For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated with time. From the lunisolar Babylonian calendar, to the Roman Calendar, to the Mayan Calendar, to sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, stopwatches, and even apple watches, knowing the time and calculating its passing has been a significant part of human history. Years reduce into months, months into days, days into hours, and so on and so forth until every millisecond has been counted—given a name. I may not be a horologist, a person who studies how we measure time, but I do think about it a great deal, since, for most of my life, time has been my greatest fear.
Now, I know that time isn’t one of the more popular fears like spiders, heights, or even clowns but it is non-the less an anxiety I carry with me. I worry about time wasted and time taken for granted, having too much time, or too little time, I fear that I will forget things, people, and places, losing those memories to time. As a child, I remember telling my mother that if I was a superhero, I would want to be able to control time—make special moments last longer, rewind mistakes, or even fast forward through tough phases. Maybe it is the omnipresence of the western definition of success, sayings like, “the early bird gets the worm”, or the fact that humans spend a third of their lives asleep. But time and how I use it, is always in the back of my mind. And now, as I sit here and reflect on the ups and downs, growth and change of this year, I find that time has been the only thing that has remained constant.
|Kru Mem, myself, and my host teacher P'Mai|
We were given a year. A year to teach, learn, and aim to “understand Thainess,” all wide and daunting tasks. I remember sitting in the cold plastic chair in the meeting room at Chulalongkorn University, feeling overwhelmed by the unknowns that lay ahead, and the very idea that my time here was already planned out—my return date to Bangkok planned a year in advance. So, I began to try and understand—endeavoring to use my time wisely. I consumed books, documentaries, and stories about Thai culture while studying the Thai language and trying my best to devour all types of incredibly spicy foods. I wanted to take advantage of my time and “su, su”, or fight my way through the challenges of language barriers and cultural differences. I prepared myself for what I might experience and thought I was going to see, and dove in ready to undertake all I had read about.
However, on my first day at school, I remember struggling through the initial hour of class. All of the sudden a classroom of 42 second-graders looked up at me with wonder and confusion. I suddenly realized that I was the teacher, and nervously started talking, trying to fill the silence with words. Little did I know that my students would simply repeat every word that I said, adding to the confusion and hilarity—making the time seemingly stretch on. The classroom, class size, and excitement of my students weren’t what I had envisioned prior to arriving, and all the preparation I had done seemed fruitless. I rushed to my office to try and create a better plan, focusing all my energy on making my time spent in class go smoother. I remember the first few weeks at school as a struggle—trying to fill each class with a fun activity while simultaneously wrangling the lessons to fit into an hour. I found even in my free moments the same dilemma—having seemingly so much time for things, while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by all the newness—unsure of how to fill my day and use my time. I wanted my new life to instantly “work”- and to understand my role, students and colleagues as fast as possible to make the most of the short period I had been allotted. Yet, all of what I had read about Thailand- the beautiful language, complex social order, and the close-knit community seemed to be there shyly hiding from my demanding eyes.
|My Prathom 3 students and I|
Like the birds. Every day upon returning home from school I was greeted by the symphony of my neighbor, Pi Sak’s, chorus of small gray songbirds fluttering about in their bamboo cages. Their feathers were not bright, and their song didn’t seem to be anything incredibly unique, and I was intrigued as to why he had so many of this seemingly unremarkable bird. Upon conducting my own research, I learned that the birds are known as Red Whiskered Bulbuls, and they are famous in southern Thailand for competing in singing contests. I was immediately intrigued and thrilled when my host teacher offered to take me to see a local contest. When we arrived, we saw more than 20 bird cages hanging on posts with a group of spectators sitting around. I eagerly sat down, and began to ask a million questions, “How is this judged? What do they win? How much does a bird cost? what do they eat?” Unfortunately, however, Pi Mai didn’t know the answers, and as she wandered off in search of a coffee, I watched the contest unfold—more and more questions popping into my head. Every few minutes a group of men would remove one of the hanging cages, and then sit back down—waiting, listening. I couldn’t see a rhythm or reason for the removal of the cage and as the time stretched on, my confusion and frustration grew. What were the rules? Who was in charge? If I couldn’t understand this—something that was supposed to be a source of fun and diversion, how would I even begin to understand my new life here? In the silence of the drive home that night I remember telling Pi Mai how confused I was, and how “I just wish I understood,” to which she wisely replied, “Mai bpen rai Emma, all in time.”
|Bird singing contest in Nakhon Si Thammarat|
Many anthropologists argue that time is a social construct. Meaning, that humans created the concept of calculating time, and thus they can change it. Additionally, not all groups of people are the same, so their conception, understanding, and calculation of time can differ. Maybe that is why “Thai Time” is so seemingly unique from the western ideas of time. In this year have waited until 5 for rides that were supposed to come at 3, I have gone for lunches that I thought would only last 30 minutes but finished in two hours, and I have realized that song tow drives that were planned for ten minutes can actually last much longer if the driver is delivering a chicken to his friend. This concept of time being fluid and flexible, might lay in Buddhist teaching that assert that suffering in life (dukkah), is derived from attachment—not being able to let go. Many Buddhists believe that time isn’t something can be fixed or held onto. Like all changes in life, it needs to be accepted and let go in order to overcome difficulties.
So, I tried to surrender to time. Accept its ebb and flow. Wait to understand its abundance and scarcity, passage and stillness. I tried not to hurry through my day, but live it. I stopped rushing back to my office to meticulously plan and watched how my students held hands as they walked—seemingly more comfortable together than apart. I stopped agonizing about how I would order food and noticed how Pa Pid, the school chef, searched my face while serving me lunch, hoping I would like each new dish. I gave up stressing about missing class when morning assembly ran late and observed how my school spent time together, laughed together, listened together. And once I stopped fighting against time, stopped demanding that I understand, and accepted my newness, I realized that the details of my new life, that before seemed undignified or unimportant, where actually the ones that began to matter. Like how Kru Mem always packs an extra mango for me and leaves it on my desk when I am gone, or how Pi Gop sets aside a chair by the fan and ushers me over when we have a school meeting in the canteen. I found that once I stopped trying to fill my time and fight against it, I wasn’t alone—time could be something shared.
|My teachers and I|
This past month, I woke up early and went to get my favorite “khao tom” from the woman on the narrow street that runs parallel to mine. As I walked, motorbikes whizzed by, their drivers clutching the infamous birdcages that have held my intrigue for the past year. Soon, I began to hear the chirping grow stronger, and I stumbled upon a bird singing contest. More than thirty cages were hung up and around them people sat, enjoying their morning tea and coffee, listening and carefully monitoring. I decided to join, and sat in the corner, watching and listening, attempting again to understand. I started to question the judging process, the organization, and the spectators. But then, I surrendered to the unknowns and let my mind wander. I thought about my neighbor Sak, and how he cares for each of his birds each morning and afternoon, how he shows his daughter Namoo how to change their water with care. I looked around and saw the soft, wrinkled smile of Pi Fatima, the mother of one of my students, who makes the best Khao Mok Gai in the market. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft chirps, and the wind blowing through the rubber trees of the neighboring plantation. I thought how nice it felt to be here, how comforting it was to be part of this group, this community. And suddenly, it didn’t matter why I was there, it just mattered that I was. I understood that some things, like the rules of the contest, I might never understand, and that’s ok, but I can’t force it to fit into what I want it to be, just like how I can’t stop the clock.
And maybe that is all we can expect from everyone, including time. To accept it as it is, living each day, and embracing each person and moment as they come. To look and try to see what is in front of us—not search for what we expect. That life, and all of its gifts and burdens can be shared. Time and patience—not a book, documentary, or website taught me that.
However, despite what Buddhism, my teachers, and the calendar tell me about time, I am not ready to let go of this year of my life. John Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “How great it would be to live in an endless state of leave-taking, to be missed without being gone, to be loved without satiety. How beautiful one is and how desirable.” I know that I will take all of the memories, friendships, and growth from this year, and suspend them in my mind, in that state of love and longing—a temporary forever I can look back on, knowing that I can never go back to how it is now. I can only go forward into the seemingly endless unknown that is time, and hope that it won’t fly away like a red-whiskered bulbul.