I am titling this blog post “rant” because that how I discovered it on my computer. I only use this computer in Thailand. It’s a little thing and I just don’t have much use for it stateside. So when I opened this strange document called “rant”, I found myself drawn in. I didn’t much recall writing it. I write a lot of things that I don’t recall writing. But I thought it was a worthy post. But I will make a caveat. I talked to Michelle (my partner in crime here in Thailand) and asked her if she thought it was a bit too generous to the Thai people. She nodded in the affirmative. I am usually careful to not idealize a people or a culture or on the otherhand, diss a people or a culture. All cultures have their light side and all have their shadow side. I just happened to, at this moment see the light side of one culture and the shadow side of another. But given another day, I could easily turn it around as there are many shadows lurking in these parts, that’s for sure. So with that preface, here’s me ranting (probably fueled by a cup of coffee or two!)
Yesterday, while I was sitting and eating in the little restaurant downstairs at my hotel, there were three farang (westerners) eating. I had what I thought was a good idea for a Thai person who wanted to make some money. There are a lot of Thai cooking courses in town here, but there are no Thai eating courses. You see, most Thai people do not eat in the restaurants catering to farang. They mainly eat in from the roadside stands that tend to gather in local markets around town. These markets, which are the Jewel/Whole Foods to most Thai’s are also where the best food in town happens to be cooked. There are usually tables set up around these stands so when you get your food, there is a place to sit down and relax and eat. And of course they are super cheap. A curry that might cost 100 baht or more in a restaurant catering to farang, will run about 35 baht at one of these stands. And more farang would eat at these little stands if they recognized the food and could figure out how to order it. So my suggestion, which I gave to a Thai friend of mine who waitresses in a couple restaurants in town including the one downstairs, is to have a Thai eating class. Where they meet at a local market and learn about the various foods that are available and then sit down to try them, learning what stands make what kind of food and then how to order what they like. Mysteries abound. Often times, there are people selling something wrapped expertly in banana leafs. But you never know exactly what’s going to be inside though the size and shape are often the clues. But how would a farang know that. There are bizarre colored candies in some stands but how is one to know what the different colors are or what the candy is even. There are stands with soups (Thai’s love soup the best), but there are so many different kinds. And so on. The variety is astounding and the flavors are often intense, so a class sampling different foods would give people a safe way to try them. By the way, Thai restaurants in the US are like restaurants for farang here. Not surprising of course, but pretty far removed from the intensity of flavor and heat of a typical Thai dish. Anyways, I didn’t begin writing to talk about Thai food. The juice for this came from my moment with the three farang in the restaurant to whom I was bouncing this idea. It was breakfast, there was no one else in the open airy restaurant, and it didn’t feel like I would be intruding by saddling up and asking them what their thoughts were on the subject. They were maybe 30 years old, one man, two women. As I was conversing, it was really only the man that bothered to respond, saying he might not be interested as he was not an adventurous eater (they were in the process of putting butter and jam on their white toast – all three things being totally foreign to Thai people). The other two barely looked at me, and in fact one didn’t even turn her head to acknowledge me. After hanging out almost exclusively with Thai people for the last month (since I stopped going to Pichest’s, I no longer have much interaction with farang), it took me back. It was so different from the easy engagement of the people here. It is like when you walk down the street and you pass someone. If you pass a Thai person, they will look you in the eye and smile if you do. It doesn’t matter, young or old, male or female. They will give you an easy, generous smile. And this is not just to farang, they engage each other this way too. If you pass a farang on the street and smile, they have no idea how to react and usually look down or respond with a tight, uneasy smile that looks more like pain or constipation than anything resembling a smile. This is the nature of our western culture. I don’t pretend to know why it is. Maybe we are afraid that someone might want something from us. Maybe we just don’t have enough socialization. Maybe it’s a cynicism or just a general sense that if we engage, it might take up some of our precious time. Because it is true that time in Thailand is different from time in the west. It’s more fluid here. The clock is not central to their lives. It doesn’t own them like it owns us. But it seems like fear to me. It smells like it. If you boil it to it’s very essence, fear is what lays dry and crusty on the bottom of the pan. It’s not our fault. It’s the nature of our culture. Culture, it seems to me, is the single strongest determiner of our thoughts and actions. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me on this trip. We think we are such independent thinkers, that everything we do is so self determined. Of course, that is what our culture tells us to think Even our thoughts of independence are culturally created. As this is not the culture here and they don’t think of themselves that way. I met a guy in Bali. He was talking to someone about the possibility of them renting a motorcycle. He has a motorcycle in the states. When he rides his motorcycle in the states, he wouldn’t think of going out without full leather, helmet and the works. But here, where people are on motorcycles from the moment they are born, give no thought to that sort of protection. Though some wear helmets, they almost all wear flip flops, shorts, t shirts etc. And when he is here, that’s what he does too. And he doesn’t think twice about it. When in Rome….And yet, that saying assumes that you bring consciousness to conforming. Maybe at first, that is the case. But go anywhere for long enough, or not even that long, and you begin conforming to culture without thinking about it. And if culture is so strong in swaying one to it’s side so quickly, imagine it’s power when you grow up in it. You have no idea all your thoughts have been so determined by it until you leave it. I talk about what a relief it is to leave the bubble of the west, the bubble of my culture. It’s like being able to breathe fresh air after being cooped up for so long. I know, this sounds blasphemous. Unappreciative and all that. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what I’ve been given. I’m thankful for it every day. It’s just that I feel so much more at ease here. There is so much more ease here. You can feel it when you saddle up to a few farang and try to engage in a simple repartee and end up feeling kind of lousy, like there is something wrong with you for trying to make the most basic of connections. I was going to make a point about the lack of direction in the west, of a lack of someone, some institution, holding down the moral center. How we flit and flitter between science and politics, looking for direction and end up either in scandal or on the moon. We are great at looking outside of ourselves in the west. Who is to blame for our problems. We follow politics, blaming the other side, the right, the left. We follow science, looking for answers on the moon. They have it right here. It is the temple that holds things together here. It is the monks. The monks, who spend their lives asking the right questions, and seeking the right answers. The most honored and revered of all Thai society. The monks place is second to none. It is because their role is so important. They are the ones who look for answers the only place they can be found, inside of us. Cultivating and understanding compassion, wisdom, patience, humbleness, simplicity, and love. And because these are the true leaders of society here, people cultivate those values within themselves as well. So that what you end up with is a society that is clear on what is important, where relaxing and laughing with friends and family is the best possible use of time (though they don’t think of it in terms of “use of time”). This is so unlike our confused, greedy, fearful and violent culture, twisting this way and that like a flag in a hurricane, desperately clinging to politics, science or religion. Seeking a way out while it’s only serving to deepen our suffering and give sense that we are lost in our own backyard. We can see our house, but just can’t figure out how to get back there.