POSTCARD #35: Chiang Mai: How to explain Static Electricity to a nine-year-old who speaks English as a second language? M my Thai niece, jumps in surprise when I’m handing her some coins and it happens: ZAP! Looks at me, like I just played a trick on her or something: “What’s that Toong Ting?” (for some reason she has called me Toong Ting since she was a baby) It’s electricity, fai-fáa sà-tìt ไฟฟ้าสถิต in Thai. M looks suspicious of me, “Yes but what is it?” she says. Okay so that still doesn’t make sense; I say it’s like a small spark… What does spark mean? So I start to speak about positive and negative electric charges inside our bodies, and eyes glaze over… losing the audience, I’m not making a very good job of the explanation, say it’s like lightning in the sky and make a big gesture with my arms. Thinks about that for a while, this has her attention… Yes but why? I tell her it’s like this strange thing that happens in the cool season, you unexpectedly get zapped when touching a doorknob – like an electrical charge, and sometimes it happens when you touch nylon clothing – it happens during the cold dry season. In countries like Thailand that are hot and humid most of the year, you notice it more than in cold countries. But this doesn’t really answer the question either, so we look it up in Google. There are all kinds of examples of it, still kinda hard to understand, I decide it has to be more like an experiential thing, learning from the feeling of it.
It reminds me of the haiku written by my friend Andosan, in Japan. ‘Static Electricity’ is a haiku seasonal word seidenki 静電気 and it’s thought to be quite charming – maybe because it’s quite mild in Japan, less of a shock than in the Western world. Usually experienced when buying something from the station kiosk, receiving coins or touching hands. Contact between people creates this small spark, it’s a surprising, instantaneous, friendly and communicative thing. It creates a link between people; a moment when we can’t explain something and share this small event that we can’t get any further with than “What was that?” A glance down at the coins held in the fingertips, conscious awareness; the mysterious feeling of the spark somehow becomes the physical reality of the coins in the hand.
[Haiku translation: I receive small change/ and I am very surprised/ I have been given/ static electricity]