Expat · Thailand

How has Thailand changed you?

pink-bag
Chiang Mai, Thailand 2013

My friend M and I were looking at new places to live when she whispered how she didn’t like the bars on windows. Many Thai homes have bars on the windows for security reasons.

“Where I’m from, this is a sign of a bad neighborhood.”

I shrugged, “I guess I’m used to it.”

Then I thought about what an interesting cultural difference this was.  To Thais, bars on windows mean safe, but to the American M (and others), the bars signified dangerous. Then I wondered why I was okay with it? Perhaps seeing them in Filipino neighborhoods in Hawaii made it feel more familiar. I don’t know. Currently, I live in a house with bars on the windows, although they are decorative.

Unlike my other expat friends, I don’t go back to the United States every year. The last time I was in Hawaii was in 2009. And in 2010 I stopped over very briefly in Alabama on my way back from Ecuador to Thailand. Ever since, well, I’ve been here.

Of course, I’d like to do a grand US tour and visit family and friends. I do miss America, but not enough to do anything about it – yet. So, my expat experience of living in SE Asia feels less casual and more concentrated because I haven’t had those brief holiday family interruptions that remind me of what makes Thailand – Thailand.

At this point, I’m wondering what it will be like to go back and see – not only if and how the US has changed, but how have I changed? Is it even possible for me to analyze and see my former self, the person I was before I arrived? Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about internal changes, I’ve already written about that, I’m talking about visible ones, the habits and the everyday pickins. Let’s see if I can give it a try…

I don’t think I stand as straight and tall as I used to. You have to crouch when you walk in front of other people, even if it is just a little, to be polite (And my momma raised me to be polite). I remember when someone told me that they could tell I was not Thai by the way I carried myself. I guess I looked more confident? I wonder if I still have that quality. If I don’t, I want it back.

When I’m driving a motorbike I’m much more calm about drivers cutting me off and other rude (grounds for an ass whoopin’ back in the US of A) behavior. You have to be, because the rules for driving here are sooooo different.

0353b-motorbikeart
Chiang Mai, Thailand 2011

And I’m sure everyone else is doing this but, I pick bugs out of my food and keep eating. I eat with a fork and spoon. I put my noodles in the little dish spoon like I saw a woman in Bangkok do every time I eat noodle soup. If I have a choice of silverware, I usually grab a spoon. And I remember when it was the fork (Sorry, fork).

Oh, I pick my nose more often, too – in public. Nah, just kidding. Well, sort of. It’s kind of dusty driving around on a motorbike.

And after 4-5 years of living here, it’s safe to say my diet and my eating habits have changed. I eat much more spicy foods. Most male expats I know lose weight. But I think because I’m American Asian, the diet here fits my mixed-mashed background of both Western and Asian foods so I don’t feel like something is missing or particularly unhealthy.

mixed-veggies-and-pork
Stir fry can be healthy, right?

I don’t think my diet is as clean as it was in the US. I ate meat only once or twice a week, cooked at home and didn’t eat pork. Then again, I probably eat a greater variety of fruits because Thailand has so much to offer. And I’m baking less, so I’m eating less cookies. I actually think this is a classic expat debate. Are you healthier here or back home?!

Yeah, I look in the mirror more often, too. I remember walking through MBK in BKK (is there another one?) and being shocked by the amount of bored cashiers and salespeople looking at themselves in their mirrors, plucking out white hair, popping a zit or applying more makeup. Now, I haven’t gone that far, but I definitely notice that I check myself out more often. It seems okay to be concerned with your appearance here, although in the US this would be considered vanity.

I sweep every day. Did I mention Thailand’s kind of dusty and there are always critters and their business to clean up? Remember carpet?!

Not too long ago I was discussing how absurd it is that it’s considered acceptable and normal to have diarrhea on a semi-regular basis. I think we live in a time and age where we should all understand the importance of hand washing with soap and handling food appropriately, yet expats (and Thais) know that tóng sĭa is considered part of life. Some swear it’s the street food, and others like me think it can happen anywhere.

But perhaps the biggest habit or change for me is the way I dress. I’m a more conservative dresser. At my old job, I was actually known for my dresses by both the students and the faculty. I also paint my nails regularly. In the States, I never did them, but once my friend Julia turned me on to getting a pedicure, I was hooked.

Really must stop matching polish w/ household appliances.
My first pedicure (and refrigerator now that I think about it).

Overall though, I don’t dress as American as I used to. I was a shorts, tee-shirt and sneakers kind of gal. Nowadays, I can’t tell you the last time I put on a pair of tennis shoes. I think I’ve embraced a femininity that was always there, but needed an excuse to come out. I’m not like a girly-girl, but I’m not as sporty-looking anymore. And that’s a surprise because I didn’t expect to start dressing differently just because I became an expat.

Oh, and I no longer trust dogs.

How have you changed?

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42 thoughts on “How has Thailand changed you?

  1. I think you would find the beauty that is in you back here in Hawaii when you come back to visit..and of course your sense of humor…I think your heart is big..and how you carry yourself..even your humor (picking nose) has big heart!…staying healthy with your food choices is just around the corner as well! …by the way girlee conservative clothes are great in Hawaii..maybe the age thing! Heart to heart Robyn

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    1. You are too kind. I am trying to be better about my posture. Esp in front of the computer! No more slouching!!! and yes, conservative clothes sounds stiff and old, but I think classy lasts longer trashy! Hahaha. Hugs.

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  2. We are changing already and have only been here just over a month.

    We are aware of always being polite to Thais and when you mentioned you crouch when passing people I was pleasantly surprised to realize I do this all the time without even thinking about it and Vince does the same. It makes me happy when part of the culture is second nature….and so quickly.

    I use the fork to push food onto the spoon and do the noodle thing automatically. Our diet is better here and we are loving the variety of fresh fruit and veg. I give the meat in a dish to Vince. I have picked bugs out of my food and drinks and don’t blink an eye if they are crawling on the table at a restaurant. I am getting used to tong sia.

    We take songtheaw, and tuk tuk everywhere. The other day we called a real taxi, you know…..the one with leather seats, air conditioning and smells good? I hopped in and (second nature..put on my seat belt) I was instantly horrified that in the 43 days we have been here I have worn a seat belt twice! I was more terrified riding in a friends car with out a working seat belt than riding in a tuk tuk or songtheaw. That is kind of twisted.

    I wonder what differences I will find after a year! Thanks again for a great post.

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    1. I love how you two are so happy and upbeat, regardless of circumstances. I’m a little envious that you have that honeymoon outlook, too. I feel much more worn around the edges 😛

      OMG – seatbelts! I’ve always hated them, so I kind of like not having to wear them here. That being said, many lives I’m convinced would be saved if they had them. Buses nowadays have them.

      Hope to see you both soon. Hugs from the ‘Rai 🙂

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  3. The hunch thing is interesting.

    I would say two things jolted me when we moved back from Singapore (I’m just going to drag your question south a bit here). One was giving over cash or other payment. I had to untrain myself from presenting it two-handed: people would give me looks, especially when it was clearly awkward to do it two-handed on account of one hand being occupied. There was one instance, though, where the guy behind the counter really liked it and gave me a huge (even relieved) grin, but he was a recent immigrant from a two-handed country.

    Second thing was how far ahead you have to plan everywhere else in the world. From tradespeople to having coffee with friends. Seriously guys!

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    1. Hahahahha. Love it. I can imagine you doing that and everyone giving you those weird looks back. And the immigrant, he must have loved it! Which reminds me, I never put money in people’s hands anymore. Huh. In the States, it was okay, probably better to give it to the person, but here, that would be too personal.

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      1. “I never put money in people’s hands anymore…here, that would be too personal.”

        I am a bit confused. By putting money in people’s hands, do you mean handing money directly to a person and not putting it down on a surface and letting him pick it up?

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      2. Yes. It’s common practice. I guess it derived from monks having to make transactions and female cashiers are not allowed to touch monks – so a little tray is sometimes provided.

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      3. I see. We here are used to just hand money, etc., to others. I didn’t know about the common practice there. Well, that’s something new I learned. Thanks 🙂

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  4. Cultural differences are always interesting. In Ecuador you would not want a place without bars on the windows.

    I am a big time dog lover but Thai dogs are not to be trusted, agreed.

    Must point out you have sexy toes. :>)

    It sounds like you are adjusting well. Not everyone can manage all of the changes as well as you. I am thinking of giving CM one more chance (already failed twice) and your article was a very good reminder for me that there will be challenges ahead.

    Thanks

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    1. Ecuador! Yeah, bars are a necessity. Beautiful country, but for me, the constant fear of being mugged, etc was too much for me to bear.

      It’s funny what you said about my toes. My mom told me when I was kid that I had ugly feet so I never had a pedicure or paid attention to them until I moved here. She said they looked like monkey feet – actually, it was a bit of a family joke. Now I keep them looking nice and don’t believe they are ugly anymore.

      Good luck w/ CM. Consider another town this time. I am really enjoying CR. But I don’t know if you want a smaller town…you’ll have to figure out what you need to be successful this time around. Thanks James.

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  5. My changes have nothing to do about living in a different country….because I never have. My changes are not cultural, but more age related and highly influenced by my cycling lifestyle: Biking everywhere forces me not to be buying too much junk/frivolous weighty stuff. 🙂 My health is more important than being chic and fashionable nowadays. I say to most women if appropriate: your best fashion statement that’s timeless is being healthy and reasonably fit. THen everything else looks good. 🙂

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    1. Very well said! Moving frequently forces you to keep your possessions to a minimum. I’m a bit of an expert in that dept 😉 But I am having fun being feminine – I’ve been the no makeup natural girl for many years and now I’m just enjoying being a girl in this way. I’m actually quite moderate. I remember a friend asking me if I wanted to put makeup on for this picture we were taking and I was like, “I am wearing makeup.” 😛

      And yes, being healthy never goes out of style!!!

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  6. Maybe it’s all the fruit! I learned from some people in Rarotonga that the flesh of papaya will loosen you up, but swallowing the seeds will have the reverse effect. I experimented and it seemed to work.

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    1. OH, gawd. 555+ I’m actually wondering if it is CM. It’s not the cleanest city. When they go through the city w/ that toxic bug spray through the markets, they cover the food/produce with just a cloth, if they cover it at all. I never got sick in BKK and so far in CR (!!!), I haven’t had that problem. Arrgg. I’ve cursed myself, haven’t I?!

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      1. Lani, as a girl from the islands you must have had a lot of papaya. If you have the “tóng sĭa”, try swallowing down a teaspoon of the black seeds that you probably always scoop out and threw away. It’s amazing that a single fruit has the cure for both of the common potty woes!

        (tóng sĭa … thanks for adding a word to my Thai vocabulary!)

        I sure like your blog. It’s so pleasant, good humored, and thoughtful. Great travelogue too!

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      2. Okay, okay! I’ll try it. And no, even as an Island girl I did not have a lot of papaya. I was such a picky eater. I don’t even really like seafood. E-gats! But I’m mending my ways now 🙂

        Thank you Stu!!!

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  7. Awesome post Lanster! 😉
    Great realizations to be had on this topic. I bow a lot now, that’s the main one. I’ve adapted the “no line up” policy and barge my way through a bit more regularly now. I don’t think twice about using a squatter like I initially did. I peace sign almost every picture. I actually like kimchi now. I never show cleavage, not that I really ever did, but I’m super aware of covering up now.
    That’s all I can think of at the mo ~ nose picking hasn’t happened…YET! 😀
    ~ Andrea ❤

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  8. Okay, confession time. Had my first ever mani/pedi last week. Couldn’t find the clippers I had tossed into one of the small crevices when we packed so Lin talked me into it. But, I didn’t get the nail polish. That would have made an interesting photo op. And bugs is bugs. They taste fine, whether you know they’re there or not.

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    1. I think it’s funny to see a guy getting a pedi, but it’s more common in Thailand than you’d think! Glad to read you are keeping up appearances 😀

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  9. This is such a good point! I was only in Taiwan for a year, so I didn’t acquire too many noticeable habits (except maybe that it took me a while before I remembered to put toilet paper IN the toilet…). But once I move to Korea, since I’m planning on staying long term, I’m sure certain things will change. I will hopefully be able to visit family at least once a year, but that’s a generous dream that may not happen. In that case, I’ll be even more Asianized.

    As for the clothes, I hope that does happen to me. I’ve always wanted to dress up more; more dresses and so on, but the climate here is more suited to t shirts. But Korea is the land of fashion and makeup, so I’m hoping I can get influenced enough to wear the unworn dresses in my closet.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always!

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    1. Yeah, it’s kind of weird to think about your habits changing because you live in another country. We generally don’t think of that. We just move and hope we like it.

      When you are in Korea, if you want to make it home every year, then you will. Korea pays its teachers more and if it’s important to you, I’m sure your family will help out. I’m envious of my friends who make the trek back because they get to have the best of both worlds.

      That being said, I’m here, and it’s all well and good. When I was away for college, it took me 5 years to make it back to Hawaii. I think that is just the way it works out for me. Thanks Otter!!! xxoo

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      1. Yes, and I am so thankful for that. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for making real roots. I know a lot of people live abroad and still look at themselves as expats – away from home, and not really belonging to the new culture. I think they might lose something with that mindset. I want to remember my family and my American-ness (not that I’ll really be able to forget it,) but I also want to delve more deeply into Korean culture. Not as a bystander, but as a participant.

        That could be my anxious to be gone self speaking, and it’s likely my views will change once it actually happens.

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      2. You’ve hit upon something really interesting. I hope we are still in contact when you go “full-on Korean” because I wonder if you will end up feeling very American or “going native” – maybe somewhere in between!

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      3. Of course we will be! I plan on doing a tour of the world eventually, and you have to give me the full Thai tour.

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  10. First, bars at windows. Lots of those here just like what you saw back in Hawaii (well, there are much, much more Pinoys here, he he). But bars have been discouraged in more recent years especially where houses are so close together because there have been cases that there’s a fire and victims could have been saved or saved themselves if they could only get out of the windows.

    Second, love the pedicure 😉

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    1. OMG. I never would have thought of that. What a horrible point! Shudder. My friend and I were talking about the lack of glass, and that is why bars are used, too. Now I’m scared to be in my home!!!!!!!

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      1. Sorry, I scared you, but it really is something to think about. Our own house also has bars, which does make me feel more secure (it’s not like people just trespass others’ houses where I’m from, but you never know, right?). But least we have an exit door, plus ours is just a one-storey house so no jumping necessary, which scares people in the first place.

        It would be wise to have doors that you have to push to open rather than pull, too, due to emergency cases like, again, fire. Panic makes people forget at times that they’re supposed to pull a door and not push. In 1996, many perished in the Ozone Disco fire, but they could haveescaped if the doors were made to open by pushing. People panicked at the door and couldn’t get out as they kept pushing against one another…

        Yikes. Sorry for this gruesome comment but I just thought I’d share…

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      2. No, I’m glad you did. I remember reading a young adult book about the fire hazards of the old sewing/garment district of New York City, and how many young women died because basic safety standards had not been put in place. But you know, living in Asia doesn’t have those things figured out yet.

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  11. This was so interesting! I never really thought that about the expat experience – how it’s different for people who go home every year and those who don’t. Haha, your point about the diet differences reminded me about how so many Western women working in Korea end up gaining weight. . .but I felt pretty healthy there. Thank you, Asian genes. I feel like Asia changed how I dress too. Just because, since I blended in, I never wanted to wear stuff that was too low-cut. One of my co-teachers actually told me that showing my collarbone was distracting my middle school boys. Riight. And I got more comfortable wearing dresses frequently; always felt too fussy in America when I wasn’t doing anything special.

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    1. Maybe because Asian food is sooo tasty, we “Westerns” are duped into thinking it’s healthy and lo-cal. Ha! It’s actually deep-fried and diabetic!

      Oooo collarbones. Scandalous! 😉 You minx, you!

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