“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Of all of the things I hoped to get out of spending a year in Thailand, I will admit, a little abashedly, that making friends with Thai people wasn’t that high on the list. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, I just assumed that, with the language barrier, and because the interns come and go so often, that the staff would have little interest in really hanging out with us. I knew they had their own lives and families and friends, and just assumed that would be their primary community, and we, as the interns, would be sort of on the fringes, mainly hanging out with each other. I’ll admit, too, that I couldn’t imagine what we would have in common. I expected to get close to the other interns and maybe even other expats in Chiang Mai, but I couldn’t imagine having any more than a surface-level friendliness with the staff.
Within my first few days in Thailand, Elaine was talking about the staff and asked, in her genuine sweetness, “our staff is so passionate and loves Jesus and our clients so much, seriously, are they angels?” Our staff. For Elaine, who had been here the longest, it was plainly obvious that this wasn’t “the Thai staff” or “the national staff” – they were our staff. And they were angels. Working and playing and praying alongside them, I started to see where she was coming from. Many of the staff had families but they were also committed to the family of the office. We all piled in the back of a truck together and picked somewhere to all go to lunch. We went to see Thai rom-coms on Saturday nights. We posted unflattering pictures of each other on facebook and had a group chat. We played (I watched) badminton after work and they (I won’t even pretend I was involved in this one) go on 6am 40 kilometer bike rides every weekend. The staff is committed to each other and to us. Not only as co-workers, but as friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.
I think I expected to be invited and included in things in the very beginning – I was new and wanted to try new types of food and see places, and that was fun. If you’ve ever made a vacation or camp friend, you know how easy it can be to feel affectionate towards people that you meet in unique moments of your life – there’s a novelty to all of it! But most of those friendships have pretty short expiration dates, and you wind up leaving with a good taste in your mouth about those people even though you may have not had much in common at all and you stay facebook friends for a while and maybe even shoot them a message every once in a while. So of course the staff were friendly when I arrived in Thailand, and the CSA team took me out into the field with them even though I had no idea what was going on and people included me in everything, but I honestly expected it to be temporary.
Because after a few weeks, a few months, the novelty is going to wear off, and what are we then? People with nothing in common who don’t speak the same language.
But as I hung out on the sidelines of the badminton court last Friday after work, sharing a bag of chocolate wafers with P’Kay and watching everyone play, I realized – these people were my friends. However unlikely it was, I considered these people my friends. Not in a novelty, “Thai friends” kind of way, but in a way that was real, and cemented by hours of shared experiences, some of them pretty remarkable. Sing karaoke in a bar with someone until one in the morning and tell me you don’t like them. Make lunch with someone on a 4ft wok and tell me they aren’t your friend. Watch someone speak truth and love to an abused little girl in a counseling session and tell me you don’t care about them. These are the people I prayed with and worshipped with and read scripture with every day. No, I can’t understand them, but do we think so little of God that He couldn’t build community because of language?
Turns out, relationship is about a lot more than conversation. That if you spend enough time around people, see them in certain situations, you begin to know them almost by accident. Some things are external and easily explained – P’Kay loves American pop music, and P’Mouy has a mild Candy Crush addiction. Some are less so – the way P’Nui transforms from authoritative leader to warm and gentle mother as soon as she is around her family, P’Nueng’s silent and striking gift for hospitality and small acts of service. I thought I would have to work to know the names of all the staff, and within only 2 months, I’ve begun to know their families, their favorite foods, their quirks, their insecurities, and their faiths.
I know I talk about the CSA team too much, but we spend a lot of hours in the same room, or all piled in a car, together. I was sitting at my desk and a member of our team leaned against my little divider to talk about a case. It was a hard one. She rubbed her face, her fingers running up her forehead and her bangs falling in front of her hands. It was another one of those things I had noticed. I had seen her doing it at her desk a few times. I won’t pretend to be an expert on someone else’s feelings, but that one is somewhat universal –exhaustion, disappointment, stress. She struggled to explain the developments in the case (her English was really good when she could focus) and somehow, through our broken Thanglish conversation, we wound up talking about more than just that case. She rubbed her face again, her eyes red, and tripped over her words, saying we could help these kids but “we can’t… I can’t…” she gave me a pleading look, and even if she didn’t know how to finish the sentence, I thought I might. But I didn’t say anything. One of the things God has taught me here is that I don’t know as much as I think I do, and that I should probably just keep my mouth shut. So I just, slightly awkwardly, reached out and touched her arm and agreed with her. She laughed under her breath and said. “I don’t know how to explain, but you understand.” She smiled at me, the same shy one I had seen at that conviction my first week, and went back to her desk.
The Thai phrase for “do you understand?” is “khao jai mai?” Which you can respond to with “mai khao jai” (I don’t understand) or “khao jai” (I understand). I speak very little Thai – but this one I do know. I can’t always explain how I feel or what I’m thinking to the staff, or to my friends, or even on this blog, but I take comfort in the fact that understanding runs a lot deeper than comprehension, and that as I start to understand the people, even if I can’t understand the words, that they will understand me as well.
Harry, Ron and Hermione weren’t friends from the very beginning of the Harry Potter series. Harry and Ron only accepted her when they, in a strange turn of events, wound up taking up a mountain troll together. J.K. Rowling then tells the reader that the three were unquestionable best friends after that, because “there are certain things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.”
Besides being a good way to show off my thorough knowledge of Harry Potter, this is all to say this work is our mountain troll. Moving to a new country and starting a new internship with new people, working with children, and pushing cases through, this is our mountain troll. And I’ve learned to understand these people more than I ever thought I would, and I know this is only the beginning.