The bus dropped me off at the 7-Eleven on the main highway in Ranong at half past 5. The trip from Bangkok took over 9 hours and I was a bit tired. The last song-taew from Ranong to my village leaves at 5 and having missed that my options for getting home were limited. I flung my heavy backpack over my shoulders, selected one of the more upbeat playlists off of my iPhone, took a deep breath of acceptance and started out for the 6 km trek up the mountain. Luckily it had cooled down to the low 90s and even more mercifully it wasn’t raining. Dtarn had originally agreed to pick me up but had emailed me a day earlier saying she forgot about her cousin’s wedding and was unable to fulfill her commitment. Instead she invited me to the wedding and would then drive me home afterward.
After being away from home for four and a half days, tired from the long bus ride and not really interested in plastering a smile on my face for three hours pretending to understand any conversation directed at me, I declined. But having been in Thailand for eight months I knew the declination needed to be worded most carefully.
Enter greng jai. Greng means stiff or rigid. Jai (pronounced jii) is the Thai word for heart (there are some 900 phrases in Thai using the word jai.)
Greng jai is a difficult concept for most foreigners, particularly Westerners, to understand and appreciate, and is especially frustrating to those of us dealing with it daily. Thais don’t really like to talk about it themselves. Generally, greng jai is the restraint of one’s own interests and desires, especially where there is the potential for discomfort or conflict, where there’s a need to maintain a pleasant and cooperative relationship with someone. There are many examples and nuances, some that make sense, some that don’t. But each one underlies a deeply rooted social value in Thailand, of getting along and thinking beyond one’s own selfish interests. Thailand, and other Asian countries, lives under the umbrella of a collective society. In the West, particularly in America, we lead more individualistic lives, thinking of ourselves before society-at-large. We will gladly tell people how we feel about them or their actions with little regard to how that may impact the other person. We question authority and are often times “in your face.”
What is greng jai? Deference. Duty. Respect. Authority. Obligation. It is conciliatory and non-confrontational. These words can be used to define the Thai social value of greng jai. They are the respectful words employed to express our understanding of this Thai social norm.
Submissiveness. Rolling over. Not rocking the boat. Appeasement. Avoidance. Age/rank has its privilege. These are the words and phrases most Americans would actually use to describe the same principles. They are darker, angrier, less tolerant, more negative and self-centered. Therein lies the clash between East and West.
Dtarn felt she had an obligation to see me safely home after my trip. She had agreed to pick me up. She had a responsibility. Her solution was typically Thai in its generosity, I would attend the wedding. I could have easily accepted this invitation and smiled through it all. But my Western values, my need to be alone, my fears and insecurities, my stubbornness, my self-interests pushed through. Dammit, I’d rather walk home.
In declining Dtarn’s generosity I needed to do it in a way that showed respect and avoided making her look or feel bad in not fulfilling her original obligation to me. The first attempt was over the phone. That failed miserably, neither of us being able to convey our intentions with our limited language skills. Responding in writing to her email was the best way for me to express myself and the easiest way for her to tap into Google Translate.
My message back to her was chockfull of Thank yous and pleases and I was amazed that I could use so many conciliatory words and expressions in a 50 word email.
During training we discussed greng jai with our teachers, trying to wrap our heads around the nuances of this Thai social value. We were given examples to read and mull over and contemplate how we would handle the situation if we were placed in the scenarios. Age plays into it, rank and social status play into it, but the overall principle is simply to not offend, maintaining social harmony. Our Western egos can easily get in the way and upset the order and stasis of peace. Other volunteers have written about greng jai in an attempt to better understand it themselves. Two of my favorites are here:
I don’t know whether I acted appropriately in my own little scenario and the sad part is that I probably won’t ever find out–from Dtarn or anyone else here in my village. Greng jai prevents directly criticizing someone, particularly an elder. They may hurt my feelings. Perhaps I’ll hear about it in a round about way, back through my program manager at the Peace Corps office in Bangkok. Likely not.
Epilogue. I didn’t have to walk the entire way up the mountain to my home. A third of the way up a pick-up truck, a stranger, stopped to offer me a ride. I gladly accepted, his AC was cranked up. I’ll write soon on the Thai value of naam jai.