FRIENDS IN STRANGE LANDS
One definition of a friend is someone who takes the time and care to listen to your story. They let you narrate without interruption or noise. They await your validation as to the worthiness of the story told.
This is why it is very difficult to find a friend in the modern world.
Everyone is telling their story and no one is listening except to their own voice.
When you live in a foreign culture one of the first things you notice is the different nature of friendship. There is no universal definition of friendship anymore than there is a universe definition of love, romance, democracy or wine. Each culture slaps on its own values, attitudes and history. That’s what makes friendship difficult between people of different cultures. The same applies to love and romance. Let’s not even get into a discussion about democracy or wine. There is no generic definition of friendship.
I offer a few observations about friendship among the Thais. Even that category is too broad. The friendships at the village level are a spider web of interconnected families, neighbors, and schoolmates. The cement holding these tight-knit friendships may become unglued as many people leave the village for Bangkok, but roughly the same structure can be found at the village level. People helping to build houses, plant or harvest crops, and child care place friendship as another name for cooperation and mutual assistance among people who have few resources other than “friends.”
By the time one looks at urban Thais in Bangkok, the general erosion of friendship found just about everywhere has started to settle in. Rather than helping with the fields, they hire each other’s relatives or friends, put them on company boards, or in executive positions. They give presents to friends. Some of those influential friends may hold an official position. The gift giving, advice giving, counseling, and sharing creates strong, lasting bonds between Thai friends.
Thais see nothing wrong with these activities that bring friends together and keep the friendship fueled. It is simply a variation of the village model scaled up to a capitalistic urban setting. While in the West we’d label the activity as nepotism, cronyism and corruption: the three horsemen that ride to destroy free markets. For the Thais, there is something cold and alien about free markets that exist only between strangers who must always stay at arms length.
Friends help each other. They don’t help strangers. Those who do are honored as saint. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is an expression that applies to friends but also includes the small courtesies accorded to strangers. The value of friendship in Thailand has an almost ancient quality to it. Mutual defense and protection may have been the original reason why we formed friendships. The modern world led by the West has evaluated economic activity among strangers as the moral, correct model of behavior. But not everyone in Thailand would agree this is an improvement. What becomes of friendship in this brave new capitalistic world where pure drive and competition is the ultimate goal? It may be that friendship is indeed less efficient in regulating and creating markets. But what is the quality of life in a purely efficient market where friendship becomes an badge like a shrunken head hung on the outside of a cannibal’s hut? This difference of perspective causes a great deal of mutual misunderstanding and distrust between the Thais and foreigners. And makes it harder for them to become friends as the basis of friendship encompasses a different set of drum beats.
A case can be made that modern friendship has fled the living room, coffee shop, pub or restaurant and set up on Facebook. Electronically people have now accumulated hundreds of “friends.” People they really don’t know much about, and who they share scraps of daily life like throwing a bone to a dog. Ask a Thai if this is the way they understand the basis of friendship. Of course, many Thais have Facebook pages. Likely many more will follow. The distancing—emotionally and intellectually—from those who once would have fallen within our friendship circle has expanded and contracted at the same time. We have so many more friends than our parents and grandfathers, and so many fewer people who will listen to us narrate the essential stories that form the core of our identity and lives.