In Vietnam, I started to become distrusting and bitter towards the locals. People seemed friendly and kind, but then it would turn out to be a mask that they had put on in order to sell me something or literally grab my money from my hand (an old woman selling bananas in the rain actually did this when I thought it might be nice to buy a banana from her and I paid about four dollars for that banana). So, when a young Thai guy approached me, with a smile, in Chiang Mai, I wanted nothing to do with it.
I was wandering Wat Chedi Luang and he strode over in a neon, orange polo. My immediate thought was he worked for some tour company.
“Hello, how are you today? Do you have some free time?,” he asked nicely.
I am so bad at lying. I could have said no, but I honestly had plans to drink coffee and explore all day, so there was nothing pressing.
“Nope. Just looking around,” I answered with trepidation.
“Oh, ok then you have some free time. Can you walk with me? I am a student here and I want to practice my English.”
I relaxed a bit. We began walking the circle around the temple and he asked me basic questions about myself in halting, shy English.
“I come here every day to speak to foreigners and practice my English. I am studying to be an English teacher and I am in my fourth year,” he said with a bright smile, “only one more year!”
“Does your school make you come here or do you do this on your own?”
“I chose to do it in my time. Every day so I can develop my skills.”
I felt overwhelmingly impressed by him and shameful of myself in that moment. I’d hardly had the motivation to go to Chinese class in Taiwan. I would be far too embarrassed to ask strangers to practice with me and yet, this university student was out every day in the hot sun, trying his best to learn what he could.
“You look hot. Do you want something cold to drink?,” he asked with concern.
My distrust came back. This had all been a ruse to take me to some smoothie shack.
Even though, I was hot as hell, I said, ” No, I’m good. Maybe later.”
He nodded and finally introduced himself as Day. He continued talking and told me bits of information about the temple and then speaking with earnest honesty told me that being there made his heart so happy. Surprisingly, he later told me he was Christian.
I was letting my guard down and decided to take him up on that drink. I waited outside the university gates, practically next to the temple, while Day bought me a water. I felt awkward letting him buy me one.
“Thank you so much for the water. You are very kind,” I told him.
“I am so thankful you talk to me. I think friendly is more important than money.”
My heart cracked slightly and I decided I would talk to him until he no longer wanted to. We sat in the shade, on a bench, and he sipped his soda. We talked about our lives, learning English, and his job at a restaurant called The Bird of Paradise. Some monks in orange dress noticed us talking and sat down to listen.
“They are listening to practice their English, but you talk so fast, they only know some words,” Day explained. ” So, I go to school at the Buddhist school because it is only four thousand baht a semester. The other university is around eight thousand baht, too expensive for me.”
Paying one hundred and twenty dollars for a semester of university was incredibly cheap for me, but I refused to tell him this.
A guy in the same orange polo came over laughing and joking in Thai. He turned out to be Day’s best friend from his hometown in the mountains. He also was studying to be an English teacher and was just as open and good natured as Day. They studied, played soccer, and worked at the restaurant together. This made me question something Day had told me earlier. He had casually said, “Sometimes I cry alone. I feel very lonely.” Then he laughed, as if this was not something anyone should be ashamed of.
“You say you are lonely, but what about this guy here?” I pointed to the other student.
“He lives up by Doi Suthep, far from me. I live here, away from everyone.”
I knew he had been in Chiang Mai for four years, but his loneliness was obvious. He missed his parents, his sisters, and the rivers off his province. He had told me of winding roads, solar panels, no electricity, and spotty signals, which left him unable to reach his family many times. His family was part of a tribe that came from Burma and his father often asked him to come home because he was now the only man. Luckily, his university friend seemed to bring him lots of joy. They laughed so much telling me about their restaurant job.
“So many foreigners eat at my restaurant,” said the friend, “they eat steak, you know, sea bass. There was a 20 year old boy from California, he came every night for a month! He was good friend. He drank seven Long Island ice teas!”
I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or embarrassed of that fellow Californian.
We were now sitting in a small open Thai restaurant getting lunch. Our talk had turned into two hours.
” Do you know Beyoncé? I love her!” I pointed to the Pepsi ad on the wall.
“Mmm yes, I know. I see videos on YouTube. But I like the song….every night in my dreeeeaams, I seeee you.”
“Oh my god. Celine Dion. Titanic. You know the movie?” He looked confused.
“No, I never see. Ok, so you have Facebook? ”
I wrote my name and email so he could find me. We both showed each other pictures on our electronic devices of our friends and hobbies. Finally, it was time to go. I paid for lunch, hoping it would make up for the water and little cake he had handed me to say thanks again for talking with him. We shook hands goodbye and then both decided to hug.
“I will look for you on Facebook and if I don’t find you, I will pray to God. I will pray I see you again!,” he said ernestly. I trusted that he would.