Saturday, April 18, 2009

Grovelling - a primer

I received a comment on my blog (published elsewhere) in which someone asks me, basically, how I can project an optimistic, transparent society in a culture that enforces grovelling....

It would be easy to say, "Oh, this person just doesn't understand Thailand." That is the standard answer Thai people often give. But it is a question that deserves a more complex answer, because, in reality, a lot of Thai people don't understand Thailand either — rather, Thai society does not encourage people, nor do they have the inclination themselves, to examine the historical bases of their culture.

I use the commentator's word "grovel" throughout this blog post, with its jarring connotations, but there isn't a word in Thai that means "grovel" in the exact sense of the English. In English the word "grovel" implies that the groveller is a lower being, but in Thai a word such as "kraab" actually elevates the person referred to, and indicates that he has refinement. This makes it very difficult to discuss the issue. There's little semantic overlap between the terms of discourse.

In western culture, there is an association of grovelling with abject servitude. People see it as abasement. But in Thailand, the ability to grovel beautifully is a mark of a cultured sensibility and good manners. And, while people here don't usually bother to think this through, the fact is that even the highest members of royalty grovel to ordinary monks, and there are a lot of ordinary monks. This cyclical nature of grovelling prevents it from being the sort of sword-and-sandal "on thy knees, thou miserable cur" type of thing that westerners might expect.

If you as a visitor to Thailand have been a guest at a decent hotel like the Oriental in Bangkok, and have sat down in the lobby for a coffee, you may have been amazed to find the waitress serving it to you on her hands and knees. Perhaps it surprised you that she didn't act like an oppressed peasant while grovelling, but did it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Within this culture, it is. People who cannot grovel elegantly aren't considered insufficiently oppressed in this country; rather, they are considered ill-mannered or uneducated.

My friend the eminent intellectual Bob Halliday, years and years ago, when he was still new in Thailand, was having lunch with HRH Princess Chumbhot of Nagor Svarga (an old friend and distant aunt of mine) one day. It was the 1970s and the communist threat was always under discussion. The princess said to Bob, "Let the communists come! I'm perfectly happy for them to take over. I'd love to see the entire aristocracy swept away and replaced with a classless society!"

At that moment, an aged servant came crawling into the room. Slowly and arthritically, she wormed her way across the floor in order to pour a cup of tea for the guest.

"But princess," Bob said, "how can you say such a thing with this servant crawling around on the floor?"

Princess Chumbhot said, "Until you understand that, Mr. Halliday, you will never understand Thailand."

Thirty-five years later, Bob Halliday understands it all. He could probably explain it better than I could and his Thai is certainly better than mine.

A century ago, the western-leaning and highly revered King Rama V abolished grovelling at court. But guess what? It slowly worked its way back. People who have grown up in Thailand in the last half-century do not realize this, but I have seen it even though I missed much of the process. Elders in my family who were alive in those times, including my great-aunt who was Queen in the reign of King Rama VI, told me that there wasn't as much grovelling for a while. Yet even the most revered king in the history of this dynasty could not legislate away something so profoundly intrinsic to this culture's sense of identity. Could it change? Undoubtedly, but (to quote the Freudian light bulb joke) it would have to want to change.

The fact of the matter is that people here love to grovel, love to do it as beautifully as they can, and don't feel demeaned or abased by it. Grovelling occurs at all levels of society and in all sorts of very fluid situations. And it is not actually compulsory. Indeed, on virtually every occasion when I've been in a situation where grovelling might be called for, the distinguished grovellee has always said, "Oh, don't worry about that, sit in a chair."

In the last hundred years, Siam has therefore moved from absolute monarchy with less grovelling to democratically elected governments with more grovelling. Therefore, I want to tell commentarians in the west who equate grovelling with servitude that the model doesn't really fit here. It is, in fact, the dreaded cultural imperialism to say that it does ... but that's a can of worms of another color.

Conclusion: It might be hard to see this from an outside perspective, but I simply don't think the grovelling thing is going to have much effect on whether this country can end up with a transparent and reasonable system of government. I think a massive investment in the education and living standards of the masses might be more effective than abolishing a few rituals.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You're going to have to relax your writing style if you want people to read it. You're trying to elevate the words you are choosing in order to make the writing sound more intelligent, what this is achieving is making garden variety observations hard to read. Try talking to your audience like you're their friend, not their lecturer!

  3. Jon, having sold around 2 million copies of my books worldwide, I probably don't need help from you getting people to read this very personal little blog which is really only for my friends anyway ... and they're already familiar with the idiosyncrasies of my style :)

  4. Ahmm..I understand it just fine. Had to use a dictionary for a few words but that was all.

  5. Jeez. It didn't seem very difficult to me. As for groveling, it's said to be an antidote for pride - if you're a Buddhist, that is.

    BTW, Bangkok Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte was world-class. Just fantastic. Now, if only we could see a Don Giovanni of the same quality in Bangkok!

    - Camerata

  6. You'll have to make do with "Nozze di Figaro" for the time being in 2010.

  7. A well written, good read. Thanks for that.

    Mick (Ireland)

  8. The top 20 percent own 69 percent of the country's assets while the bottom 20 percent own only 1 percent. These assets were gained at the expense of the poor, through abuse of power.

    There is certainly alot for the lower class to grovel about.

    I am somewhat amazed an accomplished writer such as yourself would comment "I simply don't think the grovelling thing is going to have much effect on whether this country can end up with a transparent and reasonable system of government" when you know for a fact this is impossible.

    Why don't you write the real reasons why the country can never end up with a transparent and reasonable system of government?

    You understand Thailand and the Thailand way yet you are scared to death to speak out? Why is this a common trait of all Thai writers?

    Are all writers here in Thailand afraid to lose their status in society? Where is your moral responsibility to your people and country?

    Reasons why there will never be a transparent and reasonable system of government:

    1. To be a politician you much be a millionaire.
    2. You got to be a millionaire at the expense of the people.
    3. Politicians live a lifestyle that is 1000 times about their gov't salary? Ever think to write about where the money comes from.
    4. Police Department same as politicians. Rich get richer extorting the poor. How many police generals living in this 3rd world country riding around in brand new mercedes and living in mansions?
    5. Where do the poor have a voice anywhere in government?
    6. Money and materialism has replaced Buddhism and being rich is all that matters.

    It honestly doesn't make a bit of difference how many books you sell because you are a hypocrite to your own words, settling for writing fluff instead of having the courage to write for the betterment of the nation and the people.

    You know the facts and when you can write the truth at all personal costs to yourself, you will know what it is to be a world class writer.

    How about you and me get together and write a book climbing through the bowels of Thailand's Hell, exposing corruption, naming names, places, events, facts. That is the book you need to be writing friend. That is the book the whole world is waiting for.

  9. Dear Thomas,

    Undoubtedly such a book should be written, but I'm a novelist. I accomplish these goals through metaphor and through holding up a mirror to society. But what is in a mirror is inherently an illlusion. I'm okay with that. I don't mind your calling it "fluff" and anyway you've probably not read most of my books. I'm not a journalist. It has nothing to do with hypocrisy. It has everything to do with what one is called to do in life.

    And, there's another implied problem with your comment, because you keep talking about "your people" and "your country." Do you actually know what country I'm a citizen of? The truth is that I have given up an extremely lucrative career, and sold everything I own, in order to come to Thailand, a country which played virtually no role in my life until I was over fifty years old, to fight for the things I believe in.

    You don't need me to get together with you to write a book about exposing corruption and so on. You need to write it yourself if that is where your muse is pointing. For me to do so would be intellectually and morally dishonest. It's not what I came here to do.

    Anyway, my status in society here has little to do with my being a writer. Less than 1% of my readers live in Thailand, and I don't write in Thai. I left Thailand when I was 6 months old.


  10. I for one, thoroughly enjoy your writing style. For the life of me, I can't imagine why someone would want to write as most people speak.

    Write what your muse commands and pay the naysayers no mind.

    I guess I have lived here too long, as this whole groveling thing has become little more than a reflex, and a tool to manipulate the situation to my advantage. One doesn't have to buy into something to profit from it.

  11. I would like to see some more posts about Thai society.