Last Friday, in the midst of international tragedies involving western and Muslim nations, I sat on the ground of the house of one of the few Muslim families in Yasothon, sipping coffee nonchalantly, eating peanut-buttered bread, and having an experience that I will remember for a lifetime.
I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing American teacher from New York at my old host school. She has been in Thailand for about two years, and she really opened up my eyes to the beauty of Thai culture from the very beginning. Being able to talk to a person who can understand both the Thai and American perspective was honestly an amazing opportunity for me to learn, and for the first month that I was in Thailand, I frequented the English room at Yasothon Pittayasan School and talked to her about various aspects of Thailand that would go unnoticed to an untrained eye.
During that time, she also mentioned that there are a few people who I might want to meet in Yasothon. Although there are only about forty thousand people here, the city is host to several foreigners and interesting characters, including a ladyboy troupe, a Thai-American who runs an English school (And incidentally doesn't speak Thai), two Mormon missionaries, four exchange students, and at least one Australian ex-pat with a Thai wife who spends half of his time in Australia and half of his time here. So, surprisingly, Yasothon is a fairly diverse place (Within the province of Yasothon there are also two Peace Corps volunteers, one of whom I had the great chance to meet!).
Among some of the other people Teacher Malee recommended that I meet, she also mentioned that Yasothon had a small Christian and Muslim demographic as well, although most people practice Buddhism. When she said that her Muslim friends loved foreigners and would be thrilled to meet me, I gladly accepted the opportunity.
Initially, I planned on going to a Ramadan celebration with them, however, I was swept off to a bordering province on that day by the teacher volleyball team, and thus missed the event. I was a little disappointed, and in a few weeks, I had already changed host families, and the prospects of anything happening grew smaller, until I got a call from Teacher Malee last Thursday, saying that the offer was still standing to meet them.
We arrived at their home at about seven, and were warmly greeted by Mohammed at the door. Dressed in all white clothing, he urged us to come in. The house was beautiful-- the design was much different than Thai style, and I later learned that Mohammed studied architecture in school.We took a seat on the floor in the living room, and he brought us out coffee (Made with milk! This is very uncommon in Thailand), and introduced us to his wife, Fatima. I introduced myself and they told me about how their daughter studied abroad in Buffalo, New York, several years before.
They both struck me as wonderfully sincere, and I had the strange sensation that I was not in Thailand anymore. Of course, they didn't look very Thai, for the first Muslim who came to Yasothon was Pakistani, according to Teacher Malee, but it was more a cultural impression that I was feeling. I first stayed with a Thai family, and now I am with a Chinese one, and the culture from one family to the next changed a lot, but both seem "very Thai" to me. Of course Mohammed and Fatima spoke perfect Thai and had lived there for their whole lives, but something seemed different, and it was a good different.
As we carried on conversing with each other and eating our American snack, I realized how lucky I was to be able to see this flourishing subculture within my small town. The experience majorly underlined the fact that even in a place like Yasothon, I have the opportunity to learn about so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, even if, for the most part, everybody looks similar to me.
Buddhism teaches that you should respect all other religions and races, and I see that every day in Thailand. There is a Mormon Church on my street, a teacher from my old school who had monthly prayer sessions with the small Christian demographic there, spirit houses on every stretch of road, and three girls at my school who wear a hijab every day. I can only wish that one day the United States will be able to coexist like this. It doesn't matter whether you are the majority or the minority-- every belief deserves respect. Teacher Malee relayed to me on Friday a quote that Fatima had told her: "The world is God's garden, and it would be an ugly garden if all the flowers looked the same." Here, I am seeing rainbows.