I have traveled before, a few times, in my younger years of 18-24 but I’ve never had an experience quite like Thailand. During my previous travels I was adventurous, fearless, and perhaps blissfully naive. I was never prepared for one of my main feelings while staying here in Thailand to be that of a child. I’m unsure as to why this trip is different but it is, for me. I’ve had time to think about this conundrum since I’ve been here and I both understand it completely and am baffled by it at the same time.
First, the things I understand. Of course I feel like a child. After all, I have less knowledge of Thailand than a 5 year old. About the only things I can do better is walk and understand my confusion. Chiang Mai is more rural than Bangkok and the majority of the people you come in contact with know very little English. I am fine with this. I think it’s more than a bit egotistical for me as an American to fly ½ way across the world and expect everyone to speak my language. I would be more than happy to communicate with the locals in their native tongue, if I knew it. That is a pretty big “IF”. Thai people are generally patient and kind; after all, this is the ‘land of smiles’! However, after living for 30 years in America, the land of ‘I want what I want, when I want it’ finding yourself in a place where you can’t communicate can be both frustrating and humbling. Imagine having to use the bathroom when you’re wandering around the town and not being able to ask where one is. Or maybe you are hungry, and surrounded by food but have no idea what is what or how to ask for anything. If you do ask, you will probably get a smile and a nod or, if the Thai person you are asking is standing next to another Thai person, they will begin talking to each other. I’m sure they are wondering what the crazy falang is rambling on about to them. What they will not do is tell you they don’t know because that would be losing face, something that is avoided at all costs in most Asian cultures. But you move on, and find your way. People are nice and often take pity on me and help me out. For example, when I was trying to ask the location of a grocery store in a local 7-11. After about 5 minutes of gesturing and broken Thai/English with the clerk a kind English speaking Thai man softly said “ma’am, the Thai’s don’t really call them grocery stores. They call them super markets” to which everyone simultaneously exclaimed “oh! Supermarket!”. A word to the future Thailand traveler: bathrooms are toilets and grocery stores are supermarkets. :)
Also, I’ve found the Thai people to be very thoughtful and protective of each other and myself. The protective part makes me feel like a child in a way since I’ve been looking out for myself for many years now. I walk around town by myself quite a bit. Crossing the street in Thailand is a bit like playing frogger. There aren’t any cross walks or walk/don’t walk signs to give the pedestrian their right of way. Here, you run when you get the chance while dodging motor bikes, cars, songtows, and tuk-tuks. Usually I have to stop in the middle of the street and wait for the next rows of traffic to clear. It isn’t at all uncommon for a local Thai to take me under their wing while crossing the street. Most times it is a young man who runs up to me (the crazy falang standing in the street) and gets as close as possible without touching me (because that would be taboo) and leads me across the rest of the way and safely to the other side. I have looked these men in the eyes and they are genuinely concerned for my safety and seem to take personal responsibility for getting me safely across the busy street.
Also, the Thai students we have befriended since our arrival are always looking out for us when we go out. They make sure we aren’t standing too close to the curb, eating the wrong foods or uncomfortable in any way. In fact, they usually order for us at restaurants to make sure we get the best food and they usually tell us where to go and where to sit. It’s actually very sweet of them, just very new to us. We even speak to each other like children, especially in the beginning. Most of our communication came from gestures and incomplete sentences. I also found myself speaking to them in broken English, very slowly and with emphasized pronunciation.
It’s been an odd experience for me in this way. Perhaps I’m not as much baffled as I am humbled by the whole experience. I am now better equipped to empathize with exchange students and foreigners traveling in America. Being in a different country is exhausting! It takes much more brain power and energy because you have to think about so many things that we do on auto-pilot back in our home towns. Since I’ve been here, I’ve taken some Thai language and culture lessons and I’ve gotten my bearings for the most part (with the help of a map). Right now I feel like I’m almost 5 years old.