I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, I wish I wasn’t so… American?
No matter where I go in Thailand I hear the familiar mutterings of “farang” “farang” whether it is a curious child zipping by on a motor bike or a whole gaggle of giggling teenagers at the mall in Khon Kaen. Regardless of where I am it is always a sobering reminder that, like it or not, in Thailand I will always be a foreigner, an outsider, perceived to be a little (or sometimes more than a little bit) clueless.
At home I am rarely an outsider. I might join a new club, stumble into a party where I don’t know many people, or end up taking a class off campus, but within a few hours or days or weeks I will be integrated into the group. In Thailand I have met expats who have been living here for upwards of twenty years and the reality is they will never be fully immersed.
The only thing I can do to fit in, besides sitting out in the sun without sunscreen on, is to learn as much as I possibly can about Thai culture. The little things go a long way. Language is an obvious one, the more Thai I learn the more genuine Thai smiles I receive. Simply pointing at food and exclaiming, “arroy, arroy” to express that I think it is delicious is always well received. I’ve gotten accustomed to pressing my hands together and dipping my head towards others as a sign of respect. I have started wearing pink on Tuesdays to show that I hope the King (who at 85 years old is the worlds longest ruling King) finds better health. I have also learned to order collectively at restaurants and to drop ice cubes into my Chang beer. I’ve learned to hold on to the stamps that they give me when I shop at 7-11 because one day I may be able to trade them all in for a free chair (exactly what I need)! I have learned to hide my anger, as ‘wearing my emotions on my sleeve’ which is so valued in America, actually causes more embarrassment and shame than it does good. Even if that means biting my tongue when a fellow teacher exclaims “wow” as I hop on the scale at the doctors. I’ve learned to counter my ‘only child’ tendencies and to share everything that I am eating with the people around me before I take a bite myself (ok everyone who knows me well knows Im still working on this one, but hey I’m trying). I’m realizing that spending 100 baht on dinner is a fortune even though it is equivalent to three dollars in the U.S. I’m starting to embrace sweat and appreciate the moistened glow that it leaves on my skin. I’ve learned to adapt a “mai pen rai” (no worries) attitude towards minor mishaps that may come my way during the day. I’m accepting that when you go to the doctors you will be prescribed antibiotics and the best thing to do is take them. I’ve realized that talking about the past or the future won’t connect me with the other Thai teachers, they live in the present and to them today is what matters most. I’ve learned to take off my shoes before entering temples, peoples homes, and even sometimes stores. I’ve learned to dress modestly, it’s gotten to the point where when I put on skirts or dresses that show my thighs I’m shocked by just how long my legs are. I’m learning to throw my paper in the waste basket that sits beside the toilet and to squat when going to the bathroom, (but honestly I still avoid this at all costs). I’m trying to eat what is offered to me, to dance when I’m asked to dance, and to sing karaoke when a crowd wants me to sing.
It’s not much but it’s a start, and honestly every time I get even the slightest glimmer that I have impressed one of my Thai coworkers, or my favorite coffee stand employee, or the women who owns the guesthouse that I live in, it just makes me hungry to learn more.