Propaganda Or Personal Perspective? Understanding The Thai Smile

The first time I saw a man thrown off his motorcycle was on Lan Luang Road in the government district of Bangkok.

In a flash, both he and I were jarred from our worlds. He was knocked to the pavement in his. And I was knocked from the utopia of mine.

Up until then I’d overlooked the reality that Thailand could be a dangerous country. I’d jump on the back of motorcycles without helmet and without thought. I’d take speeding vans across the country. I never realized danger lurked around every soi. I never paid much attention to the newspaper photos of vans folded up like accordions from high-speed highway crashes. I knew madness on the roads existed.

But to think I’d experience any of it was far from my mind.

Although seeing the man thump across the pavement hadn’t affected me physically, as he lay there in agony, grabbing at his leg, his unfortunate luck blew back the cloud which fogged my vision. And I saw a different side of Thailand. I was shifted from one perspective to another, from vacation mode to reality. And the reality is the rest of the world continues whether you’re on vacation or not. Kids go to school. Women and men head to work. And some of them—one particular man on that morning—get struck off their bikes.

This wasn’t the first time an unsuspected experience lifted the self-imposed veils from my eyes. Earlier this year I was buying gaeng hed—mushroom soup—from one of my favorite vendors. It struck me that she never smiles. And as I looked around the outdoor food court I realized most of the patrons wore neutral expressions. They were chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

But to say they were smiling anymore than Americans do at lunchtime would’ve been a lie.

It got me thinking: is the whole idea of the “Thai smile” propaganda to keep the image of the country in a good light? I’m not saying Thais are stoics. Thais love to have fun no matter what they’re doing. The students in my adult English classes show me this. But do Thais smile as much as we’re led to believe?

When I first met my wife in America I told her how much I loved Thailand because Thais were friendly all the time. She looked at me with both eyebrows raised. She told me Americans smiled more. We went back and forth for a good 10 minutes, me defending her home country and she defending mine.

“The first time I got on the bus and the driver smiled and said good morning I was shocked,” my wife said. “I didn’t know what to do. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! In America people do this?’”

But in my mind Americans didn’t smile as much as Thais. I told her about my favorite chicken fried rice lady who smiled all the time. I told her about the muay thai fighters who trained with smiles plastered to their faces. I told her about the customs agents who welcomed me into Thailand with smiles.

But after all these years I’m beginning to see things differently. I’m beginning to believe it’s not the people of a culture who smile more or less, whether they’re American or Thai. But it’s our own subjective experiences that lead us to believe certain things.

When I came to Thailand on vacation I was always happy. I didn’t have to work or deal with my supervisors. I didn’t have to commute. So I walked around lighter. I smiled more. And I got more smiles in return. Now I live in Thailand and I’m faced with some of the same frustrations as I faced back home. Life here is no longer a 24-hour long holiday. So I smile less. And I get less smiles in return.

People from Asian cultures know how to mask their emotions behind happy faces much better than Westerners. But I’m beginning to believe smiles in Thailand are not handed out without warrant. In this video called “Amazing Thailand Smiles,” for example, two out of the three comments at the time of this writing are from Thais refuting the merits of the video.

As someone who used to come to Thailand for vacation, I would’ve rallied behind this video one-hundred percent. But now I live here and I’m more likely to side with the Thai commenters. These comments remind me of what I’d say about a video on American tourism if I still lived in America.

I’ll admit, I tend to put other societies on a pedestal. I became so numb to American culture that I only saw the best parts of Thai culture. And then I compared the best of Thailand to the worst of America.

Don’t get me wrong. I know Thais like to smile. But did I let the propaganda machine pump this idea into my head that smiles fill Thai society? Did my light-hearted attitude on past vacations attract smiles? And does my more serious lifestyle in Thailand now garner less smiles? Or has my perspective shifted yet again?

I’ve become so numb to Thai culture that when I think back to life in America, I see nothing but smiles.


Featured image is by Binder.donedat (CC BY-ND 2.0 licence)



About Author

John Wolcott is a freelance writer and Business English teacher in Bangkok, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He writes about fatherhood on The Fathers Journey and teaching English on Business English Thailand. You can find him on twitter @TheJohnWolcott.

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