I’ve been living in Bangkok for a year and a half, and I am finally feeling brave enough to drive in this country. Actually, my husband gets credit for pushing me to do it before leaving for a month-long trip. Up until now, I have dragged myself and three kids around in taxis, trains, tuk-tuks, and mostly on foot. It’s ridiculous.
This isn’t my first rodeo driving in crazy countries. I’ve driven all over Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, and I should be used to it by now—ready and confidant to take on this challenge.
But something about driving in Bangkok scares the bojangles out of me. There are so many pedestrians. So many drunk pedestrians. Drifters who do not watch their step. Motorbikes with small kids on the front with no helmets. They spring out of nowhere, alternating between driving on the road and on the sidewalk. Huge potholes. Over-packed tuk-tuks with tourists hanging out of them. Food stalls with boiling pots of grease that take up half the road. Dogs. Cats. Rats. An occasional chicken.
And here’s me in my big American SUV with the steering wheel on the wrong side.
I am a nervous nellie. It’s been eighteen months since I’ve been behind the wheel. My husband sits shotgun, coaching me through each turn.
Stay in your lane!
Ten and Two, it’s been awhile honey.
You have to stick your nose out if you want to ever get in! Nose position!
Go! Now! Go! Now!
I feel like a teenage girl with Dad teaching me how to drive.
It’s like learning a new language. Each country has its own driving language, so to speak. And you have to learn the language of that country in order to avoid an accident. In much of Latin America, the primary word is defend. Sudden, sharp movements are acceptable, and it feels like driving in a video game. In the Levant region of the Middle East, you have to announce. It’s aggressive and terrifying, and the horn is part of that language. If you’re going through a busy intersection, you better announce it with a sharp honk just to remind the other drivers that you’re coming through as if to say, please notice me and don’t run through the stop sign this time! In Japan, the word is conform. You don’t break the rules or honk. You stay in your lane for as long as you possibly can in a very careful exchange between you and a zillion other polite, rule-following drivers. In Dubai, the word is watch. You’re always watching for speed traps and you could get thrown into jail for running a red light.
Please understand, I’m not saying any of these are wrong—it’s just how the system functions in each country. It’s the driving language that must be understood to avoid an accident.
In Bangkok, the word is drift.
It’s like floating a river. You do not make any sudden movements. You go slow. You stay predictable. You drift along. There are lots of things that drift past you and float downstream at a quicker pace, but you stay focused on your own steady drift. If you want to get over, it’s not enough to put your blinker on. You have to muster up the courage to actually stick your nose out and then ever-so-gingerly drift into the next lane, trusting that the guy inches away will actually yield to let you in. You breathe, and then you drift.
When things come out of nowhere, you can’t react defensively. You just breathe, stay your course and then drift along.
Sometimes the drifting grinds to a halt. The water runs dry and you sit there. For a really long time. And in that moment, all you can do is breathe. You turn up the music and laugh at the absurdity of things you may see on the street. And then drift along.
You don’t honk. Thais never honk and they don’t get road rage. They’re super forgiving and will let you in because they understand it just may wreck half your day if you miss a turn. While it seems like chaos at first glance, it’s how the system works in Bangkok. Drifting is the driving language they speak and it’s generally learned and understood by everyone on the road.
It’s the paradoxical combination of grace and courage that makes driving in Bangkok a metaphor for the life I am clumsily trying to live.
So much of life is driving in Bangkok.
I used to try to control my circumstances and people around me. The river would be rushing around and I would cling to the rocks and try to control the currents instead of letting go and floating along. I wanted people to feel the same feelings I felt and have the same convictions I have.
But I’m not playing that game anymore. I want to drift along, gracefully and courageously, even when I’m misunderstood. Even with the sting that comes from disapproval or rejection.
It’s a peaceful and graceful drift, but it’s not a complacent one. It involves courage and vulnerability to stick my nose out there when needed. To boldly take a step into unfamiliar territory. To walk by faith, even when I don’t know exactly what’s ahead of me or how it will all pan out.
It’s a drift that yields to joy and humor, despite the circumstances. Sometimes I get terribly distracted, overburdened or hung-up over crazy situations that come out of nowhere. And I am learning to breathe and listen to the music. Pour a cup of tea, light a candle, pray. Be present. And careful not to miss the sights along the way.
And the big one–being able to laugh at the absurdities around me instead of being consumed by them.
Laugh. Even when the heart is so broken. I think back on times in my life when laughter saved me.
I’ll never forget my hilarious uncles shining a little light during one my darkest hours. My father had just lost his battle to alcoholism at age forty-seven. The air was heavy. The family wept around his bedside in my grandmother’s living room. The room was silent and I look up to see my Uncle Lewie curiously experimenting with the oxygen tubes on himself. Then the coroner came to pick up my dear Daddy and they refused to take him initially because we didn’t have a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, despite the fact that he had been dead for two hours.
“Get up, Mark! We need you to sign some papers!” my Uncle Tommy broke the silence.
And everyone’s tears were broken by laughter for a few seconds, and I sensed my Dad was laughing along with us.
The ability to see humor in the absurd during heartbreaking times has carried me through both the roughest currents and the longest standstills.
I am learning to be patient when delays come. When all I can do is turn the music up louder and wait. When the baby is screaming. When the dreams are deferred. When I don’t know how long I will be stuck in a bad situation or a season of dryness, I am resolute to wait as I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I am learning to be readily accepting and forgiving. This is the hardest one for me. Forgiving myself and forgiving others. When people cut in front of us. Step on our toes. Reject us. When things aren’t always fair. It’s hard to yield.
I will understand that they too are navigating crazy, confusing currents.
They’re also trying to get somewhere, and they’re probably doing their best. I’ll try to move over and make room for them, even if it sets me back a little or is inconvenient.
I’ll give them the welcoming wave,
I see you over there; come on in to the fold.
And I’ll continue to drift along in God’s great river of grace.
I’m learning to drive in Bangkok.