A friend of mine and his wife recently had a baby in Bangkok. When he showed around the pictures among us (Western) friends, everybody was exclaiming the usual “so cute”, “what a beautiful baby”, or “such a prince”. I have the feeling that in the West, most babies are considered cute. Just for the fact that they are babies.
My friend also posted a picture on Facebook. For those who can only read English, the post seemed like nothing out of the ordinary – congratulations and comments about the cute baby. But then my friend got an upset call from his mother from France: “Why are they all calling my grandchild ugly?!”, she yelled in a very upset tone. With the help of Google Translate, she had seen what the friends of his Thai wife were writing: “Such an ugly baby!” or even “Repulsive!”.
When he told us the story, I also thought something was seriously wrong. But in Thailand, this is perfectly normal. Thais are very superstitious. Spirits are a very important part of Thai culture. While some people in the West may have a rosary dangling from the rearview mirror of their car, almost every car in Thailand has a garland in the same spot to ask the spirits to protect the driver. You may also have seen the spirit houses, I posted. Every building has to have a spirit house, otherwise it will mean bad luck for those who live or work there. Some Thais will even refuse to work for you if you do not have a spirit house. Buying second hand or antiques is also considered a “no-go” – you never know which spirits may live in these things. Therefore, you can imagine that very often Thais prefer to only move into new apartments or houses as well.
In the case of babies, spirits also play an important role. If they hear that a baby is “cute”, “beautiful” or a “little princess”, they might come and steal the baby. Hence, the comments we may interpret as “insults”. The family and friends have to protect the baby by calling it ugly or, as mentioned above, even repulsive.
If you have worked with Thais or have Thai friends, you may have noticed that they all use nicknames. I initially thought this is due to a practical reason: Thai names are very long and hard to remember if you do not speak Thai. Hence, I thought, they use nicknames which are easier to remember. However, there is also a spiritual reason behind the nicknames. Nicknames are supposed to confuse the spirits when the baby is born. And sometimes, even these names are not the most flattering – from Lek (small), to Kai (chicken) or even Uan (fat).
I personally find it interesting because these beliefs are not just limited to a small part of Thai society. Almost everyone believes in spirits – even people who actually consider themselves atheists.
I’m sending you off into the new week with these spiritual thoughts!