“Being Thai”


One of the topics we have spent time researching these past few months is the notion of Thai national identity. We began by interviewing people and asking broad questions like “What does ‘being Thai’ look like?” and “What words or phrases come to mind that are associated with ‘being Thai’?” We took some of those initial findings and conducted three focus groups—one with elderly women, one with college students, and one with high school teachers. I thought I might share some reflections we’ve had in light of that research. (And thank you to the 2 people who are going to keep reading past this opening paragraph.)

Throughout the interviews and focus groups, three words surfaced as being extremely significant in people’s view of Thai identity: king, religion and nationality. To be Thai means to love the king, love religion (Buddhism) and love the Thai nation. Almost everyone we talked to described the strong connection between “being Thai” and loving these three ideas. Their importance cannot be overrated.

But, if you paid attention in 8th grade Thai History, you would not be surprised that these three words top the list. In the beginning years of the 20th century, Thailand (called Siam at the time) was trying to become a unified nation. The monarchy tried to unify the previously disjointed kingdoms into one nation-state. A primary way to do this was pushing for everyone to rally around the idea of “love our nationality, love our religion, and love the king.” Over the following decades, these three concepts became part of everyone’s vernacular. In fact, children still recite this “creed” every morning before school.

In light of the historical significance of these three concepts, it did not surprise us that Thai identity is wrapped up in a strong love for the king, loyalty to their nation, and devotion to Buddhism. It helps explain the common phrase we have heard many times before: “To be Thai is to be Buddhist.” Part of this is due to the long history of devote Buddhists in this area, and part is due to the push for national unity based upon a common religion.

Beyond those three ideas, we also noticed a strong desire to hold onto traditional Thai values. Many people described “Thai-ness” in terms like generous, charitable, and respectful. These attributes are easy to observe as you live among Thai people. And these values are part of the reason we wanted to move here. When we talk about discerning ways in which the kingdom of God is reflected in Phayao culture, these characteristics quickly come to mind.

There are three other ideas that emerged which I find noteworthy. First, Thai people have a strong affinity towards longstanding traditions and rituals. Thai identity is formed by the relentless engagement in these particular customs. And these customs lead to cohesion among the communities of people who faithfully carry them out.

Second, “being Thai” means being people who are unified/harmonious. This attribute seemed especially significant among the people we talked to. Division and discord are frowned upon by people here. Thus, great effort is given to maintaining smooth relationships and presenting yourself and your community as harmonious with everyone.

Finally, a significant characteristic of Thai identity is the strong sense of gratitude people feel towards those who have helped them. For example, adult children will often financially provide for their parents and almost insist that they live in their home after retirement. This type of “paying back” is a way to show gratitude for all the help and care their parents provided over the years. Being a person who is ungrateful is one of the most dishonorable traits a person can have.

While I could say more about our research on Thai identity, this might give you a sense of what people in Phayao value. But more importantly, it might help you get a sense of the struggle we face in imagining what “being a Thai Christian” looks like. And all this can be daunting at times. Thankfully, his grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in weakness.



  1. So much to think about and yet so Christ like to care about others and be devoted to what means the most……… how will God use this? I have no doubt He will show you. As always I am amazed at your steadfast love for God and the Thai people.
    Keep up the good work and I will read as long as you will write.
    Love you,

  2. Thanks for this! It is really thought provoking!

  3. Thanks, Derran. Very helpful. That is exactly how we remember the Thai people. It appears they already manifest some necessary characteristics of the normal Christian life. You reminded me of a great little book “Basic Christianity” by John Stott. Keep up the great research.

  4. Excellent post! When you get a chance, I’d like to hear more about the Thai perspective on that 20th century connection between the political aims of unification and the resulting shifts in the Thai understanding/practice of Buddhism.
    We pray for you daily, and hope you’re all doing well.
    Oh, and happy birthday to Brynn!!

  5. Love you Ann and Derran you are both so special to me and your wisdom teaches me so, so much. How thankful I am for you both !! love you !!

  6. Thanks for your post D. I always love hearing from you and the wisdom you share. You guys are doing an amazing job in every aspect of your transition, research, work and just day to day life. I am constantly blown away. I know that all of this is anything but easy but I thank the Lord for your love and courage for the Thai people and that you said yes when the Lord called you to Phayao. Miss you guys and love you so much! Keep the posts coming!

  7. Sorry for the confusion, Andy. It’s late and we clebmid a zillion stairs today up a mountain. Apparently my legs aren’t the only thing that’s tired ; )World Vision does amazing work. I’m especially fond if its disaster relief efforts and the clean water they brought to my Compassion child’s community in El Salvador.But World Vision and Compassion are not the same. One significant difference between the two organizations is Compassion commitment to serve the poor exclusively through the local church, meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.Bible teaching and evangelism are central inextricable components of Compassion’s ministry.Does that clear this mud up? Thanks for asking. Off to bed soon I hope.

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