I once got an A in Physics. If you know me, you know that my brain functions in the realm of words and ideas, not in scientific figures or formulas. So, the fact that I aced a college-level Physics course is shocking.
But the truth is this: I really didn’t learn Physics, I learned the professor.
I’d spend hours memorizing the notes before tests. His questions were always worded exactly like the notes were, and he was a creature of habit. It wasn’t hard to figure out the true/false pattern: true true false true true false true true false and on and on. He had a thing for italicizing words that were important. So I figured out his patterns, and I aced the class.
But in truth, I really didn’t learn much. At all.
I would not recommend this. I invested a lot of time and money into a course where I learned …. pretty much nothing.
But the professor, oh he was a hoot. It was like he stepped off the page of a comic strip characterizing the stereotypical Science prof. His hair looked like Einstein’s, and his clothing told the story that his money and attention went towards telescopes and chemistry sets rather than unnecessary things like well-fitted clothing that’s not 15 years old.
And then there was his favorite thing: asking a trick question. He would take great delight in waiting for someone to spout out the wrong answer. And as soon as it was given, his eyes would light up, he’d get a look of glee on his face, and he’d say:
I’ve heard this voice saying these exact words in my head a number of times the last few weeks. Adapting to a new-again culture often makes me feel like I do things exactly wrong.
You know all the language about cultural differences: it’s not good or bad, just different. But in trying to find that different way, I often end up on the side of exactly wrong.
We drive on the opposite side of the road here in Thailand from what my American upbringing has taught me. Thankfully, Thais are well-known for their laid-back, forgiving way of life. This saves many-a-foreigner from being chewed-out to kingdom come for some dumb move we made on the road. Yes, I have driven on the wrong side. Sometimes completely unaware of how exactly wrong I was.
The worst is when you think you’re mastering this thing and then come to find you are, you guessed it: exactly wrong.
The other day I was on my bicycle, peddling home. It was the busy time of the night, and I was dreading navigating my bike through the heavy traffic on Punakon road, the main road that runs near our house. I was especially dreading the right-hand turn that would require me to cross traffic: traffic that includes dump trucks, overly-loaded pick-ups, tons of cars, darting motorbikes, and what-not: traffic that leaves the bicycle-peddler feeling like the bottom of the food chain. In the first two weeks that I was here, I saw two accidents with bikes making the right-hand turn at the busy time of night.
So, I decided to outsmart the system. If I peddle just a quarter of a mile past the road where I usually turn off, I could make a simple left-hand turn, basically merge onto traffic.
Great idea, Maria! You’re totally outsmarting this system.
So, I’m peddling along. High-fiving myself for how smart I’m being and how quickly and easily I’m adjusting to this new traffic system. I drive past the cut-off road I usually take and grin. Nope, I’m smarter than that! Normal people would take that road, but not me! I’ve got a way of outsmarting that right-hand turn.
I finally reach the next cut-off road, still feeling pretty smug about my decision. I turn and head towards Punakon. I’m whistling, thinking of how this is a microcosm of adjusting to all of life in Thailand. And I’m mastering it.
And then I reach Punakon road.
And the traffic is going the exact opposite direction that what my brain had told me it would be going.
I was, once again, exactly wrong.
Yes, I went out of the way to avoid making a right-hand turn, when in fact, had I taken the route I usually take, I could have done the simple left-hand turn into traffic.
I went out of the way to do exactly what I was trying to avoid.
Thank you, professor. Exactly wrong.
Yesterday I was sitting in the Immigrations office waiting to register as an alien (yes, that title fits me these days). I had gotten my queue number, and was waiting for it to be called. The wait was taking forever-and-a-day, so I pulled out my little notebook and started writing this. After an hour, I was getting a little peeved at the system. Why does this have to take so long? After two hours, I was angrily spewing things like “patience is a virtue” to my fed-up self. Finally, after two and a half hours of waiting (yes, that is 150 minutes) it was starting to look like everyone was going home for the day. 4:30 had come and gone, and I guess I was just left to come back tomorrow. I got off of my seat and forcefully strode to the counter.
“Excuse me, I have been waiting for 2 ½ hours. Could someone please help me?”
The man behind the counter asked me why I was there, I handed him my papers and tried to explain in my limited Thai.
He looks up at me and says emphatically: “You didn’t have to take queue number for this! You can just hand it to me right away and you don’t have to wait.”
Exactly wrong. Again.
In about 60 seconds, he stamped my paper and had me on my way. I didn’t know whether to scream or to cry. I wanted to do both. In fact, I was halfway out of the building before I realized I had done another cultural no-no. I had left the office of someone of fairly high position without politely wai-ing and khap-khun-kha-ing. So, I went back to have take-two at taking my leave politely.
Oh, haste the day when I find myself in fewer exactly wrong situations!