Spots of Time

September 30, 2003

Getting to Know the Locals


Writer's Note: Starting on Monday, I will be participating in a two-week volunteer program with an NGO (non-governmental organization or non-profit) in Thailand. I will be working with a minority hill tribe group called the Akha, whose origin is thought to be Tibetan or Mongolian and who, with other culturally unique hill tribe groups, have settled in the mountainous border areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Hence the early delivery of this week's "Spots of Time." I will do my best to send out next week's column (as a trip into town is scheduled for the weekend). However, for those of you tracking my columns as an indication of the safety of my being, please do not panic if the column does not appear. :) I should be back on track as of Tuesday, October 14, 2003, when I return to the town of Chiang Rai.
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“So, do you know where the American Embassy is located?” said Surin, a local Thai man I met in Chiang Mai.

“No,” I said, thinking, hmmm, the restaurant we are going to must be nearby to it.

“What if I was a kidnapper?” he said casually.

“Very funny” I said, my voice light and teasing. “Are you a kidnapper?”

“So you don’t know the phone number of the American Embassy?” he insisted.

“No,” I said. “Are you telling me I should open the car door now and roll out onto the street?”

Though I was laughing, a part of me was thinking – wow – he is right. What if he is a kidnapper? I’d only met him a week earlier and now I was in his car on the way to a restaurant somewhere in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Then I heard a familiar “click” sound – the sound of him automatically locking all the doors. My heard began to beat a little bit faster.

“Now what would you do?” he said.

People who travel always say they want to "get to know the locals" - to have an "authentic" experience. But, in reality, most travelers only get to know other travelers - especially in the backpacking circle. In truth, getting to know other travelers is a hell of a lot easier. Most travelers speak English, are from first world nations, young (or young at heart), and are similarly "fish out of water" - foreigners in a foreign land. Their presence means you have at least one thing in common – travel. That is usually enough to start off a conversation – one that might quickly lead to some kind of friendship.

Getting to know the locals is another story. Language barriers, cultural barriers, uncertainty of local traditions - all these things contribute to most travelers only chatting with tourist-oriented locals - taxi or tuk tuk drivers, guesthouse and restaurant owners, tour guides, etc. While these relationships can sometimes turn into friendships, for the most part they are business-oriented relationships at best.

Getting a big nervous but still MOSTLY sure he was kidding, I continued to laugh it off. “Well, I do have a piece of paper in my purse that say ‘Help! I’m being kidnapped!’ written in Thai,” I said jokingly.

“And pepper spray?” he asked?

“Oh sure – right here,” I said, patting my bag. I was still trying to speak lightly but noticed some tension creeping into my voice. Did I horribly misjudge Surin's overtures of friendship?

There was a pause and the car was silent. “You’re scaring me,” he said, his voice quite serious.

“You’re scaring ME,” I said too quickly, my voice unconsciously raising an octave.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Surin said, with noticeable worry in his voice. “I’m sorry, I didn't’t mean to scare you.”

We were silent for a minute. Both of us were unsure what to say next. Saving face is a huge issue in Thai culture and I didn't want to offend him. At the same time, I was a woman traveling alone in a country as foreign to me as the local's tradition of eating fried bugs as snacks - if I didn't take care of myself, who would?

“You know," I said hesitantly, "It’s just that humor is the hardest thing to convey – especially in another language. They say the true sign of fluency is being able to tease people in another language."

"Yes, yes, I know this," he said. "You must be so careful to not go too far. I hope I did not upset you - I was kidding only."

"Of course, no worries," I said, more confidently. "I just have to be careful you know. A woman traveling alone in a foreign culture - it is easy for misunderstandings to take place."

Surin and I met at the local market, around the corner from my guesthouse. The guesthouse, located on the other side of the river in Chiang Mai, is a bit off the beaten path - purely because of location. A good twenty-minute walk from the Tha Phae Gates, a central point in the city, my "neighborhood" is rarely visited by “farang” – the Thai word for “white foreigner.” Therefore, the local market is not at all tourist oriented. I first visited the market on the morning I arrived in Chiang Mai, following an overnight train from Bangkok. I liked the atmosphere - and the food - so I kept returning.

After only two mornings, I was a regular. The only farang in the market – day in and day out – made me a bit of an oddity, though everyone was really friendly. I think Surin and I met the second day. He was the only one who spoke English really well, though Visshit and Waa, the couple who ran the coffee counter, understood enough. We enjoyed chatting – me asking tons of questions about Thailand, and Surin excited to practice his English.

After a few days Surin asked me if I would go to lunch with him. I hesitated for a second, unsure what kind of invitation he was making. “As friends,” he said, quickly. “Ok,” I said, though still a big hesitant. It must have showed, as he then pulled out his wallet and said, “This is my wife and my son.” Looking at the picture a big wave of relief passed over me. I smiled at him and complimented the picture. “My wife is pregnant with our second child,” he said. All of a sudden, Surin wasn't just a random man I met at the market – he was a husband and a father. That afternoon, when we met for lunch, I brought my mini photo album - to show pictures of my family, my friends. I wanted to make sure he saw me as a whole person - a daughter and a sister - and not just a farang traveler.

“You know,” Surin said, once we had arrived at the restaurant and had ordered dinner, “I was so scared what you think when I ask you to lunch that first day."

“I wasn't sure what kind of invitation you were making either,” I admitted. “I wanted to go, but I have to be careful. It made me feel so much better when you showed me the picture of your wife and son. That helped me to understand that you wanted friendship and not more.”

‘That is why I showed you the picture,” he said. “I didn't want you to get the wrong idea.”

We smiled. Understanding was beginning to shed light on what had been a very formal and uncertain relationship.

"Friendship between cultures is a lot harder than most people think," I said. "And, I think that friendship between a man and a woman is even more difficult - there are so many things that can be misunderstood - especially in Thailand." I looked expectantly at him, hoping for understanding.

Thailand has a dark underbelly of prostitution - and pedophilia. It is very common to see foreign men walking around the streets with Thai women, often much younger than the men. Once or twice at the restaurant, I noticed a group of people looking at Surin and I - we were certainly an oddity. While it is very common to see foreign men with Thai women, it is very rare to see foreign women with Thai men. Since my arrival I had tried not to judge these situations by sight alone (in some cases the relationships are legitimate). And, as I could only imagine what our friendship looked like to outsiders, my relationship with Surin helped me to be even less judgmental. That said, I will admit that in most situations I have witnessed, the relationships between Thai women and foreign men appear (at least to me) to be fueled by a monetary flame, not a romantic one.

"This is very true," he said. "That is why I try very hard... (and here he thought for a minute) ...not to cross the line."

"And you haven't," I said quickly. "Even though it is hard, I think it is important to trust people. I think people want to trust people, but most are too afraid and so protect themselves by not opening themselves up to opportunities for friendship." I paused and smiled, "Like this one."

"But you must be careful - not everyone is good - even here in Thailand," he said. "Even monks. Just like anywhere, there are good people and bad people."

Surin's concern for me was touching, but slightly ironic. Our conversation, this dinner, our friendship - wouldn't be possible if I had not decided to open myself up to trusting him. And here he was warning me against doing it again. Still, a new father with a wife only a few years older than I, his concern was understandable. Part of our dinner conversation that night involved him expressing how his life had been changed with the birth of his son. Where all of a sudden he knew what it was to be willing to put his life on the line for someone. I thought silently to my dad and his constant worry and concern about his only daughter undertaking a solo around the world trip. My dad had told me many times that I wouldn't understand his worry until I had children of my own. I mentioned this thought to Surin and he agreed. Apparently his mother had told him the same thing - and only now did he really get it.

We shook hands that night when he dropped me off at my guesthouse. It was my instinct to give him a hug goodbye - what I would have done had I spent a similar evening with another traveler I'd gotten to know. However, I resisted. The evening's conversation had broken down a lot of of the walls of misunderstanding. But, maybe not all of them. The rest of them would take a little more time. Which was ok by me. Some of the best lessons are learned slowly, through trial and error.

You know, like baby steps.