Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hierarchy of Numbers

I have been living in Chiang Mai City for the past week and it has been very enjoyable. I am now living and interning at the headquarters of the Highland Research and Development Institute a part of the Royal Expansion Project, instead of living and working in the rural village of Papae. Everyone came to the consensus that I was not getting the experience I wanted in Papae.

After spending two weeks (total) in the province of Chiang Mai, I have come to the realization that the province Khon Kaen has become my home away from home. On Friday, March 9th, I missed the 9pm bus from Chiang Mai to Khon Kaen and I was truly upset. I opted to sit around Chiang Mai’s bus station from 10pm until 3:45am, so that I could arrive in Khon Kaen City in time for the Fat Radio concert. While waiting, I started getting scared because I was a young woman in a bus station at night (in addition, the lighting was dim and there was a loud man parading around shirtless). Needless to say, I was ecstatic when a 20-year-old English female student from Lampang University joined me in my waiting quest. I, at that moment, felt what they refer to as “strength in numbers.” 

Nim and I commenced talking about EVERYTHING, it felt like the universe had placed her in that awkward bus station at the wee hours of the night just for me! She began to talk about her vegetarianism (she’s actually what Thai’s refer to as “Jey”- they do not eat any meats, eggs, dairy, garlic, ginger, strong spices, or alcohol). Nim told me that she had decided to change her diet and quit drinking alcoholic beverages when she starting learning more about Buddha. She shared her opinions on monks who decided to break the rules (by drinking, smoking, keeping a wife, and etc) and or turned their monk-hood into a business (i.e. taking the donations they received at funerals, merit ceremonies, and other ceremonies that require monks to chant/sing Pali prayers).

Throughout our conversation, I was amazed (and thankful) at this young woman’s willingness to divulge her honest opinions about her culture and in almost perfect English. She explained to me the 5 precepts of Buddhism. Side note: It is important that I mention that there are different flavors/types of Buddhism depending on geographic location (i.e. Tibet, China, Thailand, etc) and each individuals needs. Also, I am still learning about this topic SO I AM NO EXPERT, but I like to share what I have learned.    

5 Buddhist Precepts:

  1. Do not harm living beings (some people include or exclude animals--depending on their dietary preferences).
  2. Do not lie.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
  5. Do not become intoxicated (this precept is also up to interpretation).

Upon telling me the five principles, Nim explained to me why she was at the bus station. She had come to Chiang Mai City to visit a friend and her friend had ended up drunk. Nim clarified that her friend had assured her that she would not work while she was visiting (I did not see the connection between her friend’s drunkenness and her working). I asked Nim what her friend’s profession was and she explained that her friend gave men her company and drank with them. At that moment, her friend (in her newly purchased motorbike) joined us in our conversation. Her friend (whose name escapes me) began furiously and drunkenly asking Nim to go back to her apartment since she would be waiting until early morning for the bus anyway. I was fearful that Nim would bend her arm and join her friend back to her apartment and I would be left alone in the shady bus station, luckily Nim opted to calmly refuse her offers and we fought our sleep and fears together. We happily answered each others questions about others cultures. At 4pm, on March 10th I arrived in Khon Kaen City (my home away from home) just in time for the Fat Fest music concert where I rekindled my love for Thai indie music.

In this entry, I would like to address THE HIERARCHY OF NUMBERS in Thailand. In my opinion, the importance of certain things stands out more in Thailand than it ever did in America. For starters, I don’t remember strangers in the U.S. asking me specific details about my personal life. In Thailand, people have no problem asking me the following:

    How much do you weigh?
    How much do you make a month?
    How much was it?
    How much do you think this was?
    How old are you?
    How old is your mother? 
(And many more random questions that I just cannot recall at this moment.)

The daughter of the family that I was staying in the rural village of Papae, Chiang Mai, Thailand asked me multiple times how much I weighed. Upon my refusal to give her an exact amount she began to guess my weight and she said, “Ok, tomorrow we will weigh you.” I was appalled by her suggestion and confused by her determination to know my exact weight. In my opinion, knowing that my weight was more than hers would place her in an advantageous position in the hierarchy of numbers.

Women (and sometimes men) in Thailand have no problem talking incessantly about their weight and how fat they think they are (when in reality they are petite by American and Thai [any] standards). I have never been comfortable talking about my weight (or others weight). Having the topic of body weight at the forefront of many discussions has awaken in me a battle that I’ve had with my own body. One of my life mentors told me to not allow myself to compare my body type to Thai women’s ideal body image, because we come from different races and genetic make up. At times, this is easier said than done. There are days when I obsess about my caloric intake and making sure that I get enough exercise throughout the week and there are other days when enough people comment on my beauty that it cancels out the fat/weight comments/questions.

In Thailand, people have no problem asking about your salary because they like to know where in the income hierarchy everyone lies. In my school, everyone knows each others salary. Side note: The teachers like to celebrate their advancement in the salary brackets by hosting an after-school party that often includes karaoke, delicious food, and whiskey. Besides my body weight, money matters is my other least favorite topic of discussion.

Some would justify Thai’s comfort in asking specific personal questions because everyone sees each other like family. Around family members, one tends to feel at liberty to say and ask whatever comes to mind. Side note: In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that in Thai culture everyone refers to one another as Pee/P’ (older sister or brother) or Nong (younger brother or sister) followed by their nickname. For example, a 50-year-old would refer to me as Nong Dada or just Dada, but a 10-year-old would refer to me as P’Dada.

There are days when I am overwhelmed by the hierarchical structures I am forced to navigate or abide by. And on those days, I remind myself that a year ago I was aching to be in the position I am now. I have the privilege to represent my country and learn from my travels and encounters. I am also fortunate to observe a culture on the other side of the world and notice that most societies function very similarly to one another. As an American, I have witnessed that we also catalogue people by age, race (skin color), socioeconomic status, gender, sex, creed and any other way we can categorize ourselves.

As I wrap up this entry, I ponder on this questions: Why do we, as humans, have the constant need to create differences from one another? Why do we create hierarchies that belittle some and places others in pedestals?


  1. Glenda. I loved this post! I miss you and know that you are having an amazing experience. I'm glad that I get to follow your experiences through you great writing! What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

    1. You are definitely right about "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I'm really glad that I can keep everyone posted on my life in Thailand!