Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ways I have Changed since living in Thailand

Prompted by an email from a friend, I starting thinking about the ways that life in Thailand has affected me and how much I have probably changed. Most of these changes are for the better, some are probably weird, and some are probably just funny.

1. I am more patient and have a go with the flow attitude. These are characteristics seemed to be instilled in all Thai people and they have all kinds of phrases to encourage others to act the same way. Most are equivalient to "chill out". This has been hard to adjust and been a huge learning experience for me. I definitely think that I have chilled out a lot and know that I am more patient.

2. Anything 9-100 degrees, really is not that hot. As long as you have a fan and some water you can stay pretty comfortable. And if you get too hot to handle, it's perfectly acceptable to take 2 or 3 showers a day.

3. You don't have to kill bugs/animals/critters just to get rid of them. You can kindly escort them outside, sweep them away, or trap them and then set them free.

4. Any trip in a car or bus that is four hours or less, seems short to me now.

5. I can actually ride a bike like a semi-normal person. I will admit that growing up, I was not the most graceful on a bike. Oh, and I can change tires now!

6. I can entertain myself on the computer without using the internet. This happens when your connection depends on how many clouds are around.

7. I now prefer to drink with ice and whisky with soda water.

8. I can eat anything for breakfast. Even if it includes meat, vegetables, and plenty of spiciness to boot.

9. I can fit all my earthly possessions into two....well maybe three suitcases.

10. I am perfectly comfortable performing songs well out of my range to a room full of strangers, along with dancing and making speeches.

11. I can handle being around little kids and actually enjoy it.

12. I can sit around waiting for someone for two hours or more and not be THAT pissed.

13. I can watch any episode of Seinfeld any day and never be sick of it.

I'm sure there are so many more to be added to this list, but that's what I am noticing right now. I am thankful to have been given the time to change and hope that those changes that have made me a better person will be returning to America with me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Over a year, and more culture shock?

Last year, in my third month of service, I traveled about two hours away with my host dad and my host sister’s husband to visit a country school. It so happens that my host father’s father was the headmaster of this school about 60 years ago and each year my family visits the school to make donations and speak with the students in his honor. I loved the concept and it struck me as something that my family in America might do. I was happy to be apart of it. I remember the day as long, hot and confusing. My Thai speaking and comprehension skills were not excellent and I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. I did not understand the ceremonies or really what was going on at all. I smiled when I was supposed to, bowed when others bowed, and remained quiet and tried to take it all in.

Since that visit I have learned a lot more Thai and a lot more about ceremonies and official meetings at schools. Most importantly, I have learned how I am viewed as a foreigner and how I fit into these situations.

Last week, a year to the day, we set off again to visit this country school. I woke up early for coffee and breakfast for my host mom and set about ironing my khaki pants and dress shirt for the day. I dressed and spoke with my host father as I promised I would be ready to go right on time. Then not five minutes before we were to walk out the door, he turned to me said that I needed to change clothes….I needed to wear a skirt. Now, during training we wore skirts everyday and I wear them for very formal occasions at site. But honestly, all the women around here were pants…teachers, nurses, government workers, all of us. I wore nice pants last year….why I couldn’t I wear them again this year…I was sure to be climbing in out of the pick-up truck and sitting on the floor. I diligently went to my room to change, much to my disappointment. You may be asking, “why didn’t you just explain that you prefer to wear pants?” Well, maybe I have been here too long, maybe I’m too complacent or maybe I just know how to pick my battles, but the thought did not enter my head. My father had asked me to change, so I did. I am a female, so I must wear a skirt, so I did. I was going along on this trip to honor my family and make my host dad happy, so I did.

I was sort of in a bad mood and had cultural differences on my mind. I have lived here over a year and knew what to expect of the event and what the day had in store. Still, the cultural implications and my feelings took me by surprise as the day went on. I was treated as an honored guest, forced to make a speech, was seated in front of the entire school and watched as the students crawled on their hands and knees to present flowers and blessings to me, my host dad, the principal and the other teachers. Basically I was being treated as royalty or as a celebrity. You might think it sounds nice. The fan was pointed directly on me all day and students rushed to bring me cool water. I was highly uncomfortable. I had not earned their respect…they had just met me! This happens a lot in Thailand. I am a foreigner and oftentimes I am presented as a teacher or mentor. This gives me instant VIP status. This day it really bothered me. I kept thinking of the American ideal of equality and how we have nothing like this system of hierarchy and how much I appreciated that. In America we do things for ourselves. If I had needed a cup of coffee or glass of water, I would have asked where or how to get some and done it myself. Yes, we are hospitable but never in a million years, would a student be forced to present that glass to you while crawling and kneeling with their head down balancing the full glass on a tray. It seems preposterous to imagine such a scenario at home.

We ended up with some extra time before lunch so I was asked to teach the kids English. This happens and lot and sort of bugs me every time. But up I went, to the front of the room, microphone in hand and led a basic conversation. Anything more than that would have been fruitless. Most of these kids had never seen a foreigner, let alone practiced English with one. I tried to get them to relax a bit by suggested that they ask me questions about America, using Thai. They looked at me in terror. Not a single student raised their hand. I was starting to get annoyed. I thought, if they want to learn English so bad and talk with foreigners, why aren’t they trying??

Then it hit me. They had been forced to wait me for the past three hours, kneeling and crawling all the while barely looking at me…no wonder they were intimidated!

I felt terrible for them and wished I could make them comfortable. I wished I could share the American culture of student/teacher relationship or even the casual and comfortable relationship between new friends. I wanted them to know that I thought of them as being on the same level as me, that we were equal and that we could be friends and communicate. I was not a VIP, I am not better than them because I am a foreigner and speak English.

It was hard dealing with all this at the time and it’s hard to verbalize it now. I hope that you understand a bit of what I was and am going through. I thought it was a good story to share and hope it reminds everyone not to take our culture of relationship and lack of hierarchy and notions of equality for granted.