You don’t have to live in Thailand for long before you’ll run into the concept of “kreng jai”. It is a hard expression to translate but it basically means being considerate and deferential to others, and not wanting to bother or inconvenience them. This is especially true if the one whom you’d be inconveniencing is your social superior. If you want to call someone late at night, you don’t because you are “kreng jai.” If you need a favor from an important person who is busy, you hesitate to ask because you are “kreng jai.” At one level, it is a pretty easy concept to grasp but it isn’t always applied in the ways that I would expect.
In particular, I’ve been surprised that people are not “kreng jai” enough to keep the volume down on their parties, local announcement systems, and advertising trucks so as to not disturb the neighbors. Is your son entering the monkhood? Blare really loud music so the whole neighborhood can hear... starting at 5:00 am. Want to have a really fun karaoke party? Turn the speakers up all the way to 11. Want people to know that your are a running for a local political position or having a sale on big screen TVs? Mount massive speakers on 3 pick-up trucks and send them out to cruise around neighborhoods in a caravan at a top speed of 2 miles per hour, repeating your message for all the world to hear... at top volume. This last one is a particularly big hit among young expat moms who’ve just put their babies down for a nap.
In each of these situations, I’ve thought, “Why aren’t they more ‘kreng jai’? Don’t they care that they are bothering the whole neighborhood with their annoying noise?” But the funny thing is that I seemed to be the only one who was bothered. My Thai neighbors didn’t seem to mind. One time, when a loud party was going on, I said to a neighbor, “That music is too loud. Why don’t they turn it down? Has anyone told them that it is bothersome.” My neighbor smiled, and replied, “Oh, they are just having fun. And they don’t do it too often. We ‘kreng jai’ them.”
Isn’t that interesting? Where I come from in the U.S., it is incumbent upon the person making the noise to be considerate of those around them, to be mindful that he doesn’t bother them. Having a party in your apartment? Keep the volume down so you don’t bother the neighbors. In Thailand, however, it is the opposite. It is not the person making the noise who is supposed to feel “kreng jai” but the person who hears the noise who should be “kreng jai”. Hear a loud party in a neighboring apartment? Don’t say anything about it so you don’t interrupt their fun.
The spiritual take-away lesson here is that one way to apply Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27) in the Thai context is to not let yourself get bothered by other people’s loud, annoying noise. If you want to love your Thai neighbor, keep your mouth shut and your attitude in check when they make lots of loud, annoying noise. I know that this is easier said than done, but I think that it is what we must strive to do, with God’s help. (I should probably add the caveat that depending on your relationship with the person(s) who are the source of the noise, it may be possible to do something about the noise in a culturally appropriate way. But more often than not, it is necessary to grin and bear it.)
The Golden Rule, “Do unto other as you want them to do unto you” (Matt. 7:12 Luke 6:31) is a universal, but the application of it is not. Although I would do something different in America, the Golden Rule might be applied to loud noises in Thailand like this: “Don’t let yourself get upset about your neighbor’s loud noise as you would not want your neighbor to get upset about your loud noise.”