There’s nothing wrong with asking for help (and why concepts like greng jai need to die)

There’s a Thai word “greng jai” that has always annoyed me. It’s basically used to describe a person who doesn’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone. They don’t want to be a bother, and it’s supposed to be a positive trait. We have this same idea, too, in American culture, but I feel it does more harm than good.

How many times have we considered asking for help, but that inner voice says, “Oh, I don’t want not bother her”? When we need directions, we drive in circles or we get flustered before asking a stranger, if we bother to do so at all.

There’s a joke that illustrates the psychology of this perfectly:

A man’s truck broke down by the side of the road. After he got out of his truck, he realized that he had a flat tire. The good news was he had a spare tire, but the bad news was he needed a jack.

He saw a farmhouse in the distance, and decided he had no choice but to ask if someone in the house had one, but he really didn’t want to do it.

Grudgingly, he walked towards the house, cursing to himself, imagining the man who answers the door telling him, “No, we don’t have one”, “Who are you? Go away”, “It’s gonna cost you”; he could see on the homeowner’s face a look of annoyance and irritation.

Finally, he got to the house and knocked. A woman opened the door.

He yelled.

“To hell with you, and your jack!”

Then he stomped off.

One of my uncle’s creations. Now that’s putting an old bike tire to use! [Lamphun, Thailand, 2014]

Greng jai is supposed to mean “considerate of others”, but by being so-called considerate, we’re not being considerate of ourselves.

As an expat in Thailand, I find the concept of greng jai akin to locking myself in jail. Sometimes I have to ask for help and sometimes I have to inconvenience others. I’ll feel guilty and I won’t want to ask for help. If I were back home I might have been able to figure it out on my own.

Grown educated men and women suddenly become as helpless as babies when trying to set up roots in another country. My boyfriend told me stories of expat teachers with their Chinese students helping them with simple tasks like purchasing a fan or phone. And even if you do know the language, there are cultural nuances, location specific ways of doing things that you probably won’t even be aware of.

When we returned to Chiang Mai a few months ago, we needed a very important letter sent to us, but we didn’t have a permanent place to live yet, so we asked a friend if we could have the mail sent to her because she runs an apartment building. This meant we needed to get her address in English, contact phone numbers, and someone had to be there who could sign for it.

Now this is something that some of us would hesitate asking a friend to do (depending on the friend, I suppose), and we might even think of other options first. Sometimes we go to great lengths not to bother people and when a friend or family member finds out, they inevitably say, “Why didn’t you just ask us? We would have helped you.”

“No, no, I didn’t want to bother you.”

“It wouldn’t have been a bother at all.”

When I’m thrashing myself over the latest thing I need help with, I’m gently reminded, if the situation was reversed, would I do it? Would I help me if I was you? And very often the answer is YES.

Our Thai friend who helped us receive the important letter did us a great favor, and saved us a huge hassle of figuring out other options in a country where mail is not so reliable. The thing that greng jai fails to consider is that sometimes people don’t mind helping. It’s not always an inconvenience. It feels good.

Then she did us another kind deed of finding us a temporary place to live because she knew we were looking. And we were helping her out too because the person who was originally going to stay at that free apartment went someplace else.

My aunt helps a boy find the name of the person he’s looking for at the Gin Salat Festival in Lamphun, Thailand.

 

When I was back in Hawaii arguing with my mother, because she was unhappy with my decision to return to Thailand, she said, “Don’t ask Thai people for help.”

I was stunned as if I had been slapped. Not only was she shutting me out, but she was letting me know that the good people of Thailand should not be counted on either.

Now, I would argue that we need community more than ever. We live in strange little worlds where we stare at glowing computer monitors and smart phones. I’m curious how technology is effecting our relationships. It’s sad to see some of my students showing signs of phone addiction.

If I had it my way, I’d never bother anyone, but that’s not the way our world is set up. It’s moving in that direction, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing anymore. For example, you could diagnose your aliment on WebMD, order some medicine online, and never see a human being during the entire process. This is progress, right?

Sometimes we need help. I hate that this idea of “don’t be a bother to other people” is so pervasive in our cultures when at times reaching out is better than reaching in. I can’t help but think about the popularity of suicide these days with the likes of 13 Reasons Why and celeb suicides. I believe concepts like greng jai can prevent people from getting help.

Americans pride themselves on independence, and I understand why I’m not supposed to ask my neighbor to help me move some boxes, or why I shouldn’t ask a friend to take me to the airport. Perhaps it’s seen as a sign of weakness or maybe we’re scared.

During one of my darkest periods in my teaching career, I wasn’t getting the support I needed. I felt quite isolated and stopped reaching out. There are definitely times in our lives when we made the decision to not pick up the phone or write that email when doing so would have done us a world of good. When I was in Hawaii (see mom above), I decided to call my friends. I connected with buddies I hadn’t talked to in a while, who know me, who love me, and they were encouraging and wonderful during a time that was painful for me.

I say quit playing the martyr role and ask for help if you need it. Ask the stranger in the grocery parking lot if you’re fumbling with your bags, make a human connection, maybe even a new friend. Don’t be afraid.

Most longtime friends are thrilled to hear from us. Sure, some are too busy and aren’t good at keeping in touch, but others are. Most people upload the good bits of their lives on social media, but offline most people are dealing with crap just like you.

You know, we’re all about “paying it forward” and being charitable, but isn’t it funny how we’re not so comfortable with receiving? Let’s stop that, and work on achieving a healthier balance.

 

Do you find it difficult to ask for help?

20 thoughts on “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help (and why concepts like greng jai need to die)

  1. That is so true – nothing wrong with asking for help and there are people who want to help. I think most of us have the best of intentions and want the best for others, as opposed to wanting something in return. There’s the saying no man is an island. None of us can get by without some kind of help or interacting with others. In Chinese culture (probably very much like many Asian cultures), asking for help might mean losing face and pride – with the idea that you can’t do it on your own, you ain’t strong enough (along the lines of weakness as you suggested). Which is a ridiculous idea because we can’t do everything on our own.
    That said, I am not one to ask for help and I’m very stubborn about it. But over the years I’ve found it inevitable. Many years back I was doing it hard out of a job and friends were keen on hanging out. They insisted that I come out and have some form of social life and something to look forward to, and payed in the end for the nights out. It’s something I won’t forget.
    I don’t mind helping others when I need it, just so that it doesn’t wear my down. After all, we have to take care of ourselves first because we can take care of others. Over the years what my friends have said to me is that showing up is the best help they can get – be it organising and doing a photoshoot for them without payment, accompanying them to some gig because they don’t want to go alone and even want you to pay for your own admission ticket, helping them pick up something, and listening, really listening, not judging, not even telling them what to do. I don’t mind doing all of these and listening was by the hardest thing I felt was what I could do to help. Showing up and showing your presence can also be hard, because I think you can only do that if you feel a genuine desire and connection towards that person.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Helping our friends and receiving help back when you need it is definitely part of a positive relationship. When we start talking about friendships, my blog post can take off in a different direction. But our friends is definitely where most of us start to ask for help.

      I hope you continue to branch out and ask for help because I feel like this is an important piece in the “mental health awareness” movement that is gaining ground. I fear too many of us try to put on a brave face when we need to talk or a hug.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I definitely do, but I also love to help, especially in those not expected situations when a stranger needs something and you feel you really made a difference. Two instances lately were helping an older gentleman find his car in a parking ramp, and the other was paying the parking meter for a woman who did not have change. She actually just asked if I had change for a five, but I didn’t yet I did have enough to get her the hour she needed. I really wish I didn’t have that, “I can do it on my own” attitude. It honestly stems from feeling like if I don’t, I can’t get the credit for doing it. This is so ridiculous, and I’m trying to raise my children with a more, working together is much better than alone, philosophy. This anti-communal mentality sure has gotten us in a mess in America and it’s so unfortunate. Great post Lani!🌻🌞

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Anne. Yeah, I think a lot of us struggle with asking. Most of us don’t mind helping. That’s definitely what I suspected! I can see that in myself, too.

      Children can be great in this way. Showing us “what we need to work on” because we want so much more for them.

      Yeah, I do wonder where this stubborn streak comes from? Part of it for me was about being an independent woman – give me a power tool, I can do it! But the other part of me just gets incredibly frustrated feeling alone in it.

      I think there are definitely times when we do something on our own and it feels great and we did s.th that we didn’t originally think we could do, but then there’s the other side. When to ask for help?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Usually I find myself jumping at any opportunity to aid someone that needs a helping hand. But, sometimes I am reluctant to ask for help. I do, and often have asked and received help at some critical times in my life. But I had to overcome some sort of mental obstacle to reach out. I get over it by remembering something my dad said to me once. I was 19, had dropped out of college my sophomore year and living on my own in an apartment. I was stubborn (and young) and basically refused any help they offered, choosing instead to plod and struggle along barely having enough to eat much less furnish the apartment or buy some decent clothes.Dad sat me down and explained to me how much it hurt them for me not accepting even the gesture of them buying me a broom. He explained to me the joy that they would get from being a part of my life in even the smallest ways. I got it. I understood what he was telling me and I let them do the little things they wanted to do help me out. They didn’t want to support me or bail me out of every situation I got myself into. They just wanted to be there for me in some way. I saw this more and more over the years as my dad went to the aid of so many people, some of which I didn’t think at the time so deserving of help. It didn’t matter to him. If was within his power, he would just about anyone. he didn’t have much money, but he had resources, connections, talent, and time that he would dedicate to helping others. He personally championed and sponsored crippled and burned children through his position in the Shrine.and enabled those kids to have medical help and surgery. Often over the years he reminded me of the talk he had with me about asking for and accepting help and the joy it brings to the one who can give of themselves to someone in need. So, I try to be on both sides of this equation. I hope I give of myself to some degree that Dad and Mom always did and I hope I give some joy to those who come to my aid so often and timely. I also have to remember to ask for help, that’s the first step.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a beautiful story, Tony. It’s an important reminder that we are here as social creatures. Sometimes I don’t know if we realize how much our actions effect others throughout our days or our lives – and vice versa.

      You are an incredibly helpful person and I for one am very grateful.

      Although you bring up another good point, that help doesn’t have to be financial. This is probably why volunteer work is considered noble and rewarding. It certainly can change your perspective on life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This post really made me stop and think. I find it easy to ask for help in some ways but not in others. I don’t mind asking strangers for directions or asking anyone for opinions or advice. But in more important ways, I don’t ask anyone for help. When my husband was alive, he was usually there when I needed help. Now, even though I’m alone, I hesitate to ask anyone.

    In May I came down with pneumonia. Instead of calling a neighbor, I drove myself to the urgent care clinic. Speaking to a neighbor later, she said she wished I’d called her. And I know I was wrong. People like to help each other. We feel closer to those who reach out to us for help.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I appreciate your honesty and I understand how difficult it can be to ask for help over the more challenging stuff.

      Part of what I got out of writing this post was to remind myself to ask for more help. I think a whole new world is waiting when we allow others in.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. There’s some theory that when people do favors for you, it actually makes them like you more, so maybe if we make more people aware of the theory, they’ll be more inclined to ask for favors! And then we’ll all like each other more and be less stressed and the world will finally achieve peace and harmony.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have heard that as well. Thanks for reminding me. There is something that endears us, I suppose, to a person when we’ve “helped out” or connected in a new way.

      I’ve seen this in my own life recently having house-sat for a couple of friends!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. English needs a word for this too, because we certainly cling to this idea. I think it’s two-fold here; one, the idea that you don’t want to be a bother, because, as you said, relationships are breaking down, we’re less connected individually, and that means less people we can rely on, and two, asking for help means we can’t do it ourselves, which stings the good ol’ American pride.

    I struggled with this a lot in Korea, and always had. It was easier in America though where I pretty much could do everything I needed to. But in Korea, I had to rely on other expats and the teachers at my school. I remember waiting forever and ever to buy a drying rack because I didn’t want to have to ask someone to help me carry it home, and that meant I had clothes all over my floor and house for weeks. It was so dumb, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ask for help for something I saw as so trivial. That triviality, to me, meant I should have been able to do it myself easily.

    The terrible thing was, that attitude kept me from asking for help when more serious things happened too. When I needed to go to the emergency room, I remember spending at least a few minutes (which feels like hours in an emergency), wondering if I should call my friend. And the second time I went, that good friend who I did feel comfortable asking wasn’t there; I had to call a coworker, which felt like the height of shame to show my weakness to someone who wasn’t “close” to me.

    It’s really, really dumb. I realize now how much a mark of maturity it is to be able to ask for help. It reminds me of Stephen R Covey and how he says that the pinnacle of maturity isn’t independence, but interdependence. It’s much harder to rely on and connect with other people than to do everything yourself.

    And as you said, if the situation was reversed, I would always be willing to help a friend. When I left Korea, I wrote a long letter to the teacher taking over my class, detailing even the smallest things I could think of that had stumped me, and I was happy to do it. I also remember being more than happy to help the new teachers with local information. It wasn’t a burden at all. But somehow, when we’re on the asking end, it gets all twisted up.

    I hate it. I’m learning to just ask, even if I do feel like a burden, but I wish that feeling wasn’t our natural reaction. Something has gotten so warped in our so-called modern society. We’re so modern, we can’t even relate to other people. Awesome.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ugh. I feel so bad for you! I would have totally helped you, but I understand. The BF really doesn’t like asking for help. It took me awhile to understand that part of the problem is he’s a guy. Things he could do at home, he has to ask because he doesn’t have the right tool or something – and directions! oh forgetaboutit.

      And this is actually scary because I think there are these crazy statistics about male suicide going up, and I’m fairly certain it’s this “inability” to talk about their feelings, and ask for help.

      I’ve had to ask for a lot of help lately, not only with the move back, but also with Immigration. Funnily, I felt bad until I realized that my school should have been involved anyhow – they should have been with me when I went the first time and the second time and then I had to go a THIRD TIME to get my proper visa and I said, I want both of you (my manager and the office manager) there. It was beyond ridiculous – and has really turned me off in many ways to being back here.

      On top of that I kept having to ask my landlord for additional information that Immigration wanted. And she ignored me a couple of times, and that’s what prompted me to write this. I was frustrated over being put in this position.

      But I also realized (and I knew this) that Thais prefer to do things face to face, asking via text or phone doesn’t really get you as far as being with them. It’s an incredible time waster, as you can imagine.

      I like to say, “culture is a bitch”…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like helping people most of the times but I often feel like “I don’t want to bother anyone” when I need something myself. Well, except if the help can come from my husband, then I have no problem at all having him do anything, haha.
    I have noticed that many women in my family have this “don’t want to bother anyone” problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, we definitely learn this. And I think coupled with smart phone obsession these days, “not wanting to bother people” is back firing in a big ugly way. I feel a more aware of it now. More aware of me asking, and when others do so…and the ideas we have around this.

      Like

  8. I’m terrible at asking for help when it’s from people that I don’t know well. If I’m trying to move something heavy, I will literally struggle with it until a stranger offers to help.
    I also hate confrontation and try not to create trouble. I try to avoid sending back food at a restaurant or complaining as much as possible.
    If I did speak up more, it would probably make life a lot easier for me. My introversion probably also plays a role in avoiding unnecessary social interactions. But in the rare occasions when I do decide to step out of my shell, it always ends in a positive result.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, too, will not complain about food at a restaurant to the wait staff. It’s really interesting how we are brought up to not raise a fuss.

      Of course, sometimes I’m with a friend who does and I’m embarrassed! I’m not sure if that’s necessary either!

      I think I was once hold that asking for help is a strength not a weakness, so that helped me to come out of my shell. Coupled with living abroad, I don’t really have a choice in the matter. However, the perception of “greng jai” bothers me, and now I find myself retreating resentfully.

      Like

  9. This is such a complex topic… but I’m glad you wrote about it.

    It’s hard to strike a good balance between asking for help and not being a bother–but I think your advice in your previous comment is spot on: “asking for help is not a weakness, but a strength.”

    I’m very guilty of trying to do too much on my own. I think I got it from my mom. I know the “greng jai” concept is alive in western countries, but I think in Asia it’s much more prevalent because they aren’t very open or direct with their thoughts, communications or feelings. Asking for help is a process which means you recognize and realize that you need to ask for help–and asking for help is quite a direct action. In Asia (and even with my mom) I noticed everyone just tried to mind read all the time instead of directly asking for help. Ugh, it was such a hassle.

    Great food for thought, Lani.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It dawned on me, like really hit me, that I’ve been living abroad for 9 frickin’ years – as in almost 10. That means, I have had to accept that asking for help is a new way of life. I don’t think I get much choice in the matter anymore!

      But you do bring up good point re: Asian vs Western culture. I think for Americans it feels much more direct, like, okay you’ve asked and I’m happy to help. Unless it’s some weird situation…

      But for Asians, it feels much more complicated! Hahahhaa. I really hate it. They must like the drama surrounding it. 😛

      Like

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