I have been in Bangkok, Thailand for eleven days. I live here. I am not a traveler. I am not a backpacker. I am a resident. One of the hardest transitions I have found is understanding this fact. I have had the opportunity to travel a lot. But that is what it was… traveling. Thailand, for the next year, is my home.
So far my time in Thailand has been mainly spent in a classroom at a Thai university taking language and cultural classes. We have heard from people in the US Embassy, Fulbright, Chamber of Commerce, and locals on their thoughts on Thai politics, education system, and their culture. We have been briefed on safety in Thailand and what to do if we find ourselves in a Thai prison (crossing my fingers that that does not happen). While I have so many thoughts on what I could write about for my first blog, I will attempt to be somewhat organized.
Things that have surprised me so far:
- How little English people speak.
Many places that I have traveled, I have found English. All over Europe, where I was in Africa, and even in South America, English was found. Especially people my age. However, in Thailand, even though most people take English in school, so many people cannot have a basic conversation. I have never felt such a strong language barrier, and I know that isolating feeling will only increase when I move out of Bangkok. I have already felt the frustration of ordering food and getting something completely different than what I thought I was ordering. The frustration of someone talking to you and all you hear are sounds. The frustration of wanting to connect with people, but all you can do is look at someone and smile and feel embarrassed that you are in Thailand and cannot speak Thai. Languages are hard people. Learning Thai is freaking hard. The same word can have five different meanings based on the tone you say it with. To Donald Trump who believes “This is America. Speak English” try rooting up your life, moving to a new country, and trying to learn a new language and getting told that. Luckily for me, Thai people are a lot nicer than Donald and no one has told me “This is Thailand. Speak Thai.” Instead, they smile at me and try to tell me the few English words that they know. They also think it is hilarious every time I attempt to say anything in Thai. Not sure if I am not saying anything at all or if they just think it’s funny that a white person is speaking Thai. Chances are good that it’s the first one.
- People are genuinely not trying to rip you off
Since spending a summer in Kenya was the closest experience I’ve had to what I am experiencing now, I find myself constantly comparing my new life to my life in Kenya. In Kenya, as sad as it is, most people see you and try to rip you off. They see you are white and automatically they want to get money from you. The other day it was pouring down rain, and I was trying to walk back to my door. A man with a huge umbrella came up to me, smiled, and walked me across the street so I would not get wet. My mind immediately went to my time in Kenya and my inner voice said, make him go away! He is just trying to get money from you! However, that was not the case. As soon as I was safely across the street and dry, he simply smiled at me and walked away. The women selling fruit on the street do not see my skin color and immediately tell me 5 times the price it normally is. People smile at me when they do not understand what I mean and laugh every single time there is a misunderstanding due to language barrier. I am focusing on getting away from my Kenya mentality and realizing to give people the benefit of the doubt and smile back.
- It rains. A lot. And is beyond humid.
90 degrees and 100% humidity is no joke. Simply walking out of the room makes you drip in sweat. Not to mention every day is full of random downpours.
- Meeting Thai Students
Since our orientation is held at a Thai university, we have had the opportunity to meet some Thai university students majoring in English. Getting to talk with them in English and seeing their genuine interest in learning English has been so cool. I asked my new Thai friend to take me to her favorite place in Bangkok and I ended up at a Siberian Husky Café. This place served fancy drinks and red velvet cake as thirty Siberian Huskies ran around. We played with the dogs, ate our cake, and talked about our different countries and where we came from. Never in my mind would I thought I would have ended up playing with dogs while eating red velvet cake my first weekend in Thailand, but that is what makes this year so incredible. Expect the unexpected.
- Exploring Bangkok
While so much of my time has been in orientation, I have gotten the opportunity to explore a little bit. Highlights so far have definitely been the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, a temple with a 150-foot reclining Buddha statue. The architecture is so beautiful and I got to see a glimpse of how much this culture praises their religion and their leaders. Tonight a few of us went to see a movie at a theater. Before the movie started, we all stood up and sang an anthem to the king and paid him respect. I am excited to learn more about this fascinating culture and explore as much as I can.
- Making New Friends
There are 22 of us on Fulbright in Thailand this year. I feel like it is freshmen year of college all over again and everyone is trying to figure out their friend group and everyone wants to be social all the time. We also got to meet the Fulbrighters who just finished their grants as they lead two full days of orientation. Each one of them was full of stories, frustrations, triumphs, and advice. And every single person’s advice contradicted each other. Since I am going to be the first Fulbrighter at my school, my experience through this part of orientation was definitely unique. I did not have someone telling me what my classes were like, what my town was like, what my apartment came equipped with, or how I would get around on the weekends. However, being the first one is also extremely exciting! So much is unknown and so much will be learned.
Still on my mind:
Why am I here? Why am I teaching English? Why is the US government paying for me to be here? How am I supposed to be a cultural ambassador for a country that is so diverse? What can I teach people about the United States? How will I ever be able to have a conversation with the people around me? How will I be able to live by myself? How will I be able to travel around a new country and a new continent without spending all my time lost (Trust me, I get lost a lot)? How will I go a whole year without pasta and cheese?
While this is a lot to take in, all those questions are the reason why I’m here. I am here to explore. I am here to grow. I am here for cultural exchange. I am here to broaden people’s perception of foreigners and America beyond what they see in movies. I am here to learn about Thailand and the culture I suddenly find myself a part of. I am here to teach English to my students. Am I afraid that my students and I will be staring at each other not understanding a word of what the other person is saying? Of course. When I am feeling homesick, I think back to last year and how I wanted this more than I’ve ever wanted anything. I am following a dream by being here, and I plan on making the most of every minute of it. I’ll let you know when I start finding answers to these questions, but for now they remain a mystery.