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By Tom Holmes
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
I woke up that Thursday morning, Jan. 20, 2011, to mixed emotions. There was some sadness at saying good bye to friends in Chiang Mai. There was some feeling of anticipation of getting out of “a culture that doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.” Partly, I was looking forward to going home.
And, on top of all of that, I was a little anxious about getting a ticket for the train. I had been to the train station the day before, but when I asked for a ticket for a sleeper car on the train to Bangkok on the following day, the ticket agent said that the computers were down. I wasn’t caught completely off guard by this news, because it had happened to me twice on this trip alone—once at the bank in Lampang and once at the train station on the border with Cambodia.
So, I got up early, ate breakfast for the last time in the Riverside House, checked my emails at the computer in the front office, gave little gifts to each of the staff, collected my bags and flagged down a tuk tuk. When I arrived at the train station, I went straight to the ticket window and, after taking a deep breath, asked for a ticket for a sleeper car on the 4:00 pm train to Bangkok. To my relief, the agent typed in the appropriate information and out of the printer came my ticket. I paid my 800 baht ($27) and found a chair in the shade where I could sit down.
Suddenly, with the worries about getting a ticket taken care of, my mood changed. What I felt was a kind of aloneness. I knew it wasn’t loneliness, because I found myself being OK with sitting without company for the six hours until the train would leave. It was something more basic than not having someone to talk to.
“Oh well,” I thought, “maybe I’ll figure it out as the day goes along.”
As I was taking out my pocket Bible from my backpack to do my morning prayers, I felt my mobile phone vibrating in my pocket.
“Pastor Holmes, this is Nicky. Did you get your ticket OK? . . . .Good. . . . .When does your train leave? . . . .OK. Is it alright if I pick you now and show you where I work and then take you to lunch? . . . . .Good. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
The Linguistics Institute where Nicky works is located on the campus of Payap University and is staffed with people from all around the world. Seeking to preserve and develop ethnic languages which have no alphabet, Institute staffers spend hours and hours in tribal villages recording songs, stories and conversations. Linguists together with tribal people then analyze the languages and develop alphabets so that oral traditions can be preserved in writing and a literature developed.
The work of the Linguistics Institute is used heavily by missionaries so that they can communicate their faith with ethnic peoples and print Bibles. My son, who is a senior Anthropology/Archaeology major in college, told me that many anthropologists are critical of missionaries for undermining indigenous cultures. I know that in some cases this has been true, but the work of the Linguistics Institute reassured me that sometimes the work of Westerners in Thailand can actually help preserve indigenous cultures.
Nicky and I had lunch at a noodle shop near the train station, and I was back in my chair in the shade by 1:00 pm. Three more hours and I’d be on the train to Bangkok and on the last leg of my journey alone in Thailand.
While writing in my journal about the Linguistics Institute, I looked up and saw Sanit walking towards me. True to form, he was concerned about me and wanted to know if I needed anything. He sat in a chair next to me, and as we talked he put his hand on my arm. We talked for half an hour about the Nong Bua Sam Church, Nicky and M, his family, my health and the weather—all the while with his hand resting on my forearm.
In my experience, Thais are not demonstrative in showing affection. That is changing somewhat as the younger generation becomes more westernized and less traditional. I sometimes see Thai teenaged couples holding hands as they walk down the street.
Sanit, however, is a traditional Thai in spirit even though he studied in the U.S., is very cosmopolitan, speaks English well and is technologically savvy, so the way he was expressing affection for me was another example of a Thai coming more than half way to me across the bridge between our two cultures.
He prayed for me, said “I’ll see you next year,” and walked away to his car, leaving me alone in the open air seating area with my luggage.
As they had done in the past, porters helped me find the car in which I belonged and helped lift my two bags, heavy with books and presents for people back home, aboard.
Secure in my little compartment and with no decisions to make for thirteen hours, I began to process what the day had given me. “What a difference a day makes,” I thought as the train slowly wound its way through the mountains southeast of Chiang Mai. Gratitude had replaced irritation. Instead of judging Thai society to function worse than American society, I now felt like it worked better.
I had gotten used to my emotions alternating between positive and negative when I’m in Thailand or with the Thais in my church back home. Like the train I was riding in, for awhile we’d be slowly climbing up a grade and half an hour later we’d be flying downhill. One minute I’d be grinding my teeth and the next minute I’d be thinking, “How blessed am I to be here!”
Maintaining a measure of equanimity when living and working among Thai people has required that I acquire a measure of perspective and patience. I realized that Buddhadhasa would say it requires detachment, but I had to respectfully disagree with him as the train stopped at yet another town to pick up some passengers.
After pondering the day’s events for a couple hours, I finally came up with the word I was looking for. The word was humility, not in the sense that I’m not worthy but in the sense that I figured out my place in the grand scheme of things. When I could see myself clearly and without apology as a disabled, male, Christian, highly educated American with all of the assets and deficits which that package entails, I am in a much better place to tolerate and even appreciate people who think, believe and behave differently than I do.
As I thought about this, a book entitled The Big Sort by Bill Bishop came to mind. In the book Bishop offers a ton of statistics showing that Americans are gradually choosing to move into communities of people who think like they do. In the town next to mine, for example, over 90% of the residents vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Another example is that most churches in the U.S. boast that they are multicultural if just 5% of their members are of a different race. The tendency, Bishop argues, is toward the formation of homogeneous enclaves which partly explains the growing polarization in American society.
And I wondered if, contrary to America’s self-image as a melting pot, we aren’t, perhaps unwittingly, moving into one of those historical periods in which people get tired of doing the hard work of dealing with diversity and feel like retreating into the comfort of sameness.
I know that was how I was feeling when I woke up that morning, and that’s how I felt at the train station as I faced the prospect of being alone for six hours. I felt like I would rather be without anyone to talk to than to one more time do the difficult task of bridging another cross cultural chasm.
As I lay down on my convertible bed, pulled the curtain shut and tried to let the clickety clack of the train’s wheels on the rails lull me to sleep, I got to thinking about why Nicky and Sanit keep doing the hard work of reaching out and welcoming me and others who are different. Love was he only conclusion I could come up with right before drifting off to sleep.