You meet the most interesting people on the street

Buildings rise above the lake inside Queen's Park in Bangkok, Thailand.

Buildings rise above the lake inside Queen’s Park in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

She was throwing hunks of fresh vegetables into the small lake in front of Queen’s Park at night. Curious to see what animals were benefiting from the bonanza, I stood by her (but not too close, of course) and watched in amazement as several dozen catfish (or something similar) floated on their backs, open mouths bobbing along the surface of the water. Round, smooth, green-black shells began breaching the water, too, announcing the arrival of turtles to the feeding frenzy. I was entranced.

M, as I will call her, moved close to me  and started to chat. I’ve had this kind of conversation almost word-for-word with every person I’ve met: She asked if I was Thai (Pan-Asian face strikes again), where we were from (she was from Central America), what we were doing here (a good question), how long we were staying, yadda yadda yadda. Perfectly ordinary.

But then I asked her what she was doing in Thailand. She proceeded to tell me the horror story that was her marriage. She was here because of her husband. He was bad, BAD. She pronounced it “bath,” moving her head in a large “C” motion to accentuate it, a charming way to describe a man who was anything but. Her husband, she said, cheated on her continuously, went out with prostitutes and drank until he passed out most nights. He also was a pedophile and was under investigation. He didn’t bother to hide any of his bad behavior from her, and in fact, secretly filmed his exploits.

I was taken aback, not only by the terribleness of his deeds, but by the fact that she was sharing such personal details with me, almost a perfect stranger. We had only been talking for a few minutes, at most. Suspicion began to creep into my mind. Was she going to hit me up for money? Was she telling me a sob story to soften me up? I had read about such scams in Lonely Planet’s Bangkok City Guide; there’s even a paragraph about being wary of friendly strangers. I tightened my grip on the handle of my bag and clamped it closer to my body with my elbow.

She told me she had one friend, a wealthy lady who was also religious. She often went to church with her friend, who regularly went to church between 4-5 times a week. Her friend was so nice, she said. She took care of  orphans, visited detainees at the immigration center and helped support a family with three kids. M often often helped out with the charity work and went to church with her.

Finding out I was a Christian, she began openly talking about God. My discomfort grew. Sad to say, but it’s true: Nine times out of 10, in my experience, appeals for money are made by religious organizations/people affiliated with the church. I love my church, and I understand it needs to have funding for its missions, but years of constant appeals have left me somewhat of a less-than-cheerful giver. I started thinking of excuses not to give her money. Number one on my fallback plan: Call out to Bjorn (who was  reading behind me) and have him deal with it.

But M continued dishing the details of her troubled marriage. She had divorced him years ago, but he had managed to win her back. She quit her job, sold her house and moved to Thailand to be with him. She had been remarried to him for three years when she found out about his secret girlfriend, with whom he’d had a relationship with for the past FOUR years. He provided food for her and shelter, but nothing else. At night, when he was passed out from drinking, she took small amounts of money from his wallet. Oh boy, here it comes, I thought, bracing for her appeal.

But she continued with her list of grievances against him. It  went on and on. Finally I said, “But M, why don’t you just leave him?

“Because,” she said, “I’m helping with the investigation against him.”

Turns out that he been leering at a 13-year-old girl a little too aggressively. The girl happened to be the stepdaughter of the hotel/bar owner, and he had alerted authorities. His laptop had been seized and they were building a case against him. Besides, where could she go? She had no money, no job. She knew little Thai and her English wasn’t at a level where she could teach. She had sold her home in the States. She was stuck here, with him.

Despite her misery, she found happiness in caring for animals. She tried to come once a week to this park to feed the animals in the lakes (there’s a larger lake inside Queen’s Park). The huge bags of produce she had with her (which I had been eyeing as evidence against her claims of having no money) had come cheap or free. She said by going to a certain market (Klong Toei, I believe) after 5 p.m. she was able to get vegetables, like a large bag of perfect cucumbers, for 5 baht (17 cents, U.S.). Also, she asked street vendors for their vegetable leavings, and many times picked it out of the trash.

Pings of remorse for my uncharitable thoughts had been sounding throughout me, and by now had doubled in intensity. A faint voice still wondered if she was going to ask me for money.

But she never did.

Bjorn and I finally had to go, but when we got to the Emporium (yet another mall), all I could do was slump onto a bench in a stupor. I kept replaying the conversation in my head. I don’t believe in coincidence, so why had I met her? What if what she had told me was true? I imagined the depths of misery and aching loneliness it would take to make someone reach out to a seemingly friendly stranger, and felt overwhelmed with sadness.

I felt ashamed, too, of my own duality: I wear friendliness on my face, but live within cynicism and judgement in my mind. I ask God to make me kind each day, but for most of that conversation I had secret thoughts of mistrust and suspicion. I was disgusted by my lack of sincerity.

My bias against religious people was revealed to me, too. I call myself a Christian, but I am uncomfortable talking about my religion outside of sanctioned church activities (church, Bible study) and “sanctioned” people (church members, friends.) I had come to expect that people who want to talk religion outside of church do so to a.) argue; b.) ask for money; c.) convert me to their denomination — and then ask for money. But M talked and believed simply in God. Yes, she prayed. Yes, she believed God would answer her prayers. That was it. God was simply a part of her life.

I had thought myself immune to the negative media message against Christians. For years, I had railed against how Christians were portrayed. If someone is identified as a Christian in a movie/TV show, 99 percent of the time, that person is the villain and/or stupid. (I remember watching a documentary that followed four girls through high school. In the beginning, one of them identified herself as  devout Christian: she went to church and Bible study every week, sang in the choir. Oh no, I thought, with rising dread. Sure enough, by the end of the documentary she was pregnant, unwed and had dropped out of school.) Because I was Christian, I thought,  surely the negative mindset would not have crept in against my own fellow believers! But as soon as someone starts talking about God outside of church or a church activity, my defenses go up. I realize now I expect someone who calls themselves a Christian to say something offensive, close-minded and/or ignorant. I was humbled by my lack of faith in people.

My dad told me that he often worries about me because he believes that I am naive; that I tend to think only the best about others and that I am too trusting. Well not nearly enough, Dad, not nearly enough.

I gave M my phone number. There is still a chance she might call me up and ask for money someday. But she has already given me much more than I ever expected.


4 thoughts on “You meet the most interesting people on the street

  1. This was thought provoking. I have certainly been naive and become the victim of what you feared at least twice but it sounds like this lady was genuine.

    • Yeah, I think she was, too. I met her about a week ago and she still hasn’t called me. Also, I was the one who gave her my number. She didn’t ask for it. I hope she’s doing all right.

  2. Jammie – what a post! First a joke – for a story like that, I would give her money. If this was all made up, she’s a highly creative person who will be a Hollywood screenwriter some day.

    And seriously of course, if this is all legit – wow! And raises important questions about how we react to people and God outside of church and places of worship. When in fact our defenses should go up towards marketing messages, funny animals and skinny models selling us stuff, fancy cars and romance novels, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, it goes up for people who may be legitimately hurting. Traveling in India with many people begging for money always raises these kinds of issues – about people’s motives, intentions and situation in life.

    Are we forming judgments when the religions we follow teach us otherwise?

    Getting back to jokes – how the hell could Bjorn keep reading as this lady is spilling out this most dramatic story about her life? What book was that Bjorn!!??

    • Actually, I’m beginning to regret that I didn’t give her money, especially as I got swindled by an old lady the other day. (She sat beside me at a bus stop. She was neatly dressed, clean and looked well-fed. She held up 5, 1-bahts in her hand and mumbled something in Thai. Thinking she wanted to exchange them for 1, 5-baht, I gave her the 5-baht and was flabbergasted when she immediately closed her hand and started gesturing for more. Sigh.)

      Yeah, that conversation with M was truly an eye-opening experience for me. When I think about it, I reacted that way because I wanted to avoid being taken advantage of, duped, looking like a fool. But now I realize there is no foolishness in actions done in genuine love and service for another. I should have taken my focus off of myself, and thought about what would be best for her.

      And Bjorn has a valid excuse. He was sitting within yelling distance for me (and I have a rather “resonant” voice :)), but not close enough to hear her. 😀

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