I was talking to Ajahn Satanun, a seminary professor in Chiang Mai, and I asked him what he thinks the church there needs. He answered, “My Thai students don’t understand their own culture very well. They don’t know what questions people here are asking.”
He went on to explain that when people live in a culture, and are deeply embedded in it, it’s sort of like a fish not realizing that it’s living in water; that is, until it’s flopping helplessly at the bottom of a fisherman’s boat.
He said that he is trying to help them understand their own culture better, so that they can apply the stories in the Bible to the questions that Thai people are asking. That made sense to me. Whenever I hear what I consider to be a good sermon or a good editorial, usually it means that I feel like whoever wrote the piece was “speaking to my condition,” as Quakers sometimes say.
As the conversation continued, he mentioned that he wanted to send more of his students abroad. “Wait a minute,” I responded. “Earlier you said that you wanted your students to understand their own culture better, and now you say you want to study outside of Thailand.”
“Ah,” he replied. “I think that when you study abroad, you get a perspective on your own culture which you cannot get when immersed in it.”
His statement made me think of another missionary named Bill Yoder who has lived and worked in Chiang Mai for 47 years. Thailand is his home now. He even has a cemetery plot here.
I asked him one time if, when he first came to Southeast Asia, he tried to become a Thai. He smiled sheepishly and said, “Yes, when I was a lot younger. But I soon figured out that I could never become Thai even though I now speak the language fluently and have lived here twice as long as I did in the States.”
Yoder is loved by his students at Payap University’s School of Theology. As a single man, he helped raise 27 teenagers in his own home – seven at a time. He loves Thailand, yet he knows he will never become a Thai.
“Sometimes,” he said, “my Thai friends say I understand Thailand better than they do. That’s simply because, being a foreigner, I have a place to stand from which I can see them more clearly.”
That has been true for me. When I return to Forest Park from one of my trips to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, my friends all want me to tell them what I learned about Thailand. I try, but the more I come here, the more I realize that I’ll never understand the Thai people. As much as I love them, and as much as they have showered me with affection, I’ll never feel in my bones what it is like to be Thai.
What I can talk about more confidently is what I learned about myself and about the place with big city access and small town charm. I am reminded that we Americans have way too much stuff. I know a lady in Oak Park who earns part of her living helping clients throw away some of their stuff.
One year, an elder from the church I have gone to since 1994 took me to the airport. When we got to security, he gave me a hug and an envelope. On the plane, I opened the envelope and found five, one hundred dollar bills, and a note instructing me to use the money for whatever ministry I thought was important.
This column is to encourage you – if you are thinking about taking a vacation – to stray from, say, a cruise where everyone speaks English, you eat American food, and you never have to struggle with communicating in another language.
Instead, consider being part of a church mission group in Mexico, or a Habitat for Humanity project in Haiti. Try to rub elbows with real people who view the world and life through different lenses than the ones we have. Or, to ease out of your comfort zone, go to a basketball game at Proviso East or have lunch in the Pilsen Neighborhood.
I’m not sure how much you’ll learn about the culture you visit, but I guarantee you’ll learn some things about yourself.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.