As a fresh, first-time ESL teacher in Thailand, I was placed in a large, conservative eastern Thai city called Chonburi. My first week there can be likened to a neatly organized and nicely decorated house being ravaged by the winds of an F5 tornado, from the inside out. My eagerly anticipated confrontation with culture shock was finally upon me, and in full force.
In a place like Chonburi, where tourism is sparse and farangs (foreigners) are few, I can be absolutely certain that I was having an authentic experience of Thailand. Nothing was tapered or catered to meet my needs or to make Westerners feel more comfortable, as in other places I’ve been. In this typical, traditional city, everything exists solely for the local Thais. I was eager for a genuine local-life experience, but with that came the realization that I did not and could not fit in. After just a few weeks in my new hometown, the many cultural differences I encountered made me doubt if I would ever understand this town or these people.
The first of the differences I was grappling with was the utter disregard for safety.
I remember standing, instead of sitting like the rest of the passengers, on the back of a songthaew (a Thai pick-up truck turned taxi), feeling terrified at the precarious situation I was in. One pothole or sharp turn and I could be flung to the streets, flattened on asphalt. And then I looked to my right and saw a baby, no older than one, standing up, with no helmet, somehow balanced between her two parents on a motorbike that was whizzing past me. Comparatively, my fears seemed trivial and my worry unwarranted. Both my body and my emotions seemed out of place.
Seconds after pondering my corpse as a pancake, I was alarmed to see a figure walking in the left lane of the busy highway our songthaew was speeding down. I craned my neck in disbelief and demanded an identity for this suicidal lunatic. It was a mother, sauntering calmly and tenderly feeding her newborn a bottle.
Days later, I was walking down the street and suddenly noticed sparks flying all around me. A welder with a blowtorch, sans helmet or goggles, was crafting something on the sidewalk. I moved into the street to avoid the heat of the flames, their radius reaching a good 10 feet. I looked back at the welder who seemed consumed in self-immolation, unafraid and engulfed in sparkles of orange. Because I was alone on my walk and more perceptive of my surroundings, I was aware enough to look down, noticing the meteor-sized hole in the sidewalk. There were no impediments to my falling to certain death or disfigurement. No warning sign or barricade or orange tape. Nothing obvious like that. And this was the norm. Public safety seemed to be a (quite literally) foreign concept here. Instead, Thailand demands street smarts.
At first I saw this blatant disregard for safety and these dangerous predicaments as ignorant, unnecessary, and careless: a disregard for life. But I started to realize that Thai people simply live without fear. They trust their instincts, are sure of their actions, aware of their bodies, always deliberate. They never waste time second-guessing themselves. It was a simple idea, but it was much different from the cautious, safety-conscious society I was raised in.
I had spent two months traveling Thailand prior to settling down in Chonburi, but it was here that I first experienced the effects of culture shock. Here, the ground was constantly shifting under me. I was spinning in circles with nothing to focus on, no point of reference. An eternal cycle of shock, confusion, reevaluation, fragmented understanding. Knowledge was fleeting, only came bit by bit. I was slowly, slowly synthesizing. Trying to make sense out of senselessness. In the beginning, nothing added up. I felt like I was weaving my way through a labyrinth of convoluted thoughts, and I would never reach the end or see the light again. I was constantly reassessing what I thought was normal or right. Always readjusting my perspective, aware of the nature of my thoughts, having to realign my center. Everything I was once certain of was challenged. My common sense was not so common.
After living in Chonburi for one month, I needed to get away to clear my bogged-down mind. I remember seeking waterfalls as a medium for clarity, renewal. My roommates and I set out for Khao Chamao National Park, piled into a 12-seater minivan, and departed on a 3-hour journey eastward. The van was packed with no fewer than 20 people. People were sitting on the floor, in laps, and awkwardly pinned against the window. The driver was speeding, honking, swerving, and appeared possessed.
His partner, a woman, is antsy and alert, crouching in the aisle of the van like a lioness ready to pounce on her prey. Every few feet she slides open the window, yells ‘Rayong,’ and a slew of indecipherable Thai, and searches for signs of submission. The driver stops and she hastily herds more people in, controlling us like cattle. Meanwhile, methodically collecting a wad of bills.
After repeating this cycle for about an hour and effectively counterbalancing the high turnover rate, both the driver and his assistant begin to unclench their jaws. As the van begins to empty and the front seat again becomes vacant, the woman crawls into the seat, slouches down, and kicks up her feet. She tosses the now massive stack of cash onto the middle console, laughing. The driver, his brow no longer furrowed, looks over at his profits and allows a smile. It appears to be upwards of 3,000 baht, or about $100. They share a snack from the woman’s purse and relaxed conversation, letting out repressed laughs. Pleased with themselves, they rejoice in the fruits of their labor.
The minivan drops us off at a nondescript street corner in the middle of a nondescript town and takes off without giving us the slightest direction. We are confused but unfazed. We’ve had one or two experiences like this before and somehow, unexplainably, everything always seems to work out. So we skip the opportunity to complain, and instead start walking. Soon two motorbike taxis appear behind us and enthusiastically agree to take us into the park, which they tell us is 16km away. A heightened elevation and a canopy of trees and we are at peace. We rent a bungalow for the night.
I experience the waterfalls as symbols of a flow that washes over, rules all life in Thailand. A subtle but pervasive undercurrent that guides events, circumstances, and interactions between people. The transmittance of this energy is steady and rhythmic, like a pulse. Life here operates within a cycle which should not be broken or interrupted, else everything and everyone within it would cease to function and die. The beating heart of Thailand is a closed circuit system.
This is why the people move quickly, erratically, taking your hand and rushing you into an already full minivan. This is why they do not slow down or stop for pedestrians until within centimeters of fatal contact, and why, if they hit you with their car, they will smile and keep driving. They are trying to maintain the flow. They are replenishing the source. This is also why Thai people are always willing and making time to help others. To get you going where you need to be. To get you moving, like them.
A cyclical, dynamic nature rules in a culture that thrives on mobility. Hesitation would be unnatural, would cut off the source. The (perceived) chaos is somehow contained in movement. Everyone remains connected if they all move forward together. A collective unconscious.
In the beginning, as a tourist, the differences in my and Thailand’s culture seemed exotic, even mystical. But when trying to live as a local, the differences would often appear harsh and the struggle to make meaning dire. What separated me so much from these kind and generous people? I learned that it is not what we think that is different—it is how we think. How we arrange our thoughts and assess situations and determine meaning.
At the time, I was comforted by the words of Alan Watts and his attempts to explain Zen Buddhism to a Western audience in The Way of Zen. He has to go back to the beginning, would have more success with an infant, whose thoughts are malleable, unfiltered, than with an adult whose thoughts are uncontrollably, perhaps irreversibly, dominated by a western way of thinking. Watts explains that Western and Eastern minds think differently. Western minds think linearly, logically. Eastern minds think laterally, abstractly. To us, it seems, illogically. Point A does not necessarily lead to Point B. A cause does not necessarily lend an effect. In order to understand the concepts and content of Zen Buddhism, a Western mind must first change not what they think, but how. They must abandon their faith and reliance on logic, in exchange for uncertainty, vulnerability, and eventually, clarity.
In Chonburi, I was taking lessons in expanding my Western mind, training it to think differently. I sought culture shock and I found it. Now, I had to live through it.
Despite my willingness to be accepted in my new community, I was continually met with resistance because of my inability to conform. To have people staring at you as if you were an alien all day and all night, every day and every night, is a disorienting experience. It makes you awkward, unsure of yourself, unable to relax. Some days it is profoundly maddening. Not a day went by in Chonburi that I was not reminded I was an outsider, that I did not belong. Sometimes the attention was overwhelmingly, unequivocally negative, overt and malicious. Sometimes the stares and whispers were subtle and innocent. Just curious people with well-meaning intentions. I noticed them all, however, and could not harmonize with my surroundings because of it.
It made me perpetually incomplete and unable to feel like this place was my home. Here, every action of mine was closely monitored and scrutinized. I could not eat an apple on the beach without someone taking note of it. They would point, gesticulate, shamelessly exclaim “Farang gin apeun!” (“The foreigner is eating an apple!”) A dissonant susurrus constantly played in the background and became the soundtrack to my life. To the people of Chonburi, I was an unknown organism that needed to be closely analyzed and sent to the lab for further inspection. And so I spent five months under a microscope unsuccessfully trying to remain invisible. There is no way to appear small when one is always under bright lights, always magnified.
As a woman I am quite accustomed to unsolicited male attention. I am no stranger to the creepy grins and verbal harassment that make a female’s fists clench, stomach turn, muscles tense. In Chonburi, not only was I a woman, I was a foreigner. And my skin was three shades too pale to fit in. Not only was I a foreigner, I was a teacher. Respected, admired, and severely judged by the thousands of students, parents, and teachers that constantly surrounded me. Someone was always watching.
I was surprisingly susceptible to the heavy gaze of these vigilant eyes. I was not used to this attention and unsure of how to react. Because of this, Chonburi made me hyper-conscious of the way I carried myself, the face I chose to wear. I had to shield myself with thick skin and inviolable confidence. Often vulnerable and uncomfortable, my smile was my only defense. But, in the Land of Smiles, a smile can mean many things and can elicit an array of disparate reactions.
Sometimes a passive smile is an offering of friendship and will ease the tension, bridge the distance. Sometimes a smile is a sign of weakness and timidity–an open invitation for unsavory men to make lascivious pursuits and upset my equilibrium. And sometimes a smile and a friendly ‘Sawadeeka’ are met with a blank, hostile stare–the harshest reaction of all. I could never know what the people who remain closed to me were thinking. Like statues, they remained indifferent–unmoved by my presence and inhuman to me.
In this town, I have felt detached, dejected, unwanted. And though these feelings can be frustrating and disheartening, I think it is important that I have felt them. I think it is crucial to my inner evolution that I have known what it’s like to have no comfort zone, no social circle, no security. To be plucked from the familiar and plopped into the unknown, armed with no aegis but my tenacity, my intuition. An experience I could not have had back home.
As I reflect on my time in Chonburi, I realize that it has been far from ideal. But the challenges I’ve faced and the discomfort I’ve felt remind me of the one thing worth remembering: I did not come here for a better life, an easy life, a life of paradise. I came here for a new perspective. I came here to be shaken awake from the dream that my life in Atlanta–a perfect, self-sustaining biome of everything and everyone I love–is all there is to know. To be reminded that my reality is not the only reality that exists. To feel so firmly planted and to be willingly uprooted.
For better or for worse, I see my experiences as gifts. They are the answers to my inner questions.
Around the same time last year, I set out for this journey and stepped foot on my first international plane, expecting the best. After four months of being back in the U.S., only now do I feel like my Thai adventure is behind me. For a while, being home felt like I was waking up from a dream only to find that I was still asleep. I was stuck in a kind of limbo–my body was no longer in Thailand, but my heart was not yet in America.
Eight months in a foreign country is too a brief a time to claim to understand its culture. And I don’t. What I have, what I’ve gained and extracted, are just pieces. But I have learned enough to carry with me for now.
From a proud and generous people, I have learned the traditions, stories, and social norms that coalesce and define what it means to be Thai. And slowly, through my experiences, I taught myself what it means to be a foreigner, both observing and contributing in the middle of it all.
I have learned that the world and its problems are not black and white. Morality is the most nebulous of all human creations. Like anthropologist Stuart Shlegel, I began to realize “somewhere in my consciousness, the truth had finally taken hold of me that the rusty everyday patterns of our daily lives–what we believe, how we do things, whom we trust–really are no more than shared understandings in the society we were raised.”
My values and my beliefs about right and wrong were unwittingly entrenched in me. I had to accept and constantly remind myself that these were not truths; they were only my opinions. Over time, the line that used to clearly define my morality became blurred, loosening many of my rigidities along with it. But there are certain precepts on which I remain firm and certain norms that I may never be able to extricate from my molded mind.
I may never get used to watching a teacher beat her students or a family of five precariously crammed on a motorbike. I may never feel comfortable bowing to a statue of Buddha or squatting inches from the floor to use the bathroom without toilet paper. I may never think bleaching your armpits makes you beautiful. And that’s ok.
I have learned the importance of being conscious about my choices. There is a universal responsibility of ethical behavior that is demanded of you when travel to a country you know nothing about. One cannot ride an elephant, or a buy a bracelet made from bombs or place a dollar bill in a four-year-old, outstretched palm without considering the implications.
I have learned the language–how to read it, write it, and speak it–a key to communion with the people I was living amongst and wanted so badly to understand. I have lived in the unattractive, unromantic parts of Thailand; I have explored the exotic paradises you see on postcards. I have known ugly faces and beautiful ones. I have played the role of tourist, teacher, vagrant, and local. I have blended in nicely and stuck out sorely. I have finally known what it means to be a minority, to be treated differently because of the color of my skin and to be disadvantaged by the stereotypes that exist outside of my control.
I was stronger and, many times, weaker than I ever thought I could be. I have been so overwhelmed by pure joy and contentment that my skin was not enough to contain my emotion. I have been disenchanted. And I spent more than one night thinking, So this is what it’s like to die. Many a desperate and hopeless situation has arisen. I have overcome them. And now, only now, I have overcome myself.