Join Bangkok-born but internationally-bred aesthete Dr. Tom Vitayakul as he gives his own unique take on Thailand and its capital. Each month he tackles a different aspect of the local culture – from art and festivals to 21st century trends – in a light-hearted yet learned manner.
Am I Thai enough? What does it mean to be Thai in the 21st Century? I live in Bangkok and am of Sino-Thai descent but I am not able to speak Chinese. I went to a school founded by a French Missionary where we studied geometry and algebra in English. I write e-mails and reports in English. I speak Thai that is peppered with English words. It’s a habit caused by globalisation. But for some, it’s affectation. We use a “com-pew-dter,” drink “whine,” wear “yeens,” shop at “say-wen,” watch “tee-wee,”ride a “mor-dter-sai,” and say “o-kay.” Actually, there are Thai words for some of these too but no one uses them. They just sound awkward.
As for that cliché of the Thai trait, I don’t smile all the time because I am not delirious or trying to promote world peace. Nonetheless, I still like the sanuk (fun), sabai (comfort), and saduak (convenient) concepts of living. They sum up Thais’ joie de vivre. As for Thai etiquette, being considerate or greng-jai, as we call it, plays an important part. However, though I do care for others’ feelings, I can be direct and forward when I need to be. For me, mai pen rai (it doesn’t matter) only works when it’s tolerable. Sometimes things do matter because they have consequences, so we can’t be easy-going all the time. That said, I try to let go of things like a good Buddhist.
We Thais are a superstitious bunch. Most of our buildings have a sal phra phum (a small shrine or a spirit house) for the spirit of the land. Mostly it is in front of the house or the building but sometime it can be found in other areas. This belief stems from our Animistic background and is mixed with Brahmanism and Buddhism. Fortune-telling is also big business here. Astrology columns will never disappear from Thai magazines, unlike in the west. I used to consult these clairvoyants, but now seeking advice from a psychologist or a life coach seems more logical.
I don’t go to temples for solace much these days either but I do visit them for architecture and art appreciation. One can pray or make merit anywhere. Dharma is within oneself. Many Thais also co-ordinate the colours of their clothing according to ancient Indian astrology for good luck. If it’s Monday, it must be yellow (the Thai colour for the Moon), for example. However, me personally, I don’t want to look like Tweety Pie.
Our names usually come from Sanskrit. Most of them are rather fancy and have mystical meanings. Good fortune, prestige, wealth, and grandeur seem to be popular ways for formal naming while nicknames take different routes. Cuteness, coolness and colour are just some of the themes and many are lifted from English. Have you heard of someone called Ice, Pink, or Tiny? These are common among the new generation who would greet you with a wad-dee, a shortened version of sawasdee (hello). While we’re on the subject, this word is also made-up. It is from Sanskrit and started to be used only seven decades ago. What is genuinely Thai, anyway? Things have to originate somewhere and sometimes they are just not from here.
About taste, mine is eclectic. I like mixing things up. East-Meets-West is my style. I like wearing fisherman’s trousers with a shirt. It’s comfortable and suits the climate. I love Thai food, but not too spicy. Chilies aren’t from Thailand, anyway. They were brought from South America. So go easy on my palate. For me, fusion food was just a trend. Thais have fused various ingredients and culinary methods for centuries. We are good at adopting, adapting things, and making them our own. Copyright infringements did not concern us back then and, for some, not even now.
I enjoy listening to certain types of Thai music, especially from the big-band era and Thai folk music, but I don’t have an ear for most modern Thai pop. Take me to watch a likay (Thai folk opera) or a lumdtad (Thai bantering singing and dancing) and I am happy. I also adore traditional
Thai houses but dislike sitting on the floor and being un-air-conditioned when indoors. One can get cramps from staying in one position for a long period and it’s hot outside. I’d much rather sit on a chair in a nice cool room.
So here I am writing about being Thai in English for Bangkok 101. I hope that my readers will learn more about Thai things while living or visiting our country. For the Thai readers among you, are you Thai enough?