Tag Archives: thai language

Thailand Tribute #6: Mai pen rai

Monks walking along the Maekong River in Mukdahan

Today I pay my respects to the backbone of Thai culture and its easy-going, no conflict, all smiles attitude which is summarized in one, simple phrase: mai pen rai. It seems to be an appropriate response for most situations here, as its meaning varies depending on the context. It is much easier to illustrate the utility of this phrase via scenarios, so let me paint a few pictures of when it would be an appropriate response: You are given a gift and say thank you. Mai pen rai. You are late and apologize for your tardiness. Mai pen rai. The neighbor dog jumps on you with muddy paws and stains another white shirt. Mai pen rai. A student’s backpack starts on fire during class. Mai pen rai. You are preoccupied with schedules and worry over future-oriented thoughts. Mai pen rai. You are given a three minute notice that the school is being fumigated and students are running away wildly as poisonous gases are billowing out of a leaf blower by a man wearing nothing but a surgical mask. Mai pen rai.

As you can see, there are few situations in Thailand where mai pen rai would be an inappropriate response, which is why it is my favorite phrase. It’s my fallback when I don’t have the vocabulary to express what I truly want to say. I often find myself in conversations with co-teachers and community members that have digressed to a series of pantomimes and facial expressions on my end; when my flailing and game of charades is of no help, I try to end the interaction with as much dignity as possible by smiling warmly and uttering mai pen rai. In Monopoly terms, it’s kind of like my “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Yesterday’s post on Thai time cannot go unmentioned when speaking to mai pen rai, as the Thai outlook on time seems to be a direct manifestation of this phrase. I think it is even difficult to distinguish at what point does one end and the other begin, as these two cultural phenomenons are so entangled and at times one in the same, it is perhaps impossible to do so.


Thailand Tribute #10: Boba

Boba and all its flavors: A perfect treat in hot, humid weather

Boba, bubble tea, and khai mook are just a few of the many names for this incredible drink. Although it is quite popular in the States, I didn’t experience my first boba until I was in Thailand, and it has since played an integral part in the happiness of my life here. I’m actually feeling a bit apprehensive about returning to the Midwest and it’s utter lack of boba-ness. In Thai we call it khai mook (which means “pearl”) because that’s what the tapioca balls included in the drink are called. Popular flavors range from teas and coffee (freshly brewed) to fruits and vegetables (in powder form) which are blended with ice, non-dairy creamer and of course, condensed milk. My favorites include Thai iced tea, coffee and taro. Durian was a pretty big no and I have yet to try the corn and cantaloupe, which both seem intriguing.

Above is a picture of a typical khai mook stand in our village. The flavors are stacked high in these cylindrical containers and until I started reading Thai, it was a bit of a guessing game to find the right one. Luckily taro is usually the only purple color! Khai mook has been our go-to treat for relief from the sweltering heat and humidity, a reward for jobs well done, as well as consolation after rough days at school. I will certainly miss this popular and utterly delicious drink.

Community ties, an unexpected honor

Adorned wrists after a string-tying ceremony at Wang Yang Elementary School

This picture is a result of a string-tying ceremony I was a part of last Thursday at Wang Yang Elementary School. These ceremonies are an important ritual in Thailand, usually performed when someone enters or leaves a community, or when two people are wed. The ceremony I attended last week was to welcome the newly appointed principal to our school and say goodbye to the former; Teacher Bai-Khao was to receive strings as well, unbeknown to me until the ceremony was underway!

The ceremony started when the new principal lit a candle at the top of the banana leaf structure (see below) holding the strings soon to adorn our wrists. This structure is an intricate centerpiece of leaves folded into origami-like shapes and accented by flowers. Beneath this centerpiece is a whole, cooked chicken on a platter, numerous boiled eggs, and sticky rice wrapped neatly in banana leaves. I was seated in a circle around the centerpiece with principals from several surrounding schools in addition to the Wang Yang principals. Then a village elder offered prayers, and oratorical performance that, at the end, elicited shouts of jubilation from his audience, and a shot of whiskey from a principal. Then we began the actual string-tying; one of my favorite aspects of this part is how everyone in the ceremony connects to the receipent of the string, as everyone touches an elbow, forearm, or shoulder of another, until each person in the room is connected.

When it was my turn, I had to blink back tears as the village elders, students, and their parents circled around me and waited for a chance to tie a string and give me their kind words. Many wished for me to find a handsome husband, happiness, or good luck, though quite a few (from the limited Thai I was able to pick up) also wished upon me a quick return to the school, or to not leave them at all. With a hard-boiled egg and sticky rice in each hand, I looked around at the faces of my students, trying to imprint the moment forever in my memory as one of unconditional acceptance and appreciation. I noticed one of my third-graders wiggling back into the circle at least two more times to tie more string to my wrist, his face just beaming with what I thought to be excitement and adoration, the same look I get after giving him words of encouragement in class. As the ceremony was wrapping up, one of my co-teachers asked if I understood what people were saying, and when I replied “A little,” she responded by saying “Everyone loves Bai-Khao.”

Village leader tying his string to the new Wang Yang principal

For me this experience came at an incredibly important time, as I was struggling with (admittedly) self-centered feelings of under-appreciation, becoming extremely critical of my co-teachers’ styles of instruction, and having a hard time re-adjusting to my daily routine after saying goodbye to my latest visitor from the States. This experience put me in check and reminded me how lucky I am to live and teach in this community. I was so humbled by the ceremony and it truly could not have occurred at a better time. My life in Thailand has been surprising in that regard; no matter how confusing, disheartening, or impossible a situation may seem, things just have a way of working out when it’s least expected.

In other words: mai pen rai.

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