My first week in Chonburi can be likened to a neatly organized and nicely decorated house being ravaged by the unrelenting winds of a tornado, from the inside out. My eagerly anticipated confrontation with culture shock is finally upon me, and in full force.
In a place like Chonburi, where tourism is sparse and farangs are few, I can be absolutely certain that I am having an authentic experience of Thailand. Nothing is tapered or catered to meet my needs or to make Westerners feel more comfortable, as in other places I’ve been. In this typical, traditional city, everything exists solely for the local Thais. But with that, comes the realization that I do not, and can not, fit in. And I may not ever understand this deeply engrained culture, no matter how hard I try.
In this new city, the ground is constantly shifting under me. I am spinning in circles with nothing to focus on, no point of reference. An eternal cycle of shock, confusion, reevaluation, fragmented understanding. Knowledge is fleeting, only comes bit by bit. I am slowly, slowly synthesizing. Trying to make sense out of senselessness. Weaving my way through a labyrinth of convoluted thoughts and blurry definitions. I am constantly reassessing what I think is normal and right. Always readjusting my perspective, aware of the nature of my thoughts, having to realign my center. Here, everything I was once certain of is challenged. My common sense is not so common.
The first of the differences I am grappling with is the utter disregard for safety. I am standing, instead of sitting, on the back of a songthaew, feeling terrified at the precarious situation I am in. One pothole or sharp turn and I could be flung to the streets, flattened on asphalt. And then I look to my right to see a baby, no older than one, standing up, with no helmet, somehow balanced between her two parents on a motorbike whizzing past me. Comparatively, my fears seem trivial. Seconds later, I am alarmed to see a figure walking in the left lane of the busy highway we are on–a mother feeding her newborn a bottle. I am walking down the street and suddenly sparks are flying around me. A welder with a blow torch is crafting something on the sidewalk. I move into the street to avoid the heat of the flames. Their radius reaches a good 10 feet. I look back at the fire wielder and notice he is without a helmet or goggles, engulfed in sparkles of orange. Because I am alone on my walk, I am more perceptive of my surroundings. I notice everything. Because of this and only this, I am aware enough to look down and notice the meteor-sized hole in the sidewalk just seconds before stepping to my certain death or disfigurement. No warning sign or orange tape or barricade. Nothing obvious like that. And this is the norm. Thailand demands street smarts.
At first I see this blatant disregard for safety and these dangerous predicaments as ignorant, unnecessary, and careless. A disregard for life. But I am realizing that Thai people simply live without fear. They trust their instincts, are sure of their actions, aware of their bodies, always deliberate. They never second guess themselves. They know that when you spend every day second guessing yourself, a lot of time is wasted.
A complete realization of undeniable differences. It is not even what we think that is different–it is how we think. How we arrange our thoughts and assess situations and determine meaning. It can be frustrating or enlightening depending on how you look at it. I am reminded of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen and his attempts to explain Zen Buddhism to a Western audience. He has to go back to the beginning. Would have more success with an infant, whose thoughts are malleable, unfiltered, than with an adult whose thoughts are uncontrollably, perhaps irreversibly, dominated by a Western way of thinking. Watts explains that Western and Eastern minds think differently. Western minds think linearly, logically. Eastern minds think laterally, abstractly. To us, it seems, illogically. Point A does not necessarily lead to Point B. A cause does not necessarily lead to an effect. In order to understand the concepts and content of Zen Buddhism, a western mind must first change not what they think, but how. They must abandon their faith and reliance on logic, in exchange for uncertainty, vulnerability, and eventually, clarity. I am taking lessons. Embracing the familiar feeling of confusion.
I am slowly becoming aware that my intentions usually manifest in some form or another, either conspicuously or in disguise. I must be perceptive enough to spot them as they are happening or the lessons will pass by me. The meaning will be lost. I sought culture shock, and I found it. Now I must live through it. My experiences are gifts–they are the answers to my inner questions.