I was so mad at myself. I should have taken the Skytrain but it was too late. The closest entrance to it was almost a half-mile away, and by that time I’d be too late, I’d miss the bus.
Living in a small town two hours away from the capital had its charms: I loved knowing the restaurant owners and having a personal relationship with the woman whom I bought pineapple from every morning. But there were only a finite number of buses to Suphanburi from Bangkok every day, and I was dangerously close to missing the last one for the day. That meant I would be stranded in Bangkok, with no place to stay, about 90 baht to my name, and I would return the next morning too late to teach my students.
Yeah, I needed to make that bus.
I flagged the nearest taxi just as the daily rains began. The air was sweaty, heavy, and smelled like meat. I climbed in the back of a cab, explained where I needed to go, and tried to impress upon my cab driver the importance of me getting to my destination as fast as I possibly could. In limited Thai. She responded in perfect, unaccented English that she could get me there in time. And then, we barely moved. The traffic was at a standstill.
As I attempted to soothe myself with deep breaths in the back seat, she eyed me from the front. She was slight, small, with cropped black hair and no makeup. She could’ve been 30 or 45. Thai people age remarkably well… I had seen great grandmothers with fewer eye wrinkles than I boasted at 24.
I knew she would probably start trying out her conversational English on me soon, most people did. I was a walking, white, opportunity to polish the language that the entire world knows, except many Americans.
She did not speak for a while. I got used to the silence and slid back in my seat. My wet thighs stuck to the perforated leather. The car’s air conditioning felt like a vacation from the many hours of walking in the heated smog that was Bangkok. I closed my eyes. The moment I did, she started to speak.
“Yesterday I meet American guy, he working and living in Bangkok as a photographer. He was doing something with his camera and flagged me down and then kept working on it until I pulled beside him. He starts the conversation with me in Thai and I am impressed. His Thai is very good. For Americans, you know, it is not easy. The root of all Thai, all Indian is Sanskrit. It 5,000 years old. It is here before I was here before you was here. The root of English is Latin. So I am very surprised his Thai is so good. I ask him how long he live in Bangkok, he tell me 24 years. 24 years. Can you believe? Imagine living somewhere that is not your birthplace for so long. I ask him why, why he stay here. He says for photography. Then I think, I don’t say, you should go back. You should go back. Not right to stay so long in place that is not your place of birth, a place that everything is so different than you.”
I had not spoken yet and was not sure if this monologue was rhetorical or not. I couldn’t tell if she was sharing an anecdote or sending me a message.
“I stay in Bangkok because I am Bangkok. This is my home. Now, only 10% of people in Bangkok are from Bangkok. All other taxi drivers, they refugees. Cambodia refugees, Arabic refugees, this is not their home. So I drive the American guy only a short way, he tell me in Thai, turn left here, and I say no, I turn right, it is faster. He tell me no other driver know this way, I tell him this is my home. We talk only for 10 minutes, and as he is getting out of the cab it start to rain, and I can tell in his soul that he wanted to say something to me. He say, in next 5 years, something bad will happen to Thailand.”
Here, she looks back at me over the seat, and we make direct eye contact. I hold her gaze.
“I nod, because I know. I know this. I listen to all, I understand all, but this is what I say: Let it be. All you can do for yourself is your best in each moment, do your best for your family and the people you love, do the best you can every moment. That is all. That is all you can do. We do not know what will happen next, we cannot control. He tell me that something bad will happen to Thailand and I know this already, and I say in my mind, you should go back. There is so many people here now with so many different ideas. For me, we are all the same. All of us just need fresh air and clean water and food and love and warm, but we are all born in different places, trapped in different cultures. And we are taught to think different ways. This thinking, that is what separates us. So then everybody move here with their different thinking and it, so, so complicated. So many problems, so many traffic. Yes, I see it all, I know. I been taxi driver for 3 years 9 months and in that time I see more and I meet more people than I ever had. I did not speak any English for my whole life, I did not speak any other language because Thai has always been enough for me, it is only for me. But then 9-1-1 happen and I see on my TV and I watch with the rest of the world as the second plane hits and I think, I have to know. I know what they is saying. I did not know anything about Bush or about America before this but if this can happen in New York City then this can happen in Bangkok and that night I start to learn English and I learn all about what FOX is sayings, what CNN is sayings, what all the news is sayings. Yes, I see all the problems, I see all the people. I understand. All of a sudden the world is scared of the Arab because we do not understand their thinking, their culture, but in my life, no one I met ever have stronger heart. Yes, Arabic people with the strong hearts. But we are scared. I see all these problems but I cannot think about them because I cannot control them. Let it be.”
Then, silence. The raindrops pounded the pavement and pinged off the roof of the car. I don’t know if she dropped me off right after that, or much later, but we did not speak again. When she pulled up I had forgotten my anxiety about missing the bus. I paid her and said goodbye, and in my lap on the way home, scrawled furiously in a small notebook, all the words that she said. As best as I could remember.
Although I stayed in Thailand for many more months, her words never left me. I was invited into homes for dinner, took infinite pictures, posed for some too, made connections, taught lessons, gave grades, went hiking, motorbiking, swimming, ate Thom Kha in Chiang Mai and Som Tum on sidewalks, I always remembered her words. They reminded me to not take from the land, to be gracious, and that travel, in itself, is an invasion. They reminded me that as much as I connected to Thailand in my soul, I did not belong there. Let it be.