Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Something in the Water?

My name is Kim Davidson and I’m from Austin, Texas. I am going into my senior year in music therapy at the University of Kansas.

I was a relatively shy child and, in adulthood, I still consider myself to be somewhat quiet. I have considered myself more of a wallflower than a centerpiece, which has never bothered me in the slightest. However, in this country, I consistently feel loud and intrusive. The places we visit are sacred and beautiful, and while the Thais worship and observe in silence, we have a tour guide who is always explaining while we ask questions. I feel like a bleach stain on an ancient fabric woven with threads of history, spirituality, and tradition. It sometimes seems as if I am ruining something precious and delicate, something that I do not quite understand but I know is more valued than I can fathom.

Despite these feelings, the Thais simply smile at us Americans; a group that varies from a few straggling college students to a complete mass of twelve, a number that is essentially impossible to keep hushed and composed. They show no frustration or anger at us, even when we mess up and forget to take our shoes off, accidentally point our feet at the Buddha, or lean against ancient paintings that we are forbidden to touch. They are so forgiving and understanding and they love that we are there to experience their history and culture, even if we do so in a way that is sometimes uncouth. I have come to see that this is the Thai way. They live with little anger and do their best to avoid stress and frustration. In general, Thais simply seem to speak more softly, move more delicately, laugh more quietly, and live with a level of serenity that is difficult to find in America.

This Thai lifestyle comes in quite a dichotomous manner. Regardless of the time of day or night, the streets of Bangkok are inevitably bustling. Cars, buses, and mopeds are weaving in and out of traffic giving little regard to speed limits, turn signals, or lanes. Street vendors sit cart to cart on almost every skinny sidewalk so that many smells and verbal advertisements assault your senses. Nine million people bustle through the city and as a dozen tuk-tuk drivers yell, “20 baht, take you anywhere,” you wonder how the people of this exhilarating nation can retain such relaxed lifestyles. And yet, their “mai bpen rai” philosophy, which essentially translates to a Hakuna Matata-esque “no worries” attitude, permeates through all the aspects of everyday Thai life.

One can even find this in the stray dogs that, despite lacking a true home and consistent owner, are calmer than the average dog back home. Though some of them look a little worse for wear, they are usually taken care of, given food and water by the community. Similarly, children are watched over by a network of caregivers: the whole family structure, all the employees of a shop, basically any one who knows the child. It boils down to community. There is a sense of dependence on one another that we do not find in our nation. Is it out of necessity? Perhaps. We don’t typically need a taxi driver or a moped carpool system to get us to work or school. Many Thais choose not to cook for various reasons (they often do not own ovens or stovetops), so they depend on street vendors for their family’s dinner. Thais intersect with others more frequently than we need to in America, and it makes for many interesting cultural differences.

So the Thai calmness, the “mai bpen rai.” Is it the result of an interdependent culture, so different from our independent American one? Is it a product of spirituality, perhaps the Buddhist principles that most Thais live by? Does it come as a byproduct of living on such beautiful tropical land, surrounded by the greenest foliage at every turn? Is it a combination? Maybe something in the water that the foreigners or “farang” are discouraged from drinking?

Where does the Thai calmness originate? I honestly do not know, but I like it and as the inhabitants of the “Land of Smiles” would say, “mai bpen rai.” No worries, it’s okay.


  1. I know this may sound bizarre, but I wonder if the climate has anything to do with it! For some reason, I keep thinking back to my high school Spanish class and how we talked about the slower pace of life in traditional Mexico partly because the heat would get so great that people really need a siesta in the afternoon to rest and escape the heat. Trying to move quickly in such heat is just not doable; I could see how that - coupled with the peaceful Buddhist ways - could contribute to a milder pace of living.

  2. Kim, I really enjoyed reading your blog! I know we had discussed this a bit earlier today. During our tour today of the rehabilitation center, I felt like I was imposing. Our guide was so nice bringing us to all the different facilities and having us meet some of the patients. In a way, I felt like I should not have been there, like I was being rude to the patients. And when the music therapy students started to conduct their session, I felt a little out of place standing there. But the nice Thai woman simply brought over chairs, smiled, and hand gestured for us to sit down and enjoy with the rest of the group. It made me feel bad that they were acting so nice and I didn’t know how to reciprocate the generosity back.
    But I do honestly think it is from the basis of their Buddhist culture. When I asked a student what it takes to become Buddhist, she simply said that it is whether you believe in it, and you are. I can see Buddhism is more than a religion to the Thai people, but a lifestyle that they carry out and follow every day. I know many of us are not Buddhist, but I think we can take a lesson from the Thais, teaching us to sit back, breathe, and say “mai bpen rai”.

  3. Beautifully written post, Kimberly. I'll be in Thailand for the first time in just a few weeks, and you've addressed some concerns I have! Let me ask you this, do you see how those cultural differences come into play when you work with patients? Is music truly a universal communication medium (as we'd like to think!), or do the differences hinder the communication we'd like to think music transcends? Sorry if I'm being too philosophical, but you all have a unique experience and opportunity for observations!

  4. Great thought! I agree with Rianne on the climate and Buddhism. Also I think they have maintained a better grasp of contentment in the present moment than America has as a whole. It seems like because we've discovered how much we can do with technology and the economy, we're always striving for something bigger, better, or faster to make us happy, forgetting that happiness is not something to be brought about externally. I think the Thais have retained a better sense of how to be content with the way things are now, while still striving to move foraward as a country. Maybe we can take a lesson from them!

  5. I think you all are probably right. Some combination of the climate (it's just too hot to live at a fast pace!) and the principles of Buddhism. And Laura - we have been getting along very well with nonverbal communication and modeling in sessions. We do have some Thai MT students that help us with some translations but the music, our facial affect, and our body language/motions can communication most, if not all, of what we want to say.