“It wasn’t something forced. We just had our eyes and ears open when people came and talked to us,” Rhonda said, as she described the process of making new friends in Thailand. Rhonda and her husband Nixson recently returned to the States after serving a four year term in Bangkok. They also both served in Thailand before getting married (Nixson for four years and Rhonda for three). During this time they formed friendships at the gym, in coffee shops, at school, and in homes. Their many relationships provided an opportunity to hear stories, have new experiences, and share the love of God.
While in Bangkok, Nixson and Rhonda discipled new believers and trained emerging leaders, focusing on university students and immigrants to the city and always looking for ways to reach out and get involved in the lives of those around them.
“It’s doing things they do and going places they go,” Nixson said. He and Rhonda tried to live in such a way that made room for opportunities to meet people and share their faith.
For Nixson, these opportunities often came when he was at the gym. As soon as people found out that he was not Thai, they were curious about who he was and why he was living in Thailand. They wanted to practice their English and talk about world politics with him. As time went on, he found that many of these friends had varied interests – some that he knew nothing about, but it was important not to become bored or disinterested.
“I worked out sometimes with a guy, and he would talk about watches. And I can’t remember how many he had but each one went for around 100,000 baht [equivalent to over 3,000 U.S. dollars]. He would ask me, ‘Do you know this watch?’ So I’d say, ‘Hmm, let me see it.’ It was something I didn’t know anything about, but I would listen to him to spend time with him.”
Like every long-lasting friendship, once it starts, it takes work to sustain. Rhonda explained that since eating out in Thailand can be quite cheap, they often spent time with friends over delicious Thai street food or in small cafés. While some topics of conversation were stretching and difficult to keep up with, there always seemed to be something they all had in common.
Because many people in Bangkok have traveled there from other parts of the country and world, the topic of missing family and home was often a relatable subject. They also found that religion was something most people liked to discuss.
Rhonda said, “There are a lot of Catholic schools there. So people will have gone to Catholic schools and they would have heard about the Bible or Jesus or things like that. Then they are curious about what they learned in school. A lot of them hear about it, but they don’t really get it. They learned a chant, but wonder what it actually means. So that was a good opportunity to share.”
Many of their friends would also invite them to visit a temple. Because the majority of people living in Thailand practice Buddhism, there are many temples in the capital city of Bangkok. They are not only used for worship, but often become tourist attractions and places to meet up with friends.
“They would invite lots of people to go, so sometimes they would take us along,” Rhonda said. “Going with them showed that we were interested in their lives and that we cared, but then, we didn’t take part in the giving and bowing. So that was an opportunity to say: ‘we are interested in you and we care about you, but we aren’t doing this because…’ and give our reason.”
While these friendships were mostly enjoyable and full of positive interactions, there were times that were less than pleasant. Many of their friends would invite them to visit relatives in more rural parts of the country. Nixson explained that the people in these locations were not used to seeing foreigners. He said that in these villages they were expected to sleep on the floor with just a blanket, and eat food that they were not used to – “insects and frogs and things like that.”
Nixson and Rhonda both said that they chose to brave these sometimes awkward situations in order to preserve friendships. “There were times that I didn’t want to go somewhere because I didn’t know what would happen,” Rhonda said. “But just embracing that and enjoying it. There were some things that were very awkward for us but very meaningful for them.”
“Be open to learn new things and show interest in people’s lives that are different from yours.”
After sticking with their friends through the uncomfortable and awkward times, Rhonda and Nixson found that their friendships were deeper. They were able to have discussions on a personal level about things that mattered to all of them. These relationships were built on trust and the knowledge that they would not just walk away when things got difficult.
“Sometimes we get offended so easily when people have a different point of view – it can be political, religious, or any other thing. We try to find friends who are people like us – not making any sacrifices.” Nixson said. “But we really want to make friends and do what God is calling us to do. To make those kind of sacrifices with people who have different kinds of interests and different points of view.”
Nixson and Rhonda learned a lot of lessons about seeking and sustaining friendships during their time in Thailand, and they hope to bring those same principles to their lives here in the U.S. To those trying to make new friends, no matter where they live, Rhonda gave this final piece of advice:
“Be open to learn new things and show interest in people’s lives that are different from yours. There are two things: first, try to find things in common; because I’m sure you have things in common that you don’t think you do. But also, be open and take interest in things that they may be interested in that you aren’t. Maybe you will take an interest in it or you’ll learn something new.”
Nixson and Rhonda left Thailand earlier this year and are currently living in Holmes County, Ohio. Please pray for them as they adjust to living in the U.S. and find ways to keep up friendships in Thailand while making new connections here.