Making peace with being a foreigner in Thailand, Part II

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, 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

I asked Fae and An to drop me off at the Anusan Market which is part of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar.  I waddled over to Mohr Moo, my favorite open air restaurant at Anusan, and ordered pad Thai and a Singha beer.  I bought some thank you treats for the women at the Riverside who had treated me with such kindness and ended the evening with a foot massage.

Having one of those tiny Thai women with strong hands work on my feet and lower legs for an hour as I reclined in one of their comfortable chairs is, in my experience, not only relaxing but also healing and calming. That evening it also provided a spiritual space in which I could digest the emotions and experiences of the last few days.

What struck me first is that a lot of religion back home is like a foot massage, i.e. it’s intended to heal and comfort people who are shopping around in the spiritual marketplace for something which can make feel more peaceful and balanced in a changing, turbulent world.  In fact, I’ve had several American Buddhists tell me, “Hey, you don’t have to buy the metaphysical stuff like karma and sunnata.  Just use our meditation and breathing techniques to reduce the stress in your life.”

That made me recall how I had responded to An when she asked if I had ever thought about living in Thailand.  In saying that Thailand wasn’t home, I decided that what I meant was that living here would be too much work.  Subconsciously, I had done a cultural cost/benefit analysis and had concluded that the many benefits weren’t worth the cost.  Coming to Thailand once a year for two weeks was an exciting adventure, but for the long haul I preferred the familiar comforts of home.

What happened then startled me.  My mind free associated with the Gospel of Matthew which I had been reading during my daily morning prayer time.  Again and again, Matthew tells about the disciples getting thrown off balance and disoriented by Jesus’ statements: eg. the last shall be first or love your enemies or if you want to live, you have to die or those who love father and mother more than me are not worthy of the kingdom of God.

Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God as if it were a foreign country where life would be better than, in what those twelve guys thought of as, home.  It might be better, but to those disciples it sure wasn’t comfortable.  Half the time they didn’t understand what the Teacher was saying, so he’d paraphrase the concepts into parables which they often didn’t get either.  They couldn’t pick up on the cultural cues in this new kingdom.  They spoke with an accent, as it were.  They felt disoriented, like they were always in the position of children who needed to be shown how to proceed.  Somehow being with Jesus made them feel secure.  Apart from him they were out of their element.

Every time I’ve come to Thailand I’ve had to go through the process of letting go of the feeling that I know what I’m doing and one more time find a tolerable degree of comfort in always being a learner.  I have to find a way to accept that I’ll always be a farang in a foreign land, always need a guide to tell me where I am and show me where to go.  After being in Thailand for six weeks, I had had enough of adventure and wanted to go back to where I felt like I knew my way around.

Feeling in control, apparently, is a big issue for us humans.  The previous year I had been camping in Northern Wisconsin for three days at the beginning of October.  At night, the temperature would plunge to below freezing, so after sundown I would build a fire to keep warm until bedtime.  When I couldn’t fight off sleep anymore, I’d hustle into my tent and quickly crawl into my sleeping bag without taking off my jeans or sweater.

Every morning I would notice that there would be frost on the ground as I made my way from the warmth of my sleeping bag to the car where I would immediately start the engine and turn the on heater  so I wouldn’t die of hypothermia while changing into clean clothes.  But by noon, the sun would have heated the land to almost seventy degrees, the extravagant colors of the changing leaves would be reflected in clear blue lakes, and I would luxuriate in the powerful silence of the north woods.

During the afternoon of my second day, I noticed a camper as big as a bus roll into the campground.  The folks in that camper had a lot more control regarding their comfort than I did.  They weren’t anywhere near as exposed to the elements as I was, yet I felt a little sorry for them.  They were keeping nature at a distance, as it were.  They were avoiding the discomforts of sleeping in a tent, but I couldn’t help believing that they weren’t appreciating the warmth of the noonday sun on the back of their neck as much either.

If it’s true that the world is shrinking, it seems to me that we have a choice.  In regard to other cultures, we can hole up in our camper and only step outside when the conditions are the way we like them or we can sleep in a tent and be more vulnerable to the elements.  On the one hand, I wouldn’t want to sleep in a tent every night.   On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that being obsessed with comfort and control leads to missing out on that unpredictable, mysterious, turbulent phenomenon called life.

I wasn’t sure what the Buddha would say about all of this, but that question would have to wait.  My foot massage was over.  I flagged down a tuk tuk, was in my room in fifteen minutes, flopped in bed and slept like a rock.

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