Lesson #12: Sometimes there is no lesson
As candy rained down from all directions I stumbled forward, guided by the mass of people that surrounded me. The crowd moved fast, with only the occasional pause as attendees both old and young scrambled to pick up the sweets that had landed on the ground. Once I was climbing the stairs I focused on the incense that I was clutching in my hands. A single stick attached to a marigold and an orange candle, their significance unknown to me. As I approached the coffin I took a deep breath, added my flower to the collective swell that had accumulated by the boys feet, glanced at his soft yet mangled face, and muttered ‘good bye’.
Here in Thailand grief is compartmentalized. I was informed Monday that my student, Tomi, had passed away in a motorbike accident, 12 years old. I was told with a smile, a simple ‘mai pen lai‘ (do not worry) and a direction to go on teaching. I tried, but I couldn’t. I ended up leaving the room half way through class as tears swallowed my instructions.
Nobody cried, I was the only one. My tears seemed to evoke fear and confusion in my students, they asked if I had seen a ghost, searching for an explanation. In class the following days we laughed, the typical roar that fills the classroom, as I did my best to adopt their ‘keep it going’ mentality. It took until the funeral for me to understand their pain, to understand the loss that they were undoubtedly experiencing but waiting to release. When the time was right they cried, deep sobs that shook their entire beings. Of course there were still smiles and laughter mixed in with the tears, a true reflection of how I have come to understand Thailand. A constant balancing act of extremes. Sad yet happy. Provocative yet reserved. Quiet yet loud. Modern yet traditional. Peaceful yet alive.
The experience was equal parts surreal, exhausting, and heart wrenchingly beautiful. Here is where I could try to sum it all up and explain to you what I’ve learned. Perhaps a nice cross-cultural comparison on how we deal with grief, or a sentimental blurb about the power of community, or even a paragraph about how universal moments can break down cultural barriers. And while that might be interesting what I feel like writing about instead is how the moment reminded me that sometimes things just aren’t about us. This experience didn’t happen so that I could learn something, observe a part of Thai culture, or grow as an individual. This experience affected me but it is not mine to claim, it belongs to a wonderful, vibrant, young boy who will be greatly missed by a family and community that loved him dearly.