Thai values: Jai yen yen

I learnt about jai yen reading up on Thai culture between my first and my second trip to the Land of Smiles.

Jai yen – cool heart. That’s keep your cool, stay calmed and composed, don’t be too overt about your feelings.

In fact Thai language has a lot of expressions that utilize the word Jai, heart – basically, in relation to feelings.  Nam jai (kindness, generosity) greng jai (consideration for others)…

Ready, steady…go!

I’ve been stuck in traffic in Bangkok many times, and it always impresses me how drivers go about their business -that is,  unannounced lane changes and U-turns peppered with motorbikes zipping left and right of them– without even touching their horns.

“Jai yen yen!” my friend Ek would tell me whenever I got impatient at the songthaew’s  frequent detours, en route to our accommodation in Ko Kood.

Jai yen is about not getting into fights, but it’s also about not displaying your feelings in public – especially negative ones.

I like it. I guess in a sense it can be seen as an offshoot of Buddhist spirituality. Keep a calm and collected demeanor as a down to earth version of the truth that we should keep craving at bay. Why get all worked up when peace and joy basically depends not on external reality, but in the quality of one’s consciousness?

Wat Phra Narai Maharat, in Korat. Not a bad place to ask for jai yen.

I also like jai yen because I tend to like polite manners. Polite people are not necessarily better than rude ones, but I find it less stressful to be around people with manners. Britons, for instance.

However, what really disarms me is the combination of sanuk (love of fun) and jai yen. Most middle-class brits are delightfully polite, granted, but Thais tend to be polite and fun at the same time. When on holiday, I’ve seen parties of them downing bottles of SangSom from early morning, but rarely do they start screaming or, God forbid, become violent. Talk to them and they’ll smile their ubiquitous, surely polysemic and oh so cute Thai smile and hey, maybe even offer you a drink.

Seeing large parties of Chinese tourists in Ko Samet and Laos made me come up with the thought that Thais are, in a sense, Asia’s Mediterraneans. Stylish, friendly….. and polite.

On second thoughts, this simile has its shortcomings. We Spaniards, for instance, like to think that we are sanuk. Possibly. We are definitely almost as gregarious as Thais.  And yet, the same guys who laugh and party and joke to no end will just as easily get all worked up when driving or yelling at their kids. Whatever we are, Spaniards don’t live by jai yen.

I broke my friend Ek’s heart when, one evening in a Korean restaurant in Bangkok, I told him that I was not interested in him in that way. Ek became quiet for a few seconds, then shed a single tear, and eventually smiled and picked up the conversation where it had been a few minutes before.  A devout Buddhist and my teacher on most things Thai -from spirituality to cuisine- he taught me a moving lesson on jai yen I shall never forget.


Further reading:

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