Tough Stuff

Today, I had one of the most frustrating moments of my Peace Corps service to date. It didn’t stem from Thai craziness, but rather my own inability to deal that has made me not know what to do with myself. I planned to write about something else today, but I want to get this down before I rationalize away the own pain in my heart.

A woman in my village, Pii-Chaai, is easily my best friend here. She takes care of me more than my host mother does. She has introduced me to tons of people in the village, has taken me on trips with her own family, and is the person I rely on for things. In a country of saving face and feeling like I have to be on guard at all times so that I don’t offend anyone, she is one of the people here that I can actually be myself around. As any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you, this kind of friend, who is a country national, is absolutely priceless.

I decided to stop by her house to give her some of the snacks I bought for her the previous day while on a trip. This sort of drop by is totally Thai and perfectly acceptable. I saw her car was there, heard her phone’s ringtone, she had to be there. As I walked up, I noticed three very odd things:

1. Her son,Op, was standing in her doorway and I could see her laying down still. It was almost noon…this is weird, she’s usually up with the sun, what’s going on?

2. Op told her I was there and she stood up and I saw she was crying. Thai people only cry when something really, really serious or emotional happens. In my almost eight months here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Thai adult cry (outside of the training staff people, they don’t count in my brain for some reason). She started to talk, but I couldn’t understand what she said. Op walked over to the side of the house and I think he was crying too. Seeing your Mom cry, much less your Thai one, is one of the most disconcerting things I have ever walked in on. What happened?

3. She hugged me. Thai people are not huggers. She hugged me. And not one of those, ‘hey it’s nice to see you’ hugs, but the kind that I was supporting her body weight for a few moments. Whatever happened, this was legit.

I tried to ask why she was crying and there was some more sniffling, but then her phone rang. I caught a few more words while she was talking to that person, but not enough to fully understand the situation. I felt more and more awkward by the second. Those were long seconds. I’m bad at this ‘comforting thing’ in English, making stupid, generally inappropriate jokes.

They didn’t cover this in PST. They told me this wouldn’t happen often, but not what to do when it did! Millions of things were flying through my brain. Lots of swearing at myself. Lots of questions, such as: Why can’t I pull myself together to be there for her?! Why can’t I say anything beneficial? WHAT’S GOING ON? WHAT SHOULD I DO?

I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. I could feel my heart breaking into pieces and pound themselves against my chest. Somehow I think this is how mothers feel when their child gets hurt. Moms, at least mine, always know the right thing to say to comfort their kid. Me, I’m just the six-foot farang that is literally fighting to find any words to make my Thai mother figure feel better. Anything for her to push the burden onto me. That would be easier to cope with then this inability to help. These words were nowhere to be found in my brain.

Not wanting to make her feel any worse, I did what I do best in really awkward, painful situations…I made a complete fool of myself. I find that the more retarded I act, the better results turn out to be. I talked about anything, everything. I told her I learned the local word for vomit. I told her the story when I was eleven and flew by myself for the first time and puked my guts out because I was so nervous. I told her about my school break travel plans. I asked if she wanted to go with me. I talked about my bowel functions. I talked about Peace Corps rules. Her new house. How much I loved her new house. She told me our friend got a puppy, I told her about my dog I had growing up. I would talk about anything in my power to get her mind off whatever it was that was plaguing her. Because that was the only thing I could do.

Looking at the situation, I’m so angry with myself. Pii-Chaai is one of my best friends in Thailand and I couldn’t be there for her, not like a real friend should be. The kind that sit and listen when you pour your heart out for the millionth time about the same subject. That give you the advice you need to hear rather than want to hear. I suppose she could have unloaded on me, but I doubt it wouldn’t have been very comforting for her have to speak slowly, clearly, and explain every fifth word or so. I still don’t know what happened and it’s unlikely that I ever will, making it even harder to make her feel better in the long run.

I hope that I lightened her load a bit, but is that enough? For all the things Thailand and its people do for me, how can I ever give enough back in return? Why do I suck so royally at this? Why haven’t I learned enough Thai yet? Why does the Thai I do know run out on me when I need it most? Why am I not emotionally equipped for this? And most importantly, how can I be there for her in the future?

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3 thoughts on “Tough Stuff

  1. Sounds like you had a really rough day today 😦 I don’t really have any answers to your questions, but I can tell you that you probably did more for her than you think you did. You may not feel like you were there for her or that you said/did the right things, but you stuck around, talked to her, took her mind off things, and made her feel better, at least for a few minutes. Given our limited abilities with the language and the culture, that’s more than most of us probably could/would have done. I know it’s hard and I can’t possibly grasp the intensity of the situation, but don’t beat yourself up. I’m sure she looks back at the time you were there and is thanking Buddha she has a good friend like you 🙂 Feel better.

  2. Erin, In a culture that does not openly express sadness, your friend honored you by letting you see her pain and you honored her back by staying with her and not running away. Some times that’s all there is.

  3. Hi Erin, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan and my heart goes out to you on this day. I experienced a similar scenario to this myself in February and empathize with your feelings of helplessness. It is a sad and eerie when you know something *bad* has happened, but have no clue what. Sounds like you did an admirable job. Good luck and don’t forget psn.

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