When I went to Laos in the summer of 1999 there was only one bookstore in Vientiane. As there wasn’t much about Laos available in the US, I searched the shelves for anything that would help me learn more about Lao culture and I came across a little booklet called Working with you Lao Partner: A guide to establishing Effective Cross Cultural Communication and Working Relationships in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, written by Bob Boase and published by UNDP. Although it was primarily written for people who would be working in Laos, I found it valuable for providing insights into Lao culture not available otherwise.
In the chapter Understanding Lao Culture he wrote about how the “Lao are truly a people of the heart.” And then he included a list of expressions that include the word “jai” or “heart.” He then commented that a culture with so many shades of meaning based on the heart is a deeply sensitive culture and that one should bear this in mind before making a strong comment or taking direct action. And after eight years of spending a lot of time in Laos I would agree.
This reminded me of two other books, one written by Katherine Paterson, The Spying Heart, that unfortunately is now out of print. As is written on her website “this second volume of her speeches, book reviews, and essays, award-winning author Katherine Paterson again shares what it means to be a reader and a writer where she states that it is our task as teachers and writers, artists and parents to nourish the imagination-our own and that of the children entrusted to our care."
In her chapter Sounds in the Heart she writes “Among the many Chinese and Japanese ideographs for our word idea is one that combines the character for sound with the character for heart – the heart being the seat of intelligence as well as of emotion. thus, an idea is something that makes a sound in the heart. Now, if ou want to change idea into a verb that means “to remember,” you do so by adding an extra symbol for heart. In preparing to talk of the relation of memory to writing, I tried to ask myself as objectively as I could: What are the sounds that I head in my deepest heart?”
I read this book four or five years before I went to Laos, and consequently as a teacher I was always thinking about how ideas that I had and my students had were making sounds in our hearts. A second book I read before I went to Laos that made similar connections was Voices of the Heart by Ed Young. Ed Young is an illustrator of children’s books and came out with this little gift-size book in 1997. As stated in a review on the Amazon website: “In perhaps his most conceptually brilliant work to date, Young introduces 26 Chinese characters, each having the symbol for the heart as a component. An illustration on each page occupies the two-thirds closest to the margin. The outer third has an English word relating to an emotion, feeling, or moral quality (joy, shame, patience, panic, etc.) with a simple definition containing the word "heart." Each section (or radical) of the word in Chinese is listed below it with a simple definition of each part and an explanation of the whole, followed by the assembled character for the concept. The Chinese writing is in seal script, which is one of the oldest forms of the language and consequently much closer visually and conceptually to its pictographic origins than today's standard printed forms. This choice is a master stroke as it prepares the mind for the stunning collage illustrations that utilize rebus format to represent the Chinese. Illustrations are of cut paper and some cloth on various paper backgrounds; sometimes backgrounds are textured, sometimes the rebus components are. All contain a heart and are bright or somber depending on the concept conveyed.”
Although it looks like it could be a book for children, really it’s adults who will appreciate it best and is a great book to give as a gift. An example of one interpretation is the word “grace.” He defines it as a heart that shows pity, illustrating that the character consists of two pictograms, one for “man” and one for “confined.” Young’s explanation of the combining of these two pictograms is “A man who is confined is oppressed. When the heart feels empathy for the oppressed, it has been touched by grace.”
For me, that makes a sound in my heart and I believe will broaden anyone’s perspective, as does the understanding of how the Lao used the word for heart in so many expressions.
What I want to do in this blog is list some of the expressions containing the word “jai” and what they mean. What I hope, and would certainly like to encourage readers of this blog, share any other words that contain the word “jai” and if you have any additional insights or stories I will add them to this blog, giving you credit if you want, or of course you can remain anonymous.
One expression he didn’t include, is “nam jai,” meaning water from the heart which is written in Lao in the heart image in this blog. My wife is the one who told me about the expression and it’s a favorite of the Thai people. One of the things I like to do in workshops when I talk about Lao language and the use of these expressions is to ask participants what they think a particular expression means. For example, what do you think, “nam jai” means? When would it mean for water to be coming from the heart and “what” kind of water might it be?
I really like the concept of “nam jai” and encourage anyone to share an anecdote or story that would provide a more real world understanding.
OK, here are the expressions listed in the Lao Partner book.
~ to understand is to enter the heart
~ to be glad is to feel good at heart
~ to be angry is to feel bad in the heart
~ to be sorry is to have lost the heart
~ to have empathy is to see the hear
~ to feel upset is to be unhappy at heart
~ to be sensitive (touchy) is to have a small heart
~ to be stingy is to have a narrow heart
jai khap khaep
~ to be startled is to drop the heart
~ to be absent minded is to have a heart which floats
~ to hesitate is to have many hearts
~ to be worried is to have a sick heart
bo sabai jai
~ to be content is to have a serene heart
~ to be without worries is to feel cool in the heart
~ to be generous is to have a large heart
~ to have a heavy heart
~ to be happy
~ to be easily persuaded is to have an easy heart
~ to be decisive
~ to be bitter to the point of revenge is to have a black heart
~ to be charitable is to have a festive heart
~ to be generous is to be big-hearted
~ to be impatient is to have a hot heart
~ to be patient is to have a persevering heart
jai o thon
~ to be honest is to have a pure heart
~ to be brave is to have a daring heart
~ to be timid is to have a cautious heart
jai bo kai
~ to control one’s emotions is to have a strong heart
So, there’s the beginning of the list. I know of many more, but will wait to see if anyone can share some of their own definitions and will add to the list gradually. I probably will do this by adding additional blog.. Let us share with the world why the Lao are “People of the Heart!”