The Thai instructor stood stymied. “Mai pen
rai means never mind,” she had just told us. “Actually,”
she said, “it means more than that…..” For the
past hour, encircled by eight intent faces, she had sustained a
machine-gun pace of oral drill designed to turn untutored tongues
into at least marginal speakers of the tonal language of Thailand.
The phrase, literally “it is not something,” is one
that fails to make the translational leap between cultures. Time
revealed its meaning, but right then, sitting on the porch of a
former schoolhouse on Hawaii Island, I was mystified.
Along with 60 other Peace Corps trainees, I was enduring five daily
hours of instruction in what the Peace Corps rated its second most
difficult language (Korean took first honors). The site, amid sugar
cane fields that abutted sheer cliffs dropping to the Pacific, was
ideal vacationland, but this was no holiday. Hours not consumed
by Thai lessons were devoted to TEFL (teaching English as a foreign
language) training and sessions on Thai culture. I, the sole non-English-teacher,
was reviewing microbiology at a local hospital in anticipation of
a teaching position at the Faculty of Medicine in Chiang Mai, a
city in the hills 500 miles north of Bangkok. By the end of training,
most of us did speak marginal Thai, but nobody got a grasp of “mai
pen rai” until later.
My education in the phrase’s nuances started the night I reached
Chiang Mai. A whirl of Bangkok receptions, medical proddings, official
briefings and sensory shocks had left the new volunteers reeling
and dazed. In this condition, I arrived by train in Chiang Mai to
be greeted by a friendly contingent from the Microbiology Department
and eventually left at my new home, a concrete monolith that housed
female faculty, medical students and young doctors in training.
Since half of all Thai doctors were women (I was told this statistic
reflected superior female performance on medical school entrance
exams), the building was huge and full. Stark, gray, it held little
appeal as the day ended and I was left alone.
Excitement ebbed and Thailand seemed less exotic than alien. My
room was small, the bed harder than any I had known. Mosquitoes
whined. Wet heat clung, an unwelcome blanket. A naked, cold-eyed
fluorescent bulb stared in, through the transom, from the hall.
I was homesick, apprehensive. Sleepless hours ticked by.
Suddenly the room burst into an explosion of sound that lifted me
off the bed. It started low and rose in a cackling crescendo that
peaked and died, leaving echoes. I knew it wasn’t a tiger,
but I knew it WAS in my room. Gingerly, I peeked under the bed.
Nothing. Then, flashlight in hand, I advanced on the stand-up closet
that sat next to the wall. I peered behind it, and two reptilian
eyes peered back. Recoiling, I looked for a weapon, settled on a
towel, and quick flick at the eyes drove their owner into view.
A prehistoric-looking lizard clasped the wall with splayed suction-cup
feet, jaws agape. Teeth to stern, not counting the tail, he measured
at least a foot. Of course, I admit that--tip-of-towel to toe--I
was much more impressive, but right then I felt little sympathy
for his plight.
A battle ensued between snapping towel and snapping jaws. Trying
an offensive toward the window, I finally maneuvered him far enough
to grab the latch on my wood-framed window screens. They swung inward,
followed closely by a cloud of mosquitoes. The lizard scuttled out.
For a long time I sat amid an insect hum, clutching my spent towel.
That was the unhappiest night of my two-year stay in Thailand.
The next morning, my new colleagues greeted my story with expressions
of awe and respect. “That was a Tuk Gaa,” one said.
“So brave of you!” Tuk Gaa was euphemese for a reptile
that, legend had it, was more tenacious than a bulldog—that
is, once it bit into human flesh, it had to be sawed off. My reaction
to this news drew a hearty laugh from my informant and, “Mai
pen rai. It didn’t get you.”
He was wrong. In a way, it did get me. Later, after I had fallen
in love with Thailand and my work there, I had no desire to saw
off memories of my night with the Tuk Gaa.
I soon found that Tuk Gaas weren’t alone in their invasion
of buildings. In Thailand, much of the outdoors lived indoors. Tiny
lizards called jink johks festooned the walls of most structures,
growing fat on mosquitoes. Once in a noodle shop, one fell from
the ceiling and landed on my shoulder. Arriving with bowls of noodles,
the owner saw its descent. “How wonderful,” she said.
“Such good luck to have a jink johk fall on you!”
Her shop was typical. In most respectable Thai restaurants, chickens
and dogs ran underfoot while sparrows awaited their chance to swoop
in for leftovers. Only tourist establishments had an antiseptic
Outside my first-floor dormitory room, the hall offered a thoroughfare
for any creature small enough to squeeze through the concrete lattice
at the end. Tomcats meandered through, singing woeful songs. In
the rainy season, June to October, huge bullfrogs lobbed down the
hall while their relatives boomed accompaniment from impromptu flood
ponds outside. And always, the backup chorus of myriad insect voices
pressed closely, penetrating walls and windows.
Although the Thai took great pleasure in the latest Western technology,
they also remained somewhat skeptical about its potential. At the
medical center, equipment was scarce and prone to rebellion. Some
Western devices suffered outright culture shock.
Toilets for example. The standard Thai hole-in-the-floor model came
with a large barrel of water, with a plastic dish afloat—a
sort of manual flusher. Enlightened American builders, however,
had installed western toilets in the new medical center finished
shortly before my arrival. Many patients hailed from rural parts
of the province and, upon entering one of the restrooms, must have
been brought to an abrupt halt.
Though I was seldom present for the encounter, restrooms along the
hall near my office were rife with evidence of a struggle. Toilet
seats, often cracked, bore footprints. One could trace the user’s
thoughts: Ok, where’s the water? No barrel, but aha! Lift
this lid in the back and here it is. Hmmm, no dish anywhere-- I’ll
just have to scoop with my hands.
But nobody ever put up instructions. I saw these, fully illustrated,
only on stall doors in plush Bangkok hotels where even restrooms
were carpeted. Efficient or not, regular mop-ups continued, testament
to a cavalier view of such foreign contraptions.
A similar attitude prevailed toward vehicles, apparently as much
entertainment as transportation. Normal traffic was a series of
what Americans consider close calls, and at least one city bus ride
ranked high among experiences shaping my understanding of “mai
pen rai.” Chiang Mai buses, like many of their American kin,
ran on capricious schedules. Two might arrive taillight to headlight,
followed by none for an hour. But the price was right, about two
cents, and the conversations aboard always a pleasure.
One day during the hot, dry season, I was waiting along a canal
that ringed Chiang Mai. Across the street a wat, one of myriad multicolored
Buddhist temples that dotted the city, glittered in the sun. I waited.
And waited. Finally a bus limped into view, so crowded it listed
with people clinging to its door. Still, it stopped. And coughed.
And died. The noise within also died, until the driver’s voice
moaned, “Rot sia (it broke down)!” A disconsolate crowd
poured into the sun’s steamy glare, while the driver washed
his face in the canal, shrugging apologetically between splashes.
Moments later, a nearly empty bus appeared. The crowd surged to
meet it, though a few—including me—hung back, losers
in a Darwinian skirmish. The vehicle groaned off.
Peace descended. The splashing stopped. I glanced down at the canal
and my eyes met the grinning expression of the driver. He laughed.
“Bohm klang (I was kidding),” he announced as he leaped
back on the “disabled” bus. The engine roared to life
and off we went. I can’t say exactly how, but the incident
sheds a flood of light on the meaning of “mai pen rai.”
Perhaps the most difficult—and most important—adjustment
I had to make in Thailand was in my work. When I arrived at the
medical center, the morning after meeting the Tuk Gaa, I was ready
to Accomplish Things. My avowed motive for joining the Peace Corps,
a desire to live in and learn from another culture while doing constructive
work, had distilled to a frenzied need to feel useful, to dissipate
my unease through activity. My nerves frayed further when I found
that nobody expected anything of me at first. I was to settle in,
get comfortable, get to know people. In the throes of culture shock,
I might not have endured if I hadn’t fallen ill with infectious
mononucleosis, a disease well known for its tranquilizing effect.
By the time I recovered, the “mai pen rai” attitude
was taking hold, and I had a productive but relaxed tenure.
Like most Americans who went to work at the medical center, I had
started out clock-centered, task oriented, and driven by a certain
faith in technology and “can do” efficiency. But I soon
found that a foreigner did well to acquire a less intense outlook.
The clock held little sway.
Not that things didn’t get done. My students worked hard and
came in all hours to tackle their term projects. But they and the
faculty held that life’s minor mishaps—even some of
its major schemes—are better met with “mai pen rai”
than flaming tempers or jangled nerves. Enjoying the day’s
work was at least as important as getting it done. The task at hand
was generally less crucial than the people and complex hierarchal
relationships at hand.
Americans who couldn’t make the cultural leap ended up leaving
the country frustrated, railing against inefficiency. I was among
those who learned to enjoy the Thai way, and my days were fraught
with the unexpected--usually more delightful than disastrous. Like
the egg incident.
Some eggs had been purchased on the naïve assumption that,
as represented, they were only eight days “along” and
could be used for a virus study in the medical student lab. An appropriate
virus would be injected to produce a cytopathic effect, observable
under the microscope. But eight days turned out more like 18 days.
When I entered the lab one morning, the incubator greeted me with
a chorus of cheeping. I was a mother. Three dozen tiny faces peered
through the glass, leaving me with no virus study, but a good start
at chicken farming. Mai pen rai.
One day I watched a visiting American health official lead an entourage
of Thai hospital administrators through the labs, as he expounded
on needed improvements. They were nodding, smiling, and laughing
quietly, as the Thai often do when uncomfortable. Misunderstanding,
the American left thinking he had made a favorable impression and
that things would “shape up” around there. The incident,
among others, left me wishing the West—without losing its
vitality—could temper its people’s lives with a little
more “mai pen rai.”
Like most Peace Corps volunteers I knew, I suffered reverse culture
shock upon my return to America. I recovered, of course, but many
years later, something of the Thai way remains a part of me and
Thai expressions often surge to the surface. Especially one.
So many times, so many places, it has served me well—“Mai