newspapers of handcuffed criminals smiling at their captors, the police. Thais smile when they are embarrassed, feel threatened, and even when they are angry.

So it was about time that somebody wrote something worth reading about the Thai culture. Philip Cornwel-Smith does that, and does it well in his Very Thai--an excellent introduction to everyday popular culture, social trends and assorted eccentricities in Thailand. He covers all that in a very down-to-earth fashion, and nothing has escaped his attention. What is a "sniff kiss"? Why do Thais have a penchant for mentholated nasal inhalers? Why do seat belts take a back seat to taxi altars and other symbols of spiritual road insurance? Why are lucky numbers that important, and who decides what is and what is not good fortune? And what is the history of those wooden phalluses that most outsiders take for locally produced dildos, but, in fact, are meant to bring good luck and guard against water spirits and other evil forces?

On the surface, Thailand may appear more Westernized than most other countries in the region, with young people in blue jeans, Coca Cola, hamburger joints, and a modern architecture that draws inspiration from ancient Greece and 21st century California. But the Thais have always been masters at absorbing outside influences and despite everything remain, yes, very Thai, or, as the late Gavin Young once put it: "I have always admired the crafty Thais. Thais know that their culture is quite simply, the best. They remind me of wary yet gluttonous golden hamsters, joyfully packing their cheeks with exciting foreign tit-bits. Unshakably proud of their semi-divine king, their Buddhism and their own beauty, they gobble up all they covet from the West and Japan without giving a cultural inch--except for the odd McDonalds here, a KFC there. It is always good to deal with people who feel superior to you; it's the inferiority complexes that spell trouble."

Ice cream from Italy, with peanut garnish from America, served in a bun of the light, sweet bread introduced by the Portuguese to ancient Ayutthaya can be bought from roving street vendor carts. Traditional Thai obsession with beauty, and love for anything modern, has resulted in Miss Mobile IT contests. Thai "songs for life" combine modern counter-culture with lyrics about hardship in rural Thailand, comparing the life of people with that of water buffaloes.

At the same time, foreign and modern influences are stronger in today's Thailand than at any time before. Like Europe in the 1960s, Thailand is passing the threshold between the old society and anything that is new and exciting. A middle-class society is emerging with everything that comes with it: more affluence, a sexual revolution, new trends in music and literature--but with the difference that here and now it is happening in the digital era of computers, DVDs and mobile phones. In order to understand all these contradictions, and to make sense of what appears to be absurd clashes of cultures, read Very Thai. You'll be glad you did.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, May 2005

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