My wife Tan and I are in the middle of JFK International Airport. It is early February. We have traveled 20 plus hours from Thailand to America, through dawn into Tokyo, across the International Date Line, and are on our way toward Jet Blue and Burlington, Vermont, dragging a number of bags, backpacks, and overstuffed suitcases.
“Hun,” Tan says. “Can you help me with this bag? I’m exhausted, and it’s heavy.”
I stop and stare at the particular bag, and freeze. America has suddenly interfered with my thought process. Somewhere along the way, between the Narita Airport ramen noodle stand and the Hudson News kiosk, I have crossed the cultural moat that separates the American bubble from the Thai bubble.
For you see, the heavy item in question is not an ordinary bag. It is in fact a giant, colorful “Pooh Bear and Friends” plastic sack filled to capacity. The smiling faces of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and all the other A.A. Milne characters are spread in little boxes over the length and breadth of it. It is a children’s cloth grab-bag, neon and shouting, amid the somber, milling crowds in the airport.
This is the first time I have noticed the bag with my American eyes, and the words “inappropriate” come bubbling up from my subconscious, and I’m suddenly embarrassed. The observation both annoys and amuses me. American adults don’t drag “Pooh bags” around airports. They haul professional-looking and expensive sets of black Samsonite luggage on wheels. Only kids are allowed bags like these; parents are given temporary license to carry them when the child gets tired. Tan and I have no kids and thus no excuse for it.
In the land of sticky rice, jasmine, and elephants, I never thought about it, not for a single moment. When Tan bought the “Pooh Bag” from Bangkok’s weekend market, I congratulated her on her lively choice. If anyone ever commented on the bag, it was with praise, “Oh, look at that bag. I love Pooh!”
Thailand is remarkably mellow about these kinds of things. Women are able to carry around “Hello Kitty” purses and the like well past kid age, with nary a glance from strangers, and stuffed animals often adorn the insides of cars in mounds. There is an acceptance of “cuteness” there, or perhaps just an absence of criticality toward it. It’s different in the U.S. Americans are too “cool” for cute, unless it’s with a wry smile or a touch of cynicism. I am not allowed my Pooh bag here.
And so, I stand in the middle of some hallway in JFK, staring down at a Pooh bag, the American part of me wanting to hide it, and the Thai part of me wanting to wave it about like a flag. What’s so bad, I think, about a guy dragging a Pooh bag? Isn’t this country about doing whatever you want? Why do we have to take ourselves so seriously all the time?
I look around and see a great mass of people sitting against the wall, others walking to and fro, chatting on cell-phones, oblivious to everything and everyone, plugged into Walkmans, iPods, newspapers and books. The great majority seem to be wearing black jackets, dark suits, and set business attire, a strangely homogenous mass in clothing. Does everyone have to dress so conservatively? Many of these people, I think, are living by rules they don’t even know about, and yet they assume they are free to do as they please. How many other times had I noticed little bits of cultural construct pinioned to our psyche by the cattle call of conformity?
As a cross-cultural explorer, I am often freed from these constraints, even while I am pushed to conform to the rules of the moment. While I am at the core essentially the same person in the U.S. or Thailand, I am also very different in subtle ways as I pass over the Pacific Ocean. But as I travel in both countries, I often wonder why people have to be so locked into their own culture’s frame of reference, and how they can be so sure that their culture is the one that makes the most sense. Isn’t it a marvelous freedom to be able to pick and choose the parts that make sense to each of us?
I’ve been over the line too many times not to think about these things.
I remembered one time a winter before, when Tan told the story of appearing at a bus stop in Burlington with an umbrella during a snow shower, and being advised by another passenger that “we usually don’t use umbrellas during snowstorms in this country.” Yet in her country, it’s common to see people walk down the street in broad daylight to keep the sun from burning into them.
Then there’s the “flashing lights” concept in driving. In America, drivers flash their lights to allow others to proceed ahead of them, or to warn about speed traps. In Thailand, it means “get the hell out of my way now … I’m coming through.” That’s a frame of reference that could turn fatal if you’re not paying attention.
Finally, there is the concept of “muu farang,” the Thai phrase which translates into “foreign hands,” and which literally means “feet.” In Thailand, everybody is careful where they put their feet, and you’re not allowed to put them on chairs or point them at people, or step over books with them. This is part of a larger Thai “head-foot” concept where the head and the upper portion of the body have higher status than the lower portions. Foreigners are lazy or rude all the time with their feet and they usually don’t know it, and there have been so many social infractions over the years that the foreign tendency has been noted with the derisive linguistic tag, “muu farang.” I have been so trained, so sensitized to the “Thai view” of this concept, after living for so many years there, that I wince whenever and wherever I see friends or strangers move things around with their feet or stretch their legs straight at people with nary a thought.
So, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. One person’s freedom, after all, can often be another’s joke. Perhaps we can all be a little more tolerant knowing this.
I fix my eyes again on the bag, mentally re-apply the “other” glasses that I stashed away over the International Date Line, and see it changing to the colorful bag that I admired in some sweaty, overcrowded market on the other side of the globe. I find myself beginning to relish the concerned peeks from behind best-seller novels and Wall Street Journals. It’s time to put on a show for the people of New York.
“This is our Pooh bag,” I say, as I firmly grab the rope handles and then begin dragging it along the ground toward our terminal. “Isn’t it cute, America?”