“You’re Not Tourists Here”

43 Commentsby   |  07.27.11  |  Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’ve known that this whole time—we’re not here to be tourists. That’s what we told all our sponsors while we were fundraising, that’s what we tell our students when they ask why we’ve come to Thailand, and I think that’s what we tell ourselves even as we’re climbing up a mountain to a famous temple, going to movies and eating out with our students, or spending a day riding elephants through the mountains outside of Chiang Rai. By the way, riding an elephant might be one of the most “suhtyaaht” (awesome) experiences in the world.

So we’re here to build relationships, work with the church, teach English, organize events to involve the university students, etc., etc. So we’re told. And for the most part, I think we’ve done that as best we can all summer, though we’re always learning more and finding ways to do things more effectively. Lately, especially, having seen most of the tourist attractions here and become accustomed to life in Chiang Mai and met more and more people, it’s been a lot easier to really focus on things like teaching and encouraging relationships.

But there’s a different point I’d like to make about this tourist vs. intern conundrum, and it’s one that a church member articulated over dinner one night during our weekend away in Chiang Rai. A few of our friends from the Pepperdine group were leaving the next day to spend time on the beach in Phuket before going back to the states, and one of them said that he was really going to miss Chiang Mai. To this our friend Oi, one of the church members, said, “That’s because in Phuket you’re just tourists; here, you’re family.”

That sounds cheesy—like a low-budget advertisement for a family-style restaurant or something. But at the moment, over a bowl of traditional Northeastern Thai soup that she’d bought specifically to share with us, it wasn’t.

And it still doesn’t feel trite or cliched or oversimplified or tag-lined. If anything, I think it’s been the most compelling—and surprising—aspect of our summer here. We were given the warmest welcome both by the Thais and the church when we arrived, and since then we’ve been more and more included, more and more a part of things. More loved, even.

What I find most remarkable is that they really have no reason to befriend us: we can’t order our own food except by pointing, we can’t drive anywhere, we can’t speak Thai even to the people who try their hardest to speak English to us, we’re completely oblivious to our swelling noise levels and the positioning of our feet (which should stay on the ground pointed away from people), and I’ve spit out an entire chicken foot while sitting next to a judge at a table with ten government workers.

Part of it, I know, is that many want to learn English and create connections that will get them to America one day. There’s also a fascination with “farong culture,” which we’ve tried to avoid encouraging and inadvertently promoting over Thai culture. And we’ve also experienced a willingness among Thais to bend over backwards for farongs, which I think goes beyond even the friendliest hospitality into a misguided glorification of the “farong visitor.” I don’t, however, want to discount the sincere friendliness and genuine hospitality among the Thais. It’s certainly not just because we’re Americans.

That spirit is even more evident within the church community. They invite us to their homes for dinner, or throw a birthday party for a young Thai man whose family never celebrated with him for the last twenty-four years (the picture above and at right). I could go on and on with examples.

The point: I’ve taught English classes, we’ve tried to include and invite as many people as we can, and we’ve tried to serve in many different ways. But we’ve been served much, much more than we’ve served. We’ve learned more than we’ve taught. We have ended up being neither tourists nor interns, but something else entirely that we never would have expected.

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