The ‘P’ Barrier
A rant, a rage (?), a reflection, and a request
To me (and in my limited Thai vocabulary) no word is more polarizing in the Thai language than the word ‘P’.
‘P’ is not actually a word, though!
For those of you who don’t know (mainly my American friends) ‘P’ is more of a prefix that you attach on before an elder’s name when you address them. When you are younger, and you address someone as ‘P’, you are acknowledging that they are older than you, and because of that, more respect should be automatically given. Likewise, elders will occasionally address you as ‘Nong’, an expression that further acknowledges this intuitively observed interpersonal rule in Thai culture.
It’s an expression that, on the surface, seems relatively meaningless, especially in one’s never ending quest through the Thai social hierarchy *scroll down to see my shitty graphic on Thai social hierarchy mediocrely explained* . However, to me, ‘P’ carries a lot more meaning behind just ‘elder’.
‘P’ usually can mean that this person is automatically assumed to be more knowledgeable and wiser than you, based on (more often than not) their birthday or graduating class. ‘P’ means that this person is deserving of more effortful respect from you, not because they did anything to deserve it, but because you must. And, most frustratingly, ‘P’ means that when it comes to cultivating relationships with ‘nong’, ‘P’ will never be something more than just your ‘P’, and ‘P’ will most definitely, never, ever, be something less.
Put simply, ‘P’ is ‘P’, and ‘nong’ is ‘nong’.
I call this “The ‘P’ Barrier”, and that is exactly what makes ‘P’ the most polarizing expression in the Thai language to me.
The P Barrier, especially in faculty culture, seems to permeate every social interaction I have with an elder. When I was explaining this phenomenon to my same-age/same-status Thai friends, I always got an “Ahiaaaa Duffy! Tar meung kaojai reung P-Nong status nai Thai, meung gor kong pen kon Thai bab 100% la”(Daaamn Duffyyyy, you’re basically a Thai person now if you understand this shit, dude). But it is truly something that has bothered me all year! It makes me sick to think of all the missed connections I could have had with my roon p (senior students) if The ‘P’ Barrier wasn't so prevalent among some.
Now, that’s not to say every roon ‘p is always like this. I've made really great friendships with older students, a lot of which who don’t really care to see me as a ‘nong’ (I think), and that’s meaningful.
Sometimes, it seems like there is a missing link between the older and younger generations when it comes to creating quality friendships.
The “reung P-Nong” status things goes so far sometimes, that when meeting a new ‘roon p’ or a graduate student, I often have very delicate and filtered conversations with them at first. I do this just to assess how serious they are with “The P Barrier”. I’ll call myself “nhu”, and I might say ‘ka’ at the end of every sentence or so. I kind of hate it to be honest, and it sounds weird, but I have found that it is necessary — some people take the ‘P’ and ‘Nong’ relationship pretty seriously. If they take it seriously, then that means I must as well. And it’s fine, it really is! It’s Thai culture, and I’ll respect and adapt to it accordingly while I’m here (with certain limitations, of course. I’m still a hot-blooded American).
But what I feel when they take the ‘P’ — ‘Nong’ relationship seriously is that they’re missing out on a vital element of human interaction with the ‘nong’, and that piece is authenticity.
For me, it is impossible to open up and have a good and honest relationship with a roon’p if I feel as if I must filter and restrict myself around them.
It’s kind of a reason why I don’t like calling some of my closer elders, ‘P’. Coming from a society where there is little to no distinction between people made, it can be kind of awkward and incredibly irritating to constantly be making a social distinction.
It’s also another reason why I’m almost always a lot closer to my elders who tell me to not to call them ‘P’. Inadvertently, I always tend to have a little more respect for them because of that.
They always have their own reasons, and I never really bother to ask, but here’s what it means to me: it means that they respect and trust me enough to know that I will respect them in return, regardless of any ‘P’ and ‘nong’ distinctions. It means that they respect me enough to know that I will respect them, even when given the liberation of disrespecting them by NOT addressing them as my respected elder.
It’s a confusing paradox, yeah, read it a few times, but it’s one I can easily get behind, especially with Nitade 51 fast approaching. With the next class coming, I’m looking forward to creating lasting relationships with them that will extend outside the traditional role of a ‘P-Nong’ relationship.
On top of that, I’m looking forward to just being called “Duffy”. ☺
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Here’s my shitty attempt at explaining the Thai social hierarchy for everyone outside of Thailand: