We merged into the river of humanity flowing through Concourse G in San Francisco International Airport. Suddenly everything was different. Turbaned men, women in colorful saris, others in hijabs— people of every description filled the gates. Instead of catching the usual snippets of small talk between passengers, nearly everything was unintelligible to me. Welcome to your new normal, I mused to myself. Nobody had to tell me we were in the international terminal. I already felt as though I was in a different country.
Twelve hours later we and our three bleary-eyed little charges touched down at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. As we deplaned, we glanced down from the jet bridge to see an army of 20-30 identically-dressed cleaners jogging onto the plane from its lower staircase. Matthew and I shot amused and intrigued glances at each other before proceeding. Immigration workers counted and exclaimed over our three children, gave us a priority tag, and hustled us to the front of the line. In no time we were out the other side and on our way to find the train that would take us to our hotel for some much-needed rest before we caught our flight to Bangkok the next morning.
Squeezing onto the train, we found ourselves in a silent sea of meticulous black suits and impeccably shined shoes. The small talk we were familiar with in the US was notably absent. We stood silently as the train rumbled beneath us. Even if someone did try to start a conversation, the number of words in my Japanese vocabulary could be counted on one hand— one finger, in fact. My mind drifted back to Montana. As we bade our dear Japanese neighbor farewell, I had asked her to teach the children a word that they could use when we transited Japan. “Konnichiwa!” she smiled. “It means ‘hello.’”
My mind jolted back to the present as the train slowed and a melodic alert sounded. The doors opened and we found ourselves on a dimly-lit, cobbled street in the cool night air of Japan. We navigated through a side alley and into an elevator that would take us to a catwalk over the train tracks. The elevator doors opened, revealing a startled elderly Japanese lady. Recovering from her surprise at seeing an American family crowded in the tiny elevator, she smiled warmly at the children. “Konnichiwa!” we greeted. The result was was magical. The elderly woman erupted with excitement and began chattering an exuberant stream of Japanese words. Unfortunately, “Konnichiwa” was all we could contribute to the conversation, and we stood smiling helplessly before bowing and proceeding up the street.
This helpless feeling has become an all-too-familiar part of our lives as we interact with people here in Thailand. There was the man who stopped to talk to us as we went on our morning walk. Was he asking how many kids we have or how old they are? And then there was the mini conversation I had with the lady at the market that was going so well until she said something I didn’t understand, and I found myself flailing in the deep end again.
Our experience with the Japanese woman has been repeated many times over the last several months as we use the few Thai words we know. Faces brighten, doors open, and people respond in a far more receptive way. Even though some Thai speak English, Nelson Mandela was on to something when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Our primary goal for our first year here in Thailand is to become conversant. Nearly three months of language classes are behind us now, and Thai words and sentences have begun to infiltrate our family worships, our mealtimes, and much of our daily lives. Slowly but surely we are beginning to catch glimmers of understanding in the cacophony of sounds that have surrounded us for the last few months.
A few days ago, I stood on the road outside of our house with our stout eighty-year-old neighbor, who our kids affectionately call “the cow man.” He often pickets his cows across the street from our house, and we have gotten to know him as he goes about caring for them each day. “Chop ma-muang,” he said and flashed a toothless grin from under his cowboy hat. Elyssa, our five-year-old, had just given one of his cows a cucumber. The cow mouthed the vegetable for a moment then let it fall to the ground in obvious disinterest. “Chop ma-muang” our neighbor chuckled again. They like mangoes.
Don’t we all! I smiled to myself. But my smile was less about his persnickety bovines than from the joy of realizing that I understood him!
We would be so grateful if you would join us in prayer for the gift of tongues, whether God chooses to give it miraculously or through a lot of hard work. The Thai people are such loving, gentle, and friendly people and we look forward to the day when we can communicate better with them.
And please pray for our neighbor and all the other lovely people we meet as we go about daily life here. Our hope and prayer is that as we learn to speak their language, they will catch a glimpse of the goodness of God and will someday learn to speak the language of heaven.