Having been in a foreign country the last couple months (Thailand), I often am able to get perspectives on things that I may normally not focus on, being in my own culture, or at least may not focus on in the same way. Having very limited language skills in Thai, I am often unable to understand much of what others are saying. As a result, the overall level of speaking language and listening to language is much less than if I were in Canada.
Because one sense (hearing) is limited, I must resort to using whatever other sense are at my disposal, mainly seeing. When we all speak the same language, I find I am more inclined to focus on peoples words more than their actions, and of course this can be deceiving/limiting because people can say whatever they want, while their actions may belie their words. As the old adage goes, ‘actions speak louder than words.
Because of the fact that I am looking at members of another culture whose language I can not understand, I find there is more of a tendency to be analytically oriented in my overall approach. What I am prompted to consider within this is: how much do I miss about my own culture, simply because the words that are spoken have been normalized, and I see the people as less ‘foreign/alien’ to me because there is an underlying assumption of sameness and normalcy due to our shared cultural understandings.
Certainly there are many points in which people simply have a different way about doing things or a different view on things, but there are so many times wherein I am about to make a judgment about this culture, to say “wow, they are very …..” – to only then stop and realize that whatever judgement I am about to make about them is also true of people in my own culture. Sometimes our sameness is almost identical, in terms of how we are in essence, but the mere fact that this same essence is expressed in a different way/form is sufficient enough to have me see things that I might normally not see about people in my own culture. I mean, even this statement I made in the last sentence: “my culture” – what exactly about it is ‘mine’? Is it truly ‘who I am’? No, It is merely what was taught to me. Does it really serve me? Is it really something that is ideal and thus something I can willingly identify with to call ‘my own’? No. it is just what I am bound to and identify with from a starting point of survival: it is what I know best, and thus where I am most effectively able to operate within in the pursuit of my survival and happiness.
Some years ago, when I started learning about the human mind and what is really going on inside of people (inside of myself) and how little can be trusted in this world, I started to become more careful than ever of the words I spoke and the words that others spoke. Sometimes it is easy to fall out of this carefulness about words, about the choices of words we make and what they are really indicating and implying about our selves and our true nature, because as a member of a culture, there is a tendency to want to ‘go with the flow’ in order to have things be easy, go smoothly and ultimately survive without hassle or discomfort.
And yet here without much language ability, I am forced to look at what is beyond the words, to find other means of understanding people that are not shrouded in the deception of the words we use to present ourselves in a way that favors our self image we project to the world and hides our true nature.
The ways in which my own expression changes as well, being limited in my own ability to ‘hide behind words’ – as I’ve described above. My actions, my body language, my demeanor and disposition show through in a way where I am limited in my ability to ‘paint a picture with words’ that somehow contradicts or even justifies my actual behavior and this overall point of ‘who I really am’.
Additionally, when verbal communication does take place between myself and native Thai speakers, it is very limited to simple, basic vocabulary. As a result, when things are explained, the simplicity of the language that is used affords a directness that may not necessarily be achieved – and thus not be as impactful – when using more sophisticated language. Using sophisticated, elaborate and even ‘flowery’ language is another way in which we often ‘hide behind our words’. What is fascinating about Thai language is that the grammar is extremely simple compared to English, which is then taken as being much more ‘direct’, from my perspective. For example, if you were to ask the person you are with “do you want to go eat?”, would be ‘gin khao mai’ – ‘gin’ meaning ‘eat’, ‘khao’ meaning ‘rice’ (general word used for all food) and ‘mai’ simply indicating that this is a question. What is fascinating is how the words ‘you’ and ‘want’ are taken out of the equation, and how this re-contextualizes things in a way where there is not as much emphasis on ‘you’ and ‘what you want‘. This is just a tiny sample of these differences in language use and the orientation/contextualization that such forms of articulation through language imply – I won’t get into this much more as it is beginning to open up another huge point. If you would like to know more about this, I would suggest checking out some translations, or comment to me and I may blog more on this subject.