Ten things Thailand has taught me (so far)

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.

mom-and-dad
Dad and Mom (circa 1972)

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.

Nice face :P
Now why did I say that?

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.

Getting ready for the parade.
Getting ready for the parade.

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.

motorbike-maven

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.

A view from above.
A view from above (at Gin Salat) Lamphun.

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

21 thoughts on “Ten things Thailand has taught me (so far)

  1. Harmony when I lived in Japan. Everyone was so kind to me. The only time that was rough was during commute time. HaHa!

    I learned that I was never truly alone and I leaned Faith in South Korea. I didn’t know the language and there was some navigating issues. As soon as I prayed once I have exhausted all ways to help myself, I got the help I needed.

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    1. Living abroad definitely has its “bringing you to your knees” moments! Meditation helped me greatly when I lived in Ecuador. It was the good habit that gave me comfort when I needed it the most.

      Cheers 🙂

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  2. however, ya gotta admit that quite often mai ben rai is just a way to blow off any sort of responsibility. for example when a hotel provided my mom with an extra cot for the room, but no pillow. so, i went down to the lobby to ask for another pillow & she just smiled & said mai ben rai. so, i stood there & waited thinking she meant, no problem, we’ll do it. nope. she didn’t mean “no problem” she meant “your problem is not MY problem”. it’s not always foreigners being uptight. it’s always painted as this peaceful ideal. i say this phrase just about everyday & mean it & certainly many are doing the same … just not always. here is a very negative side to this phrase, don’t you think?

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    1. I am sorry about your hotel experience, and to answer your question, I think there are negative sides to many words and phrases. I can’t speak to mai bpen rai because my experience has been different. But I can speak to the word farang which, not unlike Hawaii’s haole, can be a loaded term to not only mean “foreigner” but “fuckin idiot”.

      But back to mai bpen rai, I don’t see it as a peaceful ideal so much as a way to deal with LIFE. Everyone has their own philosophy on that one, and this one is simply fascinating to me b/c I come from such a different world!

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  3. “A view from above (at Gin Salat) Lamphun” is a really nice photo. I might Photoshop out the cord running through the bottom right, but that’s be a lot of work. The colors are fantastic. Good piece overall. Like the intro.

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    1. Thank you! ^ ^ Gin Salat is such a colorful holiday. I noticed when I visited Lamphun last weekend that there were advertisements for this event. I predict foreigners will find this holiday soon.

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    2. <>

      mai bpen rai 🙂

      Lani, hi 🙂
      i will be coming to live in Chiang Mai (i hope). Can you suggest any way i could find out more about inexpensive places/areas to stay? i know it will be a matter of staying there and looking around and finding out but i’d like to get some idea now, something to help me “visualise.” What i will look for is workshop premises, perhaps in a light industrial sort of district, where i can set up a small bike workshop. Outside of the city would be good. Not apartments, not “western-expat” style, i am very much an “immerse and assimilate” type of person. 🙂

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      1. I would highly recommend CMCC’s newsletter. You can subscribe to it here: http://cmcchurch.org/wordpress/?page_id=8 >>> you want to subscribe to classifieds. Also, let me recommend my post: https://lanivcox.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/10-useful-sites-for-chiang-mai/ – I know it requires a bit of looking around but I’ve written a lot about moving here. You can also look at my moving to CM post on apartments: https://lanivcox.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/chiang-mai-apartment-living/

        CM is actually quite large, and spread out. I’d recommend also getting on a bicycle or motorbike and exploring. My friends have found places this way and it’s a good way to also get to know various neighborhoods. Enjoy!

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  4. I love everything about this post. I can really take all these to heart living in the US as well. And many of them reminded me of my time in China. For example, they have a phrase that translates to “It doesn’t matter”, which is used often. I want to take the “walk slowly” advice to heart, as I do find myself rushing all the time! Great thoughts! Happy New Year Lani!

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    1. Happy New Year to you Ashley 🙂

      Yeah, I figured a few things that I have learned along the way can be applied to any expat experience. I think this comes from having that “out of familiar territory feelings.” I didn’t know that about China. I guess it’s an Asian thing ^ ^ Hugs.

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  5. This is awesome Lani, and well said!
    I feel very much the same about what living in Korea has taught me as well. Patience and not taking things personally is something I most definitely relate to.
    Sometimes I feel as though the Korean way of “saving face” and rigid hierarchical views makes me also feel lucky that I’m from a country that is more open in those regards. Nothing makes me feel more oppressed than doing things simply because you have to – I just don’t feel good about that. I also feel blessed for the freedom I grew up with: physically, emotionally and mentally.
    I love your bike – I also have a little red scooter. Good for you for learning to drive, it’s an immense feeling of freedom to be able to get yourself around isn’t it?
    Happy New Years!
    ~Andrea<3

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    1. Thanks Andrea. I certainly feel blessed to have been born and raised in the States, even though I enjoy living in Thailand. I enjoy the contrast, and the ‘push pull’ of everyday life and the challenges, and contemplation it brings.

      Yeah, the scooter brings freedom, although I still feel apprehensive when I drive. Too many accidents! Ah, well. At least I can say I’ve done it 😛 Happy New Year to you too.

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  6. Lanni, you stay amazing as ever. Wonderful post thank you. I have lived in Chiang Mai twice and twice returned to the US. It was sooo difficult for me, especially the language. Now I miss it a lot.

    I never regret travelling and living internationally. It opens the mind and heart like nothing else. The down side, for someone like me, is I end up not really belonging anywhere!

    LOL, oh well. Keep up the consistent good work.

    Regards,
    Jim

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    1. Thanks Jim. I understand. I feel like I belong here, but not really. And when I return home I feel the same way. I guess we are good practitioners of non-attachment 🙂

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  7. I’m happy to find this blog and read your story in Thailand 🙂
    I’m Indonesian who love Thailand very much haha I’ve been travelling to Thailand for 3 times and each time i begin to fall in love with Thai Culture,people,and anything more and more..
    My dream is to move and live in Thailand but first thing i have to find a job in Thai to survive and enjoy living here.
    Could you share about this like how to find a jobs for foreigner in Thailand (since so many jobs forbidden for foreigner T.T) ,what to prepare for moving and living abroad especially in Thailand.
    Please share your story how you can “ended up” living here in Thailand 🙂

    Thanks and Take care
    Rudy

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    1. Hi Rudy,

      If you go to the header “living and moving to Thailand” you will find I’ve written many posts on this very subject. There are educational, volunteer and of course, “teaching” visas for foreigners who are interested in living here. Good luck and thanks for stopping by 🙂

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