The morning I left for my placement to teach in Thailand, I quite literally had ants in my pants. As I moved across the parking lot, my skirt swept through a pile of the large, angry bugs and after trying to sit in the driver’s seat (the wheel is on the right here in Thailand, whoops) I spent the next fifteen minutes crying out and flailing madly in the backseat that I’d been resigned to.
The taxi driver didn’t speak English, had no idea that I was being assaulted by giant ants, and was likely afraid for her safety. No wonder farang have a reputation for being hard to please. Don’t let them drive and they have a seizure in the back of your car.
When I got to the bus station I was lost, I didn’t know where to wait, I couldn’t read the signs, I dropped things and tripped over my too-long skirt. The clumsiness was exacerbated by the fact that everywhere I looked, people were staring—I understood that blonde hair and light eyes is an unusual sight in Thailand, but I was irritated at the obvious gawking.
Culture shock didn’t feel like I expected it to. I expected to be sad. Lonely. Homesick. It wasn’t the case.
Have you ever spent so much time around another person that everything they do starts to irritate you? You hear them inhale and you want to tear out their jugular? That was my flavor of culture shock. I was pissed and had no one to blame it on. And I realized that this was my first bout with the inevitable phenomenon we teachers-in-training had all been warned about.
It’s important to recognize that culture shock affects people differently; some people cry; some people lose their tempers; some people mutter curse-words for the duration of the five-hour bus ride to their placements. Between obscenities, I thought about how I would handle the coming weeks.
They’re panning out well, and here’s what I’ve learned:
Many events are going to be out of your control. Important details will be shared an hour (or maybe even just five minutes) before they play out. You might end up giving an impromptu speech in front of a few thousand students. A flight might be booked on your behalf without you knowing. Oh, and by the way, class is canceled today.
My advice is to take control where you can. Exercising your decision-making capabilities and giving yourself choices can help you establish a sense of stability. And when you have that, it’s easier to handle the many surprises with calm and grace. So make time for yourself.
It’s never a bad idea to invest in yourself, and asserting personal control where it’s appropriate to do so can have a truly positive impact on your well-being.
You are here, in this foreign place, for a reason. Hopefully, that reason has something to do with learning more about the local community and way of life. In the short time I have been here, I have learned that Thai people value harmony, and this prioritization leads them to take such excellent care of each other. In a small, quiet town like Chiang Kham, there are many opportunities to experience this kindness firsthand.
For instance, I made friends with a lovely woman who owns a restaurant across the street from my school. She hardly speaks English and I currently speak even less Thai, but it doesn’t matter. Most days I get my lunch there. I say hello, I smile, I ask how she is and then I say “mun deum”—same same. At which point she gets to work on my usual lunch. Sometimes she sits with me and shares warm corn scraped from the cob, or sugar-coated nuts. We trade Thai and English words for objects around the room. We smile.
The first day I arrived at my placement, I signed up for Muay Thai with a local on his little farm-looking property. Although I was not able to continue my training there, the connections I made with the fighters there are something I cherish. Having my ass kicked by a six year old was both humbling and heartwarming, and it was something we could all laugh about.
By spending time in the community, I learned something valuable: you don’t need to speak the same language to connect, to share, and to reach a kind of understanding.
This is nowhere more obvious than in your own classroom. One of the greatest resources available to you are your own students.
Do your job to the best of your ability and the result is life-changing. Few things are more fulfilling than walking into a room full of kids who cheer at the sight of you. Let those interactions with your students remind you why you’ve come to this place. I encourage you to embrace the role of “teachuh” (which most people will call you, regardless of whether they’re your student or not) because when you invest your time and energy into the community, it has a beautiful way of reciprocating.
Cultural blunders, regular discomfort and routine confusion are part of the learning experience. Whenever you can, laugh it off. There will be heat rash and language barriers and bugs in places you don’t want them. Often, you’ll be the butt of the joke. Don’t take it too seriously.
As a foreigner in a foreign land, it’s inevitable. A lot of what happens is easy to laugh about after the fact, but if you can learn to find humor as the mishaps occur, you’ll be better off for it. It’s something I’ve learned from my students. Thai kids are happy, lighthearted. They smile, they’re engaged with one another and humor is a constant companion. Be like Thai kids. Choose laughter.
It was a long bus ride to my placement… Compounded by my own negative feelings which, at that point, were spiraling wildly out of control. Everyone hated me. I didn’t belong. Nothing made sense. I was angry, I was scared. I needed to shift my mindset. So I turned to a loving-kindness meditation.
This is a strategy for a little bit of direct, immediate relief. There are a wide variety of meditations, and loving-kindness meditations are traditionally called metta. It’s originally a Buddhist practice meant to cultivate compassion and goodwill. Even within this particular form of meditation, there are many, many variations. Typically, it involves a mantra directed at some combination of people; yourself, someone you revere, someone you love, someone you’re indifferent toward, and someone you strongly dislike.
Here’s my version:
May I be joyous, safe, and at peace. May I be filled with love and kindness. May I be illuminated, unburdened.
At this point I turned my attention to the boy sitting next to me. I felt like there was an insurmountable gap between me and the people I was going to live and work with. The meditation faltered and I lost the feeling. So I switched devices and instead I visualized all the things this boy had ever done for his mother. It was random, I made it up as I went, but it worked.
The ironic part is that his mother turned out to be sitting behind us and when we arrived in Chiang Kham, they struck up a conversation with me, took me to lunch and went out of their way to ensure I was safely settled in the new town. The universe has a delightful way of bringing events full circle.
Sabai sabai. That is the Thai way. A state of comfort, relaxation and tranquility. It can be yours so long as you’re willing to endure the initial challenges. If you’re struggling with culture shock please remember that the beauty of your experience abroad lies just beyond these trials—or, perhaps, within them.
Do you have advice for handling culture shock while living abroad? Share your tips in the comments below!
About the Author:
Greenheart Travel English teacher, Chiara Burns, is a wanderer, wonderer, insomniac and a firm believer in the powers of serendipity and human kindness. Chiara likes traveling, fantasy literature, deadlifting, and photoshopping Tom Hanks’ face onto photos of the family dogs. You can read more about her adventures in Thailand on her blog, The Road to Everwhere.