Lessons from Alia

Alia Chloe Kortman

Freckles and all, I love this girl!

(Edit: We wrote about Alia's ADHD which might have an impact on how important this article is)

With Josiah's recent Surgery I feel that the spotlight has been on him.

However, I'd be remiss if I didn't post about the lesson I have learned from Alia.

First off, a funny story about me and the Thai culture. I don't know if you know much about Thai culture but they are a very spiritual-minded people. Shrines to buddha are everywhere and the people give a slight head bow and a position of the hands like a prayer every time the walk past a temple (which is often--we could see 13 from Si's hospital room) or greet someone (which is often). It was also easy to find Yoga Near Me no matter where I was in Thailand. Words you'd use to describe the Thai people's culture: reverent, peaceful, calm, perhaps "distanced". We arrived to our house in Chiang Mai late in the evening so the next day our landlord's sister arrived to collect the rent. We knew she was coming and had been told that she spoke good English.

It was the first morning I had ever been to Thailand.

I had not yet fully understood the Thai culture.

I was used to the Philippines where everyone smiles and wonders about the expats living in their neighborhood.

So to greet her once I figured out she was indeed a the sister (aka a stranger whom I'm supposed to had a couple hundred dollars to) I did what any good American business owner does. I reached out to shake her hand.

Watching this unfold must have been like a scene from the movies where you know what the stupid main character is going to do and you cannot stop it. You actually get uncomfortable in your seat and wished he hadn't done or said what he just did or said.

She didn't know what to do.  She got a "Do I have to touch you?" kind of a look in her face and she gingerly touched my hand.

Can you say awkward?

Yeah so I learned quickly. Thai's do this when greeting: (Only need to watch the first 5 seconds of this video)


And as you can tell my their touchless, reverent, spiritual way of greeting they aren't initially warm. It's a different kind of warm.

Like ice warm.

It's not that I don't like Thai people or their culture, it's just after coming from the Philippines the Thai people are cold in comparison. Mostly in non verbales. In the lack of a smile, in the almost stodgy reverence.

Wait wasn't this about Alia?

So enter my 8 year old onto the Thai scene. She's not the loud boisterous type like Thys, or the flirting type like Zander, or the once I warm up we're best buds like Si. No, she's her own kind of charm.

And she loves people, and wants lots of friends. She longs for relationships.

Oh one other thing to note, it's dry season here, so our subdevelopment hires gardeners to water the grass along the main drag. Every day for 8 hours a day they move their hoses and water the plants and grass and trees and flowers along the road.

So here we are in a cold soceity riding on a scooter through a sub development (it takes us 8 minutes just to get out of oursub developmentt) with gardeners standing there watering trees and plants.

Alia sitting on the back of the scooter naturally starts waving at these people.

There are no Filipino smiles, no American polite neighborly wave, nothing.  Well perhaps that's not entirely true, they did look up from the end of the hoses, and stare at us as we scooted by.  It was in those early days of being here that I wanted so bad to squelch my daughters spirit and tell her to stop.  No I didn't think of it that way. What kind of terrible Dad do you think I am ;)

I wanted to use this as a teachable moment, to show her how she could work on her observation skills (we as a family have been working on these a lot lately!)  I wanted to say, no honey, stop waving. Can't you see that these people don't like that? Can't you see that this culture doesn't wave?  And in hindsight I know now that would have hurt her, not like she'd be angry at me, but just kinda turned off at her natural expression of friendliness being rejected.

So I waited... not our of some great foresight. But one of those 'procrastination in the right amount is okay' moments. I wasn't saying lets see how this plays out, instead I was clenching my teeth every time I saw it but realized that driving a scooter at 60kph is not an ideal time to have a discussion. Inevitably, by the time we'd reach our destination my mind was on the destination and the task at hand. I completely forgot to educate her on the cultural norms here.

It gets worse

Not only did she do this daily with the gardeners, but she also did it every time we came to a red light on the main roads. You see, here in Thailand where there are significantly more private cars than motor bikes, the bikes have the right to drive between cars waiting at a redlight and get to the front of the line. For some long lights there may be 30 or more motorcycles weaving through stopped traffic to get to the intersection where they speed off when the light turns green.

Alia took this opportunity to wave at fellow motorbike drivers and passengers.

Ug, now even though I'm not going fast I am weaving in and out of stopped cars with side mirrors I'm trying to avoid while balancing at slow speeds, and this kid, this wonderful loving social butterfly is trying to wave at every human within eyesight.

Then we stop at a red light and I start to turn red with embarrassment. People are not waving back, they are not smiling. They are glancing, looking and  in general revving their bikes to surge forward again.

Something changed

I never did get to talk to Alia about this. In fact, I've never told her any of this.  But over time either how she greeted or whom she greeted, or (and I believe it was this one) her charm, her love wore down the Thai defenses.

She now refers to the people on motor bikes as her friends and we see if they stay with us and if we'll see them at the next stop light.

I've heard laughter, I've seen waving and many smiles.

And the Gardeners?  Oh yeah, they wave before we even get to them.  Alia's affection has infected Josiah who now tries to get the gardeners to wave at him and they do, just because (I believe) he's related to 'the smiley blonde girl'.

My Girl Taught Me

We all have times where our kids teach us. But this one is special and dear to me. I know that through all the struggles we have with Alia and her condition I see so much love and joy and wanting to be with other people.  And she taught me we can rise above cultural norms.  We can break down barriers.  Consistency mixed with perseverance does bring a reward.  She taught me to wave more, to smile even when others aren't smiling at you.  She taught me it's okay to be an American coming from the Philippines who has God's love overflowing.

Now if only I could wave while driving a motorbike.

Scooter in Thailand family

Typical Grocery Run: Alia waving from behind.

Paul Kortman

Dad of 4, husband, blogger, digital marketer, follower of Jesus. I podcast at nomadtogether.com and own connexdigitalmarketing.com We're on this crazy journey to travel the world as a lifestyle. Looking for help in how to live as a digital nomad family? Join this Facebook Group!

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  1. Justin Cooke

    LOVE this, Paul!

    It’s even more touching reading your other article about her special needs and ADHD.

    I have an admission – I’m one of those adults who smiles and waves to random people just for fun and the pure joy of it. Sometimes I get the cold icy stares, but I do it for those rare times where I can turn someone’s mood or demeanor around. :-)

    • namtrok

      Justin I can totally see you as being one of those guys who gets all giddy when you wave to someone… makes me chuckle just thinking of it!

      Children get so much right and we adults get so much wrong. — I’m still learning!


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