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The Thai View

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THIS CHARMING MAN


The different ways in which we each interpret certain events and situations can be influenced by many factors, from family upbringing to level of education, and from personal experiences to cultural conditioning. Our differing perceptions say a lot about who we are, both individually and collectively.

On a personal level, this was once profoundly exemplified in a conversation I had with an old friend about my favourite Beatles song, All Across the Universe. My viewpoint was that it was such an uplifting song because of its laid back yet so defiantly powerful lyrics. My friend, however, just felt that these very same lyrics were depressing. Our different perspectives focused on our varying interpretations of the line: nothing’s gonna change my world. While I took this to mean that I would be happy forever, my friend interpreted it as meaning that he would be stuck in the same desperate rut for the rest of his life. My friend is a manic depressive schizophrenic; I am not.

While I try not to stereotype people, there are also, beyond doubt, clearly defined collective mindsets that divide nations and peoples to this day. These are usually centred on such emotive issues as culture, race, religion, politics and football. The following is a summary of an event that happened in Thailand on December 19th and 20th, 2007 and of polar reactions to it that prove the existence of a Thai cultural identity that remains so diverse from my own that the two may never be reconciled, no matter how long I live here and how much I feel I have assimilated her mores.

While being driven back to Bangkok in the early hours from election campaigning in Korat, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva had just awoken from a nap and wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, when his BMW sedan was involved in an accident with a truck which left the car written off and the politician severely shaken up but luckily with only minor injuries.

Abhisit was then transferred to the van of party chief advisor, Chuan Leekpai, so that he could complete his journey home. Unfortunately, the van broke down soon after, causing another transfer to a third vehicle. It proved to be third time lucky, because he was then finally able to make it home with no further distractions.

The next day, Abhisit was being taken to meet voters when the van in which he was travelling developed engine trouble, forcing him to switch to his Mercedes-Benz. Surely a car built by the Germans should be reliable, but no. The brakes jammed and the hapless politician had to make yet another vehicle change.

As I was reading this story, my reaction was that the guy was clearly jinxed. He had been beset by so much bad luck that he could have been forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive about his prospects of completing any journeys in the foreseeable future. 

I blithely assumed that most people would have shared my opinion. I was wrong.

The overwhelming Thai reaction was a desire to know which amulet Abhisit had been wearing at the time because it must have brought him great luck. The reasoning was not that he had been the victim of a monumental run of bad luck that had caused him great inconvenience and harm, but that, on the contrary, he must have been incredibly charmed to have survived the accident. The fact that he had been unlucky enough to be in a car smash in the first place and all the car breakdowns were conveniently ignored while the accident itself was viewed from a perspective so far from my own that it was barely in the same solar system.

As long as I have lived in Thailand, and as well aware as I am of the Thai emphasis on supernatural forces, this mass reaction still left my flabber well and truly gasted.

Many Thais will routinely put their lives in the hands of lady luck if they have the right amulet around their neck or tattoo on their back. The secret seems to be in knowing which amulet to buy. Abhisit’s escapade was, to many, a sign to invest faith and cash in the same amulet as he was wearing. To the temple, from which it came, it was the best possible advertisement.

Am I right to think this reasoning is wrong? My cynical side (which accounts for about 95% of my body mass) wonders why, for example, the victims of fatal traffic accidents still perished when they were wearing amulets and travelling in vehicles festooned with enough amulets and charms to ward off even the most persistent of evil spirits. Perhaps they didn’t have the “right” amulet. The logic of superstition tends to be selective when it comes to interpreting facts in order to perpetuate its own beliefs while conveniently ignoring those that contradict them.

If I am wearing a lucky charm and something good happens, it’s because of the charm. However, if something bad happens, it’s because of some other superstition that was more powerful. Superstitions confuse me anyway. I can never remember whether black cats bring good or bad luck, so I never know what to expect when I see them. Fortunately, I’m not superstitious at all (touch wood).

Personally, I prefer to retain as much control over my own destiny as possible. You make your own luck in life, and the harder you try, the luckier you get. Now, where the heck did I put that St. Christopher?

Paul Snowdon – December 21, 2007

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