So, all this, and I would love to say the Thais are my people, that I have found my true heart-home on the globe.
And yet. And yet… I can’t. There is a connection that isn’t happening, some part of me that doesn’t throw off sparks when I come into contact with Thailand. I have felt it scores of times in Mexico, and in Syria, and even occasionally in Egypt, when I can cut through the smog and the traffic and the tourist fascination.
Is it because there is just too much like-going-with-like in Thailand? There, I’m on board with everything already. In Mexico, I feel like I’m visiting what could be my better self, if I stretched—my self that’s quicker to laugh but also more polite, that paints the room in cobalt blue and rose pink, that drinks without fretting about it. Syria is the model me that has perfected the art of hospitality, developed my sense of taste without being snobbish about it and learned to live with dignity no matter the circumstances.
More practically, though, the answer may simply be language. I speak Spanish and Arabic. Except for the ten hours Peter and I spent in a classroom in Bangkok near the end of our trip, I don’t speak Thai.
Those five days of classes were thrilling, though. Why did no one tell me there are languages in which you don’t have to conjugate verbs? That pronouncing tones can be fun, and not impossible after all? Our teacher was a delight, and even if we don’t recall anything we learned*, we at least made a Thai friend.
I rely on words. Even as I’ve switched to more of a photo format on this blog, I’ve felt like I’m cheating. The sensation produced by a great picture somehow doesn’t count if I haven’t hashed it out in three too-long paragraphs, then pruned it all back to one tight one.
As much as I felt freed up last year when we went to Thailand and bumbled around, language-less and reduced to pointing and smiling and giving the thumbs-up, I also felt cut loose, bobbing along in the current and never mooring anywhere or with anyone.
A lot of people, probably most of them, travel like this. But a lot of people are simply better at this style of travel than I am—they’re more outgoing, and they can make a real connection with people by pointing at lines in a phrasebook. But coupled with my more passive style, my lack of fluency, or even functionality, makes me a pure spectator.
I would never say I’m fluent in Spanish or Arabic, but I can order in a restaurant, buy bus tickets and crack the occasional joke—all without thinking too much about it and worrying over what kind of impression I’m making.
I think this is the key: if I can slip off my cloak of self-consciousness (like an invisibility cloak—but the exact opposite), there’s a chance for me to really see the person I’m talking to and really listen to what they’re saying. Less me, more them—probably a lesson I could use in any language, in any country.
It appears the only solution to my Thailand quandary is…more. More visits, more study, more food. And plenty more time with my bootleg Rosetta Stone software.
And in the meantime, I won’t take my grasp of Spanish pleasantries for granted, nor my ability to read Arabic.
*except the phrase paw dee, which means “just right.” But even that doesn’t really count because it turns out I already knew it, because my mom has been saying it for decades, to mean something more like “close enough.” I didn’t even know it was Thai until I took this class—it was jarring to hear a familiar phrase in a list of other non-cognates.
It must’ve worked its way into the family idiolect through my ex-stepdad, who was a monk in a Thai monastery for a while before he showed up on our patio when I was six or so. In my memory, he was wearing his saffron drawstring pants the first time I saw him, and he probably said, “Paw dee” right then, for all I know.