It’s been exactly four months and five days since I touched down in Suvarnabhumi International Airport and walked into that first overwhelmingly hot, humid blast of Bangkok air. Since then, I’ve actually learned how to pronounce the name of the airport (it sounds like soo-wan-ah-poom), gotten a little more used to the sauna-like climate (my hair has not), and learned a lot of other things I can’t quite put into words.
During my teacher orientation in Thailand, our recruitment program talked a lot about the ups and downs of culture shock. I rolled my eyes at those lectures, naively thinking, ‘that stuff won’t happen to me.’ But after about the three-month mark, I was no longer immune. I hit what I like to call “the honeymoon is over” phase. New and “exotic” things that once left me starry-eyed mainly left me annoyed. The excitement of “newness” wore off, and I was left with the reality that this isn’t a vacation and I’m not a tourist.
I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately. When do you cross over from “tourist” to “local?” When do you “break in,” as anthropologists like to say, and start cobbling together some sort of life for yourself in a new place? I technically became a local when I got the keys to my townhouse, but it’s also difficult to consider this place my “home” when I still feel like an outsider sometimes. I know it’s every tourist’s goal to not live up to their name– to steer clear of the “touristy” and live like a “local.” But it’s not as easy or fun as it seems when you don’t speak the language and can’t blend into the crowd.
So those are the two main challenges I’ve faced. I came here to be both a “tourist” and a “local”– to travel and immerse myself in a community at the same time. Those opposing identities and desires are difficult to reconcile, but there are some days when I strike a good balance.
Some days, I don’t feel so much like an outsider. I don’t see the stares anymore, or maybe I just shrug them off. I manage to communicate with someone in Thai, or run into one of my favorite students at a market. And there are days when I can be a “tourist” in my own town. I take a walk down a different side street, find a new temple, and the excitement of being here gets reignited somehow. Both of those kinds of days make this experience worth it.
So even though there are moments when the language barrier and other challenges leave me wondering if I’ll ever feel acclimated, there are so many other things that make me feel like I could be getting the hang of things here, at least a little.
In honor of my four months in Thailand, I made a list of a few (mostly silly) ways I’ve become accustomed to life here.
16 ways you know you’ve been in Thailand for four months:
1. You have adopted exaggerated nodding, smiling, and giving the thumbs up as your primary modes of communication, rendering you an overenthusiastic Kindergarten teacher in almost every human interaction. As someone who had a difficult enough time learning Spanish, learning even the basics of Thai in four months has been really challenging. There are five different tones in Thai that my English ears just can’t seem to master. The difference between calling someone “beautiful” and “unlucky” is just one tone away, so let’s just say I’ve had a hard time getting my point across in most interactions. Don’t get me wrong, I can say all the important stuff, like “I’d like a black iced coffee,” and “How much is that skirt?”, but most things are way over my head.
2. Despite, #1, you’ve learned that most Thai people are friendly, patient, and willing to help a distressed-looking foreigner. There are bus attendants who make sure I get off at my correct stop, people who lead me across terrifying streets of darting motorcycles, and English speakers who have saved the day by helping me decipher restaurant menus.
3. Seeing an entire helmet-less family of four, including an infant, on a motorbike does not faze you. The highlight of my gate duty at school (aka let’s make the foreign teacher wake up early one day per week and show the neighborhood we have a westerner) is seeing two twin girls and their little sister ride up to school on a motorbike with their father driving.
4. You are completely used to having no idea what is going on. Ever. (And you’re okay with that.) Your class gets cancelled so students can get free samples of soap? Makes complete sense. You see a bunch of people barricaded next to a temple? No questions asked. You see a bus painted with giant pictures of 80’s hair bands? (sorry, no picture) Totally normal. Because nothing makes sense.
5. You no longer stare and laugh uncontrollably when you see a Thai person wearing a shirt with a raunchy, obscene English phrase. Despite the fact that a lot of people don’t speak English, there are an abundance of shirts with English sayings in my town and all over Thailand. Some of my personal favorites include: “Blow job is better than no job” and “Sleep with me. Free breakfast.” The best/worst part is most of the people wearing them have no idea what their shirts mean.
6. You never (ok, almost never) forget your umbrella. The rain in Thailand is unlike any rain I have ever experienced. If you’re inside, it sounds like gunfire; if you’re outside you get soaked in .2 seconds. Story time: As a rainy season rookie, I made the mistake of not bringing my umbrella (and wearing a white shirt) on an evening trip to the local market one night. On my sprint/ slip and slide adventure home, the situation quickly turned into, ‘hey lets look at the crazy foreigner who forgot an umbrella and unwillingly entered a white t-shirt contest….’ I have since learned my lesson.
7. You find yourself adding more chilli flakes to your meal. Take that bland American taste buds!
8. You are running dangerously low on Tums.
9. You can play an intricate game of connect the dots using your legs. Thank you, mosquito bites.
10. You have a “coffee guy” and a “pad thai lady.” Saying I have a pad thai lady gives me almost as much joy as eating her delicious pad thai.
11. You get disgruntled if you don’t immediately see a 7-11 within a one-block radius of where you are at the given moment. 7-11s are EVERYWHERE here. You’re thirsty? Get a bottle of water at the 7-11 that is inevitably 30 feet away from you. I’m totally spoiled by the convenience. They even sell toasty cheesy sandwiches (yes, I’ve eaten them in moments of weakness; no, I haven’t gotten food poisoning).
12. You don’t panic and briefly think you’ve entered a scene from the The Truman Show when the Thai National anthem comes on in public places at 6pm.
13. You’ve become very comfortable with snot. Nose pickers? No problem. Old men blowing snot rockets directly onto the sidewalk? (Because who needs Kleenex when you have ultra absorbent sidewalk?) Perfectly fine.
14. You get this strange sensation called ‘cold’ when it gets below 78 degrees. The Chicagoan in me is very disgusted with this fact, but the 100-degree heat has knocked 23 years of withstanding Chicago winters right out of me.
15. Finding a public trash can or a western (non-squat) toilet are akin to winning the lottery.
16. You have (slightly) mastered the “look up so you don’t get whacked with a tree branch” and “look down so you don’t step on dog poop” stride as you walk on the sidewalk. It’s an artform.