SHAME MEETS COURTESY

 

 

The Buddhists believe that desire and suffering are conceived at the same moment. I have decided that courtesy and shame have the same relationship. Here in Thailand, I have been attending public swimming pools for eight years now, and I realized that I have never seen a male Thai person’s penis. Thais are very shy, almost puritanical about nudity. There are many Thai couples who have never seen each other naked, even though they’ve had children together.

Thanks to happy ending massages and places like Pattaya and Patpong Road in Bangkok, where thousands of prostitutes line the streets, you’d think it would be otherwise here in the Land of Smiles, but no. You will never see a co-ed sauna here, nor any public displays of skinny dipping.

One of the first things babies here are taught is how to “wai” that hands together greeting made in front of the face. People of lower status wai those of higher status. If you try it the other way, it makes everyone uncomfortable. I learned that the hard way, trying too hard to be polite after I first arrived.

We used to be more courteous back when I was a child. In fact, sometimes Thailand reminds me of America in the 1950’s.

When I was a boy in Catholic parochial school, the boys were taught to bow and the girls to curtsy. We would do this to Mother Superior every day at the end of the school day. If children were introduced to elders, they were often expected to do so even when not at school. I remember trying it for a while, but I felt silly. Then I started shaking hands.

I had a female friend back in Iowa who had grown up on a farm in Western Iowa. She got pregnant in high school and was sent away to a special school run by the Church, arranged clandestinely by their parish priest. It was explained to her classmates that she had gone to Omaha to live with her aunt and attend secretarial school.

After a few months at the school and now visibly pregnant, she begged to come home for just a weekend. Her family begrudgingly agreed. No one must see her in this condition. But then some unexpected visitors arrived and my friend was hurried off to the basement where she was cautioned not to make a sound. The visitors stayed a long while. My friend said she sat in the dark basement, listening to the muffled conversation from above and the floor boards creak when anyone moved about. She wept from shame and now more than fifty years later, the memory still pains her.

So was that set or traditions and mores a good thing, like courtesy, or an insult to her and her unborn child? By the way, as was the custom of the time, she gave him up for adoption and tried not to think about him for thirty years, but then tracked him down and now has done her best to get to know him.

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