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La Luna Gallery presents ‘Fashion, Food and Flowers’ on World AIDs Day

Chiang Mai Friends consider comparative cultural values in Thailand

 

La Luna Gallery presents ‘Fashion, Food and Flowers’ on World AIDs Day

 

Chiang Mai Friends consider comparative cultural values in Thailand

Members of the Chiang Mai Friends’ group gather after Carol’s interesting and enlightening presentation.

Elena Edwards
The recent regular monthly meeting of the Chiang Mai Friends’ group was held at the Uniserve building on Chiang Mai University’s Conference Centre campus off Nimmanhaeminda Road. As usual, friends met and chatted prior to the meeting, with most people taking an early supper break and ordering from the Lemon Tree Restaurant’s branch within the building.
The focus of this group is concentrated on providing a national and international bridge between cultures, essential in these difficult days. ‘Think globally - live locally’, is a genuine ‘sound-bite’ which we should all consider.
At the beginning of the meeting, Duenpen Chaladlam (Khun Boong to her very many loyal friends) gave a brief description of the Green Seminar recently held here in Chiang Mai and reported in last week’s Chiang Mai Mail. The Dutch Ambassador to Thailand, together with Rupert Konijn, an agriculture and food quality expert based at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, were in attendance at the conference, which launched the Chiang Mai pilot project involving a Green Master Plan for the city, with the financial assistance of the Dutch government: An excellent example of ‘Think globally - live locally’ in action. Rupert is planning to return to Chiang Mai next April to check on the project’s status - watch this space for updates.
The presentation at the meeting was given by Carol Beauclerc, on the fascinating subject of comparative cultural values, with a focus on her own experiences 27 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural south of Thailand. Carol divided her experiences into 10 sections, explaining the aspects of Thai cultural behaviour which had impressed themselves on her, and asking the meeting for their own, modern experiences of the same themes.
Her first recollection concerned the rituals of eating - with a Thai proverb saying that it’s ‘better to have no food left over’, illustrating the cultural aspect. To Thais, food is a very serious subject, with, when families meet for a meal, much discussion about what should be ordered in order to create a ‘complete’ experience, of taste and even of colour. She noted that a little food should be left on the plate - if all has been eaten, the guest will be offered more, and more, etc. An interesting point was made in that, perhaps, the sharing of food, particularly with a foreign person, may be a subtle invitation to share in Thai culture.
Another Thai saying introduced the second theme, with at supper time the Thai husband saying, “First eat, then shower,” and the wife replying, “No, first shower, then eat,” interpreted as the fact that, in Thailand, form and appearance are essentially important.
A discussion of dress, dependent on occasion, led to another proverb, ‘a chicken is lovely because its feathers are clean and beautiful; a person is lovely because they dress right.’ A point which, here in CM, those who like to ‘people-watch’ in the tourist areas and Wats might well appreciate. Basically and culturally, the crux is that there is a correct way to do everything, even everyday activities like preparing food and cleaning the house.
Advice is often given that the showing of attention involving physical contact between men and women is culturally frowned on in Thailand. However, it is quite acceptable between persons of the same sex, either male or female. The aspect of respect was also mentioned, particularly for one’s parents and older people in general, and for teachers. This last may surprise older farangs who have had experience of teaching in some of Chiang Mai’s non-government schools!
A cultural norm which affected Carol when she returned home to be with her parents was the acceptability of ‘white lies’ within Thai society. Unlike the telling of lies in the Western world, this is considered to be quite acceptable, as it is often used as the only means by which to avoid conflict and promote harmony. Perhaps, for foreign residents in Chiang Mai, this may be one of the most difficult cultural differences.
Feelings and ‘face’, are also very important in Thai society, and perhaps are also difficult aspects for farangs to understand. ‘Jai’ (heart) is a word which is used very frequently in Thai, and very rarely in the English language. How often do we, in English, refer to a ‘good-hearted’ person, (jai dee)? - a very simple example of the word’s usage.
Face is equally tricky; Carol told a story about a young gay man who, at a certain age, and having not spoken of his preference to his parents, was presented with a gift from them - a lovely young Thai lady - his for the night! Of course, he thanked his parents graciously, not letting them see his feeling even for a moment - just to save their ‘face’.
Something to be learned there, we suspect.
An easier concept for foreigners is that of ‘sanook’ - fun! Being alone is not ‘sanook’, hence the problem for Westerners of the following the cultural norm here in Thailand – the lack of privacy. Communal culture is the norm here, and extremely and supportively important. Curiosity is not regarded as intrusive or nosy; it’s merely a way of supporting communal culture.
Finally, a sense of abundance is evident in Thai culture. Carol quoted, ‘There is fish in the river and rice in the fields…’ a saying taken from a very old stone stele in a Bangkok museum. Just look at the multitude of differing plates of food when a large group of Thais eat out at a local restaurant - you’ll get the point!
Understanding these cultural norms, which may at first seem very strange to newcomers to the city and the kingdom, will help us all to retain the good in Western culture at the same time as recognizing and enjoying the good things in Thai culture. Mix the two - the result is Sanook!