In Thailand this question was put to me often. Now, before you go accusing the Thai of philosophical heavy-handedness, know that the askers of this question always, always meant to ask for the time–what time is it?–but their muddled English sometimes achieved a kind of unintended profundity, if you were looking for it.
Do you know what time is?
I give this to you now as a capsule, a dose of the strange, indifferent, sometimes beautiful language spoken there. “We’ll play it by ears,” someone said on the second day. Later my uncle told me his sister was very “Western sized,” and before I met her I was under the impression that she would be very, very fat. Westernized, he meant. Westernized, I neglected to tell him.
My notebook is full of little devices like these. But funny as it all was, I have learned that missing a language is like missing a lover: when deprived of it, when ripped from that cocoon of shared understanding, weeks turn to years, bypassing months.
Angela, what time is? someone was always asking me, and sometimes I knew and sometimes I didn’t.
I was told by my companions there that I would learn things, and I suppose I did, but not all the right lessons. Certainly not what was taught me. Sermons on personal health and the virtues and vices of Americans were delivered there with a zeal that made me miss my own careless sinning country.
But I have written things down, some lessons, all improbable. For example, that chicken makes women sweat. That chlorine turns skin brown. That muscles ought to be supple and pliant, like a breast. I have been called selfish. I have been told that I have too much plasma in my blood. But what I’d begun to worry about, after two weeks there, was the blood in my blood, which is always too hot, always.
And finally I have learned–and this is the unintended lesson–I have learned what it feels like to feel like an alien, utterly unknowable, utterly unknown. But the thing about that kind of difficulty, the thing about spending time with people who do not speak your language, who believe everything you do not and nothing you do, is that you can never, not for a moment, forget who you are, and that’s the priceless thing about travel they forget to teach you.
It’s a trying kind of nourishment, hard earned. You leave your country and you forget what time it is but maybe, maybe you learn what time is. It takes two weeks, a month, a year. But then, in a heartbeat, you’re home.