Yesterday afternoon the sky was blue and clear, a pleasant change from the dark rain-heavy clouds we’ve had for the past few weeks here in Bangkok, and so I decided to go for a walk.
As I strolled through my neighborhood people were out and about, engaged in their usual daily activities. One man was washing his car. A grandmother was patiently sweeping the ground in front of her home. A teenage girl was wobbling slowly up the lane on her bicycle, steering with one hand while staring intently into the smartphone held in her other hand, blithely unaware of the surrounding world.
Masks are the norm
I couldn’t help wondering what could be so important to her that it couldn't wait for her to get to the 7-11 on the next block, where I presumed she was headed, and which would take all of two minutes to reach. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself smiling. She was wearing a mask. Yes, she was doing something foolish - but at least she was doing it while wearing a mask. In fact, every single person I had passed by in my village had been wearing a mask. This gave me cause to consider more the place where I now live, as well as where I’m from.
It's not perfection
Thailand, like every country and culture in the world, is not perfect. Utopias do not exist. Personally, I made a conscious decision to live in Thailand permanently, because, all in all, I genuinely like the Thai people and their culture. However, there are certain things to which I just can't seem to adjust.
For instance, even after several years here the traffic still drives me bonkers. It's no understatement to say that it’s insane! It's insane firstly because so many of these otherwise normally calm, gentle people seem to instantly transform into Formula One speed demons when they get into their cars and then drive as if the road safety laws either don't exist or don't apply to them, and secondly because no one honks their horn. To this day it amazes me how calm Thais are about all the reckless madness transpiring on the roads immediately around and about them. To me, it makes no sense.
Another thing that makes little sense to me is Thai organizational management. Speaking from my own experience, which obviously does not, nor is meant to, represent other foreigners in Thailand, at most of the places I’ve worked I’ve often been confounded and surprised by the decisions management has made.
There are in fact many things about Thai culture and society that elude my understanding. I’m trying to learn to live with the ambiguity, to exist in the unfamiliar grey nebulous, rather than the stark black and white thinking I was accustomed to from my previous life in America. I’m beginning to see that getting along and being happy in life beats understanding everything, and certainly trumps thinking that your way is the right way. It’s difficult, for me at least, to let go of the inherent natural bias I have that my thinking is the right thinking, that my way is the right way.
As impenetrable as Thai culture can seem, and as frustrating as certain things can be, I feel genuinely blessed to be here in these hard times of COVID-19. Nearly everyone here wears a mask. That is not the government forcing them to do it, but the people themselves willingly doing the right thing.
Overall, Thai people have been polite, brave, and helpful throughout this ongoing period of hardship. There are many instances of Thai people setting up public donation stations stocked with food and necessities, and in return of the people taking merely small amounts, for only what they needed. Apart from the Lumphini boxing stadium disaster, there haven’t been any large gatherings or events. People have faithfully stayed at home. They didn’t defiantly go to the beaches to party.
When alcohol was banned, people were naturally unhappy and complained, but they still stopped hanging out outside in the evenings in large groups, drinking.
Most of us dislike the inconvenience of having to check in at every single shop that we go to, but we still do it. On TV, all of the talk show and game show hosts and stars wear masks. It’s such a great example for society! Seeing all of these things makes me feel quite impressed with the Thai people.
I think this is especially evident to me because of the current situation in America. About six months on from the initial outbreak of COVID-19 there, it is in dire straits and might even be worsening. Yesterday Florida state alone reported well over 3,000 fresh cases -- Florida alone! It’s strange and sad to see a rich, OECD, first world nation behaving in complete opposition to science and facts.
The president of America refuses to wear a face mask and holds rallies with thousands of people at which no one wears masks … and six members of the president’s own campaign staff get C-19! Furthermore, Americans are actually getting irate over the issue of masks. They get in fights with each other. They even occasionally get so angry that they shoot one another over the simple thing of wearing a mask, which should be a non-issue.
The return to normal
In spite of the many things I don’t understand about Thai culture, they are the ones doing the right thing. We have had no new C-19 cases, internally, for weeks now. Things are finally, thankfully, if ever so slowly, returning to some kind of normal; a new normal, but a normal nonetheless. Of course, that brings back with it the same old problems of air pollution, plastic waste and traffic jams, but that’s a topic for another day.
Right now, I’m just thankful to be here. Here in Thailand, where the people may drive like crazy and may look at their phones while they zip along on scooters, and whose organizational management may make decisions that are utterly baffling, but they wear masks, stay at home, and do their best to help each other out during what is a very hard time for many, many people.
I’m far from understanding this place, but in the crunch, they have stepped up, and that’s all I need to know, I think.