There is an art to eating with two required utensils and swatting away flies at the same time.
I have been living in Thailand for nine months now, and I believe I have gotten the hang of at least that much. A fly or five descended to feast upon my dinner of Pad Thai and sprouts the other night. Ordinarily—ordinarily for the life of stickiness-loathing and hand-washing every five seconds that I used to live in the States—this would have been cause for a gag reflex. But no noodles flew in the harming of some pesky dinner-desecrating insects.
Amazing all the kinds of flies they have here. Stuck-in-traffic-for-two-hours flies. Expensive-air-conditioning-in-one-hundred-eleven-degree-weather flies. Practice-language-forever-and-people-still-don’t-understand-you flies. The variety of shapes and sizes is remarkable, as is my capacity for violent reaction to each: swatting swatting swatting. And yet they keep coming at you.
When they told us about culture shock in my company orientation, they were not vague or unhelpful. On the contrary, the gentleman who spoke in my session was a first-class storyteller with the sort of examples that remain with you, particularly in the moment you realize you’re having a Moment. One story he shared was about the Africans who would show up at his house when he was trying to work, the same Africans who would not show up to his community meetings. The story came flitting to my mind as I sat at the dinner table of my sweltering house, trying not to be seen by the broke couple banging on my door, the ones who refused to get a job and survived by asking the farangs for money, and feeling like the farthest from a kind soul possible.
Or another story: a lady named Patsy was attacked by culture in the checkout lane of a Big C. The cashier took the bag of potatoes she was buying and let it come plunk—right down on top of the white bread. Fidgeting there in line, Patsy cried. And one does not cry in Thailand.
The first Saturday I sat in a meeting with all the Deaf I was to work with, I was still jet-lagging and getting used to the heat, even though it was cool season. I had already sweat through my jeans and been taught so many sign names, I knew, even as I was smiling and signing them back to my new friends, there was no way in any place I would retain them. I was a closet with no more stacking space.
“Why do they keep making the pointy nose sign at me?” I asked my supervisor.
“They’re calling you farang.” Foreigner. I was, as of yet, nameless. Only later would they name me, after the fashion of picking a distinguishable feature, Eyelashes.
We sat in one giant circle, Deaf-style, and Adam, the leader who was leaving for America, signed an introduction. I think. Then everyone else signed. And signed and signed. Signed until I started looking at the clock on the wall. Signed until I stopped trying to understand. Signed until I stopped trying to look like I was understanding. Signed until suddenly there were twenty sets of eyes staring at me, and I choked because apparently they had been signing their way around a circle and I did not even know how to say hi.
Turning to my supervisor, making bleary eye contact, I shook my head. Someone signed something that, in context, I guessed meant: “you guys could interpret for her.” But I just shook my head, a three-year-old determined to have his way: I’m not saying anything. I don’t want to. I have nothing to say. I want to go home. Home home.
The only other thing I remember of that night is staring at my blue jeans and thinking, Just think ‘blue jeans.’ Blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans…until the choking in my throat, that big knot that would burst up through my eyes at any hint of kindness, trickled away.
You learn, eventually, to master the art of shoving that knot away in Thailand. Just as you learn to eat with a fork in your left hand and spoon in your right, the fork never rising to touch your lips. As you learn to drive a manual car on the opposite side of the car in “wrong way” traffic. As you learn to give monks their public personal bubble and wai to elders. As you learn to duck your head when you walk in front of anyone, or smile with no teeth, a calm cheer. Just as you learn to learn and learn and learn and take tea for your headache after a day of feeling three years old and still learning.
I’ve decided: the fountain of youth is an eternal cross-cultural experience. A fountain of honey drawing droves of flies, and strange — the diligent product of beings other than as you are — but with a bit of smushed bread, sweet.