Opinion: Honest Learning From Strangers in the Next Table

A man weeps outside Siriraj Hospital on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Bangkok, where HM King Bhumibol had earlier died.

Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

One of the occasional perks of sitting alone at a cafe or bar next to a table of conversing people is you get to hear things you otherwise wouldn’t.

At a cafe in Bangkok, I recently sat next to a table of four people talking about “Thainess” and the alleged problem of the hotel industry.

On “Thainess,” three of the four opinionated people were trying to describe the essence of Thai identity. The three; a Thai-Indian man, a Thai-Chinese woman in her late twenties who grew up in Hong Kong, and a Frenchman of similar age to the rest, were deep into the debate when the lady concluded that “Thainess” is about three things: lying, smiling and avoiding conflict.

The rest seemed to concur and the debate effectively ended.

I personally do not believe in looking to find the essence of culture or the much-abused notion of “Thainess.” The former basically posits that all diversity in society can be reduced to a few alleged dominant traits – correctly or not.

As for the notion of “Thainess,” not only does it reject diversity in norms and behavior, but it is often used to promote a specific kind of behaviour according to the wishes of those in power.

The most obvious is the dominant hegemony tying “Thainess” to loyalty to the monarchy, which leaves Thais who question it – or even the draconian lese majeste law – as “un-Thai.”

Back to the conversation I overheard, the same lady complained about the seniority system in the Thai luxury hotel industry and how once you speak openly about work-related conflicts with other colleagues, they cannot put the matter behind. She said that as a result, she could no longer expect to advance her career at the organization in the future because she didn’t avoid open conflict.

Being just an eavesdropper, I lacked the context to fully verify such situations, but it left me with food for thought and reminded me how some Thais would avoid confrontation until it ruins an organization or the economy, as problems are swept under the rug until the last minute. Think of the 1997 financial crisis, for example.

Last topic worth mentioning is the Thai-Indian man complaining about how other Thai commuters would avoid him like the plague on the BTS Skytrain, as they assume all Indians have a strong body odour.

“But like other Thais, I shower properly and don’t smell,” he told his friends in English. The man then added that the seats next to him are often the last to be taken. At one time, he said he was standing next to a smelly Caucasian and that the Thais around him assumed the odor came from him and started distancing themselves.

These conversations are at times politically incorrect but frank and fluid. They enables us to rethink some of the assumptions we have and lead us to topics we may not have thought about. It is the reason why I often enjoy sitting alone next to a table full of opinionated people.

I had been eavesdropping for about half an hour and by then, the group seemed aware that I had been sitting alone for far too long.

I smiled, got up and discreetly left my table feeling thankful.