Sunday, November 7, 2010

Land of Smiles

This is the obligatory Thailand post about smiles.  Anyone who writes about Thailand has to write this piece sooner or later, or the Kingdom revokes his/her creative license.

So okay, why is Thailand called the Land of Smiles?  Look left.  The smile is the Kindom's default expression.   It reflects the basic sunniness in the Thai disposition, but more to the point, perhaps, it's an individual contribution to consensus, which is what Thais see as the basis of their country's harmony.

Thai people literally greet the world with a smile.  Sure, it's easy to over- emphasize this and even to caricature it, but it's nearly impossible to exaggerate it.  Almost the first impression people have upon visiting the Kingdom for the first time is that everyone smiles at them.

This is perhaps especially true of Americans, who come from a country in which smiles (at least, in the cities) are apparently rationed -- upon returning to it from Thailand, I sometimes think oft the the Land of Snarls.  On the third or fourth day of my first visit here -- a visit that turned into part of each year for the rest of my life -- I became conscious that my cheeks ached because I'd been returning so many smiles.  (I gave that experience to a Korean character in The Queen of Patpong.)

Do the smiles mean that Thais are happy all the time?  Of course not.  They encounter disappointment, bereavement, and heartbreak the same as we do.  Thai society is full of injustice and inequality.  The Thais, however, have come to a collective conclusion that it's better to go through life with Buddhist equanimity, natural good cheer, and a certain amount of grace.  One of the first things a farang learns is never to show anger in an argument -- the moment you do, you've lost.  You're probably going to lose anyway, but if you keep a smile and a cool heart, you won't also look like a jerk.

Am I suggesting that Thais never go postal?  No, I'm not, but they don't do it very often.  In a world where courtesy and cheerfulness matter, where curmudgeons are pitied rather than scorned, there's just not quite as much to go postal about as there is . . . well, elsewhere.


  1. :)))

    Tim, you knew somebody was going to do that, and since I got here first I just couldn't resist!


  2. Why "obligatory", Tim? It is lovely to see these pictures and read about people who smile readily.

    Unfortunately, life in these United States is more complicated. One of my daughters uses public transportation in New York City. People know better than to make eye contact let alone smile. I heard her telling her brother that at least twice a week there is someone seriously damaged mentally on the train. She doesn't tell me this stuff; apparently, she has forgotten what my imagination can conjure.

    Babies and old people are safe smiling so now I can smile at people to whom I haven't been introduced. But a man accused of sexually assaulting a five year-old offered as his defense his belief that she led him on by smiling at him.

    Be glad you can live in "the land of smiles" for part of the year. How does smiling work out in Los Angeles?

    Beth (who thinks, since Tuesdays election, that living on a remote island seems a very good idea).

  3. Thanks for the grins, Jeffrey.

    Beth, I just mean that one MUST write about smiles if one writes about Thailand, even though absolutely everything one can say about Thai smiles (without working really, really hard) has been said a thousand times already.

    Smiling in Los Angeles is marginally safer than smiling in New York, but nowhere near as much a cultural norm as it is in Thailand or the Philippines, probably the world's two smiliest countries.