The Intrepid Herbivores

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Always pack a snack

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A while back I shared a story about one of the memorable train-riding experiences we had while we were filming in Thailand. I alluded to the possibility of writing you another one and then I forgot to follow up. Until today, my friends, until today.

When you’re traipsing around carrying approximately 3/4 of your body weight in film gear, and when you regularly stop what you’re doing to bust out a boom and a shoulder rig, shove a mic pack down a shirt, maybe argue a little bit amongst yourselves about what you’re shooting, and then publicly interact with a camera as if it’s the most important thing on the scene, you’re bound to get a few funny looks. Actually, no, a more accurate statement is that there is no possible way to escape being stared at constantly. Sometimes with friendly curiosity, sometimes with irked annoyance, sometimes with gaggle-eyed disbelief, sometimes with hostile suspicion, sometimes with hushed excitement, sometimes with trepidatious good humor, etc. etc. We always try to be respectful of when and where filming is appropriate and to be as non-intrusive as possible, but no matter what, curiosity of some type is nearly always aroused and people look at you with all kinds of things presumably going through their minds.

We were jostling along on a train bound for Chiang Mai, the two of us squeezed, relatively comfortably, into a bench-type seat that faced another seat identical to it. There was a reasonable amount of legroom, and Thai etiquette calls upon one to keep your feet tucked under you at all times (pointing to another person with your feet is considered to be unspeakably rude), so there was plenty of physical space between us and the occupants across from us, but even so, it definitely felt like we and the pair of elderly ladies toward whom we were spatially oriented were all kinds of up in each others’ faces. It was the kind of situation where you feel like you’re under unavoidable direct scrutiny and you already feel like there are so many unintentional cultural faux pas you can make, that any eye contact, facial expression, verbalization or action is fraught with a kind of tension that is ultimately inconsequential but nerve-wracking nonetheless. Anyway, we exchanged some harmless nods of the head and perfunctory smiles, but not knowing enough Thai to really have anything to say to them, we kind of reached a tacit agreement that not talking was what we were going to do.

It was in this micro-climate that we decided it was really important to get some footage of the train. We needed more shots that depicted motion, and we wanted to have some takes where I talked about getting around in Thailand and provided some information about ground travel. So under the tight gaze of two grandmother-types and with limited elbow room we busted out a boom and a shoulder rig, shoved a mic pack down a shirt, maybe argued a little bit amongst ourselves about what we were shooting, and then publicly interacted with the camera as if it were the most important thing on the scene. Upon regarding this display the ladies’ faces traversed most of the gamut of registered expressions listed in an above paragraph, but lingered most stolidly on what looked to me to be somewhere between “irked annoyance” and “hostile suspicion.” The one in the window seat even shrank back into the corner with her hand in front of her grimacing face, clearly uncomfortable with the camera’s proximity (even though it was never trained anywhere but on me). The two of them exchanged some words and some nervous murmurs and kept right on staring.

After putting the gear away (accompanied by copious head-bows of apology, hoping to excuse any trampled rules of etiquette), we resumed our positions and the ladies kept right on keeping on staring. They were talking between themselves but still regarding us with these weird looks. Then the lady in the aisle seat let out a rip-roaring, window-rattling belch.

Since neither she nor her companion batted a single eyelash at this gastric outburst, we reckoned that polite company must hold burping to a different standard than what we’re used to, so we internalized our charmed amusement and shrugged it off. Although we didn’t issue any reaction either (but seriously, there was no way to pretend it didn’t happen), I internally felt slightly better about anything I may have accidentally done that they thought was rude. Maybe this revelation relaxed me a little bit, or maybe I had been entirely misreading their expressions all along, because right around this point the lady in the aisle seat (still revealing no embarrassment whatsoever for her recent thunderous release of digestive gases) opened her purse and retrieved a packet of cookies. She opened them and first offered the package to her friend, and then, with a totally unexpected smile creasing her face, she turned and extended it across to us.

And here I panicked again a little bit, because I was genuinely delighted by the offer and didn’t want to refuse her, but knew I probably didn’t want to eat the cookie since I didn’t know what was in it. This gets into sometimes dicey territory no matter where you are. It’s a whole other tangent about manners vs. being true to yourself/being consistent with your ideals vs. picking your battles. It comes up a lot for a lot of vegans and vegetarians even when we’re just stopping by our grandma’s house or your coworker brings in a birthday cake, and it can be discomforting even in cozy, familiar cultural contexts. I won’t be going into that whole philosophical quandary* but suffice it to say that it’s amplified by at least fourteen hundred million when you only have but the shakiest shadow of a grasp on the cultural context in which you’re presently immersed and you feel like you’re already on pretty thin ice if you’re at all concerned about what these ladies on a train are thinking about you and the culture of the entire hemisphere which you are currently representing. We did our best to return her smile and politely shake our heads as we patted our broad white American bellies, trying to indicate something along the lines of “thanks but no thanks.” At the same time, though, our weak protestations were interrupted her friend (the one who shirked away from the camera in anxiety) opening a bag of fresh tamarind and presenting it alongside the cookies. Tamarind! My favorite! That’s the ticket! With a brief pang of anxiety that the Belching Lady would be offended that we rejected her snack in favor of her friend’s, which I just as quickly dismissed since even I recognized that I could think this situation into concentric spirals of probably non-existent awkwardness for all eternity, we could now make a display of appreciating their collective hospitality and choosing the item that best suited our moderate desires.

With a “kap kuhn ka” from me and a “kap” from Joe, we popped the treats into our mouths and savored them just long enough for us to urgently whisper a conversation along the lines of “are we supposed to get out some snack to offer them now? Is that what you do on trains here? What do we even have on us?” Some superficial rummaging of my shoulder bag revealed a plastic bag of fresh green mango, purchased from a street vendor that morning and now only slightly bruised and pummeled from thunking around all day in the heat. Feeling like this was kind of a shitty attempt but the best I could do, I opened it and offered it across the way to our new friends, whose suspicious and irritated demeanor had already fallen away. Now they were beaming at us like indulgent aunts who were curious about what we’ve been up to. The Belching Lady even exposed herself as knowing a few phrases of English, asking “where you from?” and “you like Thailand?” She even gestured, without enough words in common for the nuances of her joke to get across, but clearly enough she was suggesting, in jest, that we should use the camera to take a picture of her friend, who exclaimed in mock outrage and threw her hands in front of her face again, shaking her head and laughing self-deprecatingly. The remainder of the ride, while still not very rich conversationally due to our linguistic limitations, was very pleasant and the pair of ladies revealed themselves to be very warm, inviting characters.

What was it that turned them around? Was I simply misreading their expressions the entire time? Did we unwittingly do something to impress them that redeemed whatever perceived offense we thought we might have committed? Or does food really just bring people together? We weren’t sure, but at any rate we started carrying extra packaged snacks in handy places, just in case we had another opportunity like that one.



 *for some quite well-composed thoughts on that topic, might I suggest the book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s rather good.

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2012 by in Uncategorized.