When “is” isn’t “is”

Moving from one culture to another is a big transition, especially if you want to make an effort to really understand the new culture.  One could argue that, try though you might, you’ll never fully understand it.  But over time, your understanding will at least increase.

We have a friend who moved here a few years ago.  He is making a lot of effort to understand Thai culture, reading books about Thai relationships (he has dated several Thais) and has taken some Thai language classes.

Along the way, he often has questions about specific situations, general practices, and other aspects of the culture.  Some questions are asked of me or other farang who have Thai partners.  Other times the questions are asked to Tawn or one of the other Thai partners.

I applaud his effort to learn about the culture.  It is an obligation, in my opinion, of someone who lives in another culture to make every effort to learn about, respect, and play by the rules of that culture.  The world is not our playground.

The challenge I face – and I want to point out that his intentions are wonderful because he’s asking because he wants to understand – is that he is a very analytical person, someone who sees things in a logical, rational, black-and-white way.  And the culture about which he is asking questions simply isn’t a logical, rational, black-and-white type of culture.

Tawn and I have discussed this a lot as we want to support his quest to learn about Thai culture.  And one of the things we’ve concluded is that any question you have about a culture rarely has a definitive answer.  There are no absolutes.  There may be generalities, but trying to conflate a generality with a certainty results in missing the finer nuances of a culture.  And it is within those nuances that the essence of the culture really lies.

It’s kind of like when you are learning a new language.  You are tempted to ask, “What does this word mean?”  But as Mme. Morel, the French-Vietnamese linguist who taught me several months of French at The French Class in San Francisco put it, “Words don’t mean anything.  The question is, how is the word used?”

Take the Thai word เป็น (“bpen”).  While it is often translated as “to be” or “is”, that really fails to capture how the word is fully used in Thai.  It is also used to indicate an ability to do something, the state of being afflicted with a malady, the state of becoming one thing from another, the state of being alive, and it is also used as a qualifying conjunction. 


Helen James, author of Thai Reference Grammar, goes so far as to bold the text in her explanation of the word: “bpen is not a verb ‘to be’ … [instead, it] identifies a relationship between two noun phrases or between a noun/noun phrase and an adjective/adjective phrase.”

In short, เป็น isn’t “is”.  It is so much more.

In the same way, Thai culture isn’t this way or that way.  It identifies the relationship between people and between individuals and the institutions that make up Thai society. 

Given the unique relationship Thai society has with water – the heart of the country is essentially a flood plain, after all – the water motif is a suitable metaphor for the nature of Thai culture: a fluid thing that “is” one thing but is also so much more.


0 thoughts on “When “is” isn’t “is”

  1. This is so wonderfully written Chris. Being from an equally complex culture, I often find myself unable to explain some situations, there is never a definition and everything depends on the interpretation.

  2. Whenever I asked my Thai bf about a word, he can never exactly tell me an explanation since the same word can represent several things (and there are other tonal implications as well). Also, I found out it’s very difficult for Thais (in general) to say ‘no’ or to refuse most requests. True?

  3. At the school I went to for undergrad, there was a program where you could be partnered up with someone from a different country (other students) who wanted to practice English and learn American culture. My partner was from Japan and while practicing English wasn’t so hard, trying to tell him why we do some of the things that Americans do was really, really difficult since Japanese culture is so different from American culture. It really opened my eyes a lot! 

  4. I came to the States when I was 10…Thinking back, I don’t think I have done any analytical way to learn the US culture…it was mostly intuitiveI think i am an intuitive person after all…even though some people think I am the analytical type

  5. wonderful piece, Chris.  Literallly out of this world for me.  Took me a while to digest, and come to the conclusion that you are so correct.  A word is how one uses it.  Cantonese has so many slangs that does not have to make sense, hehe, and there is really no exact tranlation into other languges. and yet we Cantonese know exactly what it means but cannot explain adequately.

  6. How cool. So “is” is contextual and relative, just like facets of culture. That does make sense — culture tries to define a group of people, but no definition for a group ever holds up 100% of the time since individuals by their very nature are different. That, and the individuals themselves are dynamic, with changing thoughts and perceptions from moment to moment, which are in turn affected not only by internal thoughts but external influences (i.e., other individuals). Man, it sounds like a … diamond. Many colors and facets that change at the twist of a wrist.

  7. @tdaojensen – Ha ha… graduate school?  Nah, I’m studying in the school of hard knocks.
    @Dezinerdreams – Exactly.  When a native finds it hard to explain, a non-native shouldn’t hold out hope to find a definitive answer.
    @amelia – Thanks, Amelia.  I imagine your experiences in HKG have been insightful, too.
    @curry69curry – Avoiding the trap of a “yes” or “no” answer, I understand that Thai culture places emphasis on making people comfortable and avoiding conflict, so saying “no” directly would not be a desirable thing.
    @brooklyn2028 – Especially as you get older.
    @TheCheshireGrins – What a great experience to help you realize how others see your own culture!
    @Wangium – Can’t you be both?
    @stevew918 – Glad you liked it, Steve.
    @dynamiqvision – Nicely put, Sion.  It is like a diamond and each of us are the splinters of light.
    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments.

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