Woke up again to another beautiful sunrise. One could really get used to this, and it’s very easy to forget that there are bills to pay and stress to be had back in Reality Land. I guess it happens to everyone during a good break from their “regular” lives; you always think that THIS is the way to live, “if only” you could do this forever and not have the stressers pushing down on you, everything would be fine. If I only won the lottery, blah blah blah. Well, of course, but the reality is that unless you are extremely rich and can float around the country seeing the sights and chilling out, Thailand is a lot of work. I’ll explain further in a little bit.
Su’s mom and a family friend picked us up for the day. Our first stop was a jewelry store. I should emphasize at this point that it was me, Su, my Mom, Su’s mom, and the family friend (also a female) going to a jewelry store. I had no idea exactly what I was in for, but I knew it was going to cost me money. The real purpose of the jewelry store visit was to purchase a ring for Su’s sister, Joy. The cultural practice is that if a younger female sibling gets married before an older one (which is the case here since Joy is the oldest sister; Su is the middle), the younger sibling gives the older sibling a ring during the wedding ceremony.
In Thailand, the jewelry is all 18k, not the 14k gold we get in the U.S. The gold is softer and more pliable (read: easier to break if you aren’t careful) but it’s also much richer in color and very beautiful to look at. Su found a very nice ring for Joy, as well as some nice earrings and a necklace charm of Rama V for herself – thankfully gold is MUCH cheaper in Thailand than in the States. I also found a nice Buddha charm for myself; I’m not a jewelry-wearing guy in principle, but I did pick up a gold chain before I came here in the hopes of finding a nice Buddha charm to wear. Mom also found some earrings and a ring, so it seems like everyone was pretty happy and not completely broke.
We then went to Su’s grandmothers house (her father’s mother) to pay our respects. She is in her 90’s and took care of Su a lot while she was growing up. She was also very supportive of Su through college. I would like mention at this point that Su’s grandmother is quite a pistol. Although her hearing isn’t the best, she is quite on top of her game, and in truest “womanly” fashion the first thing she noticed when we came in were Su’s new earrings! To be honest, I was quite glad to
not be the center of attention for the moment.
It is here that I experienced my first very strong culture shock. Her grandmother’s house/land is more like a family compound than a house. There are five or six houses on this property, all owned and maintained by relatives – Su’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. I don’t know for sure, but I would venture a guess that at least 20 of Su’s direct relatives all live within throwing distance of each other. You just don’t see that in my America; it certainly doesn’t exist in the Northeast where I live. (Perhaps in the Midwest or South, but not where I’m from.)
I am by no means an expert on Thai culture, but I’m finding the differences between Thai and American culture to be so completely opposite each other that I’m struggling. Not struggling in the sense of thinking “their way” sucks or is wrong; not that at all. Struggling in the sense of trying to wrap my head around WHY Thai people do the things they do – the underlying cultural factors. For example, in America one of the cultural “goals” of parents is to raise their kids to leave the nest and go forge their own paths. In many ways the children are actually encouraged to do things vastly different than their parents, to “do better” than they did, and quite often that results in American families being separated by thousands of miles and keeping in touch via email and phone calls. In Thailand, however, families are close; VERY close. Children often take in their parents to care for them as they get older, rooms are shared by two, three, and four siblings, and in many cases a new groom will move in with the bride’s family to help provide for the family in anticipation of taking over the family business and providing for her family. It also says a lot to me about the importance of women in Thai culture as opposed to the unfortunately still prevalent feeling among many in the West that women are inferior to men.
In a word, family is everything in Thai culture. (This point and many others are excellently detailed in the book Thailand Fever, which I reviewed in a previous entry. I strongly suggest you pick it up even if you aren’t in a Thai relationship specifically.) This just doesn’t happen as a general rule in America anymore. In fact, in many – if not most – cases the children can’t wait to get away from their parents and do their own thing. And that’s certainly not to say that Thai children are mindless drones of their parents; don’t read into that more than it’s intended. I simply find the differences between what is family and how it operates to be fascinating. Okay, so back to the story…
We spent some time with Su’s grandmother and her aunts. She is simply too old to be able to make it to the wedding, unfortunately, but I was very glad to have the opportunity to meet her, and hopefully in at least a very small way she could see that I’m a good person and willing and able to provide for Su (as Su is equally willing and able to provide for me). After this visit it was back to Su’s house for lunch and a major rainstorm. The storm didn’t last very long, but as this is the rainy season it sure dumped a ton of wetness (wetocity?) on us. Once the rain finally subsided we were told that we were supposed to go to Su’s other grandmother’s house (her mother’s mother) but because of the rain the road to her house would be washed out for a while and we wouldn’t be able to get to it. (Unfortunately, we never did make it to her house before having to leave, so perhaps next year we can go.) I think it was at this point that I experienced my second big piece of culture shock, which was that decisions and plans were being made without my knowledge or active participation/input, and I started to feel uncomfortable.
For those of you that don’t know me personally, I am very much the typical Type A personality, and not knowing what is going on is right at the top of my freak-out list. I am not used to being uninformed and “going with the flow.” It’s a major area in need of character improvement area for me. I don’t like not having a say or not being told what the agenda is. Now, I’m sure what’s happening is a combination of both culture and hospitality – being that we’re guests just as much as we are family at this point – but I am really not used to it at all. If someone were to at least tell me what the plan is ahead of time I don’t need to have a say in matters, but having my day all planned out for me ahead of time and without being informed is not something I can say with conviction that I enjoy. I suspect that in the long run I’ll be a much better person for figuring out how to go with the flow more; but until then…
Instead of grandmom’s house we went to a local farmer’s market. It’s held every Wednesday night in a big field, where people come and sell everything from toy guns to mattresses, fresh fish to underwear and sunglasses. Up until this point in the trip I’ve been very good about only drinking bottled water and not drinking anything that had ice in it. The water system in Thailand is not the same at the U.S., and diregarding any discussion of whether or not the water in Thailand is “clean” enough, when you go there you simply don’t drink the water or anything that has ice in it. Well, I was having such a good time I let that thought slip to the back of my mind a bit, so when I was offered a fresh fruit drink by one of Su’s family friends working at the market, I had some. I didn’t have a lot, and thankfully my Mom is much smarter than I am and reminded me that the drink I was enjoying had ice in it. My fruity bliss lasted literally about five minutes, because shortly thereafter my stomach decided to challenge my bowels to a Muay Thai match. This is when I had my third major culture shock moment of the day.
I was spoiled by the Western-style toilets of the beach house. Anywhere else in this part of Thailand, they don’t exist. Sorry, but unless you are in a department store or some resort/farang-friendly place, you’re getting an official Asian toilet experience whether you like it or not, and things couldn’t wait until I got back to the beach house. I told Su that the most important thing in our lives right now was my ability to find a toilet, and that if she truly loved me she would help me find one with the utmost expediency. (Okay, so the conversation didn’t quite go like that, but suffice it to say that Su got the point quickly enough, thankfully.) We paid five Baht to a local homeowner who “rents” her toilet out to marketgoers. Paying for toilet use is a lot more common in Thailand than I thought, and not relegated to the countryside, either; I had to pay two Baht to use the toilet in the Bangkok mall, too.
For those of you who have never seen a non-Western toilet:
Here’s a brief tutorial:
- You don’t sit, you squat.
- The wash basin to the right of the toilet serves two purposes – to “flush” and to wash your hand.
- There is no toilet paper, which hopefully sheds some light on the reason (other than being generally sanitary) why you need to wash your hand.
What is not shown in this picture but was in the toilet I was using was another, larger water basin that kept pumping a continuous stream of clean water into the room. The water pumped in to the point where the basin was purposefully overflowing onto the floor to keep things sanitary. Now, at the risk of sounding crass and disgusting, I need to paint the picture for you; please believe me, I explain this ONLY as a course of cultural awareness and not as an attempt to be lewd or provocative. In a word, I had no idea of how to do this. I mean, I’m a pretty big guy and I was convinced there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to pull my shorts down, squat over the toilet with my shorts around both ankles, aim and fire and actually hit the intended target. I truly felt that I was going to misfire into my shorts or worse. There’s nothing like that brief moment of panic when you’re stomach is already jumping off the top turnbuckle and putting your colon in the Figure Four leg lock, not to mention – and I’m sure you’ve all been there – the automatic, physical reaction your body sometimes creates to get the process started when you’re in close proximity to a toilet but not necessarily ON the toilet yet.
I’ll spare you the absolute specifics of what I did, but suffice it to say that things turned out much better than I had expected. With no toilet paper, however, I had to… well, you know. Hey folks, this is common in a lot more places in the world than it’s not common, so you just have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re gonna have to wipe with no outside assistance. I was quite glad for the overabundance of water at this point, and after a much longer cleaning than was probably necessary I was ready to venture back out to the farmer’s market and eventually head back home where I was very happy for the Western toilets we had (though feeling much stronger as a person for having the experience).
Needless to say, today was very difficult. I learned a lot, and I’ll be reflecting on today’s events for a long time to come. I’m very glad for everything that happened, as it was not a bad day in any regard. Not a bad day, but certainly a challenging day. Today tested me in a lot of different ways and hit me from a lot of different angles that I wasn’t prepared for. I got hit a lot in places that I’m not used to keeping protected, and that makes me very aware that my perspective on life (my own and others in general) is not the only way or the best way, and certainly very narrow-sighted and in need of work.