Finding the Courage to Embrace Cultural Immersion

A Thai cultural dance.

Last summer, I read Shonda Rhymes’ simultaneously inspirational and hilarious memoir entitled, “Year of Yes.” Although she was a highly successful Hollywood writer (does Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal ring a bell?), Shonda’s crippling anxiety and introversion once forced her to shy away from all public appearances, speaking gigs, and pretty much anything that took her out of her comfort zone. Her sister then challenged her to say “yes” to all opportunities that came her way for an entire year, resulting in some incredible changes.

She overcame her fears of public speaking and attending social events, she learned to make the most of time with her family, and on top of everything, she even lost one hundred pounds. The reason I’m mentioning this is because I’ve decided to take a similar approach during my year of teaching in Thailand. After only three months here, I’ve already discovered that complete open-mindedness and willingness to agree to anything and everything is the best way to immerse myself in Thai culture. It may be a bit scary at times, but it is completely worth it.

I was placed in Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand that is mostly known for agriculture and lies well off the typical tourist track. Although there is a fairly large group of foreign teachers in my town, and it is sometimes tempting to fall into the routine of spending too much time catching up with the other English teachers at the local expat bar, I’ve been channeling Shonda and trying to challenge myself to seek experiences beyond my comfort zone. This way I can truly embrace the cultural richness the Isaan has to offer.

Harvesting rice in Thailand.

Riley harvesting rice in Thailand.

Here are my pieces of advice for delving head-first into the beautiful culture and customs of Thailand:

1. Befriend Thai teachers.

The Thai teachers at your school are some of the best resources to help you integrate into the local community. At my school, there is one teacher in particular who is always eager to bring us to events and help us understand the unique culture of Isaan.

Another American teacher and I agreed to go with her to help harvest rice on a farm outside of our town. We joined the actual harvesters, and although none of them spoke a word of English, I felt that we were able to communicate through the common goal of picking the rice and through our mutual understanding of the grueling nature of their work. I had planted rice during my orientation in Chiang Mai, so it felt like my experience with rice had come full-circle.

After the harvesting, the farmers prepared us a wonderful lunch of sticky rice, som tam (spicy papaya salad), fried chicken, and fish soup. I’m so grateful that the Thai teacher was willing to include us.

2. Don’t be afraid to make a bit of an idiot of yourself. Embrace it because it will happen, and Thai people will still appreciate the fact that you’re trying to integrate.

Later that same day, the teacher brought us by preparations for a ceremony honoring the late king, and the two of us Americans were asked to join the Thai dancing, even though we had no idea what we were doing.

After a five-minute dance tutorial and a trip to the local salon to get our hair and makeup done, we were placed in the very front row, right next to the cameras and even our town’s mayor. It was a struggle to say the least, and although I certainly don’t have a future in Thai dancing, this was still an incredible experience and I feel that it helped me integrate into my community and earn respect from the locals.

Afterwards, we gave statements for the local news (although the interviewers likely had no idea what we were saying) and then assumed an increasingly familiar role as characters at Disneyland who are expected to take photo after photo, mostly with strangers. It was quite the day that I definitely will never forget.

Harvesting rice in Thailand.

Harvesting rice in Thailand.

3. Have little to no expectations.

“Do you want to go to fire hockey this Friday?” asked one of our Thai teachers to our group of five American teachers. She saw our blank stares and explained that “fire hockey” is a tradition unique to our province, during which a typical game of field hockey is played with a coconut husk that has been set on fire. Without much of a clue about what we were getting ourselves into, we all agreed to attend immediately, knowing we would never get another chance to witness anything like this.

We drove out to the little village where the event was being held and quickly realized that fire hockey was a very big deal to the people of our province, Chaiyaphum. The venue was packed with fans and our group of American teachers, once again, was asked to take countless photos with locals and had a microphone placed in front of our faces for a quick interview. It was awesome to see the overflowing pride the locals have in this unique tradition. You could tell that they were thrilled to show off the event to a group of foreigners.

Fire hockey itself was more of a theatrical performance than a sporting event. The show consisted of acting and dancing performances that displayed the a legend of the province and the actual game of fire hockey lasted for about ten minutes. But the game certainly did not disappoint. There were, in fact, hot embers flying out of the coconut husk, which didn’t seem to phase the players in the slightest. It was an overall crazy, but immensely enjoyable and interesting evening that I’m so grateful to have experienced. Fire hockey was so much more than what I had imagined it could be, and the outing evoked my own feelings of pride in being a part of such an awesome community with truly special traditions.

An advertisement for fire hockey in Thailand.

Fire hockey in Thailand.

4. Learn the names of as many Thai foods as possible, order them, and at least try anything that is offered to you!

Food is such an important aspect of Thai culture. It is difficult to grasp just how much food means to Thai people until you are actually here and experience the food obsession yourself. You can’t walk more than a few meters down any street without bumping into a vendor whipping up some delicious street food and, “Have you eaten?” is probably Thailand’s favorite question.

Most of the first Thai words I picked up were the names of foods, and I decided to make cuisine a priority in my Thai studies. I’m so glad I did this because as soon as I got to Chaiyaphum, I was able to approach vendors at the night market and ask for several of my favorite dishes. I didn’t have to rely on pointing or on English menus, and I could see by the looks on their faces that the locals truly appreciated me making the effort of educating myself about Thai dishes and ordering in Thai.

Foods here may have different names, flavors, and spices than most of the things I eat back home, but eating is a universal activity that can bring together people of all cultures and backgrounds. I connect with my students and coworkers by talking about Thai food on almost a daily basis. My landlady does not speak any English, but we communicated through my enjoyment of a meal she prepared for me the day that I moved into my apartment. Although it may not be the case in other countries, food is almost synonymous with culture for Thai people. Embracing Thai food has allowed me to immerse myself in Thai culture in a way that I did not think was possible.

Going back to Shonda, don’t be afraid to say yes to things that scare you.

Go ahead and agree to participate in that ceremony, volunteer for that field trip, or try a bite of chicken blood-clots (it’s actually not too bad). I’ve realized that the most authentic and beautiful aspects of Thai culture lie far outside of my comfort zone. In just over three months, I’ve only started to scratch the surface in discovering and experiencing all that this incredible country and its people have to offer. I find this exhilarating. Of course, there will always be some hurdles and mishaps along the way, but those make for the best laughs, stories, and blog posts down the road.


Are you ready to channel your inner Shonda and travel for a change?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *