“To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…” – 1 Corinthians 9:20
Despite being right handed, my brain constantly tells me to pick up the fork with my left hand and the spoon with my right. Then it reminds me to shovel the rice from the fork into the spoon. Finally, it instructs me to gently land the spoon in my mouth as to not make a single sound. All of these must appear as graceful and discreet as possible. This is part of my journey to become more like a Thai.
Here in Thailand there is a saying: a chicken is beautiful because of its feathers. It means that people are beautiful because they are well dressed. Appearance is everything here. It indicates how well off one is in society and how they are to be addressed. Despite the daily 40 degree heat and humidity, most Thai’s are immaculate. I also have to be careful to show formal dress and behavior when outside. It usually gives the first impression that I am a teacher of some sort. One day I walked into a Christian bookstore for the first time and the cashier instantly addressed me as “ajarn” (which can mean pastor). She did not need to guess. Our conversation after was pleasant and seamless. Dressing well can go long ways.
In order to pick up a local accent, I do everything in Thai from ordering food, to hanging out with friends, and going to church. The Thai channel is on every day. In order to be understood, one must speak excellent Thai and no less. It is the difference between saying Jesus came riding in on a donkey or Jesus came riding in on a dog. Language study is hard work. Learning the culture is equally as difficult. Most Thai’s assume I am Japanese or Chinese-Thai and this comes with some interesting results. One is that they tend to let their guard down around me and treat me like a local. But then they also look at me funny when I tell them I don’t worship spirits or make merit like they do. Being Asian and speaking another tonal language helps though.
To an average Thai, to bow to an idol or spirit house is completely normal. To wear a good luck amulet, hang a chakra sign, consult a fortune teller, burn incense to the dead, and earn merit at the temple are all acceptable. It is understood that to be Thai is to be Buddhist. So there is a lot of baggage that needs to be unraveled before I can introduce Christ. To start witnessing with the atonement of Christ to a Thai would be a grave mistake. If a man died such a horrible death he must have been a bad man, so they would reason. So I usually share from Genesis and the concept of an all mighty creator. Even something simple as this is completely foreign to their ears. There is a saying here if a Thai does not accept Jesus at least 3 times in their lifetime they are not yet truly saved. It is not easy to be a witness here.
Winning over a soul to a Jesus is the one of the most rewarding things we can be a part of. It not only carries out the great commission but also hastens the day of our Lord’s coming. But it requires us to be good students of our neighbor. And it must come with great cost to ourselves. I look back and say my health and social life has had to suffer as a result of moving to Thailand. I speak in a language that still feels foreign to a people who at times I feel frustrated at. Yet the cost is worth it, to reach even one soul, one sheep for Jesus. “Not to us, Lord. not to us but to your name be the glory” – Psalm 115:1. What will it cost you to be like your neighbor?