Culture shock. Everyone warns you about it. You know it is inevitably going to happen. Yet it can still find a way to sneak up on you. Sometimes you don’t even know it’s happening when it is happening!
I have lived in Thailand for 2 months now. The first month I was in Chiang Mai getting my TESOL certification. I was living in a hotel, surrounded by a bunch of other Westerners who also decided to move across the world to teach English. Needless to say, we were a very like-minded group.
For the last month I have been living in Khonburi, teaching English to high schoolers. The first week or so was great. I had to adjust to living in a small/medium-sized town, but other than that everything was fine. There was a whole new town to explore, the school was nice, and I even found out that there were 2 other foreign English teachers that lived here. Slowly as more days and weeks past, the honeymoon stage of living in a foreign place was starting to wear off.
The cultural differences I am experiencing have gone from being cool and interesting to pestering and frustrating. I am a lot more irritable in situations that wouldn’t even faze me at home. I also get more irritated than I should at things that locals say or do. It can be tiring to live under a microscope and have everything I do or say be questioned, get told it’s wrong or weird. For example, one day during school last week, all of these comments were said to me within an hour’s time:
I actually thought the rosy cheeks conversation was really funny. The teachers aren’t trying to be offensive. They are just making a comment or have genuine curiosity. I am aware that I am the one who needs to conform. I chose to move to their country, not the other way around. At the same time, their cultural norms are very, very different from mine. It is hard not to feel criticized when everyone is questioning everything I do. Especially when those same things are considered normal in my home country.
In the States, if someone told me I was eating my noodles wrong, I would just say screw you this is how I eat my noodles. Then we could have some witty, sarcastic banter. If I had said something sarcastic in any of those situations, there would be a 50/50 shot that it would be funny. If they didn’t laugh, then I would have offended my superior. Respect is a big thing in Thailand, so it definitely wasn’t worth the risk.
Out of everything, the biggest obstacle of living in Thailand is hands down the language barrier. Not knowing how to speak Thai makes every aspect of my life a little bit harder. I can’t order food, ask someone where to get things or how to get places. Simple tasks like going to a restaurant are now very difficult. The menu is always in Thai and there are never pictures. This results in me getting 1 of the 3 meals I know how to order in Thai.
It has also been harder to get to know the locals. I am driven by connecting with people. I love learning about peoples’ personalities and hearing their personal stories. It is nearly impossible to form real connections with locals when I can only say, “How are you?” and “What is your name?” in Thai. Sometimes I will go to the park and play soccer or basketball. It is fun to hangout with locals, but at the same time it is very frustrating because I am unable to hold a conversation with them. I will never know anything more about them other than they like to play soccer/basketball and their name.
I do not want to feel irritated and frustrated this often, but my emotions are not led by my brain! I want to be having the time of my life 100% of the time I am here. I am ready for the culture shock to end. Then, I can stop focusing on the cultural differences that I dislike and start recognizing and embracing the differences that I do like. Unfortunately, there isn’t a fix for culture shock.
I knew that culture shock would be a part of my experience when I signed up to do this. Knowing something and actually feeling it are 2 very different things. Culture shock is an important part of the living abroad experience. It is the biggest thing that pushes you and forces you to grow and adapt. And that’s exactly what I plan on doing. With everything said, I still love Thailand. I love living here and am very happy that I chose to move here.