A Christmas Story
December 19, 2018
Forty years ago, I spent my first Christmas away from home. I had been living in Thailand for about six months, teaching English to Thai university students. I grew up in New Jersey. Before I went to Thailand, I had never been to an airport, on an airplane, or west of Hershey, Pennsylvania. In other words, I hadn’t been very far.
Christmas is not an official holiday in Thailand, where Buddhism is the national religion, and I had to work that day. I felt terrible. I loved my family’s Christmas tradition, crowding into my grandparents’ home with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. I am one of 25 grandchildren, and to be alone on Christmas Day made me terribly homesick and lonely.
When I’d written to ask my parents what they wanted for Christmas, my mother had written back, “John, please go to church.” So, on Christmas morning, I got dressed up in my three-piece suit and stepped into the Bangkok morning heat.
As I went to grab a taxi, I caught sight of a man nearby, a beggar, sitting on a pallet with wheels. As I drew closer, I saw that he had no legs. His left arm was missing, and his right arm was horribly disfigured.
I suddenly felt ashamed of my self-pity. I had a wonderful family, great friends, good health, and this fantastic opportunity, which would ultimately change my life, to live and work in Thailand. The man on the pallet had a begging bowl. I reached out and gave him all the money I had in my wallet—560 baht, about 28 dollars. I could still hear the man calling “kop khun mak khrap,” or “thank you very much,” when I was a block away.
Since Christmas wasn’t an official holiday in Thailand, I thought I would just go to the bank and withdraw some more money. But on that Christmas morning in 1978, I also learned the meaning of the phrase “international banking holiday.” Of course, there were no ATMs. And so, I found myself in front of the Bangkok Bank on Sukhumvit Road, dressed to the nines in the Bangkok heat, but without a baht in my pocket.
What’s more, I was miles from the nearest Catholic church. So, to give my mom what she wanted for Christmas, I walked to church, in the sweltering heat, in my three-piece suit, and sat inconspicuously in the last pew, mortified to have nothing for the collection plate. After Mass, I walked three miles back to the university, asked someone to lend me 500 baht, and taught my day’s classes.
I have thought often of that disfigured and penniless man on the pallet in the intervening years, on Christmas and at other times as well. I am sure he is long deceased. I understand now that it should have been me saying “kop khun mak khrap” to him forty years ago, not the other way around.
John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s senior director for regional cooperation. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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