We were 67 Peace Corps trainees in Bangkok for a weekend. We had been in Thailand for 6 weeks and had been learning about Thai culture, its people, its food and its language. We had learned how to be riap roi in our dress and our movements so that we will be taken seriously as guests of this country. When we meet people now on the street or at the school or at the municipal building we clasp our hands in front of us and bow slightly as a sign of respect. There are no hand shakes or fist bumps.
The Peace Corps addresses us weekly on the length of women’s skirts and the tightness or transparency of their shirts and blouses. Men have it a bit easier, but are still required to wear dress pants or khakis and collared shirts, tucked in of course. Open-toed shoes and sandals are no-nos and women are not to show bare shoulders. During training visible tattoos must be covered and piercings, except for a simple pair of earrings, need to be filled with clear plastic stems. We are reminded by staff that we will be judged critically by our host country counterparts, fellow teachers and the students we will be working with. It is likely we will be living in small villages and rural areas, far from the urban hustle and bustle of Bangkok and its big city ways. But of course they are trying to prepare us for the worst. They remind us that once we get to site we can feel out the community and adjust our appearance and mannerisms as we deem appropriate to the people and the local customs.
With this daily drum beat of what it means to be riap roi (appropriate) echoing in our heads, we were set loose in Bangkok to dance as we pleased. Several groups of volunteers headed to fancy hotels and pampered themselves by relaxing by the pool and getting some much needed sleep. Others headed into the frenzied Khao San Road area, popular with international backpackers and filled with bars and hostels and street food. For them, it was all about the excitement and being in their 20s. Still others scattered themselves around this city of over 8 million people to be close to restaurants or shopping or cultural attractions or simply to be away from the other volunteers for a day and a half.
After six weeks in a province several hours from the big city, a province known for its river fish, rice and sugar cane fields, we were hungry for the excitement, the waves of people and the conveniences of urban life. Thailand being a global destination, international travelers pass through Bangkok before heading to the country’s renowned beaches or into the northern mountains and its national parks. Many stay in Bangkok just for its cultural or commercial attractions. It was our first time since arriving in Thailand that we US volunteers would be able to see and be among people that looked, walked and sounded like us.
We Peace Corps trainees stayed in hostels and hotels alongside these fellow adventurers, these American, European and Australian tourists. Many were acting as they might back home. They were showing little acknowledgement of, yet alone respect for, the Thai culture they were surrounded by. I found myself looking down my nose at their dress and their gestures and I judged them against what I’ve come to learn about Thailand and its people.
Exiting the BTS, Bangkok’s Sky Train, on my way to catch a van back home I noticed a tall man, probably in his 20s and possibly European or American, standing along the side of the walkway leading from the station stop headed toward Victory Monument (Anusaowareechai, in Thai). He was shirtless, brown hair covering his chest, and he carried a large brown back pack on his back. He was sweating, as we all were. I smiled at him as I passed but thought to myself, C’mon dude, this is Thailand, show some respect. But all around me there were other tourists just like him with flip-flops and bare shoulders and untucked shirts. I looked at them and shook my head. After 6 short weeks in Thailand I didn’t see myself as a ‘tourist’ anymore. I was here to live and work; I was seeing myself as a cut above these tourists. These travelers probably didn’t even realize that the locals refer to their capitol city not as Bangkok, but as Krung Thep, City of Angels. No, they’re only here for the beaches, the mountains, the elephants, cheap beer and cheap sex. As Peace Corps volunteers we’re here to get to know the people and their culture on a deeper level. We’re the ones who know how to tell the taxi drivers to turn on their meters, knowing that paying a flat rate is ludicrous. We’re the ones who can confidently order something not on the menu and ask for it spiced to our liking and without MSG. We’re the ones who understand naam-jai*, not just how to spell it, but what it means and how to give it and receive it humbly.
*English-Thai dictionaries define naam jai as spirit, generosity, good will. It translates literally as ‘water of the heart.’ It can be a simple gesture of appreciation: giving a small gift to a friend after returning from a trip or when you’re invited to their house for dinner. By many it is seen as basic, common courtesy: giving up your seat on the bus, letting someone with one or two items go ahead of you at the market or giving the right-of-way to another car in traffic. Naam jai doesn’t take a lot of effort. The understanding is that these small gestures are part of the glue that holds a society together, and makes us all a little more human, a little more decent. It reminds us that there is something to admire in people who take into account the fact that other people have feelings. Naam jai between two people touches us all. (Adapted from Christopher G. Moore, Heart Talk, 2006)