June 24, 2018

Letters from Thailand: What the Thai phrase “Mai Bpen Rai” really means

With constant imagery of bright blue, beautiful waterfalls in a large, mountainous Thai jungle, I walk around with a friend of mine and we are quite hungry after a long hike.  I searched for Thai vegetable green curry, wandering here and there.

After we searched through a few menus and not finding it, we come to one of the last places in a long line of restaurants.  I peruse through the menu on a dark wooden stand.  Then, out of nowhere, a clang sounds and part of the Buddhist shrine next to me falls to the ground.  I had knocked it over.  A woman who works at the restaurant approaches to see about the fuss.  Apologies in Thai, “Kau Toh Ka”, “Kau Toh Ka” stumble out of my mouth in quick succession.  The woman starts to pick up the shrine and says “Mai Bpen Rai”. “Mai Bpen Rai” (direct translation= It doesn’t matter, similar to “Hakuna Matata”) easing my mortification with her calm, forgiving smile.  

Mai Bpen Rai is a phrase often associated with the Thais and their laid-back, easy-going attitudes.

Prapapornipat, a Chinese-Thai professor of Thai culture, language and Buddhist studies, said, in her experience, although a Thai person may say Mai Bpen Rai and smile, it does not always mean that this is actually the case.

She said often the Thai people suppress their emotions as Thai culture values “chai-yen-yen” or cool-heartedness (calmness) and harmony even in tricky situations. This then gives the appearance of a laid-back, communal culture.

Prapornipat said she theorized the suppression of emotions could lead to negative psychological effects on the Thai people as they are never allowed to speak their mind.  She said this could also lead to a lack of communication especially on negative topics or with critique.

This cultural norm of  “Mai Bpen Rai”  has roots in Theravada Buddhism (the religion of Thailand) and the Buddhist belief in karma. The belief in Karma translates into an acceptance of things as they happen and a lack of frustration with negative life events as they have happened.  Thai Buddhists believe things happen as they are meant to and cannot be greatly changed.

Karma also dictates how things happen in this life based on your actions in past lives, good or bad. The more merit (good deeds) you have, the better karma you have and better life you have and vice versa.  Merit making comes from things like doing good unto others and treating and loving all living things.  Because of this, you will see many Thais smiling and being very friendly.  You will often not see a Thai lose their temper or express negative emotions.

Prapornipat said she believed the societal norm of emotional suppression leads to a buildup of negative emotion which can eventually outburst.  This happens when Thais are pushed to the point of not being able to hold back anymore.  She said she believes this plays into another part of the Thai culture where if someone causes a Thai person to lose face (somewhat similar to embarrassment but with greater cultural significance) or causes them harm or offense, they will remember and pay it back.  Countering, if someone does something good for a Thai person, they will also remember and do their best to repay that person for the rest of their life.  As can be inferred, this can be a very good thing or a very bad thing.

She said this can sometimes make interactions with foreigners or farangs difficult as they are often quite open with their emotions also negative ones and can lead them to sometimes offend Thai people.  Thai people generally understand the farangs come from a different culture, but even farangs can push Thai people too far causing negative interactions. She said there are many ways to avoid this and emphasized the importance of understanding, to keep smiling, and calmness especially with the language barrier.

   In my experience, there have been a few close calls where I as a foreigner have unintentionally almost pushed a Thai person too far.  My closest experience was within my first few days in Thailand. I had been trying to figure out my phone situation and was confused on what Thai plan I had.  Throughout trying to figure it out with the phone company representative while still very jet lagged, I experienced frustration and confusion because of the difficult communication and the language barrier.  Towards the end of our conversation, I could tell both myself and the Thai woman were at the edge of our patience and simply gave up, deciding to figure it out later.

Eventually, I did figure it out, but after the conversation with Prapornipat, I have certainly been more conscientious in conversations with Thai people.  I always try to keep a smile on my face, per Prapornipat’s suggestion, even when frustration arises and just simply let it go.

So far, while keeping this laid back, easy-going attitude in mind, I have found great enjoyment and much less stress in difficult situations.  Even if it is just at the surface of the Thai culture, I believe I will continue this mindset in the United States and take things as they come. After all, Mai Bpen Rai.  (It doesn’t matter.)

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