Author Topic: “Saving face” in Thailand a challenge  (Read 549 times)

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Offline thaiga

“Saving face” in Thailand a challenge
« on: August 09, 2013, 02:08:31 PM »
Editor’s Note: In our May 17, 2013 edition of Hometown Focus, we ran an introductory story by Iron Ranger Marie Shanks about her experience as a newly-arrived Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Today we share an update from Marie from Nong Daeng, Amphur Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. More updates will follow in future editions of HTF. – Jean Cole


Marie Shanks with her students in Bpratom 4, which is equivalent to grade 4 in the U.S., on their first day of school. Submitted photo.

America. Go. Do. Accomplish. Lists. Timesheets. Reports. Meetings. Classes. The words in my head flutter from one thought to the next causing a traffic jam of ideas! “Jai yen yen,” I say to myself (relax; jai meaning heart and yen meaning cool; to have a cool heart), yet these thoughts awaken me, forcing me to write to clear my head. So, here I sit, in my bedroom, scrounging for the nearest pen and scrap of paper, with a Fitness magazine as my table, holding my little flashlight in one hand and scribbling illegible words with the other in an attempt to keep pace with my mind! I need to capture these ideas before they disintegrate into the abyss of my overprocessing, over-analyzing existence! An existence in which I scavenge to maintain some control in a world that feels out of control.

This is a vigorous test of body and soul, heart and commitment, adaptability and understanding, a marathon of selfless service as a Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in a rural village in Northeastern Thailand. Each day I awake with the focus of fulfilling goal one of the Peace Corps: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. However, as I step onto the grounds of Wat Ban Kokenongwaeng School, I am quickly jolted back into the reality of this world I have chosen. I am not in an American school; rather, I am in a Thai school where a culture of “greng jai” and “saving face” prevails.

“Greng jai” is a cultural necessity born out of Thais’ utter avoidance of and dislike for any form of direct confrontation. When faced with a choice, Thai people will evade saying directly what they want or mean because they strive to maintain a sense of harmony. In Thai interactions, it is common for people to “greng jai” by sacrificing personal desires in order to avoid denying the ideas, needs, or wants of others. This can result in Thais offering assistance or agreeing to help others even if they really would prefer to say no. They also dodge difficult situations and conversations that may cause conflict and confrontation. This concept of “greng jai” is complemented by the need to “save face” in Thai cultural interactions.

The idea behind “saving face” is that people want to avoid being embarrassed or made to look like a fool. This is a universal human desire, yet in Thai culture it is not only a desire, but a true need for emotional survival which may result in consenting to the expressed choices and beliefs of others in order to maintain harmony and respect. Losing face in Thai language is “sia naa,” meaning broken face, from the word “sia” meaning something not working and “naa” meaning face.

In Thai culture, one can generate emotional currency through “saving face,” as it can help build strong relationships and soothe perceived problems in the present. Since Thai culture focuses on thinking of to the present rather than the future, if you “lose face” by showing emotions of disapproval, disappointment, anger, or sadness today, your currency has lost its value for tomorrow, thus one must be very self-aware when interacting within the Thai culture.

These behavioral expectations create confusion as my feelings and actions are maneuvered and manipulated into acceptable norms based on Thai cultural values. It is an exhausting game of emotional management for an American like myself who values direct communication, expression of emotions, and intellectual curiosity -all behaviors which I would normally utilize with my Thai co-teachers and our students as a means to promote critical thinking. In order to achieve my goal of introducing participatory, studentcentered learning approaches, a substantial amount of communication, preparation, and expression of desired goals and objectives is required - at least from an American perspective! But this outlook is only valid if I were teaching in America and each day I am more keenly aware of the need to adapt my personal approaches in this new culture.

The month of May on the Iron Range equates to the restlessness of students and teachers alike as they count down the last minutes of school until the carefree days of Ely Lake Beach, trips to The Freeze or Dairy Queen, and bike rides at dusk; the freedom of sunshine and warmth and the vaporization of schedules and agendas. The month of May in Thailand represents the end of summer vacation and the start of a new school year. This variance in time is the least of the monumental disparities between Thai and American schools that in my few short months here have challenged my outlook on not only the educational system, but life as a whole.

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles but through the eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village, can also be fairly coined The Land of Maintaining Harmony; the Land of Unexpressed Emotions; The Land of Pleasing Others! This is not a land conducive to a person with direct problem solving approaches, emotionally charged responses, and a desire to communicate openly and honestly, yet it is a land that is teaching me the valuable lessons of deep breathing, acceptance of myself and others, and appreciation of the vast array of human diversity.

Marie Shanks is a Peace Corps volunteer.

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