Wednesday, June 22, 2011
All Is One and One Is All
So having spent months and months in this foreign place, working side by side with neighbors, working with their children, breaking bread (or more accurately everything but bread) with them, shopping in their stores, going to weddings and to funerals, bowing down in their temples, listening to the tinkling bells of their cattle in the dusk returning to the stables and to their roosters crowing well before the dawn, I spend the greatest portion of my wondering time fuddling who these Thai people are and what makes them that way. In turn, I wonder more and more the same things about my own people and my ways, my sense of what is and who I am. Very odd, to consider "my fellow Americans" as my people, and face it, Isan is not Thailand anymore than Midcoast Maine is the USA. Though I lived in Maine longer than anywhere else, 20 years, I am hardly qualified to represent that enclave either- kittens in the oven don't make biscuits and all that rot. Mongrel dog I am, but the internal dome of my thinking cap is surely shaped by the precepts of American laws and American foods and American good and American bad and American rights and American responsibilities and American love and American hate...
Exaggeration? Sure we're all human, and yes, the basic plumbing is the same. Yet there are incidents that throw the cultural gulf into stark relief. Early on, when we 14 volunteers were together and everything was new, we debriefed our encounters, laughing and marveling at how wacky these Thais and their lives were. Naturally to the Thais their world is not wacky or weird. They don't eat a mix of scorching peppers, fish, and fruit for breakfast because, like some episode of Jackass, they are trying to prove something. They eat it because to their taste buds, it is delicious. The physical is obvious and where we dwell at first- the toilets, the food, the clothing, the courtship rituals. Those generate a certain comparative response: Where I come from we do it this way. And certain of us think: Our way is soooo much better, and others think: Hey, this way is cool, too, and still others think: This way is soooo much better. Our group belies this truth. At least one volunteer hates it here so much she keeps a mental calender of the days and counts down like a POW. This extremity I blame directly on the World Teach application and interview process, or to be frank, the lack of a viable application and interview process. World Teach, like many an organization, does not know specifically what its mission is nor what it is looking for in its volunteers' qualifications and motives. Fodder for another night.
A harder nut to crack than the physical differences, or say the quotidian routines, is the amorphous sense of what is important and what is trivial. What life means.
On Monday night back in my hometown USA, a17 year old girl was killed in a car accident. I first heard about it on facebook of course, the modern instantaneous purveyor of all news of all levels of import, and all momentary emotions up and down, and now apparently the means to convey condolences. I followed it up, naturally, with a trip to the local news website, a nasty little rag of voyeurism and gossip that once sold a few inches of ad space on the back of my own family tragedy, where sure enough it was the most viewed story. What does that say about us, this way we are pulled into such events emotionally, and what can one make of the complex response engendered? Is it a sign of a tightly knit small town community, a mark only of connectedness and compassion? Or is it something darker, a sign of our loneliness and desperation to be meaningfully connected? Why is it that in addition to feeling true sorrow for the survivors there seems to be almost a competitive aspect: I just saw her. We were really good friends a few years ago. She was my student. I know the driver. I wish I knew and I could write books explaining it all.
Ben and Zach come over for dinner and I am bursting with the BIG NEWS. My American sense is that I have to TALK about this. And then. Why? Why precisely is this burning news? What does it have to do with me or me learning anything important about life that I didn't already know? What does it have to do with my feelings? What is our obsession with gruesome tragedy? Why day after day after day is the courtroom drama of a young mother in Florida who murdered her daughter a headline newsworthy story on google news, topping even the story of Obama's withdrawal plan for US troops in Afghanistan? Whose manner of dealing with death is ultimately weirder? Maybe it is just this: Maybe it is a result of that ineluctable sense of American Exceptionalism, that by god we live in a rich and advanced country and we have been busy making a billion laws and a zillion gadgets that are supposed to keep us safe and happy and when it doesn't work out that way we are simply astonished. Perhaps here they are simply more used to accidents and death, given the number of bald tires, shoddy buildings, and helmetless travelers. Or perhaps it really is their Buddhism and a detachment from worldly desires. My friend Jim from Australia has an interesting view. He said to me the other night, They have been doing this stuff a lot longer than we have and they have it down much better than we do. Like I said, I don't know.
Last night I was listening to Tom Petty sing what could be our modern national anthem, You Don't Know How It Feels To Be ME. I love that song and his whiny voice. And I just finally finished up a book that has chided me some twenty years, Rushdie's crazy swamp, Midnight's Children. In it the decaying narrator asks:
Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all that I have seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I'm gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each 'I', every one of the now six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.