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Settling in, sort of

As the first week of my time in Thailand comes to a close, I feel I am beginning to settle in. Albeit slowly.

It feels as if it has been far more than eight days that has gone by, as every day has been a roller coaster. I’ve learned so much, yet become conscious of how much more there is out there to know. It has been a humbling experience to say the least, and I am weary and excited to see what the next week brings.

I’ve had some excellent experiences with many local Thai people. Everything that I have read about their innate kindness and generosity has proved true precisely when I needed the most. Many faces are now connected to names and smiles in my head, and that helps keep me anchored when I go about my day to day routine, particularly at the University.

Now that I have had a bit of time to think about it, the things I miss most so far are all the conversations I have each day when I’m at the University of Montana. I like to think I’m a pretty independent guy, but each day in Missoula I see many people I know who slow down and talk to me and make me feel like I belong. It’s apparent almost every day that I occupy a spot in people’s lives, and my presence actually changes something about the place that I am. The same feeling occurred to me during my month in England a year and a half ago. It is very difficult to get used to the idea that if I was not here in Bangkok, right now, that the lives of essentially everyone around me would be exactly the same as they are now. They might smile at me when I walk past them down the road twice a day, or teach me how to say the name of the food I order each morning, but if my presence doesn’t alter or improve their lot in life at all. That is humbling for me, and so counter to what I am used to that I often feel sort of foundationless.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m having an amazing time. It’s just that a surprising amount of it seems to be in retrospect, when at the end of the day (or perhaps with the new energy that the next day brings) I look back on the things I learned yesterday that make today easier, even if it is but a miniscule amount. I’m finding better places to get the foods that I enjoy, quiet places in the middle of this hectic city where I can read quietly, kind old women who will wave at me if I walk the long way to school each day, and the bus stations, so when all else fails I can leave for what lies outside these municipal borders.

The hardest part of the trip so far has been fitting in with the other foreign students here at the university, which is not what I expected. I’m usually fairly quick to make friends, and although it was my goal to come here and focus on spending time with native Thai people that I couldn’t meet anywhere else, I always imagined I would have to be keeping other temptations at bay in the evenings. Rather I hear about what my classmates did the night before oftentimes in class the next day. I’ve been invited along on several occasions, but oftentimes find myself too tired from the day’s excursions to get up the energy for the late nights and early mornings that they seem to crave. I suspect I will settle in just fine after a little bit more time here and would forget many of these difficulties if I didn’t write them down, but they’re worth remembering. They’re making me rely on myself in ways I wasn’t aware I was relying on others back home, and it’s giving me a new appreciation for the friends I have made, and especially kept, over the years.

My biggest victory to date occurred when, after class got out early on Tuesday, I got up the courage to walk into the lone indoor basketball court on Thammasat University’s campus. There were six or seven Thai students out there playing, and about the same number watching from the baseline. I had packed all my clothes and my basketball shoes in doubtful hope that morning that I would get the opportunity to use them, and when I was greeted with the same generous smile that follows me almost everywhere I go here, I sat down and laced up.

We played for several hours, and it was the first of several sessions that week. I learn a few new names each time. Thai people tend to go by one-syllable nicknames because there given names are much longer. Some of the guys at the basketball court I play with are (spelled phonetically): First, Kan, Yoo, Wat, Tat, Kee, and Patrick. Patrick is Taiwanese, although he’s spent over ten years living in Thailand with his parents. None of us can dunk it, but we all have a great time playing together, and being accepted into the group as generally as they did has been about the most helpful thing to me so far.

Some of them play in jeans, and they have a more run-and-gun style than we tend to play back in the US, at least in the pickup games I play in back in Montana. They manage to operate that while playing half court, oftentimes even if we have five-on-five, numbers that always merit full court play back home. There is a mix of bare feet and basketball shoes much nicer than my own, but everyone is kind and everyone can make a shot. They’re good passers but also not hesitant to throw up a questionable shot from about anywhere. They keep my guessing, and although I am several inches taller than most of them our different playing styles make us a good match, and I have a great deal of fun. They seem to as well.

One of the advancing thoughts I have had swirling in my head is why it is that Thai people speak so quietly. Two people, talking to each other from 10 or 12 feet away, seem to little more than mutter to my ears, and yet understand each other perfectly. It perplexed me for a couple days, until I sat down and thought about (during the middle of my Advanced Topics in Political Theory and Current Events class, which jumps from far over my head to unfortunately easy with incredible rapidity) it one day. In order to speak so quietly, they must listen incredibly carefully. For that to be such an ingrained act in a society, it seems to me that perhaps person-to-person interactions and relationships are valued more than they are in my Western/American society.

This is all speculation on my part, but I suspect that that could be a big contributing factor to why everyone seems so content and shares so many smiles and pleasant exchanges. The smiles aren’t baseless. They are just anchored in something that is difficult to catch with the first cursory look of someone like me, with my past experiences and world-view.

I wonder how much of this is influenced by a political climate and how much is simply passed down from generation to generation. In the United States I feel like people observe and participate in politics under the assumption that our government is there to serve us, and if they are not doing what we want then it is our ability to rise up and change them to people who may do a better job. Indeed, it is written into our Constitution. Some people, myself included, may argue that is a fading principle in our country, but being here makes me appreciate whatever amount of it is left, even if it is in the eyes of only some. Here people see it as their duty to revere the King, and to agree with what their government is doing and how they feel. I recognize this is a broad, sweeping statement that is likely in many cases to be proved wrong. Indeed I’ll actively seek out ways to prove it wrong, but it has been clear that on the whole this is a somewhat reasonably applied broader national identity. You can see it in the way they write their news, in the way their political science professors speak critically about what their citizens are blind to. It’s obvious in they signs places in their museums, and in the books they fill their bookstores with. It is rare to climb in a cab without having your driver point at one of the many pictures of the king posted above the road, and saying with a gap-toothed (or completely healthy looking) smile, “Dat is the king!” They wait for you to smile back and look enthusiastic before they turn back to look once again at the road, where three or four lanes are artificially made out of a painted two-lane highway.

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