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Thailand is a wonderful place for Americans to visit. There are lots of reasons for it. One reason is certainly the number of people who smile at you.

Thailand is often called the land of smiles. In a short handout I wrote for pottery tourists in 2001 I wrote,"

  • The smile.

If you have a problem in Thailand and want a solution, smile. Frowning is frowned upon, so to speak. Similarly, the tenser a situation gets the more important it is to lower your voice and show you are in control. The combination of a quiet voice and smile will almost always get what you need. Loud frowns never do in Thailand. If you get loud you will get ignored. Thailand is the land of smiles. If you smile because you are mad, they will be able to read it. If you forget to smile when you get mad, don't try to change the system, just start to smile. "

Frequently in the US I find that I am talking about cultural differences. One of my favorite things to do is to try and speak English as if I am speaking Thai. It is muscularly difficult for me. Rather than just speaking I have to open my eyes a bit further, lift my cheeks and spread the corners of my mouth. At the same time I slow down and speak softly. I am much more charming. If I had talked this way as a youth I may have attracted more women. I am not sure. It seems like it is so.

There are all sorts of ways that Americans misread faces of Thais. But the smile is a cultural attempt to keep relationships between people positive and smooth. Gruff, irritated, feh, moods are hard to see. You can be really irritating and never know it. Thais will generally bury negative feelings longer than most Americans. Of course there are limits.

Smiles in Thailand are so infectious, beautiful, endearing. I think that part of this is just that regular use of the muscles to smile makes smiling easier, more natural and that it makes the smiles much more effective at lifting my mood. It is easy to be overly charmed as an American man by the smile of Thai woman. The smiles are so powerful that misinterpretation is easy. You can see it in other visitors if you look. I think that it is the smile that creates so many Western/Thai marriages. I am sure that there are other factors, but this one seems to me anyway to be in the forefront.

There are many things about Thai Culture I want to retain. This idea of letting the negative go, not worrying about it, is endemic in Thailand. It is a part of Buddhism and one of the important messages of the religion, but I think that it is broader than that in Thai culture. Mai Pen Rai in Thai translates as "It is not a problem". In Lao they use Baw Ben Nyang (It is not a thing (I think). In Buddhism, grasping, holding on to what you want, what you expect, is part of what makes you suffer. If you demand life be easy then you are going to be really disappointed. If you start with an expectation, a realistic expectation of imperfection, with the idea that everyone is a bit mishugineh, a bit crazy then they will not disappoint you. If you expect some pain, if you don't torture yourself by fixating on it, then life is easier, calmer, chill.

I feel fortunate. My father loved languages, loved meeting people from other cultures. He could be embarassing and insensitive but he truly was interested and I think at least to some reasonable level always respectful even when amused. I had a grandmother with a strong accent. Many parents and grandparents were from other places. Mrs Berger who I called my second mother had a strong Cuban accent. It was fun. I enjoyed how she spoke. Having an interest in accents instilled and supported by my parents and community was instrumental to my connection with Thailand.

I worked washing dishes in a Chinese Restaurant. Other than a very low pay scale I was treated well by the owners. They seemed to think that I was a "good boy". I worked hard, I was reliable. If there was a problem and I would be late, I called them. They were flexible and always nice. The cooks were interesting and playful. They messed around with me, taught me little bits about Chinese culture. Mr. Chii used to tutor my brother in Physics. He moved to the US because being a cook here was better than being a physicist in China.

When I went to the University of Michigan and then when I transfered to the School of Art, I had to take an Art History Survey. There was a post Renaissance course, a Prerennaisance course and An Overview of Asian Art History. I took that. The decision was in part predicated on the idea that I did not want to be a clone of other art students, that a different background could only be of help. The course included much cultural and religious information needed to try to more fully comprehend Asian art.

When I transferred to The Kansas City Art Institue I took only Asian Art History Courses taught my a Chinese woman. She had a strong accent. It was easy for me. I also had a strong foundation that other students did not. The courses were fun. I learned lots of subtle things, and got a broader sense of cultural aspects of Asian art.

Most recently I spent hours trying to help meld the thoughts of a Japanese student with vocabulary and concepts in the US so that what she wrote would have meaning to the people reading it. I am certain that our understanding of each other's culture improved from these meetings. She has become a great friend. One time I told her about one of the great Buddhist teachings I learned, "Don't feel the pain until you actually rip the bandaid off". Most recently we have been talking about letting go of stress. I talk about a Daijobu Pill, in Thai this would be a Mai Pen Rai pill. It would be great to just be able to let go of stress that you cannot change. It would be great to have the concentration on a problem that stress reinforces without all the negative impacts. Letting go, is not always the solution. Sometimes you need to keep your concentration but remain "chill".

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Page last modified on July 16, 2019, at 05:01 AM