I had a long talk with a Thai colleague the other day about the nature of freedom. She is convinced that Thailand is freer than the United States, and has visited the United States many times. She, and other Thai I’ve met always point to all the rules that govern behavior in the United States. How you can build, where you can park, what you can do, what you can buy, what you can sell, where you can sell, and on and on. She asked, “why do you Americans always want to control what others do? Why can’t you just try to control yourselves?” She used the word “mai pen rai” to describe the Thai attitude toward such tolerance. Just let the others do what they want, then “mai pen rai,” meaning don’t let it bother you. Don’t try to control others! And certainly do not come to Thailand offering advice about how we should run our country!
I’ve though a lot about what she said—and know that it is a general attitude of people who have travelled. So for the last two days while I’ve been in Chiangmai,, I’ve focusing on the mai pen rai attitudes of how things are ordered here in Thailand. Things that bother my American sensibilities, but do not seem to bother Thai people. here are some of the questions I’ve come up with.
Why are the streets so narrow? Because people park where they want, and there is no idea of “eminent domain” and the greater good when they build a road–which is why the curb is built around important trees. Mai pen rai.
Why is the neighbor allowed to have such noisy geese which might interrupt my sleep? Mai pen rai.
Why can motorcycles wend their way through traffic, catching me unawares? Mai pen rai.
Why are all the sidewalks full of potted plants, restaurant seating, and stuff in general? Mai pen rai, and just walk around it.
Why do so many people make illegal U-turns? Mai pen rai—there are typically no police cars around anyway, mai pen rai.
Why do people make it so easy to push into traffic, even when it is at a standstill, and I am in a hurry? No worries, mai pen rai, let them in.
Why can drunk tourists wander around inappropriately dressed for the conservative Thai culture? Mai pen rai.
Why is the incarceration rate so much lower in Thailand than the US? Who knows? Why worry?
Why do so many Thais ride their many motorcycles without helmets, risking the occasional fine? No worries, nothing a small “tip” to the police officer cannot solve. Mai pen rai.
Why are so many motorcycles carrying three or four people? Mai pen rai, no my problem.
And it goes on, I guess.
Years ago I read a book called “Mai Pen Rai means never mind” by Carol Hollinger which was published in the early 1960s. She wrote a whole chapter about the lecture she got from someone about the lack of freedom in the United States. “There is no freedom to spit,” she was told!
The funny thing is that Americans of course think that Thailand is not a very free country, and that the United States is the freest country on earth. There was a military coup a couple of years ago, and sometimes web sites are blocked. I get the National Censorship “blocked” notice come up every once in awhile. The note informs you that reading that particular website is a waste of time and not appropriate. Quite often they are right, but it is still an affront to any American definition of “freedom.” For example, a story was published in the New York Times today (February 22, 2016) about Thailand’s military government which to my surprise is so far is not blocked. If you are outside the country and want to have a look, go Google it after reading this blog, and see if it is still up on the NY Times website. It is written by the New York Times reporter who was based in Bangkok for ten years, and is a long complaint about autocracy and controls on freedom of the press in this part of the world. I’m actually not all that sure it will be—but we shall see.
Anyway, most Americans would also very much disagree with my Thai friend’s definition of freedom regarding doing what you want. They want the focus of “freedom” to be on issues like freedom of the press, free elections, and so forth. How would my Thai colleague’s definition of freedom square with the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003? After all that invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it was also about controlling another country’s affair. No Mai Pen Rai for the Iraqi government of 2003!
That brings me back to the article published in the New York Times today. Whether it is censored or not in coming days is not of that much interest to my Thai colleague. She is well-aware of what is happening in her country. At the seam time she is also convinced of is that it is freer than the United States.There is an old song “Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign” which sums up her view, I think.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.