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Tea Leaves

For Thais, smiling is no laughing matter

Social pressures have made the appearance of happiness a patriotic duty

A woman dressed in traditional costume smiles at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok.    © Reuters

Thailand is widely known as "the Land of Smiles." But the wooden faces of two young Thai women working at Bangkok's international airport drew widespread frowns. Dressed in traditional brocade costumes, the women were supposed to welcome tourists with flowers and broad smiles. But a video of their indifferent expressions while greeting Chinese visitors went viral, prompting their employer to fire them.

Their experience reminds me of a friend who was invited to speak at a Thai university about disarming Afghan tribal leaders. Her lecture, delivered with the seriousness the issue demanded, was frequently interrupted by a comic commentary from the back row. The joker was the Thai academic who had invited my friend.

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