There is a saying in Thailand that you may have seen on a T-shirt: “Same same but different.” When you ask a local how Ko Samui compares to Ko Lanta, he might scratch his chin for a moment, then shrug and say “Same same, but different.”
Back in May I wrote about Bowerbirds, a species of bird that attracts its mate by creating works of art. Their almost human-like values of beauty remind us that the superficial quality of form is the only thing that makes us different from other life. The function is pretty much the same, only the methods and styles differ. Within the narrower spectrum of different human populations, we’re even more alike.
Thailand has become a rather heavily touristed country, and I suppose that has taken the edge off the culture shock a westerner might feel stepping out of an airport taxi into the streets of Bangkok. For me it was a little bit of an adjustment, but I have to say I was surprised at how similar this side of the planet is to the side I’m used to.
There are countless little differences, but they are all quite little. Every experience, from buying a shirt to hailing a taxi, is slightly different, but in essence it’s all the same things happening here that happen in Canada; people work, play, dine, rest and wake. It is only in the details that one finds differences.
Bangkok took some recalibration, but not much. Fewer people spoke English than I expected, and it was more crowded than I had imagined — picture sidewalks so packed that pedestrians spill onto the roads, while motorcycles wheel onto the sidewalks when the street is too crowded.
But it was not an alien world. It was just the same human world I left in Canada, only with different trimmings, like a familiar movie scene with some of the color and picture knobs having been played with. I already knew the biggest actor very well: the human being.
The Thai Restaurant Experience
Eating in a restaurant, for example, is fundamentally the same — sit, order, eat, pay — but there is a consistent set of little differences. They don’t give you much time to choose your meal, even when there are sixty options. In two or three minutes they are back, standing over you, pad in hand. Often they give you the menu and just stand there waiting.
Except on rare occasions they will not bring you the bill or ask you if you want it. You must find them and tell them when you want to pay, even if they’re in the back room watching TV. Napkins are usually just a roll of toilet paper in a bamboo cylinder. They don’t keep checking on you like we’re so used to in the west, refilling your water every five minutes and asking “How is everything tasting?” Taxes are included and there is generally no tipping.
There is an amusing lack of uptightness surrounding cleanliness and protocol in Thailand, not just while dining but everywhere. A strange dog might walk in off the street and curl up by your feet while you eat lunch. There might be geckos in your shower. They might charge you a price ten baht different than it says on the handwritten, photocopied menu. At cooking class they don’t make you sign a waiver before handing you a razor-sharp cleaver and having you fish tofu chunks out of a spattering deep fryer.
Even thought the culture is different in this and other respects, these are all ultimately insignificant differences. The people here are still eager please their customers, and the customers are still looking for a good experience.
Humanity is Consistent
Though the Thai language is quite different from English, nothing truly exotic or bizarre happens when two people converse in it. In fact, you witness almost exactly the same transactions as at home.
If you live in an apartment, you’ve probably overhead muted conversations through the walls or ceiling. Even though you can’t make out the words, it is easy to get an idea of the dynamic of the conversation by the tone and timbre of the speech. You can tell if it’s lazy small talk at breakfast, playful teasing, or an argument.
It’s no different listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand. Most of the communication is not contained within the vocabulary, but in the gestures, tones and expressions that humans everywhere seem to understand without any cultural common ground.
Even ten thousand miles away, the surf still sounds the same. The sand between my toes is something I knew with profound intimacy long before I got here. Same same is the heat of the sun, as well as the menacing roar of street traffic even though it’s at least 50% motorbike here. Same same is the sweet chorus of birds in the morning though they are completely different species, and the majesty of the forest, even if it’s endless jungle and not endless mountain pines. Dogs still wag their tails and lick themselves. Toddlers still throw tantrums. Convenience stores are still poor places to find a meal, but there are different choices. Same same but different.
The human animal is so unapologetically the same, wherever you go. They want to feel comfortable and valued and safe. I know my travel experience is quite limited at this point, and maybe I’d change my tune if I visited rural Japan or Syria. But so far, I see a comforting consistency to life on earth that has been there wherever I’ve gone.
The details are different, but the social and biological fabric behind those details seems to be the same everywhere. Culture, I suppose, is just a word for the superficial differences amongst humanity that arise from different lifestyles and economies. The differences are colorful and fascinating, but they are only different reflections of a very familiar creature.
When it comes to being human, there are fundamentals — emotional needs, appreciation for food and drink, the worship of beauty, the drive for prosperity, to name a few — that ignore our petty political boundaries with impunity. You’d have to leave the planet altogether to find a population that doesn’t adore their children, take pride in their work, or find themselves smiling inside when the sun is out.
Photo by fotographix.ca