Sometimes, when you're traveling, you meet someone that challenges everything you thought you knew. Maybe it's a person you spent days, even weeks, on the road with. Or perhaps it's someone you just met in passing.
I found Joy in Bangkok, at a coffee shop, in a soi off of Thanon Pra Athit, a young man about my age, maybe a year older.
While all of the other waiters showered attention upon me, he was slow to open up. They said I was a curiosity to them. Not Thai, but not farang. Most were lightly chatty. But Joy was different.
It took awhile, but after some time he spoke to me. His first words... "You and me look same-same. You look same-same like Thai people."
I had to smile at that. Just the night before, I'd seen a tee shirt at the night market. A red tee with thick white letters on the front that read: Same-Same. At the time I'd wondered what that meant. I kind of had an idea of it's meaning now.
At first Joy apologized to me for not knowing English so much. I only smiled and apologized for not knowing Thai at all. I think that broke the ice, because an hour later, I'd learned much about this young man.
I learned that in fact, we were not same-same, and that besides our age and profession, we had very few in common. The life of an average Thai is unlike anything that I thought I understood. It wasn't until after I found Joy that I realized where the line of similarities was drawn, and where a world of difference began.
Joy was a baby when his papa died. He and his sister were raised by his mama and her family in a northern province of Thailand called Isan. At the age of 14, Joy moved into the city, 9 hours away from his home, to find work.
"I'm not a student," he told me. He'd never finished school. For ten years he worked at whatever jobs he could find. On the streets of Bangkok at first, and eventually working from dishwasher to cook to waiter. For 3 bucks a day, six days a week, Joy is just barely able to pay for himself and his family and make enough for them to live.
The only time off he has to go home and visit them is once a year during a five day Buddhist festival. He drives the 9 hours home by motorbike, and drinks away his time-off with his family and friends, before heading back into Bangkok to work for 72 bucks a month.
His sister managed to somehow move to France, the details were intentionally vague, but she got pregnant there, and returned home to Thailand with a half-farang baby, and without a husband.
In the middle of our conversation, I began to wonder how much of Joy's story was the truth, and how much of it was embellished to gain the sympathy of just another well off visitor. But I eventually realized it was just a conversation between two people who, at first glance, looked the same. Nothing more, just a conversation for comparison.
Joy pointed to one of his fellow workmates who walked by, "She is from Bangkok. She is a student, lives with her mama and papa. Me and her are not same-same." And there it was again. His simple phrase to compare the situations of two very different people.
I began to understand what he meant. In this world you may find someone whom, on the surface, may seem to be the same as you are. But if you scratch a little deeper, you'll find a world of difference.
We finished our conversation on the topic of politics. Joy told me of the Thai Prime Minister, Taksin, who is currently instituting new laws that will alter the face of Bangkok. This was a concern for Joy. It meant a lot of change for his work future. "If no work, than only die. If I die... family die." There was definitely a deep sadness in his tone.
I wanted so much to tell Joy that his family would be taken care of. But I couldn't. I walked away from the coffee shop hit with the realization that I was in a world that I didn't yet understand. I knew that I would seem simple minded in my presumptions.
I made my way back to the market place to find that red shirt. It was still there, dark with thick white letters on the front that spelled out: Same-Same. When the lady took it down, I turned it around. On the back it read: But Different.
I left Bangkok that night, six years ago, without being able to tell Joy that things would turn out alright and that he and his family would someday find security. But when I go back to Bangkok, maybe I can find Joy again.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...