Following a nice piece from Khun Voranai Vanijakaposted on Opinion section in Bangkokpost (find the link below this post). Language can define a social hierarchy. Thai _ beautiful and intricate _ is also a tongue that fixes each social class in its proper place. The way we refer to each other by simply using variations of the word ”you” signifies the social gap between the nai and the prai. Here are just a few examples: Mueng is an impolite word. It can be used as an insult or in anger. However, it can also be used to denote familiarity. Two friends referring to each other as mueng is normal and acceptable. A nai may call a prai mueng. But a prai would never address a nai in that manner.
Tua-eng (or tua for short) is the cutesy way some young lovers refer to each other. It’s are also popular in the homosexual community. A nai and a prai would never refer to each other using tua-eng, except perhaps when they engage in a business transaction of the carnal kind. On the bed or in the bathtub, the rules of the game tend to change.
Khun is the polite and formal manner of address. It’s like saying Mr, Ms or Mrs. It’s a word that signifies polite equality and it can be used by anyone _ a nai and a prai can refer to each other as khun.
Tan is what the nai would prefer to be called. In some cases, if you don’t refer to a particular nai as tan, it’s ”off with the head” _ figuratively speaking, of course.
The social hierarchy in Thailand is a bit more complicated than just ammart (aristocrats) and prai (peasants). Just below the ammart, are the nai, which can mean anything from boss to master.
Those falling into the nai category may be high-ranking officials, bureaucrats _ mandarins, if you will. Certain billionaires, millionaires or highly successful businessmen also like to see themselves as nai _ not as bosses, but as masters.
Whatever the case, they all have one thing in common: they insist on being referred to as tan, which is the equivalent of ”Honourable” or ”Your Excellency”.
What that does, you see, is automatically fix the middle (or lower-middle) class people who work for them as prai, submissive to the master.
Here’s a true story that may illustrate the point. But while based on real events, names of persons, places and things have been changed to protect the prai involved.
Reader discretion is advised.
Once upon a time in a land not-far-away, over 1,000 delegates from 135 countries belonging to an international organisation gathered in Bangkok for four days and four nights to strategise and celebrate the eternal struggle against evil.
The setting was luxurious, the food sumptuous, and memorable performances were staged. Not only did they roll out the red carpet, the Thai government agency hosting the event nailed it wall-to-wall, courtesy of the Thai taxpayers.
One man was honoured to be the host of this forum.
We shall called him Verona after that Italian city made famous by William Shakespeare _ and also because of his fondness of tragic romances. Such stories always choke him up, like Isan sausages that just won’t go down because he never chews properly.
On the final day, many closing speeches were delivered.
Once they were over, Verona’s co-host was to announce the names of the leading members of the international organisation so that they could take their seats in the front row for the closing ceremony. And that was supposed to be that.
But then, during the speeches, a lady short-and-round ran up to Verona. Business suit dishevelled, hair out of place, sweat pouring down her forehead. She was panting. We shall refer to her as Sista’ Girl.
Shoving a piece of paper towards Verona, Sista’ Girl, barely catching her breath, blurted out: ”You’ve got to announce the names on this list.”
Verona looked at Sista’ Girl with kind eyes and slapped her with a nice smile. He said: ”Calm down, Sista’ Girl. Who’s on the list?”
On the list, hand-written, were names of nine nai on the board of directors of the arm of the Thai bureaucracy hosting the event. They too were to take their places in the front row. This was not on the agenda, but the nine nai made a last-minute demand.
To sit anywhere else would mean ”losing face”.
With worry in her eyes, apprehension oozing out of her every pore, Sista’ Girl anxiously cautioned: ”Don’t mispronounce any name! Don’t mispronounce! And refer to them all as tan, not khun, but tan! Please, please, please, please, don’t forget!”
Sista’ Girl was ringing her hands, begging for Verona to take the matter seriously. Verona looked down at the list, trying to make out the handwriting.
He reached out and squeezed her right elbow gently; a manly-like attempt to soothe her worries. Verona said: ”Sista’ Girl, worry not. I shall take care of it.”
Sista’ Girl took a deep breath, and then her eyes lit up. She snatched the list from Verona and took off running, as if she were a member of the gold-medal winning Thai women’s relay team at the Asian Games.
Minutes later, she returned, panting, sweating and even more anxious. She said, looking downcast, ”Two have left.”
Apparently, Verona was told, the speeches were too long. The two nai weren’t happy. They didn’t want to wait. They had things to do.
Sista’ Girl handed Verona back the old list with two crossed out names, accompanied by a look that reminded Verona of his fourth grade teacher.
”Tan! Don’t forget! Refer to them all as tan. Not khun, tan!
”If you don’t, hua khad, hua, khad!”
Hua khad means ”off with the head”. She repeated it twice. Verona thought to himself: What’s up with the hua khad talk? They are not even royalty!?
”Last night, the MC [there were different sets of MCs] referred to tan as khun twice,” Sista’ Girl said with dismay.
She mumbled: ”Hua khad, hua khad.”
Verona and Sista’ Girl looked at each other and he understood. It’s not Verona or that other MC who will be hua khad. It’s Sista’ Girl and other staff members who will suffer the wrath of the nai, if they don’t make sure they are honoured properly, with sufficient pomp and circumstance.
And so Verona, to make sure Sista’ Girl’s head stayed where it was supposed to be, wrote the word ”TAN” in front of every name in bold capital letters!
Ladies and gentlemen, double standards, the social gap and the feudal mentality _ they run deep, and are integrated into the culture, defined by the language. It isn’t just between the aristocratic ammart and the peasant prai, but also between the bureaucratic nai and the prai who work for them.
How then are we to achieve equality, a cornerstone of democracy? Let’s not blame the language; after all it is man who creates words. The culprit is the mindset, the attitude.
Perhaps the nai should chill out and embrace the word khun more, for the sake of all the ”sista’ girls” and the ”brothers” out there who work for them.
After all, all men and women may not be created equal, but surely we can treat each other with fairness and equality.