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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Time: Same-different

Sign at the Cucumber Cafe, Pattaya, Thailand
I have not had as much difficulty with jet lag as I thought I might.

The Westerners here tell me that I will Really Feel it when I return home and it will be the same day that I left.

I’m not looking forward to it. I’m just enjoying being here, now and back in my old routine which really only took about three days to re-establish and without an excess of grogginess.

Everyone here uses “Naval Time” – so 6 AM is 0600 and 6 PM is 1800 hours.

I’m used to that from my medical background, but there’s a particular method to that madness here that has nothing to do with medical records and hospital schedules.

Thai people – and, I want to make very clear that I am speaking from my experience of ‘the folk’ I have met on the streets here and not generalizing to all Thai people – have a very different sense of time than we do in the West.

I’ve not yet been here long enough nor met enough Thai people to make a general statement, but I’ve noticed that not a lot of people wear watches.

Oh, there are literally hundreds of vendors who sell knock off watches for 100 baht (about $3.25, depending on the current day’s rate exchange), but not a lot of Thai people wear them.

And, when one says, for example, to a Thai driver, “I see you at 1800 hours,” one often adds, “Six o’clock. Night. Today. Yes?” And, if one is wise, one waits for them to say, “1800 hours. 6 o’clock. Night. Today. Yes, Sir.”

There are long, sad stories of Westerners who ordered a “texsi” (taxi) to take them to the airport for a return flight home at, say, 1800 hours, but the driver arrived at 0600 hours. The day before or the day after the scheduled departure.

I learned the same thing when I was in Ghana. Time is different when you get past the International Date Line.

I’m not sure what it all means, actually. It’s obviously something about the cultural experience of East-West, but what it is that causes it, I really couldn’t say.

I tried to begin to understand it from a Western perspective until I realized that this was my own form of cultural imperialism. So, instead of concentrating on why THEY are different, I’m trying to understand the rhythm of life here in the East and start where they are to see why I’m so different from them, verses why they aren’t more like me.

It’s made for a more interesting learning experience but I confess that I have not been here long enough to “get it”. I don’t know if it can ever be “gotten,” actually – any more than an Easterner ever really “gets” our Western ways.

One simply makes accommodations for one’s present reality. Or, one goes mad or is, at the very least, frustrated all the time and what’s the point of that, really?

So, one works to be Very Clear in one’s communication – especially about time. And, one notices that a Thai’s first response will most often be, “Don’t have.”

Never "Don't Know". That would be to "lose face". Very bad. Bring Shame. No can do. So, always, always, "Don't have." Even if you do.

That is a theme here, I've noticed.

If one is shopping for, say, an electrical adapter, one gets used to hearing, “Don’t have.” It’s not that they don’t have it, it’s that they really don’t understand what you’re asking for, or they don’t know enough English to engage you in the questions which they know will inevitably follow.

Or, they have sized you up and decided that they just don’t have the patience, this very red hot second, to deal with yet another arrogant, demanding, persistent Westerner – even if you have been your most solicitous, gracious, smiling self. Or, have money.

They know better. Frustration is an ugly beast. Experience is a harsh teacher. It's simply not worth the cost of engagement.

One then simply goes to another Thai service floor person and asks the same question. And, another. And, another. And, perhaps, yet another.

It took Rob and me asking four people – one of whom simply pointed in the aisle where there were lots of electronic devices and left us on our own – and about 20 minutes before we finally found what we were looking for.

All of this takes time, which is an important commodity in the West but doesn’t have the same meaning here. It’s not that they don’t care, really. It’s just that they don’t have the same sense of urgency about time as most of us in the West seem to have.

Except, of course, on the streets and in the small alley ways around here. People on motorbikes or in cars and trucks (which are used as “buses”) seem to be in a great hurry. Indeed, crossing the street is an exercise in taking one’s life into one’s hands.

My guide book says this:
“Visitors are killed every year on hired motorcycles because they (note: this means all drivers - Thai and Western) drive carelessly on the small, winding roads. Be mindful and always wear a helmet.”
The guide book means, of course, that if you are on a motorbike - even as a passenger - one should plan to wear a helmet. It might not be a bad idea to wear a helmet whilst walking on the streets and small alley ways.

I’m learning a nuanced version of what the 1928 Prayer Book calls “the quick and the dead”. If one is not ‘quick’, one is soon ‘dead”.

Rob at the "Spirit House" at the Cucumber Cafe, Pattaya
Rob has two scars – one on his wrist and one on his leg – from the time a few years ago when he hired a motorbike to take him someplace. He wasn’t holding on when the guy took off and he slipped right off the back of the bike and onto the street.

He was stunned, cut and bleeding. They guy looked over his shoulder, saw Rob on the street, and took off in a blue streak. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, really. It’s just that there are realities here.

If he had stopped to help, he would have been responsible for Rob's medical bill.

That’s the rule, apparently. If you stop to help someone, that person is your responsibility. It’s not that you don't care. You just don't have the money to pay a hospital bill.

Or, the time. Business, after all is business. The one thing that’s the same in this difference of time is that in business, time is money. That, apparently, is universal.

I'm remembering a wonderful story in scripture about the Good Samaritan and hearing it in a whole different way. The cultural overlays are fascinating. I'd love to hear a sermon preached on that gospel text in one of the - admittedly very few - local Evangelical house churches here.

Mind you, there’s no judgment about this. You are not thought a bad person if you do not stop to help a stranger. There are certain realities to life here, is all. Bad stuff happens. All the time. “Life is suffering.” They know this because that’s what the Buddha says.

My friend Rob says that, just the other day, he saw a old woman who had collapsed on the street - half of her body on the sidewalk and half in the street. Even though he's lived here for five years, his instinct moved his body before his mind fully engaged and he went rushing over to her.

Within seconds, four young Thai men appeared from out of nowhere and surrounded her, preventing Rob from tending to her. They were not being mean. They were protecting Rob. They knew that, if he assisted her, he would be responsible for her.

The way I understand it, she would have had "free" medical care (no cost to her) if she arrived at the hospital on her own, but if Rob brought her, he would have been responsible.

I know. Makes no sense to me. Apparently, that's the way it works, the assumption is that, since all Westerners are presumed to be very wealthy, why should the government pay for her medical care when one can get a Westerner to pay.

Rob said that he has no idea what happened to the woman. On his way back home, she was gone and people were bustling about as if nothing happened. Not a word was spoken by anyone he spoke with in the local shops.

"Thai business is Thai business," says Rob, "and you learn not to mess with Thai business."

It’s just pragmatics, is all. Compassion is costly, God knows, so it is left up to God to take care of in God’s own time. And, there are always the monks at the Temple.

I’m just trying to understand enough to be able to get along with the people and the culture while I’m here these three weeks. I’m trying hard not to impose my Western values and expectations on the people here, but I have to tell you, it’s hard work.

It’s so much easier to expect others to live up to your expectations and values.

Turns out, imperialism has its own pragmatics.

It can be exhausting to try and figure out language and road signs and bus routes and time, but apparently nothing that comes anywhere near jet lag.

And for that, I am one grateful person.

Right here. Right now.

1 comment:

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I had to laugh about the "naval time" bit and hospitals. Does it surprise you that my digital watch and my cell phone sport 24 hour time?