Reflective perspective:Is Mama scolding the horse?

Trip Start Feb 18, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Sunday, June 6, 2010

And now for something different...

Four months of traveling now has clearly changed our perspectives, we are learning and growing in many different ways than we would have through different experiences back home. Traveling is fun but it's also our life now and like life, its not always easy or beautiful. But being on the move in new places has changed the way we live and act.  Although it took time, we are slowly letting go of previous hang-ups and stresses.  "Old habits die hard"...but they are dying!
It's more often than not that in any given situation, we look at each other, shrug our shoulders and go with the flow.  "Our ride just left?" Shrug, wait for the next one.  "No reservation?" Shrug, try the next place. Our two most common phrases to each other are "either way" and "that was easy".

Trying to get simple information like "what's in this dish", "where is this bus going", and "how do I treat this insect bite" become daily mental workouts.  We talk a lot less and use our senses and resources a lot more. If we hear a strange sound we look up or down and try to figure out what it's coming from...and we find bullfrogs in the gutter!  We see miles of rows of a certain tree with plastic bottles hanging from the trunks, so we research the main exports for that country and figure out that they're rubber trees. We see the food being made in front of us and taste the lemongrass, ginger, and coconut.

We use our hands to speak and as a result are becoming better at the international language of expressive hand gestures.  It's usually along the lines of pointing at something in the market and holding up one finger (Translation: "I would like one of these please") or pulling out some coins or notes, pointing to them and shrugging shoulders ("how much does it cost?" or "I would like to pay") or walking into a pharmacy and just showing them my bloody foot or my severely bug bitten legs ("can you provide me with something that will help my situation?") We know that a smile goes a long way. So does a firm "No".

I have learned many of these non verbal communications from my well-traveled partner. Often I would stay silent and let him do the "talking".  Lately though, Jon's been keeping silent or hanging behind, allowing me to order the food or figure out the transport situation. I am less timid now than I was when we first arrived in Asia.    It's all about trying new things after all and what's the worst that could happen? I get tofu instead of pork?

You may say, why don't we just learn the word for tofu or pork? The truth is that we always try to learn some basic words and phrases in the current country's language for just that reason, but problems arise.
One is that we're never in a country for very long so that by the time we start to get it, it's time to move on.
Two, is that if you do learn how to say a word or ask a question, they respond to you in their language and we can't understand the response. Asking yes and no questions is key.
Three, is that many Asian languages are tonal, meaning that the same word for university (said in a low tone), could mean dumpling (if said in a low rising tone.) Or the word you are trying to say just has no meaning at all.  So even if you do know the word or phrase, if you're not saying (or singing) it correctly, they won't understand you anyway. (In mandarin "ma ma ma ma" with the correct tones, means "Is mother scolding the horse?")

Now granted, in more well-traveled touristy places the locals speak a fair amount of English. You can ask them a question and get an answer. (Though we make sure to keep it simple, phrases with basic words and no contractions). And this inhibits our practice of the local language even more. 
Another language barrier has to do with "saving face", a major concern for Asian people. They may understand the question you are asking them in English but will be too shy or embarrassed about their English skills to respond. They will look away and shake their head. We have been in many situations where we ask a question to someone who speaks a little English and a bystander will appear and translate to them by whispering in their ear, what we are saying, but when we then ask the bystander a question, he is too shy to answer.

I understand all too well about being shy and unsure.

When we first arrived I would feel very self-conscious in our new surroundings. Clearly we're not from here and I would often feel embarrassed from standing out so much and knowing so little. It didn't take long for that to change though. People may giggle or say something about me that I can't understand but it no longer bothers me. They have no idea who I am or where I've come from. They don't know my culture or my reasons for being here. Now I am self aware in a great way. I see my place, how I fit in (or don't) and how I act with a different eye. I don't mind if they have a chuckle at me, just another clueless westerner.  Usually the local people are intrigued by us, asking "where are you from?" and "where are you going?" and are very friendly. I realize that when some look at me they see dollar signs. And others see a white celebrity.

 Self consciousness evaporates and self awareness becomes second nature. More than it ever did in my home city of strangers where I felt people always were watching and judging.  I can't really judge (try as I may) other travelers (see Full Moon Party post) because hey, we all got here somehow and everyone is figuring out their own comfort level and freedom. I can giggle at the old white guy with a young Thai wife or roll my eyes at the French girl in the market who says "no salt" (no salt means no food!). But in the end it's just me and Jon being ourselves and doing things the best way we know how.
I am more excited about traveling now than I was 4 months ago. Bring it on!

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daddyO on

Wow, Danielle. Your writing shows me you are growing by leaps & bounds! Mixing with other cultures is what it's all find yourself! When you come home you will be one very self-confident young woman because of what you have seen & experienced! I toast you for that & say: WellDone!! xo

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