Thailand. The football cheer and chant of trapezing travellers. Overrated yet ever popular. An expat port of call, and a backpacker’s paradise for the budget and banana pancake minded.
It’s many things to many people, but to me it’s a place that has changed the course of my life, and it’s a place that seems to have much to teach me.
So let’s flip through the pages of my story to here: the end of 2013 (or the Thai year 2556), and see what Thailand has taught me so far because hopefully you will see something of your own expat journey in my Tell-Thai heart as well. Happy Holidays. Happy reading.
1. Mai bpen rai. Never mind. Certainly one of the more popular phases in the Thai language – and one that seems to embody what Thais are like – is mai bpen rai or “never mind, it’s not a problem, it’s okay.” For a Westerner this idea is diametrically opposed to their mindset of “getting to the bottom of this” or “fixing the leaking faucet.” Mai bpen rai is about shrugging off what you can’t control, and essentially just letting go. Not always an easy thing to do, and mind-boggling how the Thais can do it.
2. Don’t take things personally. Sure, sometimes, it is you, and other times it’s the culture/language force field that causes big barrier reef misunderstandings. Back in the US, I forget there can be a multitude of things that cause misunderstandings. Here, however, because I am engaged with another culture, I’ve learned to think about situations more objectively. In other words, living abroad has helped me to remember it’s not always about me.
3. Think before you speak. You know how you speak slowly when you want to be choosey and careful about the words you say? Living in Thailand has made me do this just as frequently as I did when I was a grade school teacher. Speaking, listening and thinking in Thai has slowed down how quickly words leave my mouth. And this is a good thing, even when it’s frustrating to struggle with the language, thinking before I speak has helped me to think creatively, and learn when to hold back and when to push forward.
4. Walk slowly. When I stayed in Bangkok while working on my TEFL certificate, I was still very much in my American go-go-go mode of walking, racing, and passing pedestrians left and right. I couldn’t understand why Thais walked so slowly, but then a colleague of mine mentioned how much he enjoyed the slower pace, and really, what’s the rush? He got me thinking, and better still, he got me slowing down.
5. Look twice. Yeah, there are ladyboys (transvestites) here, so inevitably you wonder, Was that a boy or girl? There are also a slew of motley folks (both local and expats) that keep your eyes guessing and very much amused. But I also see “looking twice” as a philosophy not too far from the expression: don’t judge a book by its cover. When you are slowing down, looking twice can be a good thing because people are so much more than what you see on the surface.
6. Get closer. Personal space doesn’t exist in Thailand. I’m convinced of it. Whether you are on the road, squeeze-walking down a soi/street or waiting in line at an open/super market, folks will get close to make space or be first. This was challenging for me to get used to, especially as a woman. I’ve learned to make room and accept the fact that this is Thailand. And yet I’ve also had a woman shake me by the hips while waiting in a long line for the WC. Perhaps she saw my agitated face, thought I was a Thai, or simply was in a friendly mood and decided to joke around with me. Either way, I wasn’t offended. The contact reminded me of Thai culture, my mom, and how I can fit in.
7. Get a handle bar on your fears. Hopefully, I won’t regret this, but I learned how to drive a motorbike/scooter. After living in Ecuador for 6 months, I decided to return to Thailand. And when I did I was determined to learn how to drive. First, I was tired of depending on red trucks and friends to get me around. Second, my partner of 6 years left me for another woman and I had something to prove. And lastly, it was simply time for me to get over my fear of driving in Thailand.
8. Stories unfold one page at a time. Since things work differently on the other side of the world, I’ve had to learn to change my perspective and be patient, not only with other people or circumstances, but with myself too. And I don’t think I generally lack patience, but I think Americans do.
When a colleague and I were waiting at Immigration, I pointed out an older man clearly upset as he sat among all the others waiting to be called. As we watched him run his fingers over his bald head, I said, “American.”
My friend said, “No way. Russian. Look at him. He looks Russian.”
“Nah,” I replied. “He’s so impatient. He’s going insane waiting – definitely American.”
We left as the old man was called, and my friend boldly went up to him and looked at his passport.
“Well?” I asked.
“You were right. He’s American.”
I was momentarily satisfied, but I’m not proud that Americans have been raised to have it our way and have it now. Maybe I’m wrong. In either case, I’m (usually) grateful for the opportunities to cultivate patience. And I’m always amazed at how (usually) patient Thais are.
9. It’s a big bright world. Living and working abroad, not only fulfilled a dream and desire that I had been fostering, it also opened my eyes to different sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that I wonder if I would have experienced had I stayed in the United States. I’ve also met so many great people from all over the world and within my own passport country.
10. I am blessed. Unfortunately, this is an overused expression, but a reminder that stayed with me ever since I was 16 years old when I visited Thailand for the second time. I saw poverty like I had never seen before. I felt different, even though I looked the same. I don’t think I felt rich because we were not rich, that would come later with reflection.
I remember staring at my family’s concrete blocks bathroom, squat toilet and bucket bath with pure distaste. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a hot shower I could use. But when our holiday was over, I remember taking a hot shower at home, and thinking how wonderful it felt and how lucky I was.
This seems like an insignificant thing to be grateful for, but this was a lesson I learned at 16, and it has stuck with me ever since. This seemingly small experience opened the door of gratitude wide, filling a space in me that I did not know existed before. This also led me to search for things that are important to me and question a lot of things I took for granted. I don’t know how Thailand does it, but Thailand taught me how lucky I am for all the things in my life.
>>>What are some things your expat country has taught you?<<<
*originally posted (modified) on expats blog