Imagine an office. There are desks scattered around the room, each with a teacher working at it. There are maybe ten people, busy people, typing on their computers, scribbling on papers, and one (maybe not so busy) sleeping. One of the teachers gets up, begins to pour herself some water, turns, and knocks her cup onto the floor where it immediately shatters. What happens next? Does the room burst into chaos with people checking to make sure no one is bleeding? Do people run around looking for a broom and a towel? No. And no. A few people lift their heads and glance over at the broken pieces of the cup before going back to typing or scribbling…or sleeping. A few offer lighthearted jokes and laugh. Some don’t react at all. The only people to stand and offer help are the two foreigners in the room (Chinese and American, respectively), and the help is gently refused, with a smile. “Please sit. Mai bpen rai.” Yes, this is Thailand. Mai bpen rai. Stop worrying. Now imagine this room in America. I think we can agree there would be quite a lot of bustling and perhaps a bit of chaos as the stress-ridden minds of the Americans react to the sound of breaking glass. But this is Thailand, where more often than not, people simply don’t react. Life moves slowly here, but it moves with intention. The broken glass will get cleaned up. Stop worrying. The person who broke it isn’t hurt, and if she was she would say so, and we would help her. Stop worrying. We aren’t not offering help because we’re selfish or lazy; we just know that the breaker of the glass is fully capable of handling the cleaning on her own, and it will only make the process more difficult if five people try to hold the broom at the same time. Stop worrying. Sit down. Mai bpen rai.
The teachings of Buddhism have permeated the mindsets of the people in Thailand, just as Christianity has done in America. In Thailand, following the example of the Buddha, the psyches of the people seem to be in a constant state of ease, if not tranquility. Whereas the American psyche seems to be forever on a battlefield, running, jumping, and dodging, the Thai psyche seems to be in a garden, strolling, humming, and smiling. They’re more balanced, their thoughts more under control. A single broken glass simply isn’t enough to send them into even a mild tailspin, as it would be in many American settings. Buddhism focuses greatly on the need to control reactions and on the importance of not reacting in a negative way. Because of this, Thais rarely show any negative emotion. I’ve never seen a Thai cry. I’ve only seen a Thai yell once or twice. I have never been criticized by a Thai. The older generation often won’t show many positive emotions either, but the younger generations have loosened up on this, and I’ve seen many young and middle-aged Thais jump with excitement, screech with happy surprise, and laugh loudly at jokes. The lack of visible negative emotion is likely the biggest contributor to Thailand’s nickname, “The Land of Smiles.” And that is certainly what it has become to me. It’s the land that has made me smile.