Mai Pen Rai means "Never Mind"
TEFL/X, Thailand Group 95 (1989-1991)
Questions borne of tragedy define generations of Americans. “Where were you when…Kennedy was shot?” was followed by “…the Challenger blew up?” and then “9/11 happened?” Buffalonians of a certain age also define ourselves by a much smaller traumatic question: “Where were you when the Bills lost their first Super Bowl?”
I got to my Peace Corps site in rural northeastern Thailand in 1989. Part of my job description was to advise on agricultural issues, but my backyard garden in Buffalo hardly qualified me as an expert, so I just taught English to seventh graders. My students thought it funny that their teacher, a supposedly learned person, should come from a town named after one of the dullest animals.
A year and three months after getting to site, the Buffalo Bills, my hometown team, made their first Super Bowl. I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t home for the excitement, but my Peace Corps experience was a roller coaster ride that was not to be missed!
It was not uncommon for Thai male high school teachers to switch their classes to the afternoon with their considerate female counterparts if a prizefight from America was on in the morning. So, I followed their lead and switched my first morning classes so that I could watch Super Bowl XXV, which began around 6.30 a.m. local time.
The game was played against the NFC champions, the New York Giants, over the backdrop of the first Gulf War. The Bills were heavily favored, and what’s more, the Giants had a backup as their quarterback for the game. Looked to be a cinch!
I watched the game at my principal’s house. Even though the Super Bowl is broadcast around the world each year, Thais aren’t particularly interested in American football, so I was left to watch it alone on the Ajaan Saeng’s color TV. The reception was good until the fourth quarter, when bouts of snowiness crossed the screen (and the game wasn’t played in Buffalo!).
The teams seesawed through four quarters, and it was the most exciting Super Bowl I had ever watched. The climax of the game was a 47-yard field goal attempt with just seconds remaining. If it went through the uprights, the Bills would win and it would give the city its first championship in any major professional sport. What’s more, our incredible shrinking city would be able to slough off our bad national reputation for a presidential assassination and as a perennial dumping ground for snowstorms. I was literally agog with excitement for this giant step for a city.
The kick sailed wide right; there was no joy in Bills Nation.
I went on with my day and resumed teaching my classes in mid-morning. In the afternoon, a janitor, Mr. Jansing, who had worked for an American company in Saudi Arabia and spoke conversational English, asked me “what’s wrong?” I must’ve looked to him like I had just lost my best friend. I explained to him about the game, and how my hometown team was this close to a championship, but lost. “Mai pen rai,” he said.
“Mai pen rai” can be translated as “never mind” or “don’t worry about it” but it carries a stronger cultural significance of not being attached to something, which really isn’t an American concept. Thais are definitely sports fans, but seem to have a Buddhism infused sensibility about not investing a sense of self in the outcome of a game played between professional athletes. When I looked at it from Mr. Jansing’s perspective, I had an ‘Aha!’ moment and was better able to cope with the loss.
Where was I when the Bills lost that first Super Bowl? In the Peace Corps in Thailand, learning to see the world from a new perspective.
Author’s note: I’ve borrowed the title for this story. I read “Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind: An American Housewife's Honest Love Affair with the Irrepressible People of Thailand” by Carol Hollinger during Peace Corps training. It’s a hoot! Really funny take on Americans living in Thailand. Hollinger noted how integral the concept of ‘mai pen rai’ is to understanding Thai culture.
© Tim Hartigan, 2011 (firstname.lastname@example.org)