Making peace with being a foreigner in Thailand, Part I

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

Joy, a member of Nong Bua Sam, and her boyfriend picked me up at the Riverside guest house.  I took the two baskets of fruit and packages of cookies I had purchased at the Rimping Market for Kampan the night before and loaded them into her car’s trunk, before crawling into the back seat.  The route Joy took was by now familiar.  I recognized many landmarks.

I was still feeling like I was ready to go back home even though I had almost two more weeks left in my travels alone in Thailand.  Maybe that’s why I reacted to the first part of my morning at the church with irritation.

For one thing, the service started half an hour later than advertised—nothing unusual for Thais.  Then the preacher went on for forty minutes, two or three times as long as my Western “get to the point” attention span was used to tolerating—again, not atypical.  Jiraporn and Nicky periodically tried to fill me on what was being said, but, as they say, a lot was lost in the translation—happens all the time.

And then, what made the service stretch over the two hour mark was this Thai compulsion to have everyone present, who is of any importance, say something, myself included.  You would think I would be used to this custom after eighteen years, but my whole psyche was whining, “Are we there yet?!”

As I stood in front of the congregation to thank them for their generosity, as I had so many times since 1994, I marveled at how these patient people were still paying attention after sitting for an hour and forty-five minutes on hard wooden pews.  I sighed in relief when the last amen was said and hustled over to the bathroom located in smaller building ten meters from the church.

After I emerged from the hawng nam—and this is what happens to me so often in Thai culture—my whole attitude was transformed by aspects of their world which I experience as blessings rather than irritations.  Sanit directed me to a table under the shade of a thatched roof set aside for those of us who were ajahns (educated) or elders.  Gracious young women served us a banquet of curries, soup, noodle dishes, a spicy salad, omelets and fresh fruit.

The Western part of me isn’t used to being treated like a king.  Besides, I had never done anything for them, really.  All I had done during the last sixteen years was to show up at their doorstep and enjoy their generous hospitality.  But that’s one of the things about Thai culture that always amazes me.  I didn’t have to perform.  I simply belonged.  Part of it was the fact that I was educated and part of it was their respect for my gray hair, but mostly it was because the decision had been made at some point along the way that even though I was not Thai, I had a place at their table.

Back home, when my disorder progressed to a certain point, I was expected to step down as pastor of my congregation and be replaced by someone who could perform according to expectations.  In contrast, the Thai congregation, which had been worshiping in our building for fourteen years at that point, started giving me a gift of money every month, because I was their “uncle,” and eventually they put me in their preaching rotation even though my speech is slurred.

Likewise, at Nong Bua Sam, Supraporn can only speak in a whisper because of throat surgery done years before, but every Sunday they seat her up front by the altar and have her do something which doesn’t tax her voice like saying a prayer.  They honor her simply because she has been and always will be their pastor.  They will find other people to perform as preachers and teachers, but she will be their pastor as long as she lives.  Her place and my place at Nong Bua Sam are not based on performance but on our relationship to the community.

After lunch, a young woman I knew named An asked if I had ever thought about living in Thailand.  My enjoyment of their gracious hospitality, I guess, had been obvious.  Besides, I kept coming back.  I only hesitated for a moment, though, before saying, “No.  I love coming here, but this isn’t home.”  What I was saying, I think, was that I would rather be a commoner in my own home than a king in a foreign land. 

Nicky brought Kampan and M over to where I was sitting, so I could give my thank you gifts to them.  I don’t think Kampan understood all of my prayer, but that didn’t seem to matter to her.  Apparently, she didn’t need to understand everything for the act to be meaningful.

Aware that I would be leaving Chiang Mai in four days, we began saying our good byes.  All of the young women in the congregation gathered around me for a photo op and giggled when I told them that they made me feel young.  Fae and An offered to drive me back to the Riverside, and, while I crawled into the car, the older women lined up along the driveway.  As we passed them on the way out they waved, and, on cue from Jiraporn, they all sang out, “We love you.”

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