I swerve suddenly to avoid a pothole in the road and then squeeze in front of an overloaded pickup truck in order to pass a car that abruptly pulls into my lane. I hold my breath as an exhaust-belching tour bus lumbers past and then watch, mesmerized, as a family of four, their dog, and their groceries smoothly ride by, no helmets required.
This is a typical excerpt from my daily commute via the SE Asian motorbike, affectionately known as a moto. To a visiting tourist, the traffic here in Thailand looks chaotic, leaving many tourists (dangerously) thinking there are no traffic rules at all. While speed limits are only heeded because of randomly dispersed speed bumps, lane markers are just a suggestion, and red lights occasionally imply “yield”, there IS rhyme in the reason, and the careful observer can see the many patterns and regulations that quietly govern the flow of Thai traffic.
Careful observation over a period of time.
It is required in order to ride fluidly along with hundreds of other motorists without causing an accident, just as it is required for any kind of cultural adaptation. I’ve decided that learning to ride a moto in proper Thai fashion is the perfect analogy for learning how to adjust to a new culture and way of life.
Let’s see if you agree…
First thing’s first: a Thai driver’s license. While you can, and most tourists do, rent or buy a moto without a valid Thai license, you WILL get pulled over at a police check stop, and you will have to pay the fine. However, I would almost prefer that to the exhausting, multiple day experience of actually acquiring the license…
First there was the trip to immigration to get proof of residency.
Then you need to get a doctor to sign off on your fit state of driving health (a.k.a. reading an eyesight chart).
Then there was the full, one billion hour day at the license and registries office, standing in lines, watching a FOUR HOUR instructional video in Thai, writing and failing and writing and failing the multiple choice exam that literally had random correct answers that were actually wrong that you just had to memorize…
Then you have the practical driving exam and the reflex tests.
Then, if you’ve passed everything, you have to come back the next day and stand in more lines without clear signage to pick up the physical license.
Moto driving/cultural adaption point A: It takes patience.
Now, you have your license, you have your bike and helmet, and you’re excited to hit the road. You pull out of your parking spot, check both ways to make sure the cost is clear, lean in to your first shaky left turn, and WHOA! you’re on the wrong side of the road.
Moto driving/cultural adaption point B: You must follow the leader.
Because of God’s protection and his grace in teaching me this lesson, I’m in my 24th month of riding in Thailand with zero moto mishaps. I’ve never been accused of driving like a granny (as my speeding ticket history can attest), so I’ve had close calls, for sure, but it’s always the tourists you see sporting “Thai tattoos”, road burns from moto accidents. These tourists usually don’t seem to notice the unwritten rules of the road, and they often don’t follow the lead of locals. I literally follow Thai people on the road, swerving where they swerve, squeezing in where they squeeze, backing off when they do, and learning the “correct” way to double park, double turn, u-turn, and pass three bikes to a lane. In the same way, a cultural observer needs to follow the lead of the locals when it comes to learning language and the customary patterns of daily life.
Driving style in Thailand in primarily offensive rather than defensive, but risk taking bordering on carelessness will only take you so far on the road before the road bites back. On to moto driving/cultural adaption point C: If you want to have any success in riding or in cross-cultural ministry, you must watch out for bumps in the road.
Road maintenance in Thailand often causes me to shake my head in bewilderment. There is a stretch of road I regularly drive that covers some kind of drainage system. One day as I was riding along, I narrowly missed going into a sinkhole a foot or two in diameter. The next day the hole was patched with cement, but the day after that the patch had sunk into the hole. This literally repeated daily as the construction workers patched and re-patched the hole. There are patches and holes all over the roads here, and you ignore them at your peril. Similarly, ministering cross-culturally has unexpected struggles and unique spiritual battles around every corner, and wisdom dictates going into each day wearing the armour of God and going to him with anything that jars your body, heart, and soul.
Like parallel lanes on a highway, learning to ride a moto and adapting to cross-cultural living both gain their success from patience, imitation, and safeguarding.