Intrepid Mom Visits Thailand

by Kenneth Champeon, May 8, 2004 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

Sometimes I wonder what I am doing here. In Asia, that is. Maybe it is that an active mind craves challenges. Maybe it's that Europe gives an impression of dreariness, Africa of danger, Australia of skittish marsupials, South America of cocaine and guns. The U.S.? That's my home, so I suppose I should feel comfortable there, but perhaps that's why I avoid it. I feel too comfortable there. Take lots of naps. Read the entire Sunday New York Times. Watch interminable hearings on C-Span. That kind of thing.

I mention this because my mother just visited Thailand. The visit caused me to reconsider the differences between our respective worlds, and how the differences can be incommunicable. Thailand can be fun but it can also be, as my mother the professional scientist put it, "highly disorganized." We who live here like to say that Thailand is 60% organized, on a scale in which America is 100% organized and total disorganization might be represented by Somalia or Afghanistan. We also like to say "it's always something", meaning that small imperfections are to be expected and are best ignored. You order tea and get coffee. Your menu lists "Chicken Gordon Blue". Your plumbing is sluggish. That kind of thing.

And from the perspective of Thailand, of course, America can sometimes seem so organized that one wonders whether its inhabitants have lost some of their humanity. According to a friend of mine who is an old Japan hand, the Japanese consider Americans to be rational almost to the point of being inhuman.

According to my mother, one of the more irrational things that Thais do is drive the wrong way down one-way streets. "Nuts" was her adjective. Thais do this whenever driving the right way would take too long. This can be amusing by day, terrifying by night, but it's not without reason. An American might obey a law out of respect for law as such, while a Thai may obey only as convenience dictates. As an Indian friend of mine once put it, "You know how to work within systems. Asians know how to work around them."

An unkind observer might have seen my mother's visit as a series of calamities interspersed with periods of self-seclusion. Our rental car overheated at the very moment that we had reached the summit of Chiang Mai's mountain of Doi Suthep, just hours after I had managed to break a side view mirror and scratch a door by smashing into a supporting column of a parking garage. (Due to limited space, parking in Thailand can be a perilous business; cars can be parked two or three deep by leaving them in neutral with the emergency brake off. As for driving in Thailand, it can sometimes resemble driving a bumper car at an amusement park.) My mom's luggage, destined for Chiang Mai, was sent to Hong Kong and then returned to New York. She didn't lose any traveler's checks, but then she didn't have any. In one hotel the plumbing was sluggish. Room service brought coffee, not tea.

She didn't get sick, though. Like many travelers, she had been indoctrinated by various parties into believing that she should stay clear of ice, fresh vegetables and tap water. This would be sound advice were she traveling to India, but in Thailand it strikes one as paranoid, as evidence of a culture that views the natural world as a malignancy to be neutralized. Her worst complaint was a stomachache, for which a club sandwich and a Coke proved an easy cure.

An American coming to Asia for the first time may be struck by how ignorant most Asians are of America, its geography in particular. It's a rare Thai who will ask you what state you are from. California, L.A., New York - these are good reference points. All else is void. Americans are so bombarded with references to themselves that they assume everyone else to be likewise bombarded. They're not. My mother was delighted when we got a hotel room with CNN, after several days with nothing but Thai news. Most people in Thailand can go days without knowing what is happening in the greater world, but the reward of our neglect is less anxiety. As Thoreau wrote in Walden, "If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, -- we never need read of another."

On one thing did mother and I agree, that certain things continuing to exist in Thailand existed in America one or two generations ago but exist no more. Like ice cream trucks. (In fact, in Thailand they are ice cream motorcycles, with the ice cream contained in a colorful sidecar.) Or full-service gas stations. (No Thai gas station is self-service.) Or gas stations in which the gas is contained in big, above-ground drums, and is pumped using a crank and a length of plastic tubing. Our little car accident involved no insurance companies or policies; the car owner just reckoned the cost of repairing the damage, and we paid in cash. Indeed, most transactions are in cash; I have never seen a personal check, and credit cards are viewed with a wary eye. You almost never need a driver's license to drive (or rent a car for that matter), nor do you need one to buy cigarettes or walk into a bar. Many people dispose of trash by burning it, which was the case in suburban America as late as the 1950s. The prevailing (if diminishing) attitude in Thailand is that people can and should look after themselves and not rely upon governments to do the job. The cleanliness of Thailand surprised Mom - indeed she found it to be cleaner than Boston - but this is due less to private than to public endeavor, which may be as little as every proprietor making sure that the area in front of his shop is ree-ap roy, or ship-shape.

Misconceptions about life in Thailand were perhaps expressed by my friend Herble Jyoose, who liked to pretend to tell people back home that he woke up every morning, mounted his elephant, hacked through some jungle with his machete, and then pulled into a Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee and a strawberry frosted. Though spoken in jest, Herble's narrative hits upon the country's great developmental contrasts. I have heard it said that there are more BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes in Thailand than there are in Germany, but there are also more people who earn a dollar a day. My mother met one.

For most Americans, your occupation is what defines you, and Americans new to the Kingdom are often surprised to learn that this is less the case here. Here people get a living somehow; the important thing is to survive, which may in part explain why Thais are so preoccupied with eating. Mom was taken aback by how many apparent employees of Bangkok airport were doing nothing at all - "hiding" was her word. One was even sleeping at the cash register. I happen to find sleeping on the job endearing, perhaps because it contains a kernel of rebellion against, well, you know, the world-capitalist system.

My mother also remarked several times upon how slender most Thais are, and together we speculated as to why Americans, who were once known for their chiseled, Romanesque figures, have gotten to be so plump. She blamed the promulgation of high-carbohydrate diets. I blamed office jobs, general decadence. But I think the Thai secret is simple: eat whatever you want whenever you feel like it. The body knows best, not clocks or dieticians. And I expect that living in a climate sometimes resembling a sauna can't hurt. For much of my mother's visit it topped 100 degrees.

An American visiting Asia for the first time may be bewildered by how spontaneous everything is, or seems. Sometimes this is just a matter of not knowing the language in which plans are being made, but I think it's also due to an Asian love of winging it. Arriving at the airport five minutes before a flight. Arriving unannounced, uninvited, and in great numbers, at the house of friends or family. Careening around the roads as dictated by immediate traffic conditions (cycle rickshaw, stray dog, gaping hole.) Showering visitors with gifts and flattery. (I suspect it had been a long time since anyone had told my 59-year-old mother that she is youthful and beautiful, which several Thais did during her trip.)

But if this almost reckless spontaneity drives foreigners away from Asia, it may also become their best memory of it. My mother happened to be in Thailand during the Songkran water-splashing festival; I doubt that she had ever witnessed an event so spontaneous. Snapping pictures of soaked, giggling children with buckets on their heads; middle-aged men whose dances were fueled by gulps of Thai whisky; and a fire engine manned by bandana-wearing young men, she asked, "Do we ever let our hair down like this?" I mumbled something about Independence Day, Mardi Gras, Spring Break. But there was no comparison. Songkran would be illegal in a million ways in America, even supposing that enough people would stop working for three days to participate. The whole thing would be seen as a dangerous waste of time.

And so, burdened down with gifts, surrounded by several grinning potential in-laws, brimming with memories and photos, and no doubt suffering from mild exhaustion, my mother left the Kingdom. Alone, and with thirty-eight hours of solitary travel ahead of her. And I thought that whatever the failings of Asian society, it would not countenance a woman traveling in this manner only to return to an empty home. Several Asians have told me so.

There yet remains so much for the civilizations of the world to learn from each other. The Pacific Ocean is still too wide.

- The End -