Last month I had the privilege of visiting Thailand with my two youngest grandchildren and their mother Kan, who grew up there and emigrated to the United States as a young woman. It was my first experience of Asia, and the primary purpose of the trip, for me, was to help take care of my grandchildren while their mother had surgery. It was also an opportunity to meet Kan’s family and to get a better sense of the culture in which she was raised.
All of that happened and was a pleasure as well as a daily learning experience – as travel often is – but the unexpected gift was being folded into the gentle flow that is Thai culture and thus seeing the world and myself through a very different lens.
Traveling at Seventy-Three
It had been some years since I’d traveled any great distance and had never spent 18 hours getting anywhere before, so some pre-trip anxiety was to be expected. In addition to the usual reservations about flying, I was surprised by how many of my fears were related to age. Having recently published Winter’s Graces (about the gifts of later life), I was bit chagrinned to see that most of my anxiety about going half way around the world had to do with being 73.
Despite being blessed with very good health, I was afraid my body would somehow let me down, or worse, make me a burden rather than an asset. Would I be able to deal with such a long plane ride, adjust to the punishing heat and humidity about which I heard so much, and avoid getting sick from mosquito bites or unfamiliar food? I have never set off on a trip with so many doubts and trepidations, but not one of them came to pass. My organism served me well, and in addition, the long plane rides somehow calmed my anxiety about flying. I relaxed into the mostly turbulent return trip. Flying no longer feels unnatural – that was an unexpected gift.
Honoring Sacredness and Age
Thai culture is an especially reverent one. People bow when they greet one another, hands together in front of the heart – and say some form of Sawadika. The same gesture and word are used to say goodbye and thank you, and to express an apology. I learned that the placement of one’s thumbs when bowing, though subtle, reflects varying degrees of respect.
When greeting a monk or an image of the Buddha – the highest level of respect – the thumbs touch one’s forehead, thus creating the deepest bow. Elders rank next, with thumbs resting on one’s nose. (In greetings between social equals, thumbs touch the chin.) I noticed that monks are seated first on airplanes, for example, and that those who serve them bow in respect as they approach, and leaving, bow and walk away facing the monk, rather than turning their back on him (another expression of respect.)
Older adults are also honored, which was quite an experience for me, coming from a culture that at best ignores older people and considers us rather irrelevant. In Thailand elders are respected; their opinions are sought and valued. Youngers go out of their way to greet, serve, and care for them, making sure they are comfortable and have what they need. I have experienced this kind of respect and care from my daughter-in-law in the US, but had never before been in a place where the honoring of older people seemed to be so deeply embedded in daily social life, in both rural and urban areas.
Toward the end of our stay, my grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and her mother and sister were getting ready to leave Koh Chang (Island of the Elephants) before all of them – along with my son who was flying in that day – headed to the family home in the south. Kan let me know that her mother was concerned – and perplexed – that her daughter would leave me – and elder – alone (without family) on an island where I knew only a few words of the language.
In truth, I was looking forward to some days alone and with Kan’s help, tried to let her mother know that I appreciated her care, that I actually enjoy solitude and traveling on my own, and wanted all of them to have time together as a family (something I get to experience each week, and they only have for a few weeks every two years.)
Because I am the older elder by a few years – and because she is a gracious woman – Kan’s mother nodded with acceptance but asked her daughter to explain to me that I too am family. (Yet another gift, to be so readily and generously included in Kan’s extended family.)
Honor and Blessing
The most important festival in Thailand is Songkran, held annually in mid-April at the Thai New Year. The Water Festival is both a purification and a celebration, during which ancestors and elders are particularly honored. Families gather at their elder’s home, offering wreaths and flowers in gratitude and performing a ritual “washing” of the elder. Many then visit temples together, where older monks are similarly honored.
The images above were both taken at Songkran. The first depicts the honoring of the elder, and second, the elder’s blessing of the young. Together, these two – honor and blessing – help sustain the circle of interdependence between generations that is so palpable in Thai culture. I am grateful to have witnessed and been part of that, even for a short time.