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Travel will change you.

Your departure into unknown lands marks a beginning, an ending, an interlude. You seek novelty? Adventure? Growth? You will find it. And in pursuit of all this, you will inadvertently stumble over your own worldview, trip over your own expectations and preconceptions, and collide with unfamiliar ground. Then you get up, dust yourself off, and look around to see a world that appears a little clearer, a little brighter. Of course, the world hasn’t changed— it’s the same as it ever was.  

I’ve had my share of confusion and made more than a few cultural blunders in Thailand. In exploring a country so different from the United States, I’ve had to adapt in ways that cause me to analyze my own values. So, here are three observations about Thai culture, and what might be learned from them:

One of the many beautiful temples in Thailand

Perceptions of Time: Sabai Sabai

In school, my teachers called me the White Rabbit. I was always looking at my watch, always hurrying to get to the next place, spread thin between too many classes and sports and extracurriculars. It worked well enough in a competitive, individualistic society where we’re raised to seek achievement and accolade.

It is not the Thai way. Here, people seek fulfillment.

Conceptually speaking, time is different in Thailand; in the West, time is our linear master and we follow, clocking in and out with a tick-tock synchronicity, in perfect time to the minute-hand. In Thailand, people are at ease with all four dimensions of space-time; centered; 0, 0, 0; not straying from their axis; flowing around obstructions and inconveniences much the way that time flows across their beings. In Thailand, time isn’t a master but a companion. Sometimes, an irrelevant one. Needless to say, most punctual Westerners struggle with that aspect of the society. Particularly those of us who identify with a certain Wonderland character.

“You’ll need to fly to Bangkok next week” I was told. Oh, alright. A week would be more than enough time to prepare. Coworkers were to pick me up and together we would catch our 4:30 am bus to Chiang Rai.

4:25 rolled around.

4:28.

4:28:30. I snatched my bike from the lot and sped into the bus station at 4:30 am, breathless. A bus was just pulling out. I’d missed it, but maybe there was another bus that morning. While I was desperately pantomiming to a ticket attendant, a familiar voice called out “Look, she’s already here”. My coworkers were sauntering across the parking lot, waving, as if everything were fine. They had a few words with the very confused ticket attendant and then told me our bus was delayed until 5:00 am anyway. And so it goes in easygoing Thailand.

I call it thaiming… that slow, deliberate movement that characterizes life here. “No hurry” the Thai teachers tell me as I speed through the halls to my next class. “Not so serious” they say when I sit hunched over my work, brow furrowed and fingers flying across a keyboard. Or my favorite: “Stop working, come eat.” If you’re the kind of personality that gets caught up thinking about the future (or, alternatively, stuck in the past), come to Thailand for a free course in learning how to embrace the present. There’s a Thai expression that summarizes this quite nicely: “sabai sabai.” It’s a bit like “hakuna mattata” in that it means no worries; everything is fine; all is as it should be; easygoing.

To me, ‘sabai sabai’ serves as a reminder to slow down. Breathe deeply. Life isn’t a race but a gift; and above all, there is no finish line to be crossed, only a journey to be enjoyed.  

Chiang Kham Wittayakhom School, where Chiara teaches

Communication: What Goes Around, Sometimes Maybe Might Come Back Around 

One morning, my agent asked me what I had been doing the night prior. I told her I’d eaten dinner and gone to bed early. Whereupon she was most surprised, because the hairdressers who live/work under my apartment said I was being very loud in the wee hours of the morning.

“They want to know why you were up and what are you doing?”

“I was asleep, I wasn’t doing anything. Are they sure it was me? And…how did you hear about this?”

Apparently, the hairdressers had told their neighbor, who told the landlord, who told a fellow teacher housed in the same apartment, who told another teacher, who told my agent. Transpiring in less than twelve hours was the most elaborate, real life game of telephone I’d ever encountered. This is an element of Thai culture that I find particularly frustrating, because it stands in stark contrast to American assertiveness. If someone in the States thought I was being too noisy, they might say “Could you quiet down?” Or, as I’ve said on more than one occasion: “Kindly shut the [redacted] up, please.”  

Personally, I don’t find indirectness palatable. But quite often this conflict-avoidance has to do with “saving face”, which is an important social construct in many Asian countries. Consequently, rarely will a Thai person tell you what to do, but they will imply it. You learn to pay attention to subtle body language, as well as words like “should”, “could”, or “it would be better”… because chances are someone is trying to clue you into a crucial detail that’s gone right over your barbaric, unrefined head. For example, “maybe you could wear longer pants under your Muay Thai shorts” isn’t gentle fashion advice. It means that wearing shorts isn’t appropriate in a modest town like Chiang Kham, and you need to cover up.

To an extent, the Thai style of communication has only reinforced my preference for directness. On the other hand, we don’t have a true equivalent to losing/saving/gaining face. Being a disruptive force in the community is a sure way to lose face. While this can make communication frustrating, I’ve also come to admire the emphasis placed on social harmony. It manifests in some truly wonderful ways. For instance…

Chiara's students enjoy taking part in an engaging lesson

Kindness as a Duty: Living in a Collective Society

Regardless of their proficiency, there is one phrase every student at Chiang Kham Wittayokhom knows: “May I help you?” I get it a lot. When I’m carrying (and dropping) too many things. When my skirt gets caught in the tire of a bicycle. When I’m lost. “Teachuh, teachuh, may I help you?” And before I can answer, a student has swept my papers up off the ground, untangled me from a bike chain, or is leading me by the hand to my next class. 

One day, I had to walk to work. It’s not far, but when the elderly lady who lives across the street saw me, she hopped onto her moped and insisted on giving me a ride to the school. I’d never met her before. During my first few weeks, my supervisor was frequently at my apartment, helping me adjust or taking me into town. Whenever I thanked her she always responded with “no problem, it is my duty.” It’s a powerful statement.

This is the idea I want to capture. I want to wrap it up with ribbons and take it back with me to the States, giving it to every human being I ever encounter. Regardless of how you feel about the recent election, there is no denying that the U.S.A.’s political climate is polarized and volatile. Now, more than ever, we could serve to learn one of the most important lessons to be gleaned from collectivist societies; the significance of social harmony.

As an ESL teacher, I think this is particularly visible in a classroom setting. They’re microcosmic by nature. So, if you want to get an idea of a country’s cultural values, step inside a public school for a bite-sized overview of what a place is like. There are a dozen points I could make about Thai classrooms in particular, but foremost in my mind is that I have never seen an outsider. They’re a type that is fairly easy to spot in Western culture—students who sit alone, who are often subjected to bullying. I’m not at all saying that loners don’t exist in Thai culture, only that they don’t exist to the same extent that they do in the States. There is an effort to bring everyone into the fold. Part of this is likely due to a set hierarchy, but I believe it especially has to do with the fact that Thai people take care of one another.

They go out of their way to express courtesy. Where in the West kindness might be described as a desirable personality trait, here it appears to be more of a standard. Imagine what our global community could look like if we all treated kindness as a duty.   

All smiles in Chiara's classroom!

Closing Thoughts                                   

Ultimately, travel is an amplifier. It intensifies the human experience; the joys, the struggles, the setbacks. If you’ve moved abroad to be a teacher, you might be surprised at how often you find yourself instead taking on the role of student. In fact, many wanderers I’ve met talk about ‘growth’ as being a motivation to travel. What exactly does that mean? When you choose to live in a foreign society, you are constantly met with the new and the different. Often it doesn’t make sense—why is no one on time? Why won’t people talk to me directly? Why are people so nice? If you’re willing to delve into a foreign culture and try to decipher some of these mysteries, you’re bound to learn something. Your understanding of people will broaden. Your capacity for sympathy will expand. Your own values and notions will be called into question. In challenging your own beliefs like this, you may be forced to reevaluate. Perhaps nothing will change. But it’s far more likely that you’ll discover new truths to questions you’d never had to ask before, and consequently, be changed for the better.

by Chiara Burns

For more from Chiara, follow her adventures over on her personal blog! – http://www.theroadtoeverwhere.com/

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