Ignorance in the United States is nothing new. We’re known for being quite good at how little we know about other countries and our own. Being a world superpower, we expect everyone to know about us though. Try moving to rural Thailand.
It is an essential attribute for Peace Corps Volunteers to be open-minded, accepting people. And I mean really, really broad-minded. Things that were all so new in the beginning, but vital to the culture, like the food, the hierarchy, and the foot thing have to be taken in stride, as much as possible even though we’re plopped in a brand new place. While it is difficult enough remaining upbeat about things in our new culture, it’s much more challenging to not be given the same luxury (and it feels like a priceless one) of acceptance for your own way of life.
As if I don’t get stared at enough for my outward appearance, any Thai person is quick to point out the differences when I want to do something my own way. When this happens, it’s enough for everyone to stop, watch, point out what the person is doing differently, and have a conversation about it. Sometimes they’ll even stop me or take whatever I’m doing out of my hands to do it their way. The idea that there is a whole new set of ways to do things is just mind-boggling to most of my Thai peeps.
Want some examples?
After hearing from my host father for the millionth time to eat more Thai food and he suggested the two things I hate most in the food chain, fish (and deep-fried at that) and bananas, I had enough. I said, as nicely as I could muster, something to the effect of, if you moved to America and lived there for nine months, do you think you would still want to eat Thai food? Blank stare. I waited. We stared at each other. Then he made the motion of scooping up food and inserting it into his mouth and said the word for eat. I continued staring for a few moments before turning and walking away.
I was being urged by one of the other teachers from school to eat spicy food, fish, and in general to try new things. Already having such a success with my host father, I tried the route of her eating farang food in America, to which she said she would eat gladly. Everything I named, she accepted it with open arms: pizza, ice cream, not deep-fried chicken, pasta, spaghetti, lasagna, soups, cheese, most dairy products…this was going to be a hard nut to crack. I sat thinking for a moment as she celebrated with my coteacher as they triumphed that I couldn’t come up with something she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. And then with a deadly smile, it came to me: all the food I just mentioned, you don’t eat it with rice. I knew within moments that I won. ‘What do you eat your food with?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing, you just eat it with the other things.’ I told her and sat back folding my arms. She tried for a few more seconds, but eventually conceded… she shoots and scores.
(A little sidebar here, rice is so important in Thai culture that the rest of the food on the table is called ‘gap cao’ or with rice. So when my friend asked me in Thai, she literally said ‘what do you eat your ‘with rice’ with?’ They’re also surprised that I tell them there isn’t much that is considered straight American food, but rather, we eat a variety of different foods that originated from other cultures, much like the citizens.)
Most Thai people don’t understand why I’m tired all the time. They take me to a party after a day at school and are shocked, (shocked!) that I’m exhausted at 7pm. I’ve tried explaining how much energy it takes to be constantly on the fence between two languages (teaching English and often having to explain in Thai) and be on the Thai side of the cultural wall when my own is pulling my body back to its old habits, no matter how hard my brain is trying to keep me on their side. This is all to no avail. It is beyond their grasp to realize that I need to be constantly on guard to communicate with them and not offend anyone, constantly on, and it’s not always a comfortable place to be.
I can’t tell you how many times my homedogs have been astonished that America does or does not have something that is considered typically Thai. Or that, gasp, it was created in my country! We were at a wedding and someone thought they’d surprise me by bringing me cotton candy. While I accepted quite graciously, as least I thought so, my friends watched anxiously as I tried something new and then applauded me for doing so. When I told them we had it in America as well, they were amazed. ‘Does a Thai person sell it?’ they asked. I thought they were joking. When I explained that it was created in the United States, there were many a fervent glance around the table to see if anyone else could confirm this crazy factoid. (I’m fairly certain they wrote me off.) My favorite is when some crazy (to me, normal to them) fruit or other food product is not available in America and they are flabbergasted to the point of laughter. ‘What do you have then?’ they taunt me with. This is when I want to jump in and say, ‘Well, quite frankly, I’m astounded that you only have cold showers and bucket ones at that, have no sinks in your bathrooms, live outside, consider it acceptable to show up to school late, not at all, drunk, or sit in the classroom while the students learn from the television, sit five on a motorcycle, allow men to have multiple mistresses and sometimes support them with school funds AND have no oven…but you don’t see me bragging do you?’
One thing that both cracks me up and aggravates me is how a Thai person cannot stand a conversation going on in English without having me or one of my coteachers translate it, even if it has nothing to do with them. Even if I’m just muttering things to myself or making a pun in English, my people wait, quite expectantly, for an explanation of what I just said. Most of the conversation at the lunch table is in Thai. I fully understand that, would never want that to change, and use the time to try to understand conversation idiosyncrasies. However, I had the nerve to ask my coteacher, in English, about our schedule for the day since things got switched around and another teacher at the school gave me the stink-eye! What, you don’t understand the two sentences I just said and I’m supposed to feel bad even though I had to work on full brainpower and still didn’t pick up the gist of the conversation for the past 45 minutes?! Welcome to my world lady.
My students understand the concept of English letters, that they have to learn them, and you can do crazy things like write words/sentences and communicate with them. What they are continually amazed about though is that I prefer to have things in English rather than Thai. They picked up my phone and started messing around with before stopping and asking me why I had it set to English. They’re also shocked that I can understand most songs in which English is the language. My sister gives a yelp of delight every time I confirm this. Other gems they’ve asked me: Why is your book in English? How do people understand Facebook if it’s in English? Do dogs speak English in America? Can all Americans read Thai?…kids say the darndest things.
On a more serious note, I had a conversation with a teenage gal the other day and when I told her about certain liberties in America, like not having to wai your teacher, there are no polite endings (outside of please and thank you) at the end of sentences or hierarchy pronouns with those older than you, and that we think those with more education as just as important, if not more than pure age (and gender) status, she couldn’t believe the freedom we had. And that whole bit about not having to wear a uniform to school or cutting your hair to your ears was pretty enticing to her as well. Now imagine what would happen if I told her about the right of freedom of speech and certain gender equality requirements…baby steps Erin, baby steps.
As I’ve said, time and time again, living in ‘Thai world’ is actually pretty fantastic despite all my writings of its craziness. I truly love my people here with all my heart. With that though, comes many struggles because I grew up in a world on the complete opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Sometimes it frustrates me to my wit’s end that I’m constantly told to do something their way or given odd looks for something completely normal to me. This hits especially hard when I spend the day with my ‘Thai face’ on in public and all I want to do is relax into the comfort of the few old standards I can get here and my host family points something out to me about how I’m not being Thai enough. ‘Can’t you see how hard I’m trying to fit in here?’ I want to scream at the top of my lungs. My language, my diet, my hygiene habits, my life, my everything have been thrown upside down, tossed into a blender and pushed to the max and you’re going to fault me for eating cereal for breakfast?! This is the trouble when everyone around you is tuned in to the Thai transmission and you are the only one with your eyes set on the world.