Naen, the tax collector

“Hello Derek, I’m Naen, how are you today? Can you ask me about Thai language? I try to help as much as I can” – text message

When I arrived in Bangkok, my starting goal was to get my Thai to a good conversational level. This meant no ministry involvement, especially anything to do with English as is the easy temptation with new missionaries. So naturally, I declined Naen’s offer to practice English/Thai when we met 3 months ago at the English conversation cafe next to my home.

Fast forward to now. My language coach (Bonnie) said that my Thai has improved a lot so its time to begin building friendships with Thai’s. After all, it’s the people we are here to serve, not the language. So I began to look for another Thai male to bond with. But I did not realize how difficult this would be in such a busy city as Bangkok. Both in the church and around my area, it was hard to find anyone who had the time or willingness to hang out on a Saturday. And I was to learn this hard lesson the ‘Thai’ way. In short, when a Thai says ‘yes’ you can never be certain that is what they mean. Mainly because they do not want to lose face. One time I asked a new seeker who was coming to the church. He said ‘yes, I will let you know’ but never got back to me. So I ran into him on the street and tried to set a time. ‘I will let you know by this date’ – but still no reply. So ‘yes’ almost always ended up being ‘no, I am too busy’.

At times I felt hopeless getting turned down so many times. Was I really that unapproachable? What was I doing wrong? So I had to spend a long time praying to the Lord for a nearby Thai male friend who wanted to hang out. And who did he bring? Naen of course!

After setting a date to hang out, Naen showed up as agreed and on time. A rarity in Thai culture, as showing up late or not showing up happens all the time. So I knew he was interested in the friendship. But more importantly, we spent time together. We would talk back and forth in English and Thai. Naen’s English is about intermediate level and my Thai is similar so I guess it evens out. It was awkward and also fun in a way. In case you are wondering, Naen means ‘novice monk’ in Thai. Let me share a bit about his story.

Naen lives alone in Bangkok, while the rest of his family all live in a far away province (Loei). He recently finished university and works as an intern at a government tax collection agency. As with all Thai’s he would call himself a Buddhist. He’s single, and spends a lot of his time playing games on his phone. Naen took me to his favorite restaurant called “I believe I can fry”, a Thai version of KFC. Surprisingly, he only eats fried chicken on rice. Every day. Naen never eats fruits and vegetables because he finds them too ‘bitter’. As unhealthy as that sounds, I think it is also a reality for many Thai’s living in the big cities. The availability of fried foods available here is staggering.

Later that day, we went for a walk in the mall. We stopped for coffee and I felt led to open up about spiritual matters. He knew way back when we first met I was a Christian. I shared about what the origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree. Then a little bit about Jesus. Much of the Christian vocabulary I still have yet to learn how to say. Naen did most of the listening, and in Thai culture that could mean anything. In the end, he asked if I would like to go together to visit an art museum. Praise God for another opportunity!

Naen might not appear as anyone special on the outset. He stutters a lot and isn’t that sociable. His job prospects are not looking the best. It doesn’t seem like he has much going on in his life. I even had a bit of fear of what people would think hanging around him. But the Lord encouraged me with this verse:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

Matthew 11:19

Only after going home did I realize how appropriate it was for God to bring someone like Naen into my path. He was exactly the type of person I needed at the time. A tax collector with a lot of time on his hands! Please pray for this friendship to grow and that he would come to know Christ one day.

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