Ten Things Thailand Has Taught Me

By: Lani V. Cox

Thailand. The football cheer and chant of trapezing travellers. An expat port of call, and a backpacker’s paradise for the budget and banana pancake minded.

It’s many things to many people, but to me, it’s where my mother was born, my parents met, and my father died. It’s a place that has changed the course of my life, and it’s a place that seems to have much to teach me.

So let’s flip through the pages of my story to here: the end of 2013 (or the Thai year 2556), and read about what Thailand has taught me because hopefully you will see something of your own expat journey in my Tell-Thai heart as well.

1. Mai bpen rai. Never mind. Certainly one of the more popular phases in the Thai language – and one that seems to embody what Thais are like – is mai bpen rai or “never mind, it’s not a problem, it’s okay.” For a Westerner this idea is diametrically opposed to their mindset of “getting to the bottom of this” or “fixing the leaking faucet.”  Mai bpen rai is about shrugging off what you can’t control, and essentially just letting go.

2. Don’t take things personally. Sure, sometimes, it is you, and other times it’s the culture/language force field that causes misunderstandings. Back in the US, we forget there can be a multitude of things that cause misunderstandings. Here, however, because I am engaged with another culture, I’ve learned to think about situations more objectively.

3. Think before you speak. You know how you speak slowly when you want to be choosey and careful about the words you say? Living in Thailand has made me do this just as frequently as I did when I was a grade school teacher. Speaking, listening and thinking in Thai has slowed down how quickly words leave my mouth.

4. Walk slowly. When I stayed in Bangkok while working on my TEFL certificate, I was still very much in my American go-go-go mode of walking, racing, and passing pedestrians left and right. I couldn’t understand why Thais walked so slowly, but then a colleague of mine mentioned how much he enjoyed the slower pace, and really, what’s the rush? He got me thinking, and better still, he got me slowing down.

5. Look twice. Yeah, there are ladyboys (transvestites) here, so inevitably you wonder, Was that a boy or girl? There are also a slew of motley folks (both local and expats) that keep your eyes guessing and very much amused. But I also see looking twice as a philosophy not too far from the stereotyped: "don’t judge a book by its cover." When you are slowing down, looking twice can be a good thing because people are so much more than what you see on the surface.

6. Get closer. Personal space doesn’t exist in Thailand. I’m convinced of it. Whether you are on the road, squeeze-walking down a soi/street or waiting in line at an open/super market, folks will get close to make space or be first. This was challenging for me to get used to, especially as a woman. I’ve learned to make room and accept the fact that this is Thailand. And yet I’ve also had a woman shake me by the hips while waiting in a long line for the WC. Perhaps she saw my agitated face, thought I was a Thai, or simply was in a friendly mood and decided to joke around with me. Either way, I wasn’t offended. The contact reminded me of Thai culture, my mom, and how I can fit in.

7. Get a handle bar on your fears. Hopefully, I won’t regret this, but I learned how to drive a motorbike/scooter. After living in Ecuador for 6 months, I decided to return to Thailand. And I was determined to learn how to drive. First, I was tired of depending on red trucks and friends to get me around. Second, my partner of 6 years left me for another woman and I had something to prove. And lastly, it was simply time for me to get over my fear of driving in Thailand.

8. Stories unfold one page at a time. Since things work differently on the other side of the world, I’ve had to learn to change my perspective and be patient, not only with other people or circumstances, but with myself too. And I don’t think I generally lack patience, but I think Americans do.

When a colleague and I were waiting at Immigration, I pointed out an older man clearly upset as he sat among all the others waiting to be called. As we watched him run his fingers over his bald head, I said, “American.”

My friend said, “No way. Russian. Look at him. He looks Russian.”

“Nah,” I replied. “He’s so impatient. He’s going insane waiting – definitely American.”

We left as the old man was called, and my friend boldly went up to him and looked at his passport.

“Well?” I asked.

“You were right. He’s American.”

I was momentarily satisfied, but I’m not proud that Americans have been raised to have it our way and have it now. Maybe I’m wrong. In either case, I try to be grateful for the opportunities to cultivate patience.

9. It’s a big bright world. Living and working abroad, not only fulfilled a dream and desire that I had been fostering, it also opened me up to different sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that I wonder if I would have experienced had I stayed in the United States. I’ve also met so many great people from all over the world and within my own passport country.

10. I am blessed. Unfortunately, this is an overused expression, but a reminder that stayed with me ever since I was 16 years old when I visited Thailand for the second time. I saw poverty like I had never seen before. I felt different, even though I looked the same. I don’t think I felt rich because we were not rich, that would come later with reflection.

I remember staring at my family’s concrete blocks bathroom, squat toilet and bucket bath with pure distaste. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a hot shower I could use. But when our holiday was over, I remember taking a hot shower at home, and thinking how wonderful it felt and how lucky I was.

This seems like an insignificant thing to be grateful for, but this was a lesson I learned at 16, and it has stuck with me ever since. Thailand taught me how lucky I am for all the things in my life.

Now it's your turn. What are some things your expat country has taught you?

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLani V. Cox is an American expat living in Thailand. Blog description: I'm a first generation Asian American living in Asia.(Chinese-Thai to be exact!) Let's talk about teaching English as a Foreign Language, expat life, visiting & moving to Thailand.
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Contest Comments » There are 7 comments

Jolandi Steven wrote 5 years ago:

What a delightful list of lessons Lani. So many of these are good reminders of how we should live our lives regardless of where we are to enjoy the moment, celebrate life and be grateful for all the blessings we receive. Thanks for reminding me of these while sharing your very personal experience of life in Thailand.

What a beautiful list! I love the way cultures can teach us so much about people and life! Thankn you for sharing- you are very wise!

Cordelia wrote 5 years ago:

This is a great list. And living here, the mai pen rai attitude has definitely helped me slow down and try to remember what is important - though I do occasionally get frustrated. I am a fellow expat blogger and wanted to show my support for your entry.

Stewart C McKay wrote 5 years ago:

I spent some time in Thailand 6 years ago and one of the few Thai phrases I remember is 'mai ben rai'. Love the thinking behind it. Going back next week and I can't wait!

Vanessa wrote 5 years ago:

Good Entry, I can identify with some of your comments from living in Cambodia

Va Va Vroom wrote 5 years ago:

Not taking things personally is the key to enjoy your time as an expat in asia! So many misunderstanding can happen :)

James King wrote 5 years ago:

You've got it all boxed off Lani. Well done. It's good to see a 'Farang' with both eyes open. Rooting for Thailand. James.

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