Sometimes I misuse words for years before correcting myself. For the longest time I used the word “monsoon” to describe particularly heavy rainstorms. I come from Central Florida where we are known for tornados, hurricanes and vicious summer thunderstorms. “It’s a monsoon out there” I’d say, entering the house soaked to the bone from some meteorological outburst.
Then I lived through three rainy seasons in Phuket. I had never actually lived in a monsoon zone before. A monsoon isn’t about thunder and lightning. With a monsoon, the sky rips open at 3 in the morning and pours in a steady sheet for 72 hours without end. A monsoon is guys fishing where you used to park your car. I never misused the word again.
And now I reflect that I have misused yet another word; “empathy”. I always thought it meant understanding how another person feels. Again my interpretation was a little bit light.
Recently I returned to the US for a vacation. Returning for my Thai wife’s first visit and meeting with my family. I had not been to the US in two years. I had twice as many grandchildren than the last time I was home.
Introducing my wife to the US was like taking a kid to the circus. And, as predicted, she fit into my family quite comfortably. After a few days we were both craving Thai food. There in the inner sanctum of “Tasty Thai” in South Orlando my wife revealed her thoughts, “In your country I am a “farang” (foreigner), but you are a farang here now too”.
Slurping a spoonful of tom yam kung and washing it down with a Singha beer, I realized she was right. “I have no idea what these people are thinking” I confided. “They seem to worship the television, food and bad news”.
We had a night on the town where I saw everyone I knew in exactly the same place they were two years prior, only older and fatter like me. Other than polite catching up, I had nothing substantial to say to any of these people. Other than geographic origin and a small amount of history, we share nothing. Their priorities and motivation completely escaped me … I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Did I really live in this place”? My wife said she could not imagine me living there and again I had to agree.
I didn’t know who won the World Series or Superbowl. I didn’t know what the hot TV sitcoms were nor had I followed the latest celebrity court cases. I didn’t have a jumbo-mortgage or an upside-down car loan. Nobody was suing me. I wasn’t behind on my taxes. No restraining orders had been enforced to my detriment. My kids weren’t in rehab. I truly had no empathy or any other emotional tools to reach people I have known for years.
The things that they thought held value did not make sense to me. I had no idea why things were important to them. The only emotion I could sink my teeth into was the total amazement of how different my life is from theirs.
I did not feel above them, or below … just disconnected and “not in the game” somehow. Now I know that “empathy” is one of those things you don’t miss until you realize it’s gone. You can’t just reach in your magic bag and pull out a handful of “empathy”. I felt as distant from average Americans as I do starving Somalis I see on CNN. “What the hell do I know about their life?”
Bizarre as it may sound, I felt more comfortable in Thailand … a country where I speak the language like a 5 year old but at least I know why people do what they do. I didn’t feel “estranged” or “disenfranchised” … just completely unequipped to participate. An orphan, lost in his own back yard.
On the 25 hour flight back to Thailand, I had time to get acquainted with yet another word I’d misunderstood for years; “homesick”. I thought I was homesick when the Air Force stationed me in Greece and I was craving my Mom’s southern cooking. Apparently “homesick” has more than one level of meaning.
The type of “homesick” I feel for the US now is the result of isolation and time. What you miss most about your “home” can’t be reached with a transoceanic flight. The longer you live abroad, the further away your life back “home” becomes. It is a static chapter, finished and in the past; your current story being written a world away.
This kind “Homesick” is longing for a space and time that isn’t there anymore. Again, a bit heavier meaning than I had originally assigned the word I misused so frequently.
Mercifully we landed back in Bangkok right on schedule. While we waited for a taxi, my wife hugged my arm and whispered to me, “Tilac, in my mind I am kissing the ground!”
Relaxing for the first time in three weeks I sighed, she was right again. The chunky Bangkok air smelled like night-jasmine and the traffic sounded like a chorus of welcoming angels. I realized that I had been experiencing another brand of “homesick”.
This is the kind you can cure with a favorite meal at a favorite place with your favorite people. The kind of emptiness that fills up when you get “welcome home” messages from the people you know on this half of the world. The kind of chill that immediately warms the minute you turn on the lights in your living room.
Perhaps the true definition of “homesick” can be found on the flip side of the record. You know you are “home” when you don’t want to be anywhere else.
“Bart Walters is a retired advertising executive from Orlando, Florida. He is now a part-time real estate developer celebrating his 10th year in Thailand. Bart lived several years in Bangkok, spent 3 years on the island of Phuket and now resides in Ban Amphur on Thailand’s eastern seaboard.”
[Editor’s note: I have corresponded with many fantastic people during my time with Escape Artist but Bart Walters is by far one of the most entertaining and genuine people I have had the pleasure to be in contact with. Bart writes about life in Thailand and permits me to use his work in exchange for a link back to the charity website that raises money for an orphanage in Thailand. Please take a moment to visit the site, donate if you can and help support a good cause. Please go to www.care4kids.info Thank you]