Received With Hospitality

Lessons From a Vacation in Thailand

Part of 5 of in
by Esther Kim
Jun 01, 2015 | min read
Part of 32: Welcome
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A friend invited me to travel with her to Thailand for vacation. I expected that this time would allow me to focus on myself, giving me a break from the pressures and expectations of others. But instead of allowing me to rest, my days in Thailand pushed me outside of my comfort zone and into the world of some amazing people who taught me the value of simply being present.

TUESDAY JANUARY 13, 2015 

Janna says she’s going to Yai Pensi’s house and asks me if I want to go with her. I tell her that I want to finish what I am doing first and then I will go find her at Yai Pensi’s house.

Janna tells me what to say to strangers if I get lost. So after I finish helping P. Goi, I start heading out to Yai Pensi’s house. I remember my friend’s directions to go out to the big road, walk all the way to the end of the road, turn right, and ask some people for Yai Pensi. So I take the fried fish that Janna had bought to give Yai Pensi and begin walking down the long, wide road.

As I am walking, I say hello to all the people who are outside their apartments and homes. I start getting anxious because the end of the road seems really long and far away. So I start asking people, “Where is Yai Pensi?”

I start getting anxious because the end of the road seems really long and far away.

Someone graciously shows me to an apartment. But he takes a left instead of a right turn. I’m not sure what’s going on, but since he is so kindly showing me to Yai Pensi’s house, I follow him. We walk into the first floor of an orange apartment and I am told that Yai Pensi’s home is at the end of the hallway.

I confidently walk to the end of the hallway, and eager to see Janna, poke my head through the door, but say hello to a small, confused grandma instead. My friend is not there. I look around the small room, trying to see if perhaps I had missed her. But she is not there. Slightly worried, I begin to wonder if she had headed back to the Ruth Center to find me. But the small, old grandma invites me in.

Received With Hospitality

As she beckons me to enter her home, I hesitantly take off my sandals and sit down on the floor, making sure to tuck my feet away from her, since that is respectful in Thai culture. She looks confused. With my limited vocabulary of about 10 words, I try to communicate with the grandma that I am looking for Janna. I repeat my question five, maybe six times at which I get a confused look every time. It appears that she knows my friend because she nods every time I bring up her name, but shakes her head when I start asking where she is. 

So I come to the conclusion that Janna must have already come here, but left before I arrived. Instead of just saying goodbye and leaving the grandma, I decide to stay a bit longer with her. I figure that if I wait long enough, my friend will come back to find me at Yai Pensi’s home. I don’t want to be a rude guest and leave so soon after having sat down on the floor with the grandma. So I take a deep breath and try to have a conversation with her using the few Thai words I know.

So I take a deep breath and try to have a conversation with her using the few Thai words I know.

She patiently listens to my nonsense and tries to keep the conversation going. She asks me several questions, most of which I do not understand at all. But I can make out a few words, like “house” and basic numbers. Luckily, the grandma knows some English words, so she asks me simple questions, “Where your house?” or “How long you stay here?”

I try to answer back as much as possible with simple answers. But then conversation dies down and I feel nervous and self-conscious. Is it rude to sit and stare at the wall? Should I try harder to initiate conversation?

Is it rude to sit and stare at the wall? Should I try harder to initiate conversation?

Then I remember the fried fish that my friend told me to bring for Yai Pensi. I show the fish to the grandma, but she shakes her head and her hands at me. She points at me, and making gestures of eating, hands me an empty plate. I realize she wants me to eat the fish. Because I had brought this as a gift, I keep telling her that it’s for her. But she starts taking out more things for me to eat and begins making rice. I tell her it’s OK and that I am not hungry. I ask again if Janna is coming and she gives me a confused look. She and I are both completely confused by the situation.

Silence falls again and my eyes wander around the room until they stop at the clock. I realize I have stayed for over an hour at the grandma’s home. The anxiety kicks in and I feel a little panic because I am not sure what to do next. The grandma sits patiently with me, a complete stranger.

Received With Hospitality

Neither of us knows what to do, until I decide I cannot wait any longer. I start getting my purse and the fried fish, since she still refuses to take it, and the grandma quickly understands that I am about to leave. She rises even though I tell her it’s OK and gesture for her to stay. She adamantly gets up, puts her sandals on, grabs my hand, and leads me back to the big road.

As she hobbles slowly, I can feel her gentle hand firmly holding mine. I feel as though she sees me as a child, lost and confused about where to go. She points her finger toward Ruth Center and waves at me to go that direction. As I start walking down the road, I look back and see her calmly watching me, making sure I am going the right way.

I feel as though she sees me as a child, lost and confused about where to go.

I found out later that she was not Yai Pensi, but Yai Pensi’s former roommate. Even though she was not Yai Pensi, her willingness to be open and vulnerable to a stranger, allowing me to sit and chat with her on her living room floor, made a deep impression on my heart. Her patience in sitting with me as I waited for my friend, her openness to asking questions and showing me the direction back to Ruth Center, and her generosity with her time and limited food were all genuine acts of hospitality.

Her willingness to be open and vulnerable to a stranger ... made a deep impression on my heart.

Now that I reflect on it all, she was brave in being willing to open up her small place to a stranger. And although I had mistaken her for Yai Pensi, the grandma’s welcoming presence gave me courage to be vulnerable during that hour.

I have a special memory of the grandma whose kindness helped me overcome my own uncomfortable and embarrassing feelings and learned the importance of being myself rather than trying to do something or give something to her.

wednesday, january 14, 2015 

I am trying to take risks, initiate conversation, and be open and present with whomever I meet. At least I was, until the sixth day of the trip.

Today, my feet are killing me. There are bruises on my knees and mosquito bites on my toes, feet, and arms. The laundry is still not done. My body is sticky, sweaty, and gross. And I feel tired almost every moment of the day. The language is so foreign to me that it is hard to stay focused for five minutes.

I am feeling frustrated, tense, and confused. But I still want to do something for these people — at the very least to be present to them. And yet I am unable to engage in real conversations with many people because of these feelings. But even though I am in a bad mood, I am treated with kindness and generosity.

I am feeling frustrated, tense, and confused. But I still want to do something for these people — at the very least to be present to them.

Today, I am invited to go picnicking at Lumphini Park. It is the first time I meet P. Pat. She is very genuine and open to spending time with me. When Janna invites me to join her and her friend, it is P. Pat who prepares enough food and drinks for the three of us and has even brought three blankets for each of us to sit and rest on.

Received With Hospitality

As Janna and P. Pat talk about ministry and life, I sit there listening to them, taking in the scenery of the park and lake, and feeling the breeze on my face. Even though I am not in the mood to engage in conversation, P. Pat is genuinely kind in initiating conversation with me. She asks me what I like to do, where my home is, and how I am enjoying Thailand. She doesn’t seem to mind my bad mood and instead smiles with sincerity and openness toward me.

She doesn’t have to be hospitable. She doesn’t have to make the extra effort to try to get to know me. But it is natural for her to reach out to me, in all her smiles and friendliness. It baffles me because I am a stranger, someone who she will likely meet only once in her lifetime, unless we meet again by chance.

She doesn’t have to make the extra effort to try to get to know me. But it is natural for her to reach out to me, in all her smiles and friendliness.

Her friendly demeanor toward me shows me who she is. Her ability to be open and vulnerable to a complete stranger like me is a bit shocking. I wonder how she has the courage to share about her own troubles and hardships. Yet, as I sit there in the park, soaking in her story, it is comforting to know that I am not battling life’s hardships and struggles alone.

After the conversation dies down, the three of us sit silently in each other’s presence, drinking in the peaceful scene in front of us. It is soothing to hear P. Pat tell me to rest: to feel the breeze, to enjoy the shade under the big trees, to watch the birds fly in packs from one end of the lake to the other, and even to spot some komodo dragons that swim up to the banks once in a while.

As I follow P. Pat’s words, I feel myself loosen up from all the tension, stress, and anxiety that I feel from the previous days. At that moment, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know the language. It doesn’t matter if I make mistakes. It doesn’t even matter if I appear foolish or silly.

Received With Hospitality

P. Pat’s wealth of kindness, compassion, and vulnerability showed me that she valued me as an equal. She never once saw or treated me in a patronizing way. Rather, she invited me to be a part of that silent, peaceful space, where I let myself receive. In that moment, I began to let go of all the insecurities of being a foreigner, a guest. I saw how my desire to do something for P. Pat was insignificant. Instead, receiving her hospitality did something much more powerful: it deepened our relationship. I felt closer to her. And I was profoundly grateful for her and her presence.

Those few hours at the park helped me to see that as someone going to another country, it wasn’t about what I could do. It was about how I can be, as one on the receiving end of hospitality.

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Esther Kim

Esther Kim is the worship director at San Gabriel Presbyterian Church, CA. She is passionate about bringing people together in congregational worship through creative arts, engaging them in God’s missional work in the community locally and globally. She has a M.Div from Fuller Seminary, and a BA in Church Music from Azusa Pacific University.

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