Left v.s. Right

I left a comment on Richard’s entry about Thai Manners that:

A natural born lefty, my instinct tells me to use my left hand first. So when it comes to the lessons in manners in school, I kept getting into trouble for using my left hand in giving and receiving items.

As it turns out, this left v.s. right conversation has sparked some interests, and brought up another cultural nugget I should point out.

Thailand is a right-handed society. From what I could find on this Sunday morning, this belief of ours are influenced by both India and China. In India, it’s the left hand that does the dirty work, namely, well, wipe yourself after you’ve gone to the bathroom. In China, it’s the linguistic point of view where “left” means improper.

Again according to linguistics, it’s easy to see in English that left is bad. In many European languages, “right” stands for authority and justice. Being right-handed has also historically been thought of as being skillful: the Latin word for right-handed is “dexter,” as in dexterity also means right. Ambidextrous actually means to be right-handed with both hands.

On the other hand—no pun intended—the English word “sinister” comes from Latin and it originally meant “left” but took on meanings of evil and/or unlucky by the Classical Latin era. The modern-Italian “sinistra” has both meanings of sinister and left.

RIGHT hand is the correct hand. LEFT hand, well, that’s all that’s left. In Thai, on the other hand, there is no distinction in the language. Right is Kwah and left is Sai. They don’t mean anything other than just that. But yet, the implications that left is evil doesn’t have to do with words.

That is why you use your right hand to hand people things, and to feed yourself with your own hand or with a spoon or chopsticks. The only time you’re allowed to use your left to feed yourself is when you use a fork and a knife. *Additional info thanks to Richard S’ query* I was brought up on the European/Continental dining etiquettes, surely passed down from the Princess Grandmother. The knife is in the right hand, and fork in the left. Unlike American style which the fork is switched to the right, the fork stays on the left hand tines down.

When I was growing up, being a lefty is a bad thing. It makes you different. A freak of some sort.

I remembered grabbing pencils with my left hand back in pre-school. One of the pieces of early childhood memory I have. The teacher would put the pencil in my right hand to write with. “Everyone is using their right hand, sweetie,” was the reason I was given then. I didn’t dispute it. But then again, when it comes to Thai calligraphy sort of thing, I never really score well. Actually, neither did my English cursive later on in life.

Then there was this girl in kindergarten at Mater Dei. She is half-Thai half-white. I believed she was born in the US. She was allowed to write with her left hand. I remembered her having a lot more problem once we get to 4th grade, learning cursive, and starting to use fountain pen for our work. It was more difficult for her to write without smudging all over the place.

Similar thing happened when I was about 9 years old and starting tennis lesson at Polo Club. The evening before, I, the gorgeous Chris Everts, was in an intense match against that evil Martina Navratilovas, smacking the pillows to her left and right all over the LivingRoom-bledon. My brother walked in:

“You’re holding the racket in the wrong hand.”
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are!”
“But this hand works for me.”
“Yeah, but how’d you like to be in a tennis class all by yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lefties have to be taught separately. They hit all the opposite ways normal people do. Do you want to play by yourself?”

The next morning at tennis, I held the racket on the correct hand. My forehand stroke, still, flails about yet my double-handed backhand stroke has both accuracy and power. Go figure.

And then, there was a left-handed girl in class. Sure enough after general drills, she went off with another instructor to a private session. I’ve known a few lefties in my school as well.

One thing these lefties I’ve known all had in common are one of these: having a Western parent or really “progressive” ones, or they grew up in another country. They’ve already been allowed to use their left hands for a while before joining the “right” herd so they were allowed to continue being a lefty.

Lucky for them. And poor me. I’m all confused.

I write with my right. I play racket sports with my right. I play softball lefty both throwing and hitting. I dribble and shoot hoops with my left hand. I carry heavy stuff with my left hand. I’ve learned to use the scissors the “right” way, played guitar the Lennon way (Again, I picked up the guitar lefty, and my brother again “corrected” me. Nobody can play the left-handed guitar unless you’re Paul McCartney, he said), and managed to figure out the can opener eventually.

And of course, there’s the trouble with manners class as my left hand shoots out to offer and receive things.

I don’t think I’m truly ambidextrous, but I’m sure I am a born lefty who was forced to do all things on the right side, and happen to adjust very well to the right-handed world.

I haven’t noticed the reverse in the trends until Khun Don’s comments:

During my visits to the Kingdom, various Thais have told me that to be left handed in Thailand is considered to be very intelligent -is this true? – or just flattery? Anyone know?

I haven’t heard about that one before, but I am willing to believe that the belief that left is bad perhaps is being overthrown. (Folks, feel free to fill me in on this.) Perhaps it is another effect of the Western influence on Thai culture.

Maybe the words are out that lefties are “smarter” and/or “more creative”. Scientifically, when you compare statistics of lefties v.s. righties in the intellectual arena, there is no conclusive evidence. Although, it is true that left-handers’ brains are structured differently in a way that widens their range of abilities and the genes that determine left-handedness also govern development of the language centers of the brain. That’s enough research any Thai parents need to hear to allow their kids to carry on with their left hands.

But then again, lefties are also linked to higher rates of dyslexia, stuttering and child autism among others. Oh, just some minor details compare to potentially better grades and successful future.

As much as I’m happy for the next generations that they can now use their left hands, but we are still going to hit that social ceiling set by hundreds of years of culture when it comes to using the correct right hand. It’s just one of the things we can’t fight to change–and not sure if we want to. Just another right-handed way we have to adapt to the best we can.

Then again, that’s no problem. After all, we are the smart ones. 😉

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