Why mai pen rai?

I have mentioned the Thai phrase “Mai pen rai” (my pben rye) at least once or twice before.  In Thailand, it translates to all of the following:

You’re welcome!

No problem!

No worries.

Que sera, sera.

Ain’t no thang!

I say “Mai pen rai” many times a day.  And I think “Mai pen rai” ALL the time. And I think I’ve figured out why it’s so common, and so necessary, to have this philosophy of go-with-the-flow, unruffled feathers in Thailand.

Because Thailand doesn’t do ANYTHING half-way. And ANYTHING can happen. For example:

It’s not a rainstorm — it’s a monsoon with flooded streets and every flying insect within five miles dive bombing your apartment for shelter.

It’s not a spider — it’s a freaking pet.

It’s not freshly cut pineapple — it’s freshly cut pineapple with an extra bag of spicy sugar to dip it in.

It’s not a lady helping you find the right bus when you are lost — it’s a lady you just met two seconds ago calling the driver of the bus you are supposed to be on, and making sure he stops and waits for you.

Another example in my every day life: I haven’t looked up a minibus schedule since I got to Suphan. (I’m not sure such a schedule exists, actually.) I take minibuses to Bangkok all the time. I just arrive at the bus station behind the temple, get on a minibus, and wait for it to leave. They may go every hour but I’m really not sure. This doesn’t bother me at all.

So it’s nearly impossible to live here if you expect things to go as planned all the time, or if you don’t thrive (at least partially) on spontaneity.

I am not 100% successful at this, though. A mai pen rai attitude doesn’t always come naturally, especially for Americans who were raised on ideals of productivity and performance standards and efficiency, for better or for worse.  A few weeks ago my co-teachers, Caitlin and Caitlin, asked the head of our department if there were any school holidays left this semester so they could run to Bangkok for visas they needed for upcoming travel. A fair question, with a month left, as special celebrations happen on a dime and without much warning here. (Awesome if your classes are canceled at the last minute and you’re asked to dress up in Thai costumes for Thai National Language Day, but a little tricky when your students are — surprise! — off to Japanese Camp the day you planned to give midterms.)

Dressed up for Thai National Language Day!

Dressed up for Thai National Language Day!

After asking about our schedule, we found out that school ends a FULL week earlier than we thought. So my weeks left in the semester went from four to three in five minutes. I remind myself that our Thai teachers don’t fully understand that we live in an information vacuum — I understand a LITTLE Thai, but certainly not enough to comprehend the constant announcements (seriously, all day long!) made on the school-wide PA system. And then I remind myself — Mai pen rai. The students will learn what the students will learn. It’s okay. Why worry?

In a country that is defined by extremes and unpredictability, the only attitude you can have, and stay sane, is – “Well, it will all work out, I’m sure. No reason to stress.” Mai pen rai.

And the kindness and generosity (which at this point, is becoming redundant if not legendary) of the Thai people take care of the rest. I’ve never been lost here for more than five minutes, even when I spoke ZERO Thai. In Ban Phe I got off of a bus at an abandoned bus station late at night, and three different people stopped in their cars to try to give me a ride or directions. In America, we’d be skeptical or scared in this situation. In Thailand, I had to repeatedly say, with a smile, that I knew where I was going, just a short distance away, and say thank you about 20 times. And then I felt bad that I couldn’t take them up on their insistent offers to help.

I think this will be the hardest part of my re-integration to any culture that isn’t Thai. For those of you who I see in my daily life, you will probably hear me muttering “Mai pen rai,” as I arrive an hour late for dinner or happy hour because I was distracted by the sunset or simply forgot that seven actually means seven.  But you know what? Of all the things I’ll bring back from my Thai travels, I think mai pen rai is a pretty good one.

One thought on “Why mai pen rai?

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