Culture Shock: My 22-Year-Old Solo Move to Thailand

Last Updated on April 27, 2024 by Kylie

Moving to Thailand ALONE at 22 years old isn’t a decision most young adults make – and being from a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where I’d grown up surrounded by family and friends, living abroad was completely out of my comfort zone.

“Are you sure it’s safe!”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“What if you hate it?”

Culture shock is inevitable. Whether you’re traveling around the States or calling a new country home, you will wrestle with moments of overwhelming anxiety.

Here’s an inside look at how I dealt with culture shock when moving to Thailand on my own!

Moving to Thailand | Drinks at Octave bar in Bangkok, Thailand

Once, I came across a sign that read, “Don’t be annoyed if we can’t speak English; we’re not upset that you can’t speak our language in our country.” … think about that

Cultural humility is “a process of self-reflection and discovery”

… where a person embraces a position of willingness to learn from another’s perspective (Yeagers & Bauer-Wu, 2013). In essence, each of us views the world through the unique “filters” of our upbringing, shaping our individual perceptions of the world. Embodying cultural humility pulls back these filters to recognize our subconscious biases, and more importantly, open ourselves to learn from others’ backgrounds and lifestyles.

Before moving to Thailand, I really didn’t know much about the country other than its fame for exceedingly spicy food. Honestly, I didn’t make much effort to learn about Thai culture before heading off; the sheer excitement of living abroad kept me distracted.

  • What mannerisms are respectful and disrespectful?
  • Is there a dress code to adhere to?
  • What are their cultural norms?

Those are just a few of the many questions that arose immediately as I stepped off the plane. Had I considered personal factors that would influence my experience in Thailand? Did I consider educational norms in Thailand, now that I was embracing the role of a kru farang? Was I willing to be influenced by their values, culture, and lifestyle?

Just as I’m settling into my new apartment …

Seeing the bathroom in my apartment for the first time left me speechless and a bit confused. I asked the owner, ” … where’s the shower?” Turns out, it was behind the door about 3 feet from the toilet.

Culture shock clouded my first few weeks in Thailand:

“I will PANIC if a snake comes up through the toilet” (this actually happened to someone I knew)
“How can you even shower in here without getting everything wet?
Wait … you’re telling me FROGS can jump through these pipes??”
“I don’t think this bathroom could ever be as clean as I’d like.”

Back home, I had a typical American bathroom – a bathtub with a sliding door, an adjustable shower head, a toilet that flushed toilet paper, towel racks, and a sink with decent counter space. On the flip side, my Thai bathroom was compact with the sink, toilet, and shower all within arm’s reach of each other.

It wasn’t until I took a step back and got this attitude in check, that I found Thailand’s bathrooms to be incredibly efficient! Having everything within reach made my nighttime routine so much quicker!

I’ll admit – I was dramatic to assume everything would get wet. Sure, the toilet got sprayed, but it wasn’t a big deal whatsoever because by the time morning rolled around, everything was dry.

And when it came to cleaning the bathroom, it was SO quick and easy! After wiping down the sink and toilet, all I needed to do was spray some cleaner on the floor and use the trusty bum gun to rinse. How easy is that? Back home, it took at least an hour to clean the bathroom. In Thailand, it took no more than 15 minutes. 

My initial culture shock sparked an underlying feeling of superiority – this is the bathroom?! What I have at home is so much better! But is it really all that better? Or simply a difference in lifestyle that I could learn from with some humility?

No lifestyle is “better” than another. I quickly realized that I didn’t need an abundance of counter space or a multi-functional showerhead. I’d grown accustomed to a more minimalistic lifestyle.

As a frequent traveler, this was such an easy lesson from none other than an apartment bathroom.

We’re all victims of ethnocentrism

Going hand-in-hand with cultural humility, ethnocentrism is “the process of judging another culture exclusively from the perspective of one’s own,” otherwise believing your way of life is superior to another’s (Sawe, 2017). American social scientist, William G. Sumner, claimed ethnocentrism fuels one’s “vanity, contempt of others, and pride”, believing their lifestyle trumps anything different (Sawe, 2017).

My initial encounter with the apartment bathroom proves that ethnocentrism filtered my outlook when introduced to the unfamiliar. We are so quick to assume that our habits are the norm when in the grand scheme of things, they probably aren’t.


Let’s talk about laundry in Thailand

While doing my first round of laundry in Thailand, I learned that dryers were rarely used since importing them can be pretty expensive. I couldn’t imagine air-drying socks and underwear. Shirts? Yes. Socks? Really?

To me, dryers are an essential part of laundry! I mean, not only do they save time, but they play a crucial role in keeping your clothes soft and lint-free.

Hanging laundry
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Once again, I needed to get that attitude in check. I’m privileged to have both a washer AND a dryer in the comfort of my home. Growing up with them ingrained the assumption that everyone had them at home, and if not, went to the laundromat where both were readily available.

This specific privilege fed into my ethnocentric outlook at the time, where I assumed their way of doing laundry wasn’t as good as mine. I thought it was sensible to have both a washer and a dryer … wasn’t it?

Similar to my apartment bathroom, I learned the practicality of air drying in Thailand. Since spending time backpacking around Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed that most people take advantage of the hot and humid weather by air-drying everything. So why invest in a machine that’ll do what the sun does year-round anyway?

Isn’t it funny how foreigners are often quick to condescend when, back in America, people are praised as “going green” for doing the exact same thing?

American laundry room
My laundry room back home in America

Recognizing the privilege and influence of our upbringing is vital in appreciating differences when immersing in new cultures around the world. But most importantly, embodying cultural humility teaches us that there is SO much to learn from others if we simply humble ourselves.

And while an apartment bathroom and air-drying socks may sound insignificant to the experience of living abroad, you’d be surprised how even the smallest of differences can feel drastic when you’re removed from the comfort of what’s familiar.

References

Sawe, B. E. (2017, August 9). What is Ethnocentrism? Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https://www.worldatlast.com/articles/what-is-ethnocentrism.html

Yeager, K. A., & Bauer-Wu, S. (2013, November). Cultural humility: essential foundation for clinical researchers. Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https:www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23938129

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6 Comments

  1. Jaclyn
    April 26, 2020 / 3:46 am

    This is super interesting and something so important to take into consideration before traveling. I’ll definitely reference this post before I travel to Thailand.

    • June 11, 2020 / 8:25 am

      Thank you so much! Glad it was helpful!

  2. April 26, 2020 / 3:59 am

    I loved this read. I have not been to Thailand but so much of this resonated with me my trip to India. After experiencing similar culture shock I prepare for traveling internationally differently.

    • June 11, 2020 / 8:26 am

      Same here! Culture shock is challenging, but it ultimately grows you in SO many ways you wouldn’t have otherwise learned. I prepare for international travel differently as well!

  3. April 26, 2020 / 4:08 am

    This is such a good read! Its all about perspective. You never think of little cultural differences like this until you experience them. You just learn and adjust to a new normal. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • June 11, 2020 / 8:28 am

      Thank you so much! Yes, it’s more often the little things you don’t consider that challenge you to take on a new perspective.

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