When I walked out of Don Muang airport for the first time in 1998, I entered into a whole new world. On many levels, I was already aware of that. What I wasn’t aware of was how much it would change me. The person I was then was to be shaped, through relationships with people in the culture, and new experiences. I believe these changes have brought a better balance to my life and a more holistic understanding of God. They have also enabled me to see things differently. I’ve picked out four of the biggies to share with you.
- I learned to slow down. On the surface, I was forced to slow down my pace of life. I was used to getting ten things done in a day, now I could do one or two. Things take longer, and there are more steps and hurdles to accomplishing a task. On a deeper level, I began to see the people around me more, and less of my “urgent” to-do list. I used to always have to be doing something. I was compulsive about it. The need to be productive, to use my precious time on earth as efficiently as possible. While I do think we need to consider carefully how we invest ourselves, I have stopped always trying to produce, as if my life depended on it. Because it doesn’t. I can sit happily in a chair for several hours, without feeling the need to get up and rush around and be productive. Time to reflect, time to just BE. To take things as they come, and wait for what he brings us. God does not judge us by our level of productivity.
- I learned to live simply and love it. Most Thai people live simply, in relatively small spaces with few possessions. What they do own has an important purpose. While many people long for bigger, nicer houses and nice cars and furniture, there are also many who say “phaw yuu dai” meaning, “I have enough to get by and I’m content”. These people look to what they have, not what they don’t have. Their definition of “phaw” or “adequate” is probably very different from mine. Currently, I live in a place where people invest a lot of time and money in making their homes beautiful. My home, in contrast, is very simple and lacks much that isn’t necessary. I joke that I camp in my house. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I can’t imagine creating a home full of decor and cushy furniture. It would feel silly, superficial, a waste of investment and a striving for material things. The Thais view this current life as a temporary state. Everything is impermanent. Especially in a tropical climate like Thailand’s, things tend to decay very quickly. They, as I, would rather spend their time and energy investing in things that are permanent or beyond this life. No need to strive for more or better when we have “phaw yu dai”. I remember arriving with my pickup truck in the village where I was to live. The bed was full, but not heaping over the sides. The locals were amazed at how much stuff I had, just coming here as a single person. They helped me unpack, and in curiosity looked at all the funny unnecessary stuff I had. By my western standards, I had really limited my household goods. I remember finally getting rid of the tiny rattan couch I had purchased because it was in the way. I replaced it with mats and cushion on the floor.
3. I learned to accept some things as they are. Thais tend to be really good at that. As a westerner, being plopped down into a rural Shan village, I could see a lot of things I thought needed to improve. Why was there only a muddy one-track road to the border? Couldn’t there be a cell phone tower somewhere nearby so we could talk to people outside the village? Couldn’t people screen their houses so there’d be less malaria and dengue fever? Why do the schools use rote learning, which we know isn’t good for kids? I was imagining a “better village”, one that conformed to my western ideas of how things should be done. A lot of development efforts are based on this. They see an underdeveloped situation and want to develop it. Because it’s better, right?
I’m not so sure about that anymore, in fact, I’m sure it’s not better. What if we first learned to accept things as they are? What if living that way was normal for you? If someone came along and pointed out that your way was inferior, I imagine you’d find yourself feeling inferior as well. Infected by the “I gotta have it better” bug. Discontent. Striving. Dependency on the person who comes from the better world.
4. I learned that I am not the hero. Repeatedly driving a sick friend to the hospital in the middle of the night, I think it started to dawn on me that I was not actually the hero. Sure, I probably saved his life, but if I hadn’t been there, the locals would have found a way to get him there. There was so much suffering and needs around me, at most times I felt at a loss as to how I could help. The situations were so complex and so foreign to me. I am glad that I knew better than to give money to people. It doesn’t solve anything and probably makes it worse. I could not stop poverty, or AIDS, or take away the draw of the city and jobs. I could not erase statelessness or families that split up.
I have learned to see my role as an alongsider, not as a hero. Alongsiders journey together with friends. They are in it together and act as a friend would, not as an outside savior person would. They accept things as they are, and seek help from God together.
So I am not the same person I was before I set foot in Asia. I love the many gifts Asia has given me. I have learned about the interconnectedness of all things and to not judge. That our clear-cut western thinking doesn’t work well in complex situations with many considerations. That a little contentedness can go a long way in allowing God to show Himself. And that, most importantly, different cultures hold the keys to the antidotes for my culture’s ills.