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Chapter 8: Language, Culture and a Good "Heart-to-Heart"

Updated: Feb 1

When our family moved to Thailand to work with minority language groups many years ago, my husband and I were introduced to a book by Christopher G. Moore called, Heart Talk.

This book is like no other on the study of the word jai* meaning "heart" in the Thai language. It's a fascinating read for anyone doing any kind of cross-cultural work here because it provides insight not only into "love" emotions but into most of the emotions expressed by Thai people.

In this book, there are over 700 jai words/phrases that the Thai people know and use constantly. Whether it's talking about positive emotions or negative emotions, good character traits or bad character traits, right choices or wrong choices, the word or phrase usually includes jai. Moore calls it, "the central metaphor in the Thai language."

Let me share a few of these "heart" words to help you understand how differently the Thai view life. There are some words that cross over culturally such as jai-yai "big heart" in referring to a generous person, or jai-sing "heart lion" referring to a courageous person. However, there are many that are surprising and sometimes even opposite of how westerners think.

For example, jai-nooy "heart small" doesn't mean a stingy person. It is referring to someone who is highly sensitive emotionally, and is easily hurt or offended by others . Kin jai "eat heart" is a verb meaning, "to impress" in a positive way; or, jai-phra "heart monk" refers to a person who is extremely compassionate and forgiving; or naam-jai "water heart" which refers to someone who takes into account another person's feelings. This last one could be translated to mean empathy or sympathy in English but in Thai there are two totally different jai words for those feelings.

Are you getting the picture?

I must also mention one of the most used jai words: kreng-jai "awe heart"--a word that is almost untranslatable into English. Moore calls it, "the heart of hearts of the Thai culture and class system." In his definition he writes:

"The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions--a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear--which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer."

It takes Moore 1 1/2 pages to define this type of patron/client cultural system and even then he confesses that it goes so much deeper. This type of system is also not unique to Thailand as it's found in many other Asian cultures and, from what I understand, South American cultures as well. However, our western culture finds this a difficult concept to grasp. Often we are more jai dii phi khaw "good heart, ghost enters." Anyone care to guess what that means?

Since we've been back here, I've been doing my own study/review of Thai. That's what reminded me of this book and what happens when we come in contact with other cultures--not just here but also in our culturally-diverse world back in North America. A book like this can help us see the world through different eyes--help us understand how another person views the world, where they place their values and why and how they believe what they do. And also, help us build bridges to greater acceptance and love. For the greatest of these is love.

*tone is not marked on any of the Thai words

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