For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a pretty “serious” person. In fact, I’ve only recently begun to realize how serious I have been my entire life. The funny thing is, before coming to Thailand, I didn't consider it very much because “serious” always served me pretty well. I don’t think I was ever an intensely serious person, but most things I did involved an element of seriousness because that was how I showed I really cared. Being serious and showing a strong work ethic was how I earned the trust and respect of others. American culture seems to support this mentality. If you work hard enough and put enough work into something, you’ll be successful. And, even if you aren’t successful, you’ll still be respected to some extent because everyone loves a hard-working American! I’m not necessarily saying that hard-working and serious go hand-in-hand, but they are linked by an element of focus, and focused people tend to be perceived as “serious” at times.
Here in Thailand, “serious” does not seem to serve me well at all. “Serious” doesn’t seem to serve many Peace Corps Thailand volunteers well. Sometimes we can have the best intentions and just want to show we care by working really hard, and it only ends up distancing us from our Thai counterparts. At least, this was the case for me. My first semester at site I tried my normal approach to work, which was to show everyone how hard I could work and how dedicated I was. Not only did I run myself into the ground a little bit, but I think that it may have really intimidated my co-teachers and kept us from growing close at first. I was unhappy because working really hard and pushing really hard wasn’t getting me anywhere. They didn’t really seem to value my work ethic very much, even though they seemed to realize that it was important to me for some reason. In all of my past experiences I could usually “prove myself” via work-ethic in almost no time at all. Here it just wasn’t working out that way.
I don’t know why things are the way they are here, but in my experiences, many of the Thai people I have met just do not respond very well to “serious.” Thailand is the “land of smiles” for a reason. Almost every emotion can be handled with a smile. If you are uncomfortable, a smile will do. If you are sad, go ahead and smile. If you don’t understand, laughing is just fine. Everything must have an element of “sanuk” (fun). As recently as a few months ago, this was one of the things that irked me the most about Thailand. Americans are usually taught about the importance of directness. If you feel a certain way, communicate. Let it out! Not in Thailand. I have yet to see any serious displays of emotion here. I have been struggling for a long time trying to figure out how to adapt my American self in Thailand. The solution that I finally seemed to stumble upon was to just not be so serious. Easy, right?
It’s one thing to realize it, but completely another to put it into action. I’m not sure when it started, but one day I started just smiling along with the rest of them when things started to get a little “too serious” or personal. One distinct example was last week when some of the village girls pointed out how hairy my legs were. My honest reaction was humor. I laughed and then we discussed how many American women shave their legs, but it’s almost unheard of for Thais to do this. Another example was when me co-teacher mentioned the probability that we would be working on Saturdays again this month. I assured her that it was “not serious” and not a problem. I wish I knew the Thai equivalent of “roll with the punches,” because that was how I genuinely felt about it. Instead I stuck with “mai bpen rai” (forget about it/no problem, no worries…it can be translated in several ways). To me, not being serious equates to letting go, and I’ve been doing a lot of letting go here.
It’s amazing how much easier life has been since coming to the “not serious” realization. My co-teacher told me so often last semester, “mai dtong bpen seriat” (don’t be serious/you don’t have to be serious), and I’m finally realizing that it’s not personal, it’s just another way of handling situations as they come. This “not serious” way happens to work really well in Thailand. It was hard initially to not see it as avoidant, but I think I’m starting to get it. Work ethic has its place, but relationships come first here. If the relationships aren’t there, working hard will only get you so far. Not being so serious is growing on me a lot as I start to figure it out a little bit. I still have my moments, but I’m smiling and laughing a lot more. I’m feeling lighter and more open and accepting of the way things are here. I’m realizing the positivity and progress that can come from lightening up and letting go.