For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
We often share stories of ordinary people who humble us by showing resilience and kindness in the face of challenges. In doing so, we highlight the positive — so much so that you might be thinking: “Do these guys only run into good people on their travels? Is the world really like that? Are all people around the world really that good?”
Not always. Sometimes you meet people who grind you to the edge.
And then, you must find your way back.
In the Lion’s Den
From the moment we met the woman running our guest house at Haad Yao beach on Koh Pha Ngan island in Thailand, we felt like an inconvenience. Her uncle owned the resort and it seemed as though whenever her office had customers in it, her face would find itself caught in a tug-of-war between anger and disgust.
When I encounter someone who takes to life with such a negative tack, I can’t help but think: “Maybe she’s had a rough day or perhaps even a rough life.” Or in this case, “Maybe she just can’t bear the weight of her privilege, her family’s success, her good fortune.”
Towards the end of our stay, the internet went out. After six hours and exhausting all possibilities that it might be due to something we had done, I decided to pay a visit to the office. Maybe she could help.
“The internet doesn’t seem to be working,” I tried. Uncertainty is diplomatic, right?
“It works for everyone else. You the problem.”
The conversation continued like this for the next ten minutes, until I decided that even the world’s highest bandwidth connection wouldn't be worth a shower of excuses and abuse.
I often joke that Audrey is the one we send out to meet and greet people. If you’ve ever met her, maybe you’ll understand the sentiment. Regardless of where I stand on the affability continuum, she’s easily a few clicks further in the direction of the smiley face.
The next morning, the internet was still down. “I’m not sure whose day it is today, but I know it’s your turn to deal with this.” Maybe Audrey could be today’s magic dust.
We walked into the office. I hovered by the door.
“Hello,” Audrey tried to break the ice while petting the dog.
I have to tell you there is no misery like that drawn on the woman’s face.
“The internet is not working today. Is it possible to call someone to check on it?” Audrey asked.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work. You leave Tuesday. It won’t work before then.”
Then a deluge of excuses: “My brother is on the other side of the island. He was at the restaurant until 4 AM. Auntie is at the temple.”
“Internet is not included. You get for free. You Americans. You come here because it’s cheap. You should go back home.”
She was like one of those automated tennis ball machines.
I tried to help: “We don’t mean disrespect. We just asked about the internet. And now you are yelling at us. I don’t understand.”
Audrey made one last attempt to extract something productive from the conversation: “Can we have the password for the other network?”
“You can use it there,” she pointed to the next room.
Then she yelled at Audrey, “Get out. I don’t want to see your face.”
Stepping Back and Reflecting
We emerged feeling a little agitated. Puzzled, too.
Justifications and rationalizations circulated between us about how something as insignificant as internet access could have precipitated such anger.
There's the situational: this is a tourist area and she probably has to deal with her share of tourists – not all of them pleasant and respectful — day in and day out.
The linguistic: she doesn’t possess the range of English vocabulary to explain herself fully; worse yet, we don’t speak her language.
And finally, the cultural: confrontation in Asian cultures is a no-no, saving face is the goal.
But then I stopped.
Sure, all those things might be valid. But they don’t excuse how she behaved. We’ve known countless interactions saddled with similar challenges that never yielded disrespect or venom. In fact, it’s heartening how pleasant most of our interactions are on the road.
And to think, this was something as insignificant as a problematic internet connection. Heaven forbid it had been something serious.
When we encounter someone like this, our approach: let it roll off our backs so as to not let the anger seep in and then extricate ourselves from the situation as quickly as possible.
Then we move on.
The Flip Side: Kindness Without an Angle
Later that day, we took a stroll up the street to our favorite little restaurant, a makeshift kitchen in a thatch hut with a few tables outside. Not only was it the best Thai food around, but the woman who served it up: sweetness incarnate. Her kindness was like sunshine, so broad you sometimes wondered what you’d done to deserve it.
And to the skeptical, her kindness was not just because she runs a restaurant and wants our money. We’ve been on the road long enough to recognize perfunctory and strategic kindness, the sort that spills out as a method of doing business.
Nope. Hers was a kindness without an angle.
She emerged from the kitchen, apron on, and gave us a big smile and a warm “Hello!!”
Damn, I wanted to give her a big hug. The warmth of her greeting brought us home for the moment — no matter how far away from home we might have been.
We sat together, enjoyed lunch and chatted about her nephew who was about to become a monk in a ceremony the following day.
We savored that moment, and in that moment, we relished the simplicity of being with kind people.
And it’s for them, I’d like to believe, the world turns.