7 weeks completed here in Thailand and the awe of transition seems to be waning for me. We have been highlighting so many things that are different here, so I thought I’d share something that is the same. Of course the pineapple is just a pineapple, but the other fruits are starting to look more familiar too. I have started to get used to eating with my hands a lot (it didn’t take me much getting used to), and although I still don’t know what is in most dishes I eat, the flavors, smells, colors, and tastes are becoming more familiar – however, they told me before I ate frog a couple weeks ago! I have also started as assistant To the head lunch chef, so I will soon know the ingredients.
As I get more settled, I have started to think about and be more concerned about what contributions I am going to make here. I know I am helping both the staff and the patients, I know that I am learning a lot, I feel that I am having a positive influence on a few people’s lives, and I am aware that I will learn more from them than them from me. I’ll work that out on my own time and may share in the future, but today I have also been wondering if I am living a simpler life.
Maybe I should stop talking about the fact that I don’t know what simplicity looks like. Like so much of life, I see simplicity in its fuzzy, blurry, grayness and the more I focus on it the wider the line gets and the more out of focus it seems to become.
Most of the technology I have here and use is not anything the patients or workers are unfamiliar with. Other workers have tablets, smart-phones, digital cameras, and there are computers in the offices. I don’t have cellular service or wifi at work, so it is easy to keep them put away, but I read on my tablet in the office pretty regularly. My co-workers and the workers at Hands of Hope have cell phones, send texts, and are on Facebook too. The biggest difference I see now is that I have the opportunity to step back and look at my relationship with technology.
I do not think that living a simple life includes shunning technology. Technology is making it possible to communicate with you and maintain relationships that would be unnecessarily strained if I shunned it. The internet has helped me quickly and inexpensively study the complicated conditions effecting the patients I care for, as well as the medications they take. On the other hand, it is clear that 24/7 internet access was swallowing hours of my day. Whether quickly checking Facebook, habitually checking my email, texting, reading the most up-to-date news, binge watching Netflix, or playing games with friends, hours of my day were consumed in discrete minutes. Furthermore, my online connection was often impeding my in-person connection and sabotaging my productivity.
Here I am limited to about 8 hours of internet time a week and have to make lists of everything I need to research, download, or accomplish so that I do not get waylaid by news, advertising, or window-shopping. That 8 hours may seem like a lot, but when 2 hours goes towards talking with family and friends, and at least an hour is spent formatting this blog and uploading pictures; I assure you it goes by very quickly. Despite all this, I miss the internet a ton, but my heightened productivity results in me getting very frustrated when the internet is slow or the wheel starts spinning for me.
The most obvious way that our life has simplified is that we are eating simpler. Most nights we have some variant of 1.5 cups of rice, fresh vegetables that we stir-fry with coconut milk and 1 of 5 seasonings, and 2 scrambled eggs mixed in. We then have some fruit for dessert. It is pretty wonderful, and fast (which is important because cooking is hot!). For breakfast we have plain yoghurt with bananas and muesli mixed in. We could eat much richer foods – cheese, meats, breads, and pastas are available but would be difficult on our budget. We have downloaded or looked at many recipe books for living inexpensively, but we are happy with these meals and would rather spend our time reading, studying Thai, or getting to know each other more.
Another way that life is simpler now is that we have so many fewer distractions and commitments. Most of this is a direct result of the physical distance between all of you, whom we love and miss, and us. Of course turning off our cell phones removed regular interruptions from our pocket. No access to a car and the danger of bicycling at night means there are few options for entertainment outside of books, movies, games, and interacting with our community. We also have to be actively involved in all communication, including paying attention to any non-verbal cue that may help us understand what is being said. We also brought a very limited wardrobe, reducing our options for formal and daily attire.
Overall, we are forced to live a simpler life here. We find ways of entertaining ourselves inexpensively like listening to podcasts and discussing them, watching a movie without distraction, or playing music - separately. We don’t have a bathtub, very many kitchen gadgets, or an air conditioner. We appreciate each getting a small blizzard from Dairy Queen for less than a dollar (which they turn upside down before handing to us), sharing fried potato wedges and a beer ($5) while surfing the internet, or any snack (cah-nome) that is shared with us here, especially sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.
A few people have commented on how nice our living quarters appear in pictures, and their luxury is not lost on us. At this point we have been to a few co-workers’ houses. Many people live in structures with cement floors and steel, tin, or fiberglass roofing. Most people seem to have little or no furniture indoor, a simpler kitchen than us, and sleep on mattresses or mats on the floor. I would probably consider that middle class here. As we drive or bicycle, we see brand-new houses with beautiful fences, glass windows, screens, and paved driveways that reside next to a house with a cement floor, three walls, a tin roof, an outdoor kitchen, and mosquito netting over beds. To me, seeing the disparity here in Thailand really highlights how segregated the haves and have-nots tend to be in America.
I do want to caution you about how you view the living situations here. Family is a priority in Thailand and it is routine for married couples to live with at least one set of in-laws. My impression is also that housing is of limited priority, people recognize wealth but it is clearly secondary to family (people will take extended, un-paid leave to care for a sick family member). I am also consistently astounded by the generosity here. Also, people spend most of their time in outdoor, shaded areas. It is just too hot to spend a significant amount of time indoors!
I know that I will live much differently after this year. I already understand that having fewer belongings does not make life any simpler, but perhaps it helps create the time and space (to use a hockey reference) to observe, plan, and attack life and its challenges. Right now, I feel like having fewer distractions just means that I have to deal with all these problems in my head. In the meantime when you think of us this week remember: It’s just Pineapple, unless of course it is Frog!
Low – I think that this week I feel that my novelty in Thailand and Thailand's novelty for me have started to where off. Everything has started to take a little extra effort - learning Thai, being included, and feeling connected (both hear and abroad).
High - At lunch time I forced myself to try and feed our new patient who is a quadriplegic. It was challenging as he has also developed difficulty swallowing and occasionally struggles to breath as he tries to cough up food that has slipped into his airway. By the end I had gotten the hang of how to help him eat effectively. Although we cannot talk, I feel a connection to him. He is on my mind and I hope I can bring a little happiness to his life while he is here.