Sunday, June 25, 2006

"A not so pleasant suprise"

I was a missionary for the Mormon Church in Thailand from 2004-2006. During that time, I had quite a few enriching experiences and a good number of simply interesting experiences. When I first arrived to Thailand I was sent to Nakhorn Ratchasima, better known as Korat. Korat sits in the north-east region of Thailand, often called the “praduu heeng isan” or the door (gate) of the Isan because of its geographic positioning as the first city in a succession of cities in the north-east region called the Isan. I was young, barely above the age of 19. Most of my life had been lived in a very much different way, converting a few months after my eighteenth birthday. 9 months later I found my self in Thailand, diligently studying the Thai language and working hours upon hours each day, rarely breaking to even eat. One experience that occurred during the beginning of my time in Thailand still makes me laugh. There I was, young and trying to do my very best to be a good missionary and keep my thoughts, words, and actions clean and presentable. A retired judge had recently approached us and decided that he wanted us to teach him the missionary lessons. We began teaching him. Each discussion was filled with increasing confusion, despite the fact that we occasionally brought native speakers to attend our conversations. My companion spoke Thai fluently, I spoke Thai terribly but still wrestled through each conversation. One night, we traveled to this man's house through the rain to sit and try to explain (once again) the basic principles that we were trying to communicate. The night began the same. The judge retrieved water from his kitchen for us. We slowly sipped our water and began our discussion. The rain was falling extremely hard, nearly muting our voices. As I was struggling to push cluttered Thai sentences out of my mouth, the power in his house went completely out. I continued to struggle, explaining passionately my views and feelings on spirituality and the mission of Christ in the darkness of his house. I’m not sure he understood a word that I said to him. Suddenly, the lights came on. We continued our discussion, still disoriented from the power outage. I was sitting facing the kitchen, the judge was in the middle, and my companion was sitting on the other side of the judge with his back facing the kitchen. I heard something move in the kitchen any my gaze was automatically drawn into the kitchen. There stood a woman, with a towel around her waist and her upper body fully exposed. I felt terrible! I had been working so hard to clear my mind of any impure things, feeling that my mind was naturally predisposed to some extent to this way of thinking. Not to mention the fact that I was 19 years old. I instantly started attempting to rid myself of these thoughts, frantically grasping for alternative thoughts. I had seen a naked woman and the more I tried not to think of it, the more I thought of it! The discussion ended soon after with the judge explaining that he simply didn’t understand and had no more desire to learn with us. While my companion was probably contemplating the discussion, or what we could’ve done better, I was racked with horror by the image of that naked woman. I decided that the best thing to do would be to tell my companion. I thought that perhaps by telling him, I might be able to relieve my burden through verbalizing my secret. I felt embarrassed, but eventually got around to telling him. I turned to him and said “back there at the judge’s house I saw his daughter naked”. Surprisingly, my companion responded with a puzzled look on his face. He asked “did you say his daughter?” I responded instantaneously and confidently “yes, of course, his daughter!” He looked at me with a straight face and said “umm…he doesn’t have a daughter. However, he did tell me he had a son who had a sex change”. My jaw dropped. All of a sudden I started to piece together previously ignored indicators like the detective at the end of the film The Usual Suspects. Why would a woman wear a towel at her waist? Why would a Thai girl (typically modest despite what you hear), walk into the kitchen naked knowing that there were two younger gentlemen sitting in the dining room. What a great introduction into the wonderful, yet interesting land of Thailand.

“The Box”

I’ve tried to fit in this box time and time again –

My shoulders pressed tightly against its inner walls

Breaths forced in and out of scarred lungs

Legs riddled with cramps, neck trumpet bent

My wings unable to extend –

My heart beating irregularly, conforming to the beat and tempo of others—

My mind synchronized to the thoughts of another day

Puzzled by the comfort others discover in the box

Trespassing the borders of my mind to understand

Exploring the cavities of truth and finding emptiness

The thought of the box haunting my dreams, mocking my future

Why must I conform?

Men sculpting their idea of divine manhood

Scoffing at the notion of individuality—

Guilt compelled placed hair

Polished voices leaking insincerity

Sucking passion from the spirit’s electricity

Do I sin in my wish?

Must I be consigned to the box and spend listless days in its confines?

Right or Wrong

Good or Bad

Right or Left

Surrounded by a society who understand only basic mathematics—

I fly out the box with courage and sip passion through a thick straw

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Traffic Jams…. Reinterpreted:

If you have ever lived in, or close to a big city, then you have experienced one of blunders of the modern metropolis… the traffic jam. I have lived in or traveled through enough big cities that I’ve probably heard, or been part of a conversation that consisted mostly of complaining about traffic jams over 100 times. This phenomenon of the traffic jam plays an integral role in the life of any city dweller. As I’ve experienced this phenomenon, I’ve realized that typically the conversations consist of language similar to this:

Person A: (sigh)

Person B: (sigh)

Person A: Traffic jam…

Person B: Yep… (spoken through a voice of repressed anger)

Person A: (sigh, or sigh like signifier)

Person B: (slow sigh mixed with a clear indicator of “I’m getting impatient”)

Person A: The traffic is always jammed

Often this is followed by another round of sighs and then silence. Occasionally this is followed by a reprise of the previous conversation. I think it is safe to say that many of us do not particularly enjoy waiting, nonetheless waiting in a confining box with no other option. These days, many avoid this process through escaping the inevitable through their cell phones. However, I want to perhaps offer a new way of envisioning these traffic jams that we experience so regularly. This simple idea came to me after reading an ethnographic study of a student that I graded during my job as an anthropology teacher’s assistant. The assignment was for the students to study American values expressed in a particular facet of culture through key informants, participant observation, and ultimately writing an ethnography regarding the culture. One student chose to write his ethnography on the culture of waiting. To better understand the culture of waiting, he decided that he would bring a stop clock with him the next day to measure how much of his days were spent…………..waiting. In the end, he figured that he was spending at least two hours each day doing nothing but……….waiting. He then explored quickly a few things that he thought he might be able to do to enhance his experience of waiting. Now imagine, if you can, some things you could accomplish if you were to utilize the minutes and hours that you spend sitting restlessly in a car. I’m aware that this isn’t the most novel idea that has ever entered the mind of man. However, I want to explore a hypothesis and keep you updated through an ongoing blog. I am currently living in Bangkok, which provides me with ample opportunities to test my hypothesis. I will be in Bangkok or in other South-East Asian cities for the next three months. My hypothesis is as follows: If I utilize my traffic jam time for the next three months (including bus rides, taxis, etc.) to learn the Hindi language (which I have no background in), I will be able to speak, read, and write the Hindi language semi-fluently by the end of the summer. Of course, to give any credence to this hypothesis, I will only study the language when I am in traffic jams. I also would like to invite anyone who reads this blog to participate and challenge themselves to utilize the time spent in traffic jams to acquire a new skill, read a certain numbers of books, etc. I imagine a sample of this magnitude would enhance our understanding of the power of something as simple as utilizing time that traditionally has been used for complaining.