From my experience working with the Thai congregation here in town and during eight trips to Thailand, Ifm willing to state, ‘If youfre comfortable, itfs not multicultural.”
To explain what I mean, Ifm going to draw an analogy. Every summer I spend a lot of time at the Forest Park pool. There I see many adults sitting on the edge of the pool reading a book with their feet in the water. Theyfll sometimes look up from their reading to watch kids do somersaults or belly flops off the diving board.
Then Ifll walk to the deep end where the lap lanes are. Often there will be one or two people who donft swim very well holding onto the wall, trying to summon up the courage to venture out into the deep water and flail their way to the other end.
Each time Ifm in Thailand, I see some American tourists who stay in five-star hotels, have ham and cheese omelets for breakfast, ride to their destination at the Emerald Buddha Temple in an air-conditioned bus, have an English-speaking guide take them through the temple and return to their hotel in the same air-conditioned vehicle where they can relax before dinner by watching an American movie on cable TV in their room.
According to my analogy, those are the folks who stay at the shallow end of the multicultural pool. To their credit, they are getting their feet wet by venturing out into the big cultural pool outside of the USA. They are doing more than watching a travel show on TV, but not that much more. They are staying well within their comfort zone.
My son Ben and I spent two weeks in Thailand at the beginning of January, and we decided to flail around in the deep end of the Thai cultural pool. We soon discovered that we couldnft swim very well in those waters. For one thing, my ability to speak Thai is not very good and Benfs is non-existent. One time we got lost in the middle of Bangkok because I couldnft explain where I wanted to go to the taxi driver, and not where I wanted to go is exactly where the driver took us. For a few hours we were way out of our comfort zone.
Another drawback is being unaccustomed to Thai culture. For example, the default Thai reaction to an emotional situation is to smile. If they are glad to see you, Thais will smile. If they sense you are angry with them, Thais will smile. It works in Thai society for the Thai people, but for Americans, their unwillingness to deal directly with tension can be very irritating. Ben and I were frequently out of our comfort zone.
Still another complication is going to the bathroom. In many places, when you ask, ‘Hawngnamyutinai?” (wherefs the bathroom?), they will point to a closet sized room with a squat toilet, i.e. a hole in the floor over which you squat and do your business. Then when you look for toilet paper, all youfll see is a bucket of water. I donft think I have to go into any more detail. Talk about being out of your comfort zone!
Finally, Ifm often out of my comfort zone because the Thais have never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and if they do have a ramp, itfs often very steep and without a railing, so itfs useless for a handicapped guy like me.
But Ben and I also enjoyed many unexpected blessings from jumping into the deep end of the Thai cultural pool. For example, when we would get lost or need help, there would always be one or more ordinary Thais who would try to help us, and if we couldnft get through to them what we needed, they would find someone who could speak enough English to finally get us where we wanted to go. The discomfort of getting lost turned into experiences of many good people willing to help these lost foreigners.
Likewise, while the Thai smile can sometimes drive me crazy, at other times Ifm so grateful to be visiting a culture in which the vast majority of people are polite, gracious, accommodating and genuinely glad to see me. Most of the time, the smiles are completely authentic.
Then therefs the bathroom situation. Ifll admit I have no upside to that one.
And finally, while Thailand is an obstacle course if not a nightmare for people with disabilities, in terms of their facilities, I always experience someone, often a complete stranger, who sees me struggling with a barrier and volunteers to help me. Ifve had complete strangers walk into the middle of busy streets to stop traffic so I wouldnft end up as road kill in Bangkok.
The trip Ben and I took was no vacation. It was hard work. We slept very well every night. But in many ways it was better than a vacation. By jumping into the deep end, we experienced more of the real Thailand than most of the tourists who stay in luxury hotels, and we gained a lot of empathy for the many visitors and immigrants who come to our country and struggle to communicate in English and navigate through our culture.
Getting into real multicultural situations is always uncomfortable to one degree or another. Thatfs the downside of diving into the deep end. The upside is that the wonderful surprises and blessings experienced by really getting vulnerable in a foreign culture are better than what you get by staying in the shallow end. On top of that, it is really exhilarating to know that, little by little, you are learning to swim in an increasingly multicultural world.@
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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.