Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sanuk Doesn’t Just Mean “Fun”

You can’t be in Thailand for more than a day or two without noticing how common it is to see people smiling and joking around with each other, regardless of how boring or unpleasant the situation they’re sharing may be.

At the core of it is a viewpoint – an ethic, if you will – that people in the West could benefit from: that there’s fun or enjoyment to be found in almost anything we do, if we choose to stop and acknowledge it. To perhaps oversimplify, we tend to sweat too much of the small stuff.

Defining it is rather like trying to grab a handful of smoke, but the Thai word that comes closest is sanuk, which means finding enjoyment or satisfaction in whatever it is you happen to be doing. I’d go so far as to say many Thai believe if something’s not sanuk, it’s not worth doing. Period.

It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re one of a group cleaning out a clogged sewer drain (like the guys above), a kid hauling two dozen 50-pound bags of ice from truck to store or a produce vendor, sharing a laugh with a neighboring stall in a local market – there’s sanuk to be found in everything we’re tasked to do.

There are different phrases for different types, but thamngan sanuk means to enjoy one's work. I’m not well versed enough in the language to be able to cite other examples, sorry to say.

It’s safe to say that although the wounds are still fresh, the thousands who turned out for the Together We Can-type clean up activities a couple of days ago found enjoyment in the street-side janitorial work they were sharing, same same as the man doing the upholstery work in Friday’s post, who was visiting with a man pushing a cart across the street from him when I snapped his picture.

I happened on the “plumbers” in the top picture while walking one afternoon. The sections of 4” pipe they were working on were firmly stuck, and they were taking turns with a large pipe wrench, futilely trying to break the connection. The more ways they tried to prop it up for leverage and the more bravado each demonstrated before throwing up their hands and letting another of them try, the louder their shouts of laughter became. When they finally managed to get it to turn, you’d have thought they’d collectively won the lottery.

The man holding the tire had just given his head a good bump, but rather than launch the cloud of profanity I might have done had it been me, he smiled at the catcalls and laughter from the others working with him.

The day these construction workers were bent over moving cinder blocks it was 104F (40C) at least. Moving slowly along the National Stadium BTS walkway I’d stopped to watch the activity on my way to the museum nearby. Seeing me taking pictures, one of the workers struck the “law” (handsome) pose, framing his face with his thumb and index finger. His co-worker in the yellow hard hat turned and saw him, slapped him on the butt as if to say “stop clowning around” and the two of them giggled before returning to what must have been hot, unpleasant work that day.


beachlover said...

Heh yeah, most cultures have their own charming ways of making life fun and lighthearted and seeing humour in even the darkest or dirtiest of circumstances... Thais are very charming. I like the charisma of Irish and Australian people too. They can be much like the Thais in some ways... natural and lighthearted

khunbaobao said...

I disagree to some extent. Many cultures would bitch and moan about problems on the job, or about the job overall. I'm not sure how they do things in Ireland or Australia (two places on my list still) but other places I have visited aren't "charming" about dealing with it. People in the US are some of the worst! I'm grateful that the Thai are able to see the "sanuk", though - and it's difficult not to smile with them.