Sunday, July 17, 2022

Trains and Buses in Thailand

When passing between cities in Thailand, our family prefers to travel the way the locals do—trains and buses. Trains are cheap. In some parts of the country, vendors hop on and off at the stops, selling their fruits, drinks, and homemade snacks. 

Both food and stories are shared freely among the passengers, creating hours of entertainment for all. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the ticket, the friendlier the passengers. 

Gift from another passenger
One morning we woke up to find this gift left by another passenger. Since then we exchanged letters and home visits with this kind friend. 

Unfortunately the cheaper the ticker the more likely you are to find yourself stranded along the side of the tracks. We’ve learned to book plenty of “lead time” into our schedule.

Waiting to switch trains after an engine failure...another chance to make friends.

Overnight buses are perhaps even more intriguing. The first time I purchased one of these tickets, I was thrilled to learn that our $20 cross-country fare included entrance to an “all-you-can-eat buffet.” I was slightly less excited to hear that our entire bus would have just 20 minutes to unload, use the bathroom, and eat. My enthusiasm dropped further upon learning that the festivities would take place at 2:00 in the morning.

As promised, the bus pulled into a truck stop at 1:58. We sleepily filed into a large cafeteria, where a very generous cook handed each of us a large bowl of bland rice soup decorated with chunks of congealed blood. Under the circumstances, the meal was truly “all-we-could-eat.” 

Attempting to eat a middle-of-the-night meal on our first overnight bus trip. On our most recent trip, we learned we can trade our meal tickets for little bottles of boxed milk. 

The edible perks don’t end with “buffets” and boxed milk. Once, shortly after our 8:00 p.m. departure, a stewardess walked through the bus handing each passenger a can of Pepsi, a strawberry MooonPie, a box of chocolate cream-filled wafers, and a large bottle of water. The bus was filled with excited sounds of soda pops opening and crinkling wrappers. Three minutes later the stewardess turned off every light on the bus so we could all get a good night’s sleep. Hello, sugar-high.

Traveling by train and bus is not perfect. But in a world where we’re taught to distrust our neighbors and pre-plan every minute of our day, the Thai transportation is a breath of fresh air. (Just not literally if you’re seated near the bathrooms.) Yes, there’s been a few…character-building experiences, but I wouldn't have wanted to miss the friends and memories we've made along the way.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Street Venders

I fail to capture most of the interesting sights that pass my kitchen window--like the motorcyclist I observed transporting, not one, but THREE, car tires around his torso. I never know what I’ll see as I’m washing dishes, but I can definitely count on a parade of venders throughout the day. Each has his or her own honk, bell, or loudspeaker system announcing their arrival. A few that I’ve documented include:

Ice Cream Carts

At least three ice cream carts zoom by our gate ringing their bell each day. This one sells coconut milk ice cream with a choice of sticky rice, durian, or taro flavoring. All for 16 cents a stick.  


Fruit Venders

A variety of fruit trucks pass our home. With time, I’ve learned which vendors sell quality fruit and which ones sneak rotting mangoes in my bag when I’m not looking. To be honest, even on the worst of days, it’s hard to get mad at a jovial 80-year-old man who’s just trying to make a buck. (Also randomly captured in this picture is a troop of elementary students on a morning pilgrimage.)


The Egg Truck

A kind-hearted woman named “Rabbit” delivers eggs to the neighborhood four days a week. After Nate chased her truck down by foot (requiring a full-fledged sprint in his office attire), Rabbit has willingly included our house on her list of stops. 


The Broom Guy

 These stalky bamboo brooms are surprisingly effective. The owner of the pushcart is also surprisingly speedy, requiring a few more chase-downs in our neighborhood.


The Gas Man 

Gas is delivered by request. Since my road doesn't seem to have a uniformly agreed upon name, I have a horrible time explaining where I live. The first time I called to request a tank, my long-winded efforts were in vain. In a last-ditch attempt I flatly stated, “I’m the foreigner with kids.” (As if the “foreign” part wasn’t obvious from my bad grammar and accent.) The man promptly hung up and arrived at our house 5 minutes later with a full tank of gas. So much for trying to blend in with the locals.


The Toy Truck

A loudspeaker attached to this truck proclaims its arrival long before the vehicle comes into view. Last Sunday this happened three times before 7:30 am. I haven’t actually patronized their business yet, but if I’m ever in need of a giant bouncy ball at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, I know where to look.


Many Others

The list could go on and on of hard-working men and women selling food, window shades, giant piggy banks, and cartloads of other items that I have yet to explore. This biggest hindrance is distinguishing the different beeps and getting out of door in time to catch the cart!

Despite the chaos and noise, I'm grateful for these men and women that strengthen community and serve with a smile week after week. They provide one more unique piece of Thai culture that I have come to respect.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Culture Shock--In Your Own Country

As I grapple with the current pandemic in America, one phrase keeps coming to mind. CULTURE SHOCK. Perhaps that's what some of you are feeling right now.
  • It’s readjusting my grocery list when the store only has half the items I wanted. Or going back early the next morning—only to learn that the grocery changed their hour overnight.
  • It’s asking my kids to comply with new rules that they don’t understand. And knowing that tomorrow’s rules will likely be different from today's.
  • It’s feeling slightly unsafe. And wondering how I became that freak with rubber gloves and wipes in Walmart.
  • It’s the rawness of having all my expectations thrown out the window and having no idea what each week will hold.
So many of you are experiencing all of that and more. I can give trite advice that has helped me through previous bouts of culture shock overseas. (Cling to Jesus. Have grace on each other. Find humor when possible.) But in reality, advice is not always helpful. Each person’s experience and challenges are unique. With God’s help, you will find your way through this mess. Who knows? As you find your new rythem, you might even discover habits and customs that you want to hang on to. That's the beauty of experiencing more than one culture.

In the meantime take a deep breathe, and have grace on yourself. Culture shock is real, and you may be in the midst of it--right in your own country.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

I Too Am a Foreigner

This is a post I have contemplated for years, but have been hesitant to write. First off, It’s not meant to be political or suggest open borders. I see valid points on both sides of the immigration issue and offer no political solutions.

Secondly, I don’t want to make unfair comparisons. Unlike some of my foreign friends from other nations, I’ve never fled a house being burned by soldiers. I can go back “home” anytime I want.

Thirdly, I have a wonderful network of local friends who have helped me navigate life in Thailand. By highlighting my inner struggles, I do not want to discredit the kindness of 90% of my neighborhood.

But despite all that, I feel an affiliation with those well-intentioned global nomads who are wandering far away from the country of their birth. Some of us have “figured out” life in our host country, and most of us are still working on the lifelong process. When I’ve met a stranger in Thailand who stares at me with a mixture of confusion and suspicion, these are the things I’ve often wished I could tell them.
  1. In my country, I was once a competent adult.
    I don’t know how many times (especially in my first year here) I’ve stood in the grocery store attempting to read the tiny Thai script on the back of a product. I want desperately to explain to the person next to me that I’m really not stupid. I once understood chemistry and calculus. But right now I need help telling the difference between a bag of flour and powdered sugar. My pancakes with maple-flavored syrup (which Thais think reeks of urine) depend on it.

  2. My odd habits are shared by millions of unseen others.
    I’ve tried to adopt Thai customs that do not conflict with my own religious or personal convictions. But it’s hard to kick the bizarre American within. My Thai friends may never understand why I have a little round machine on my kitchen ceiling whose sole purpose seems to be alerting the neighbors that I burned another batch of popcorn. Once, Nate went outside to explain the beeping sound to a concerned neighbor. He used the wrong tone/verb when explaining the pot of burnt beans, and essentially explained that the reason smoke was billowing out of the kitchen was that he had just lost his virginity. Which leads me to the next point.

  3. I’m trying harder than you think to learn your language and culture.
    But “picking up” a language as an adult is not as intuitive as I thought. When I make mistakes and sound like a child, please know I’m trying my best. If you speak clearly and simply, I can probably figure it out. When I revert to hanging out with my English-speaking friends, it’s not because I don’t love your culture. It’s just nice to occasionally have a conversation where I understand 100% of the words. Or to have a listener understand what I mean when I talk about a “Thanksgiving dinner” or “living on a farm” or…“a pot of burnt beans.”

  4. Not all foreigners are alike.
    Southeast Asia attracts many backpackers and long-term residents. Some are lovely. Others get drunk and do extremely offensive and illegal things like taking selfies on top of ancient, sacred structures. I’m terribly sorry for the way foreigners have mistreated this culture and its people. I know I will make many of my own mistakes, but please give me a chance to learn through relationship. I am extremely grateful for my many Thai friends and neighbors who have taken that risk.

Perhaps some of the residents where you live can relate to these sentiments. Foreigners around the globe, you see, are real people. When it comes to immigration laws in the voting booth, vote as you see fit. I don't have answers. But when you meet a struggling immigrant face-to-face in Walmart, I can only see one Biblical way to respond—love. If you’re not sure what that looks like, a smile is a good place to start. The next time you see a foreigner grappling with your language or culture, please think of me. With smelly foods, weird customs, and a thick accent to boot, I, too, am a foreigner.

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me...I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.

Matthew 25:35-36, 40

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Choosing Gratitude

Today when I woke up, there was no water. Actually that’s not entirely true. There was just enough water left in the pipes to drench the load of soapy, stinky laundry I planned to wash. 

Ironically, today was supposed to be cleaning day. I have the house to myself for a rare five-hour-stretch while Nate goes to work and a friend takes the girls to VBS. All month I had looked forward to giving the house a long-overdue cleaning—until our water pump broke.

Maybe I’m just glad for an excuse to NOT clean. Maybe I know that many of my friends are facing troubles bigger than a water pump. But whatever the reason, as I stared at my empty faucet, I couldn't resist finding irony and humor in the situation. Water always go out at inconvenient times. Like the time I dropped a liter of oil on my apartment floor. Today, like most days, I have a choice to make to be angry or grateful. 
  • Angry at the broken water pump. Or grateful that we normally have clean water available in multiple rooms in our house.
  • Resentful that my introverted day has been invaded with questions, conversations, and a team of workers who keep entering the house to turn off the electrical breaker. Or thankful that I have five people at my house who are trying to help.
  • Annoyed with the pile of wet/dirty laundry. Or grateful for a street filled with coin operated washing machines. (Better yet, thankful for a husband who offered to wash the laundry outside by hand before leaving for work!)
  • Frustrated that I can’t take a shower. Or thankful (as everyone else who keeps filtering through the house should be) that the water didn’t go out yesterday right after I finished my 7-mile run.
  • Bitter by the change of schedule. Or content knowing that God arranged this in His schedule.
Today’s perspective does not guarantee tomorrow’s emotions. If I wake up with no water tomorrow I will have a choice to make all over again. But for today, may I choose gratitude.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Holiday to Celebrate Kids

Every holiday season, my Facebook feed is flooded with pictures of cultural celebrations—Christmas lights, picnics, egg hunts and costume parties of which my children are mostly oblivious. While it’s nice to have input on how much junk food and cultural materialism they consume each season, I do feel a tinge of mom-guilt knowing they are “missing out” on the holiday excitement.

“Children’s Day”, held the second January each year in Thailand, is all of that in reverse. It’s a day to celebrate kids. Every mall, tourist attraction and hospital (yes, hospital) throws a party guaranteed to hold loud music, games, and enough sugar to meet your dietary needs for the month. But of all the parties in the city, I have to believe our neighborhood throws the best.

The festivities started at 7:30 Saturday morning when the local government speakers blared directly into our kitchen announcing (for 10 straight minutes) that it was time to make our way to our local community center. Apparently sleeping in is not a traditional way to enjoy the day.

Upon arriving, I was reminded how densely populated our community is.  At least 800 people, mostly seated in little plastic chairs, were waiting for the party to begin. Celebratory music boomed over the loud speaker loudly enough for us to hear at our house ½ a mile away.

We spent the first 20 minutes looking for a friend we had agreed to meet. Nate helpfully reminded me that we were looking for the mom with black hair.
We watched a presentation by several local school groups and listened to a song performed by our church. Next came the dispersal of door prizes that included everything from Ramon noodles, to bicycles, to several small washing machines.

Then chaos broke loose. It was time to eat. Dozens of individuals showed up to serve noodles, rice dishes, coconut drinks, and every type of Thai snack you can imagine. The mass of 800 patiently pushed their way through the tables devouring everything in sight.

Feels like trick-or-treating. But without the scary monsters and awkward costumes.

“A” enjoying durian flavored ice cream and me with a bowl of spicy noodle soup. The soup was delicious once I picked out the lumps of congealed pigs’ blood.
Just in case you couldn’t get enough food on the spot, other volunteers set up games, offering bundles of take-home snacks for every winner and loser. Each mom carried a large tote bag to store the loot. The “want-to-be-anti-sugar" side of me cringed at each bag of chips, but the rest of me was secretly giddy knowing that all such items would receive a “mom tax.” Moms have needs too.

One of the most intriguing hand-outs: “French Fried Snack with Strawberry Milk Dip.”
Festivities in the neighborhood went on all day at a couple different local venues with people congregating to pass out cake, yogurt, and even one-size-fits-all children’s pants. It was a day of seeing old neighborhood friends, and feeling undeservingly welcomed into our tight-knit community.

We may have missed out on the turkey gravy and Christmas lights this year, but Thailand definitely has a celebratory culture of its own. I’m thankful for a community that loves kids and invites us to join in their party.  

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Awkward, Beautiful Mess

Last night our local Thai church celebrated their 13th anniversary. Even though we have begun to worship elsewhere on Sunday mornings (to have worship/fellowship in our own language), we still feel deeply connected and find our lives intertwined outside of Sunday worship. As we cooked food and prepared for the celebration, we were excited and honored to join the festivities.

Unfortunately I injured myself shortly before the party and had to arrive late on crutches. Sixty people were crowded cross-legged on the floor of the living room where the church normally meets. Seeing my disability, a friend graciously offered me a chair near the door looking over the group.

I sat wondering how to position myself. How do I not get in the way of the worship team? Or not block the entrance? Or not point the bottom of my foot at the whole church—an action in Thai culture akin to using the middle finger?! A chair in a sardine-packed room is a place for the honored. Why should I sit there?

As the celebration progressed, I felt the full messiness, awkwardness, and beauty that accompanies so much of cross-cultural ministry.

MESSY because I’m attempting to sing along with the Thai script I see projected on the wall. I can only keep up with half of the fast-paced, complex words. 

AWKWARD because I am functioning in a culture that is not fully my own. I don’t always know how to respond to the dozens of culturally awkward situations we find ourselves in every week.

But mostly BEAUTIFUL because in this moment of worship, our hearts are united by the Holy Spirit’s undeniable presence. Tears of joy run down my face, seeing tangible reminders of all God has done. Nobody is concerned if his jubilantly-loud voice is not in perfect pitch. No one is judging my fumbled lyrics. When my words are lacking, my heart is still singing.

Some days I see fruit in ministry. Other days I just pray no one trips over my own weaknesses. That’s when God reminds me that weakness is ok. I was never meant to be the focus of the work anyway. God is. And was. And will be long after I am gone. My job is just to be available. It is a privilege to join in a tiny piece of the great work that He is doing here. May God use our beautiful, awkward messes.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Why Did We Care About the Boys in the Cave?

I’m thankful for the international response to the 12 boys who got stranded in a cave in Thailand. I followed the news, prayed, and cheered along with the world as the rescue went on. But the whole time a nagging question has been in the back of my mind. Why do we care so much about these 12 boys and their coach, while we are simultaneously able to turn a blind eye to so many other tragedies?

Obviously the media and accessibility has a large role in this. But I believe there are some larger factors at play.
  1. We can relate to the boys.
    Most of us have been on a sports team or found ourselves in precarious situations as adolescents. While we will never know what it was like to be on this soccer team, it’s easy to TRY to imagine what those 18 days must have been like. I have no capacity, on the other hand, to imagine what it’s like to be in chemical warfare in Syria or a genocide in South Sudan. My mind labels these tragedies as “terrible”, but the gruesome reality of the situation escapes me.
  2. It could have been us.
    Or our kids. Or our grandkids. Being trapped in a cave doesn’t sound that far from possible reality for me. But other wars and horrors seem removed from my life.
  3. The group was small.
    When we can narrow in and focus on ONE face we see the humanity of the situation. When we’re presented with statistics about “millions of people” it remains just that—statistics.
  4. The clock was ticking.
    The objective was clear, and we intuitively knew that either the boys would get rescued or they would die. It wasn’t a story that could play out for years, or even months. It’s easy to rally around a short-term issue, but we as a human race, tend to experience empathy fatigue over events that drag on with no deadline.
  5. We are limited.
    We simply don’t have capacity to care about each global tragedy. My heart, time, and brain is limited. God’s is not. He is the only one who sees each sufferer. But I must choose where I focus my time and energy.
I'm not saying we shouldn’t care about 12 boys and a coach stuck in a cave. We should. But now that they are safely out, I challenge their followers (myself included) to be their advocates in their long-term plight. The coach and three of the boys are stateless. This means nobody will claim them as citizens or give them a passport. They have no "home country" to go back to. They can't open a bank account or own land or legally own and drive a car. They are treated as second class and in danger of human trafficking.

In light of their publicity, maybe there is hope for these four individuals. But what about the millions of others like them who have no face, no voice, no story in the news? Will we find enough room in our hearts for them?

I have more questions than answers on the situation of global suffering. But, for Christians, prayer is a starting place in letting God—who cares for all and knows all—lead our response.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thailand's Nationwide Water Fight

I have fond memories of water fights as a kid—chasing my brothers around the yard with dinky squirt guns and repurposed mustard bottles. I recall three rules. No squirts to the face. No squirting adults. And no leaving the yard.

Thailand’s weeklong nationwide water festival ups the game and breaks all the rules. Strangers mercilessly splash and shoot each other, young and old. Gangs of normally-well-behaved adults (temporarily transformed into gleeful 10-year-olds) ride in the back of pick-up trucks dumping buckets of ice water on each other on the highway. Motorcyclists seem to be a particularly attractive target, causing an alarming number of accidents. Some parts of the city are much tamer than others, but there is no “safe” zone.

For the past 6 years we’ve mostly kept our celebration to the limits of our own neighborhood. This year, being the first year that our girls will tolerate water to the face, we ventured a little farther downtown for the festivities.

To our surprise, we stumbled on a parade which we thought had ended a couple hours before. (Apparently it was a very LONG parade.) In my culture, parades mean no water play. But not here. While some had a little more reverence for the significance of the parade, many Thais were throwing buckets of water on to the participants and by-standers both.

Large vats and inflatable pools were ready for speedy-refills and hoses provided a continuous spray.

Our girls were quick to join in the play with some of the other bystanders both young and old.

For many, the week long water fights are simply a way to have fun and survive the 100-degree temperature. But others hold on to the significance of the holiday's origins. Traditionally it's a time to ask for forgiveness and pray for one's elders. While we differ on how this is done, it's a great bridge to open conversation about our own beliefs.

Pray for Thailand during this week of celebration. And pray for us as we carefully find opportunities to strengthen relationships and share life together. Normally we don't do this with blasts of cool water, but this week, I suppose, is the exception.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Wildlife" in the Tropics

I walked into the kitchen this morning and flipped on the light to find this staring me in the face. One of our many household lizards bit the dust in the electric socket last night. I used to think indoor lizards were a bit creepy, but after finding them in my water glass or having them fall off the porch ceiling onto my head, I’ve just accepted them as a normal, even welcome, part of daily life in Thailand. (After all, they cut down on mosquitos!) This got me thinking about the other creatures prowling around our neighborhood. Even though we live in the tropics, most of the “wildlife” here in the city is not as exotic as you might think.
Don't mess with 220-volt outlets.

The Neighborhood Cat

Our neighbors are great at rallying around this cat and collectively caring for it. For some reason, the cat prefers to live in our yard. That is until this month’s “cold spell” when the cat showed up in a fluffy sweater too thick to squeeze through our front gate. Just how “cold” was it when I took the picture? Eighty-six degrees. Don’t hate me America.

I’ve never seen a python in our yard, but our neighbors are good at warning us when they see one creeping behind our house. If you’re the type who likes nightmares, try googling “pythons hiding in toilets.” But if you’d rather keep your sanity, just be assured that python attacks in the city are very infrequent!
A friend in our neighborhood caught this guy in her yard last year.

Street Dogs
I’m actually more scared of the local dogs than pythons. Thankfully, the pack that roams our street is pretty calm. When we took the girls out to eat earlier this week, I noticed this cute puppy waiting patiently by our table. When we got up to pay, he sauntered over to the table to lick off the table top and plates! Some other dogs are vicious and have rabies. No one would dare pet them. Last year in America, my daughters were horrified to discover that some families allow these creatures INSIDE the home. We had a little cultural explaining to do on that one.
Not ALL street dogs are scary. Like this cute puppy that tried to follow us home.

We've never had a rat in our house, but the small-cat-sized ones have an odd affinity for dying in our yard. Sometimes they (along with dead pigeons and frogs) reek of death for a few days until we find them under a pile of leaves. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that a dying rat means the pythons are probably at bay.

Some of the bugs in city are pretty cool looking. Like this one we found on our porch. God’s creativity amazes me.
A Lantern Bug in our yard. 

The "wildlife" in our urban neighborhood may not be glamorous, but it definitely brings variety to our lives. I’ll take these tame creatures over the more exotic tropical animals of South East Asia any day!

EDIT: To those of you who seem to think we're "brave" for living here, let me say that:
1. We really do have it easy compared to most places in the world.
2. We're not dealing with sub-zero temperatures and mice squeezing under our doors. ("Mice" here can't fit in our house!)

We're not the brave ones after all. :)