Sunday, August 14, 2011

Experiencing the cultural concept of time

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 14 August 2011

I spent most of July in Thailand as part of a unique study abroad program. Several ISU faculty and students joined faculty and students from two Chinese universities on a study abroad program focused on sustainable development, experiential learning, and community engagement. Our program moved across Thailand using four different universities as classrooms.

The administrators, faculty and staff from Suan Sunandha Rajabaht University, Chiang Mai Rajabaht University, Pibulsongkram Rajabaht University, and Rajabaht Maha Sarakam University were gracious and most helpful in making our program a success.

Do you experience time as an external force pushing you and others along like a river or the wind? Do you anticipate events, plan, and daydream about doing other things? Do you “chase the clock?” Or do you live in the moment, ignore the clock and focus on the experience? Do you eat when it is time or when you are hungry?

Psychologists tell us that different individuals experience time in different ways, but after nearly three weeks in Thailand, there is a significant cultural effect on how individuals experience time. Psychologists also tell us that daydreaming, reminiscing, and planning instead of “living in the moment” makes us unhappy. Perhaps this explains the seeming happiness and general contentment of the Thai people I met.

For instance, how often do you do one thing while daydreaming of doing another? Countless times this summer as I sat working, I thought, “this is a beautiful day, why am I not outside doing x, y, or z?” How many anticipate the weekend as we trudge through the week?

I asked many of our Thai hosts, as they took us to see Royal agricultural projects or grand historical and cultural sites, “if you weren’t doing this today with us, what would you be doing?” It is not that the words were not understood, but the concept seemed foreign. Each person I asked this answered similarly: “I am here doing this with you.” I don’t think this was Thai niceness, rather, I don’t think Thais comparatively evaluate the passing of time the way we do. “Today I am going with these Americans and Chinese to the Golden Teak Palace.” Whereas, an American might think, “I wonder how Jimmie Johnson is doing in the big race today, which I can’t watch because I am taking these visitors to the local museum.”

Thais are aware that they treat and experience time differently than we time-obsessed Americans. “Thai time” was on plain display when an interpreter asked the convener of the conference we were attending what time things would begin the next morning. The answer was typically Thai: “Definitely 8:30, maybe 9.” The conference began the next day at 8:45. The clock didn’t determine when things began, the conference began when the convener was ready and the speaker was in place, not a moment before or after that. The clock was mostly irrelevant. Schedules were only approximate and changes were not uncommon.

The needs of the moment dictate action. While crossing the country from west to east, the air conditioner in our van broke down. It was hot, and with a van full of people, it was very uncomfortable. Our driver, along with two other vans, all headed into a town to get our AC repaired.

If this were in the U.S., the others would have gone ahead, but we all stuck together. After a refrigerant recharge, we headed off. Thirty minutes later the AC failed again, indicating a need for a more extensive repair. Despite the unlikelihood of getting the AC repaired that day, the driver kept trying. We suggested just continuing on with the windows down, but the need of the moment was to fix the van. The driver kept seeking a repair until both our driver and host sensed the Americans were getting upset, changing the needs of the moment; now the guests were getting restless.

It is important to note, it was the Americans who were getting restless, not the Chinese.

For a few hours today I lived in the moment. I went for an early morning paddle on the Wabash. I didn’t think about the work I “should” be doing or the workplace crisis of the moment. Just what was in front of me, a heron or an eagle, the smooth glide of my kayak as it cut through the murky Wabash waters, and I deliberately forgot my watch.

Time was marked by putting the kayak in and taking it out of the water
Blog Directory - Blogged The Steiger Counter at Blogged