Same Same

All over Aisa, this saying is a thing. “Same, same.”

Here in Thailand as well as parts of Malaysia, I’ve noticed people – both Thai/Malay natives as well as tourists – wearing a popular tank top that reads “same, same” on the front and “but different” on the back. Several months ago, when I started my Southeast Asia route in Indonesia, I noticed the Balinese saying “sama, sama” all the time.

In Indonesian, the literal translation of “sama” is “same.” However, the phrase “sama, sama” has two colloquial uses – it is a common way to say “you’re welcome” when someone says “thank you,” and it also means “same, same”. A good example might be when you are explaining something in two languages. For instance, Alex Gila (Indonesian), Alex crazy! (English). Gila, crazy, same same.

In nearly nine months traveling through different countries and cultures, I’ve found this idea – same same – to be a major theme. The reason for this is that, at least in my experience and opinion, people are fundamentally the same. I am also pleased to report that people are, by and large, fundamentally good.

I should be clear when I say that people are the same, as I realize that I am making a bold statement that could easily be misinterpreted. I mean that regardless of where you go in the world, regardless of religion or politics or custom, the same motivators drive us all. Happy is happy, honest is honest, genuine is genuine, and a smile is a smile and often is all you really need to communicate.

Back in December, I thought to blog on this topic and mused about this idea of same/same to my travel buddy. He agreed and disagreed with me, saying that while he believed all children are children, he did not believe that all people were people beyond the basic necessities we all need met – eating, sleeping, etc. Once people are affected and influenced by the various dogmas and ideologies that cause so many conflicts all over the planet, he said that people were actually quite different. I saw where he was coming from and tucked the idea of same/same away to marinate for a while.

Since December, I’ve come back to this idea many times. While I understand my friend’s point of view, I still believe in same/same, with the appropriate addition of “but different,” just like that silly T-shirt says. This applies to children and adults alike, simply in different ways because children generally act in a more free and raw way than adults do. I agree with my friend that as adults we’ve been conditioned to act and react in certain ways based on our upbringing and surroundings. We act with more calculation and more inhibition than children do. But the basic truth remains: good is good and bad is bad and grey is grey across the world in all of its many shades.

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which people are same/same, but different. Of course we all need to have our basic needs met: we need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to use the toilet (toilet is one word you pretty much never have to learn in another language, at least not in Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand. I’ll keep you posted if this differs when I get to Myanmar…). However, I believe that more than those basic needs bind us.

It doesn’t matter what we wear on our heads when we pray or what kind of meat we may or may not eat or which political party we favor. Pushing in line is never appreciated. Letting the customer slide when they are 5 cents short is always appreciated. Nosy in-laws always make for funny movie characters. No culture is immune to selfies or the selfie stick.

I’ve already blogged about the kindness of strangers and my gratitude to the various Guardian Angels who have helped me along the way (and now I have many more angels to add, since two months have passed since that post!). When I try to recall one prime example of humans being Same/Same, it is difficult to narrow down the results. It’s truly an everyday occurrence, and no singular example comes to mind.

For the sake of argument and clarity in making my case here, I will provide a couple of instances that illustrate my point.

The other evening, I went for a jog on the street in the sleepy town of Pai, northern Thailand. I didn’t think much of it, aside from my enthusiasm to hit the open road and clock several miles in before dark fell. Things were going great on the way out and most of the way back, until I hit the dog pack. For those of you who have been in Asia, you know what I mean. All over Southeast Asia, there are semi-stray dogs roaming the streets and sleeping in doorways. Most of the time, these dogs go their way and leave everyone else alone. However, sometimes they get loud and grumpy, especially when they are hungry. And like any other creature, they can smell fear.

I was far away from a small group of dogs at the bottom of a long hill, but even at a distance I could sense their aggression. They barked at me and started to approach fast, even though they were at least 50 meters away. There weren’t many people around, and twilight was already upon me, so I erred on the side of caution and turned around. I didn’t care to test the dog pack or show them who was boss – I am small and I was nervous, and I knew that they could sense my hesitation.

I also knew that I would be fine without having to face any dogs, because there were a few people around. None of them spoke a lick of English, but this didn’t bother me. It was more important that one of these people was willing to listen and lend a helping hand. I was far enough away from the dog pack that I’d bought myself some leeway and some time, so I backtracked towards a cluster of driveways. I saw a pick-up truck emerging towards the road and I waved it down.

The driver rolled down his window and I pointed to the dogs down the hill. I barked out loud and then mimicked a scared face. It wasn’t rocket science – he understood. The man smiled kindly and motioned for me to get in the back of his truck. I’d only intended for him to get me safely past the dogs, but he drove me all the way back to my guesthouse. All he needed to do was point in our direction and give me a quizzical look. I understood that he wanted to know where to drop me, and he was glad to do it.

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I wish I had thought to take more thoughtful supporting photography.  The idea for this post arose after I already parted ways with most of the characters I mention.  Here is a view taken during my jog along the beautiful countryside in Pai, just before the dog pack encounter.

Here’s another instance: last week, I was walking through a crowded night market. There were hundreds of people, locals and tourists alike, but the majority were locals. And in true night market fashion, no one was looking where they were going – their eyes were glued to the tasty goodies and colorful wares that vendors had lined up along the sides of the street.

I suppose the zipper to my purse wasn’t fully closed, because a kind woman who only spoke broken English touched my arm and said, “be careful your bag!” Being from the New York area, I am constantly aware of the space around my purse. But no one else knows that, and this random lady kindly thought to help me avoid any trouble. She did what she would have wanted someone to do for her, and regardless of whether I needed a reminder or not, I appreciated her effort.

One last example, because the kindness of strangers doesn’t always revolve around my being in danger.  Yesterday I went to Doi Suthep, a popular hillside temple with a great view overlooking the city of Chiang Mai.  Like other Buddhist temples, Doi Suthep boasts many beautiful shrines of Buddha before which people often stop to kneel and pray.

I am interested in Buddhism and sometimes stop to offer a prayer myself, though I do not consider myself Buddhist.   For now suffice it to say that I am spiritual in my own way, and I “pray” if and when the occasion feels appropriate to me.

At one of the Buddhas at Doi Suthep, I knelt down in “metta” prayer, as we had learned in metta meditation during Vipassana (metta meditation is when you send good, positive vibes for the wellbeing of others).  I like metta prayer because it feels focused and purposeful without being specifically religious.  Anyways, since I still don’t know a whole lot about Buddhist prayer or ritual, I often look with curiosity at others offering up their prayers to Buddha.

At this particular shrine, everything was written in Thai and I didn’t know much about what I was looking at.  I noticed a tall, narrow cup with a bunch of red sticks that the woman next to me shook vigorously after she finished her prayers.  She then stood up and proceeded to the side wall on the left, which had an array of sheets of paper, almost like a calendar.  I wondered how one knew which paper to pick…perhaps the sheet that corresponded with one’s birthday?  But there was no month written anywhere…

Another kind woman interrupted my reverie.  She must have noticed my look of curiosity, because she instructed me to shake the can of sticks.  She told me that it was important to my prayer and for good luck.  I needed to shake the sticks until one fell out and then I could pick a fortune from the wall based on a number written on the stick that corresponded with a fortune.  Ok! Mystery unraveled.  This seemed fun! I was glad the friendly lady had thought to stop and teach me something new.

We laughed together as I failed miserably to shake a single stick out on my first try – nearly one third of them spilled onto the ground.  The woman and her family members cheered me on, and on my second attempt I got it. My stick read number 12.

She told me to pick up my fortune, and if it was good I should keep it.  If it was bad, I should leave it.  I was happy with my fortune, so I kept it and pasted it in my journal.  Hopefully my sharing it here won’t spoil my good luck.

imageNeither of these instances may seem particularly outstanding, but they’re not supposed to be. My point is that people are people.  Strangers all over the world have gone above and beyond to lend me a helping hand.  Time and time again, they invest themselves in sharing seemingly small or insignificant moments with me.  These moments often keep me going, even when the going is easy and I’m already feeling good.

People across the world may seem different from you in many ways, but judging them for their supposed differences rarely serves you well, if ever. That guy/girl over there? Probably just like you. Wants another guy/girl to like him/her. Wants to have plans this weekend. Wants alone time. Wants his/her kids to be smart and healthy. Etc. People want to be comfortable, they want to be happy, they want to be peaceful, and everyone wants love.

You may be thinking, “yea….Duh, people want to avoid pain and Duh, people gravitate towards pleasure. So what, Alex?”

Well, frankly, it’s refreshing to feel this sense of sameness, because wherever you go in the world it feels a little more like home. Even as a 27 year-old, 9 months ago I felt nervous to set off on my own as a solo female traveller. Now, solo female traveller has taken on a whole new meaning. Yes, I need to exercise caution, know my limitations, and articulate my boundaries. But who doesn’t? I love traveling solo, and I meet many friends along the way.

Before traveling and even during my journey, I’ve heard grave words of caution from family and friends about the dangers that lie ahead of me. Yes, danger exists and it’s important to be aware and mindful at all times. It is crucial to check in with yourself and listen to your gut.

However, these “dangers” are everywhere in the world, really no different in Asia than in America on many levels.  And I’m happy to report that the dangers are rarely people. People are people, and mostly they are good. Or at least they are same/same.

Same/same, but a little bit different.

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