Birds of a feather

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editors note: In a series of blog posts, spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit

I walked the hundred meters from Kampan's house to the Nong Bua Sam Church right after breakfast. I wanted to get their early to make sure I had time to get focused, or centered as the people who do meditation like to say.

Elder Sanit was playing Christmas music through the church's big speakers which he had placed outside the church. He was going to make sure that his Buddhist neighbors knew that this was the day on which the church was going to celebrate the birth of Jesus, especially if their children hadn't already reminded them that there were bags of candy waiting for them at the church.

The service began with a Christmas pageant, starring Nicky as Mary and M as Joseph. The fact that I had known both of them for years and that the little play itself felt so familiar raised my hopes that at last I might be able to get into the spirit of Christmas. Even though the congregation sang the carols in Thai, I knew enough of the words by heart—at least the first verses anyway—that I could sing along. . .the first verse over and over and over.

At the beginning of the service, the church was full, but at the end of the pageant the announcement was made that ice cream would be served and the bags of treats would be distributed outside. Half the congregation disappeared along with much of the energy in the room. Then, I realized that no one was present who could translate the sermon for me, and in my experience Thai sermons can last forty minutes.

So there I sat with no idea of what was being said, feeling bored and disappointed. I've been to exciting baseball games at Wrigley Field where I didn't notice how hard the wooden benches in the bleachers were, because I was so into the game. Exciting is not the word I would use to describe the service.

"No one is thinking about how I feel," I whined to myself. My butt was sore. I wanted to ask, "Are we there yet?" And, of course, by this time my bladder was full.

When the service ended, I headed straight for the bathroom where I felt instant relief. Relieved was also how I felt about the service—relieved that it was over. These people who had welcomed me for so many years, who treated me like a king every time I was with them, couldn't stir up in me the feeling that I wanted. I felt at home with them in an important way, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't speak "my language."

So, when a missionary I knew, who was driving me home, invited me to join him and his family later that day at a service in English at a church just a kilometer down the road from my guesthouse, I jumped at the chance.

The farang (Westerners) congregation rented the space from a Thai church. Ninety-five percent of those in attendance where white. I understood every word. The sermon was blessedly short. The songs were familiar. I felt like I knew what the socially acceptable things to say and do were. I was a fish who was back in its cultural water.

I got back to my room around 7:00, stretched out on the bed and got back into Bangkok Eight, a murder mystery set in Thailand. In the novel, a Thai detective named Sonchai who is a devout Buddhist keeps interacting with a blond, blue eyed American FBI agent named Kimberly Jones.

The sexual attraction between them is evident from the first time they meet, but they never get anywhere close to being intimate because they keep missing each other culturally. She approaches problems rationally. He takes the more intuitive approach. Kimberly is secular. Sonchai is deeply religious. She is a feminist, while he thinks in more traditional terms.

"At least Sonchai can speak English," I thought as I let myself flow with the narrative. "At least they could communicate about the cultural differences that divided them."

And then I had a realization. It wasn't the enlightenment I was looking for about the true meaning of Christmas, but it was the one I was given that evening. No wonder Thais in Chicago will drive for up to an hour to attend the services of the Thai congregation which worshiped in our building.

It was a place where once a week they could relate to God and to each other in their "heart language." It wasn't just that they could speak in Thai, but it was also a place where all the cultural cues were familiar, where after church they could taste curries and nuclear strength peppers again and get the jokes that were being told.

Being an alien in a foreign land is hard work.

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