It was quite the dismissive gesture, very un-Thai-like. Everyday on my walk to and from work I pass the same people going about their daily routines: sweeping, bringing out the trash, gossiping. I smile and nod and sa-wat-dii my way through the village. I had begun to notice one gentleman, of similar age to myself, and I was keeping an eye on him. I noticed he noticed me as well; each of us surreptitiously sizing the other up. I was guessing he was retired, as was I. He looked fairly well off by village standards, nice clothes, nice house in the middle of the village, two scooters in the garage, or rather the front room. Perhaps he had been a teacher or an executive in the years he worked. Something told me there was a bit of military in his past. He possessed a look of authority: prim and stoic. I’d see him again every afternoon as he rode his bicycle when the sun was beginning to slip behind the mountains, when the temperature was a bit cooler. He would pass by my house two or three times, ten to fifteen minutes apart. He was riding around the village for exercise it seemed, another daily routine. I had been wanting to get some regular exercise myself and thought perhaps I’d begin riding my bike, maybe in the opposite direction at first, to get him noticing we had something in common and out of that a friendship would grow.
One day he spoke to me. The road through this village is narrow, there are no sidewalks. I was walking on one side of the street, he was under the canopy of his house on the opposite side. I had been passing him and nodding and repeating my well-practiced sa-wat-dii krap, hello, for a few months whenever we made eye contact, but usually he’d ignore me, look the other way and go about his business, his busyness. Then one day he looked up from what he was doing, if he was doing anything at all, looked at me and spoke. He uttered a complete sentence. I was caught off guard really, but also I didn’t understand what he said. So I simply smiled and iterated my usual, sa-wat-dii, krap. Hearing my feeble response he understood that I could only parrot a short list of pleasantries and therefore would be unable to converse with him at any length. He raised his arm and flicked his wrist, indicating that I should just keep going. I was dismissed. The odds of finding someone close to my own age to hang out with, to get to know as a friend, were not in my favor.
This village seems to have a good percentage of elders, grandmothers mostly, raising their grandchildren as their own children are away in a big city somewhere with a good paying job, not toiling away here in the mines. When we first arrived in country Peace Corps staff mentioned that this had become the norm throughout rural Thailand, children being raised by grandparents. The parents come home to visit on weekends or whenever they can. A school teacher I work with says that many parents are in jail. He mentioned that gambling is a big problem here and that the children have little to nothing, the family’s meager earnings given up to chance. Those in jail get released for a while but slide back into their addiction and into trouble.
This Buddhist and Asian culture has a deep and abiding respect for its elders. During the rot naam dam hua ceremony at Songkran (Thai New Year), a ceremony of respect to the village elders, women outnumbered men here probably 5 or 6 to 1. As I so quickly approach 60 (depending on when this is read I may have already crossed the line), that respect for age is displayed in subtle ways toward me. I don’t need to be the first to clasp my hands to my chin and wai (typical Thai greeting) and with that I don’t need to raise my hands as high or bow my head as low. When I first arrived in Thailand I found it annoyingly rude that one of the first questions posed to me by Thais was their wanting to know how old I was. It’s a question I don’t consider relevant to most conversations and a question I was taught not to ask. But now I’m finding that when someone who appears to be my contemporary asks, they’re asking for that exact reason, to know how they need to address me, greet me and wai me. So I let it go and proudly answer haa cip gaao, 59 (soon to be ayu hoke cip bpii, 60 years old).
Even though this village has a good stock of people my age and older, that doesn’t necessarily translate into easy friendships or the desire for them to include me into their lives. They have houses to maintain, grandkids to rear, children to worry about, food to fry, gossip to relay. Perhaps it’s my age, perhaps it’s my gender, perhaps it’s the omnipresent gravity and aloofness I convey when I think no one is looking. Likely it’s all of these in concert and this village sees me as being independent. They may see me as a contemporary, but more significantly they see me as a foreigner, at times an interloper, someone who can’t speak their language. (Oh, I try. I try repeatedly, but I try miserably, diffidently, and of late, lazily.) They assume I don’t really need or want their help and ministrations, that I can get along on my own. And with those assumptions they smile and nod and respectfully leave me be. So everyday I get up and walk that same path to work. I smile and nod and sa-wat-dii my way through the village.
I still see the gentleman dismisser everyday. He expertly avoids my gaze and in doing so he misses my ready, pregnant smile; my need to want to start over again and to try to understand what he has to say. Perhaps one day he’ll warm to me and repeat his question and I will miraculously understand and we will become friends. Perhaps.