“Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away.”
Lines from the song “Magic Penny” loop in my mind as I drive to a coffee shop. Protests in Bangkok have altered traffic patterns and led to tight security, which means that I see police and army booths en route and perform a U-turn at a new location. Once installed at the café’s window bar, however, I skim a newspaper and settle in to work, the world of roadblocks and emergency decrees far away.
A fact of expat life—one both liberating and maddening—is living next door to local conflict but feeling helpless to quell it. I have no vote in Thailand. I have lived in Bangkok longer than any other city, but I email my ballots to Wichita. I have love but do not know how, here, to “give it away.”
Or so I write for two hours, and then tell myself to get real.
Out one window of the shop, a man in a “USA” polo shirt pulls away in his Chevy SUV. Out another I see servers open a sushi parlor. I wander into the bookshop next door and find Harry Potter in translation.
Non-Thais vote here in all sorts of ways.
And those of us physically present here—or in Egypt or Ukraine—take actions daily that amount to forms of love, or not, amid civil unrest. We brake for pedestrians, or not. Thank cashiers and parking attendants, or not. Buy local or not. Donate blood or funds or time to fill the urgent needs, or not. Pray or not. Regardless of citizenship, we help decide if the emotional temperature rises or falls.
Often, the question is not whether expats can give love in adopted places, but how. I sometimes share goods or kindness only to find that I wound someone’s pride or confer obligation. The Stephen Covey line about making deposits that feel like deposits, not withdrawals, gets tricky when depositor and donee grew up in different worlds. Life at a cultural crossroads often finds me floundering to give love the right way.
For example, some contractors are fixing curbs and facades at our apartment building this month. The workers chisel concrete and scale the walls using bamboo scaffolding. One female laborer sometimes brings a daughter about the size of our two-year-old. While our own child has a car seat and toodles around on her strider bike with a helmet, the worker’s daughter commutes in the back of a pickup truck with the crew and spends her days in the construction zone. I know that I cannot beckon her to the playground without turning a few heads. This would call attention to her mother and the crew, who need the contract. The contract feeds the round-cheeked girl.
Yet she and the workers appreciate it when we say hi in Thai (“Hello, beautiful!”) and receive her blown kisses, and wave when her mother pushes her past in a wheelbarrow. So I consider going further, maybe sharing some snacks or slipping her mom some hand-me-downs on the crew’s last day of work, no payback required (or possible). This could backfire, of course — making her feel undue debt. Worse, someone in my community could read this and find the situation embarrassing, and bar the crew from future work. (I trust that if you are that person, you will quietly hire the attentive mother’s crew again.)
I flail through many other moments of awkward love these days, mostly with lower stakes. I make a fool of myself when I bid my parents-in-law goodbye in Japan, for example, because I never know whether to bow or hug them. I once watched my sister-in-law bow to her grandmother, and learned that a bow can be a hug: timing, position, and bearing can project such warmth that an embrace would interfere. I admire but can never emulate this hug-bow enough that it thanks my in-laws for gourmet meals, childcare, kilos of homemade miso, and a day at Tokyo Disneyland. So our departures at Haneda or Narita find them trapped in my Midwestern clasp.
I have also flummoxed our Thai babysitter by not pressing my nose to our older daughter (now six) to do a deep, swift sniff, called hohm, like a kiss with my nose. A fixture of lovemaking here, hohm seems so natural that the sitter must not have realized I had to learn it. An American colleague of my husband’s recalls that when his Thai wife did hohm to him on an early date, he was startled and asked, “Did you smell me?” I related this to the sitter, and she laughed in long-awaited relief.
I guess potential for misunderstanding dwells wherever love is offered. Life where paradigms collide only makes it more obvious.
Yet here especially, I know I must teach our daughters that we love as best we can. I cannot scrap “Magic Penny” and instead sing “No Good Deed” from the musical Wicked (“No act of charity goes unresented . . . So be it . . . No good deed will I do again!”). Mama-hood mandates that I teach to give love — and to impart this, I have to live it. Even looking like an idiot.
And so I join the tribe of embarrassing moms, bound to model how love is like a special penny (or baht, pound, or hyrvnia): Keep it, and you won’t get any, but give it and it grows to so many, coins roll all over the floor.
Today is a controversial general election in Thailand. I hope that both Thais and expats will commit extra acts of love, making it an early Valentine’s Day.