Either something is lost in translation or the Thais just want to have fun, known as “sanuk,” a Thai concept that both bewitches and confounds Western sensibilitiies. According to thaizer.com blogger Ray Cavanagh, sanuk is about more than having fun; it’s about striving to achieve satisfaction and pleasure from whatever you do (December 2, 2007). Sanuk harkens back to the Buddhist belief that life should be lived in the moment. Fun is not so much about going to Disney World; personally, I’d rather play with garbage cans than subject myself to the Disney brand of forced gaiety; instead, fun is a way of living and being. Whether selling meat in a dark, teeming market,
Smart Jumsai, one of Thailand's best known architects, explains, "If it's not sanuk, it's not worth doing. People will resign from a good-paying job because it's not fun." Sanuk may also explain why not much attention is payed to proper spelling. Foreign teachers teaching English bemoan the lack of apparent seriousness shown to classroom learning by Thai students. As one foreign teacher explained in frustration, “I can only play hands, shoulders, knees and toes so many times!” In addition, Thai language differs structurally and stylistically from English, making for funny translation. It should be noted that I give tremendous credit to the Thais for how well the majority speak, or at least understand, basic English. Bruce likes to joke that ethnocentric Americans only speak one language: American.
Foreigners will fit in much better to Thai society, and ultimately get much further, if they seek to make “sanuk” or harmony in their interactions with the Thais. Western “straight talk” is best avoided in favor of gracious deference. To save face, both for oneself and for the dignity of the other person, is what matters to Thais - even if it means telling “gentle untruths.” Tourists do well to understand this reality, and to be aware that Thais are usually not attempting to deceive or mislead you when “saving face.”
Even if customers shout at them, Thais continue to smile. Foreigners may perceive the smiles as not taking their concerns seriously, but nothing could be further from the truth. I saw this play out first hand when a Western friend showed anger to our mutual Thai friends and hotel owners over an alleged failure to provide a promised discount for a hotel room. When a modern, clean room with air con and wifi costs less than 700 baht ($19.40), is it worth a friendship and the accompanying bitterness to argue over a few baht? The angrier the Westerner became, the more our Thai friend smiled. I understand the rational behind, “But its the principle,” however, in this case my friend would have gotten further, and looked less like an ugly American, by choosing deference and grace over anger.
Like the Thais, my Western friend could have used another oft-repeated Thai phrase: “Mai pen rai”, which means “never mind” or “just accept and move on.” Technically “mai pen rai” means “you are welcome” but, similar to the layers of meaning assigned to sanuk, the phrase means much more than that.
For example, the Thais show a remarkable resilience against stress which I am slow to learn: “Oh, that truck almost hit me on my bicycle when he passed another car on a corner? Mai pen rai, no harm done.” Consider the picture below of the Mae Klong Railway Station Folding Umbrella Market in Bangkok, that has to quickly fold up every time the train comes through, eight ties a day. The train passes mere inches from the market stalls lining the tracks, whose stall holders quickly spread their wares on the tracks after the train passes. I saw this remarkable event several years ago on the only organized bike ride in Thailand I have ever taken.
Want to ride down a mountain at breakneck speed hanging over the edges of a song taew? Sounds like sanuk!
My ever-loving hubby helps me develop my sanuk and mai pen rai attitudes by having me test all the bridges out for safety prior to him crossing.
As David Luekens of travelfish.org (27 February, 2013) explains, mai pen rai may also trump sensible safety measures. David recounts the story of a speed boat operator in southern Thailand indicating “mai pen rai” to him when he ignored the operator’s suggestion to move to the back of the boat for the upcoming ride. David got tossed about the boat repeatedly due to the wild bucking of the boat against the water, and he realized, too late, that in this case, his silly obstinance combined with the operator’s “mai pen rai” attitude could have cost him his life.
On this darker side, mae pen rai may also be perceived as a way of avoiding accountability and responsibility for one’s actions, an excuse to be lazy or an excuse for inaction. Late to work or no-show? No hot water? Dogs barking non-stop next door? Graft? Injustice? 10-year-olds riding motorbikes? Job not completed on time? Room more money than promised? Foreigners charged more money than Thais for the same product? Trash thrown everywhere? Homework assignments copied from the internet? Mai pen rai! Over time expats living in Thailand can become very frustrated and disillusioned with what they perceive as the more negative connotations of this quintessentially Thai attitude to life.
As the writer known as "G" notes on his buddhaspace.blogspot.com, any approach to life that is used without wisdom will have negative consequences (Thai Buddhism: Never Mind, April 27, 2013). In truth, few of us, Thai or foreigner, Buddhist or Christian, Muslim or Hindu, are able to practice the universal principles of mediation and reflection, to let go of our petty attachments to life’s annoyances, and quiet the mind. We will do well to use “mai pen rai” as a kind of mantra as we seek to let go of negative emotions and make harmony with ourselves, our Thai brothers and sisters, and the world around us.
I conclude my post (excuse the length please) with this honorable mention of a local coffee shop sign, taken with our daughter Fay and friends. Yes, you can play with cats and make sanuk while sipping your joe and practicing reflection.