Training was almost finished. I was unlacing my gloves when the old man called my name.
“Lolah”, he pointed at the plastic bags of food on the kitchen table, parallel to the ring. “No msg. You can eat it!” He smiled gleefully into my eyes.
“Oh! Awesome.” I smiled back.
Due to my extreme allergy to msg, my post training meal at the gym generally consists of a bowl of white rice and two to three eggs – sometimes boiled, sometimes fried, sometimes deep fried. The rest of the gym eats a variety of dishes. Buying food without msg in Thailand is difficult. People will lie to you. They’ll say it’s msg free when it isn’t. They’ll throw in what they consider “a little bit” when you ask for none. I’ve witnessed women pour the white dust into my food, and as I politely call them on it, deny it, with a spoon of the remaining chemical in their hand. Others just forget. Perhaps others simply don’t care. I’ve given up on trying to find a linear source of reasoning as to why people feed me msg after explaining that I’m allergic to it. I now focus my energies on avoidance, which at times, simply means reading people and situations.
“You bought the food at a restaurant, right?” I thought of a few weeks prior when he had, and told me that the food was msg free. I was sick for days.
“No. This was made at our home. If it’s made in the gym, it has msg, if it’s from my home, no msg.” He smiled warmly again.
I looked back at the kitchen table. The food was in bags. Exactly as one buys it at a restaurant or a market. Each time prior, when the food came from his house, it arrived at the gym in bowls and on plates.
I trusted him.
Approximately twenty-four hours later, on par with the conventions of my allergy, my face turned bright red, my eyes started to swell and I could barely breathe. This was only exaggerated by the fever that I had broken into that morning. Not only had the food contained msg, it was loaded with it. The fever combined with the poisoning kept me in bed and out of my head for days. One week later and I’m starting to feel somewhat normal, although the eczema surrounding my eyes and mouth still hasn’t healed.
Can I be angry at the the old man?
I suppose I could and at one time I would have been, but one thing I’ve learned here in Thailand is that responding emotionally to such a situation won’t amount to anything.
An integral part of Western consciousness as I know it is to ask questions, most profoundly, Why? For example, Why did he do this? Why do most Thais do this? Why does it keep happening? Why doesn’t anyone understand this might kill me one day? …… and what I’ve learned in Thailand is this: consistent answers to any of those questions probably don’t exist and if they do, the probability of me finding out what even one of them are, is slim. Bringing it up to him directly would cause a loss of face, most notably his and I have no idea what the repercussions may be, if any. He may not even have an answer. Attempting what I understand as the Thai way of dealing with things indirectly a.k.a. politely mentioning the food made me ill to someone else while he’s in earshot, won’t protect me from it happening again. I’ve tried that already. My best course of action? Simply determine what I’ll do next. In this situation, I’ve decided to sidestep anything cooked that comes from him again, unless it’s a boiled egg. And white rice.
The bones of the above scenario aren’t restricted to food allergies. They’re somewhat commonplace regarding pretty much anything you can imagine here. Forums are littered with Westerners attempting to reason what many consider Thai notions of honesty, linear thought, accountability…whatever label the writer feels to adequately fit the discussion. For most transplanted Farang, if not all in my experience, this has been a source of frustration and at times anguish. We have no idea who to trust and how to gauge the extent of that trust. Most often we are trying to determine a pattern, a linear understanding of why certain things happen, in an attempt to avoid suffering in the future. The problem is, oftentimes we can’t. Even in groups.
In our own cultures, the task is easier. We’re all clued into our social signfiers. We pick up on things we may not be conscious of. However, once we leave our cultures the signifiers change. We then attempt to filter the new culture via our old preceptors, sometimes clinging to them. Life isn’t as easy to read as it once was. As a result, we’re left open to cultural misunderstandings and drama with decent people and are easy prey for the unkind. Sometimes a seemingly honest person becomes your greatest predator. They may have given you no reason to question them for months, even years, only to betray you over something you may consider nominal. All seemingly random. As Foreigners coming from the West, we are often left confused, frustrated, heartbroken, enraged. We may feel as though our power has diminished. As a friend recently wrote about himself in Thailand, “I’m a child here”.
The Western phrase, “The eyes are the windows to the soul” applies to those who don’t develop armor. Thais, in my experience, have been taught to guard their eyes. They know how to show no emotion when needed. You can peer in, and you’ll get nothing, despite what the rest of their face and body suggest. Smiles don’t always translate as what they do in the West.
For example, in 2010, I was out with a friend checking out a band at a major outdoor venue. A few people over to my right, a handful of guys were dancing what I suspect the authorities felt was hard. A few billy clubs and some violence later, the dancers were on their knees confused and bleeding. As the incident occurred about a meter and a half from where I was standing, my friend looked at me and asked, “You’re not afraid?”. “No”, I answered, because I wasn’t. I’ve been exposed to a lot of violence in my life and this was on par with what I’m accustomed to. “Good.” he responded. “Smile!” And that’s exactly what everyone surrounding the bleeding teenagers was doing. Thais are taught at a very young age to smile through everything.
Shortly after I moved to Buriram the weight of my challenges and suffering came to a head. Moving here wasn’t easy. The people who brought me here were kind, and the trainer they linked me up with was as well, but I can’t say that my daily life in Buriram was always welcoming. To recap, white girls come and go here, for short bouts, but they don’t stay. In addition, when I’ve seen them, they’ve generally been in the company of Thais. I was regularly on my own. My understanding of Thai language at the time was good, so I was aware of what was said in my presence, or what was yelled in my direction. My mere existence would evoke friendly curiosity a.k.a. people watching everything I did, and at times animosity, most notably from groups of women. I prepared myself for potential street fights as I was almost sure they were to happen. Why did I stay? Because what I encountered previously in Bangkok didn’t suggest that my life would be any less challenging should I move to a new location, it would just be different. Possibly different. At the time, I felt nothing was certain here. In addition, my intuition told me to stay. So I complied.
In accordance with my nature, I also questioned. A lot. I felt I couldn’t move forward until something gave. I wanted some sort of understanding of either the situation I was in, or a pattern I could unearth, but I found nothing to remedy this quelling. I then remember sitting on my floor thinking, How can I do this? How can I navigate this new world alone? How can I navigate a world where the ethics I believed to be universal are either met with distrust or viewed as a weakness to exploit? How do I know who to trust?
Oftentimes when I’m on the brink of losing faith in my surroundings, and again, in accordance with my nature, humanity, when I’m ready to crack, something beautiful unfolds.
It all broke down to this:
When everything you thought was reality is no longer, when you’re the odd person out and a target, expurgate the extraneous. Trash what you’ve learned about right and wrong. Forget about how to rationally determine if someone is a good person or a bad one. Extradite all the cultural codes you know up until this date, for a moment. Just clear your head and simply assess the person and / or situation via the following question –
Clean heart or dirty heart?
It’s that simple.
Wherever one may travel, cultural codes of behaviour are apt to differ, but at the core of them, is motivation. Not the why, but what it is that drives the why, and that is universal.
Motivation in its simplest form can be broken down to that which resides in the heart.
We all are physically capable of determining within ourselves when we operate from a clean heart, or a dirty heart. Try it now. Think of a situation and think of two ways to respond to it based on whatever you consider clean or dirty . Don’t assess the how or what or the why, assess the feelings that arise when you think of both situations. Feel the differences somewhere in your body? That’s all it takes.
In time, if you remain cognizant of the differentiation of the above feelings, you’ll be able to suss them out in others as well. The cultural conditioning of you and the person you’re trying to read will be of little importance. It won’t matter if someone is conducting themselves in a way that you’ve been conditioned to question or even condemn, you’ll be able to get a feel of what they’re feeling when it’s happening, where their heart resides. And it can only be done via your heart. Your head, in it’s attempt to discern reality will lead you astray. It’ll rely on what you know as logic, truth, whatever you have been taught to believe. Understanding someone’s heart on a primal level to me, is of most importance. We can’t control what people will do, but we can decide whom to trust and whom to invite into our lives and to what extent. That, in itself, may save you from moments of exploitation. It may make your navigation of a new world a little bit smoother. It may give you a broader understanding of other people and other cultures that don’t operate in the same way as yours. It may also open doors that you wouldn’t have been able to realize were doors previously. I’ve only benefited from employing this technique.
Does it save me from all hardship? No way. The example of the old guy at the gym is evidence of that, but it does save me from the suffering previously associated with my suffering. I’m not distressed from questioning his intent. I’m not plagued by the whys I was previously plagued with. By sussing the situation with my heart, I know his intentions were good, despite the end result. For example, I know he’s not concealing contempt towards me. He’s not passively aggressively trying to persuade me to leave his gym (these are plausible reasons someone may slip me msg in a gym environment here). I feel no reason to feel any ill towards him, but it doesn’t mean he won’t poison me again, if I allow it. It just means, it wasn’t his intent for me to suffer.
Remember, Thailand among a number of countries in this world differs greatly from the countries I suspect a number of you are from. People don’t approach things head on here. What in North America we view as open, constructive dialogue is viewed as confrontation and looked upon with disdain. People rarely openly discuss their feelings and people rarely question authority, but it doesn’t mean they don’t react. They just do it passively. They conceal it. If you can determine someone’s feelings towards you and a situation on a base, primal level (clean heart, dirty heart), you will be able to make clearer, more tactile decisions. For example, if I felt that the old man was sneaking me msg out of some hidden agenda, I’d investigate other training options, as he’s the gym’s patriarch. Staying would only put me in danger.
I hope this has been beneficial and will assist those of you who are open to it. If it does, please let me know!
For Thailand solo travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my post Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.