Moving to Thailand ALONE at 22 years old isn’t a decision most young adults make. To some, this may seem like no big deal (I mean, most of our grandparents immigrated at the ripe age of 17), but being from a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where I grew up surrounded by family and friends, becoming a Thailand expat 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. But the good news is – you’re not alone!
Here’s an inside look at how I dealt with culture shock when moving to Thailand on my own!
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? What is it and how does it affect someone moving to Thailand?
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). Simply put, we all have our own “filters” (how your upbringing has shaped your perception of the world). Cultural humility enables us to recognize differences in each of our filters, and more importantly, learn from others’ backgrounds and lifestyles.
Before moving to Thailand, I knew absolutely nothing about the country other than their 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 behaviors are respectful and disrespectful?
- Are there any colors I should wear or avoid wearing?
- Is there a cultural norm of attire I need to follow?
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? Was my focus on sharing my American customs with the Thai students? Or was I willing to be influenced by their values, culture, and lifestyle?
“I was shocked honey; I was in tears almost”
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 let me flush toilet paper), 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 culture is “better” than another. I quickly realized that I don’t need an abundance of counter space or a multi-functional shower head. In fact, I’ve grown accustomed to a more minimalistic lifestyle.
As a frequent traveler, this was such an easy lesson from none other than a 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 encounter with my Thailand bathroom proves that ethnocentrism subconsciously 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 may not be.
and now for the laundry story ...
During my first round of laundry, I learned that dryers were a rarity since importing them could be pretty expensive. I couldn’t imagine air drying socks and underwear – wasn’t that a long-gone part of history?
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.
Then I realized – I’m privileged to have both a washer AND 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 dryer … wasn’t it?
Similar to my bathroom story, I learned the practicality of air drying in Thailand. Locals in my province took advantage of their hot and humid weather by air-drying everything. So why invest in a machine that’ll do what the sun does within the same amount of time anyway?
Isn’t it funny how foreigners are often quick to condescend the lack of dryers in Thailand when back in America, people are praised as “going green” for doing the exact same thing?
Even after that one year of living in Thailand, I’m still challenged with my own ethnocentrism and embodying a stance of cultural humility. You’d be surprised that even the smallest of differences can feel SO huge in a single moment.
Recognizing the influence of our upbringing is vital in appreciating differences (instead of allowing them to divide us) when engaging with cultures around the world. But best of all? Cultural humility teaches us that there is SO much to learn from others if we simply humble ourselves.
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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
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.
Thank you so much! Glad it was helpful!
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.
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!
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!
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.