Opposite me was a 77 year old rice farmer from northern Thailand, who spoke unusually good English. After exchanging the usual traveler pleasantries - where are you from, where are you going, etc. - the man had pulled out a tourist brochure and given it to me. It was for his province, he said.
“You read this, this is for you. You keep it. Very beautiful, look.” He turned the pages for me. “Beautiful waterfall, very beautiful, maybe later you visit here."
“Oh, maybe I will, you can go hiking here?” I tried to remember the Thai word for beautiful, “Suay?" In Thai it sounded like a question.
While I browsed the brochure, he reached into his backpack again and found a plastic jeweled pin in the shape of a Thai character.
“I pray for my King,” he said.
We’d just come from Bangkok, and I’d seen the crowds of Thais, dressed in black, paying their respects to the recently deceased King at the Grand Palace.
“I pray for my King,” he repeated, taking off his hat to show me he’d shaved his head. “This is symbol of King, Thai character, number nine."
“Gâo,” I said.
“Yes, gâo, number nine, King number nine. You like? Souvenir for my daughter."
He seemed delighted at my attempts to use my very limited Thai vocabulary, so I started asking for translations, which prompted a spontaneous language lesson lasting the rest of my two hour trip. I learned all the numbers up to 100. I learned the words for monkey, “ling," and elephant, "chang," and rice, “khâaw."
“Where you go, lots of monkeys, I call it ‘ling' city, monkey city. Beware, they will…” He grabbed the strap of my backpack. “Wear on front! If they try to take it, you tell them, ‘mei dii,' bad.” We both laughed.
Whenever a vendor would pass our seats, he would point out what they were selling and tell me how much. "Naam yen, cold water, 20 bhat. And orange juice, orange juice is nam sòm. Dried fish, 20 bhat, dii sìp bhat. Chinese noodle, only 10 bhat. You like Chinese noodle? You like Pad Thai, Thai noodle?"
As if to explain why he was being so friendly, the farmer told me his philosophy on people. We're really all the same, no matter where we come from.
"I say, oh you from Germany, you my friend, you from USA, you my friend. We are all the same."
It was exactly what the monk from my Bangkok meditation class had said. Sure we all have different backgrounds, we live in different circumstances, and we have different genetics, but underneath we're all just human. We deal with similar struggles, non of us are perfect, and we all want to be happy.
Have you ever struggled secretly because you thought other people just wouldn't understand your problems? Felt like no one could relate to what you're going through? Felt like you didn't fit in because your life and circumstances were fundamentally different from those of the people around you?
Well let me tell you something (and remind myself too): you are not a unique snowflake. You are 99.5 percent the same as everyone else. And thinking you are unique is the norm. Everyone who's struggling to be happy thinks they're different from everyone else. Maybe we don't consciously make the decision to think that way, but it unconsciously sneaks into our thinking anyway. Don't listen to those thoughts, you are not alone!
I know for a long time I didn't really like the idea of being "normal." But normal is not boring. Normal can be really wonderful. It means we can reach out and relate to others. It means people have already dealt with our problems and solved them.
When the train conductor announced that Lopburi was next, I started to get up. "Sà wàt dii khâ," I said. The farmer corrected me, and made me re-do my greeting with the proper "wâi" bow. And some parting words:
"In Thailand, people are friendly, but they don’t speak English. If you learn Thai, you can go anywhere."
Note: I do not take responsibility for the accuracy of any statistics in this post :-)