Twenty three days on the road, traveling through Nepal and Myanmar, had worn me out. I walked off the plane in Chiang Mai, ready to go back to my apartment, collapse, and put off unpacking for several days. Suddenly, I bumped into the backpack of the person in front of me. Why are we stopped? I just want to leave this airport. I looked ahead to see why all the other passengers were stopped. Two hi-so (high society) Thai girls had stopped in front of a completely blank and uninteresting wall to take selfies. “What’s a ‘selfy’?” you may ask. Here’s a stunning example:
I’m getting really good at taking selfies. And it makes sense, because a day doesn’t pass without my students showing me how its done.
So anyhow, as I stared at these two girls holding up a whole line of people so they could get a new Facebook profile picture ASAP (I mean, its only been two hours since they last updated their prof-pics!), my heart dropped into my stomach. I’ve made a horrible mistake. I can’t believe I signed up to live here for another twelve months…
Don’t get me wrong, Thai people are amazing. On a daily basis, I see simple acts of kindness and general enthusiasm for life that I just don’t see back in the States (Not to mention the cooking…mmmmmm). But after the last year, I’ve realized there are some aspects of Thai culture I just don’t jive with.
For example, I’m sitting in a cafe right now, which has music playing that is typical of most Thai bars and cafes: lounge covers. Brittany Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman” samba-style cover by a female Thai singer is playing as I type this. There is no reason for this rendition to exist. If I hear one more samba-style cover of anything, I’m going to have to track down the record label that keeps producing them and sabotage all of their recording equipment.
I know Thai people are creative! They make amazing art, build amazing temples, and have tons of cool, new, kitschy coffee shops. So why is a majority of popular music easy-listening covers? My friend aptly described it as “Adult ‘Kids Bop.'”
Now a samba-style-cover of “Norwegian Wood” is playing. I have to leave.
I jump on my motorbike to meet a friend for some street food. I reach a four-way intersection, where a vehicle coming from each direction has arrived. We’re all stopped. We’re all waiting for someone to make a move. After several big smiles, head nods, and inch-forward battles, I want to reach towards the heavens and scream, “SOMEONE MAKE A DECISION!!” Today, as with most of the “kindness duels” I encounter in Chiang Mai, the person to make the decision is me: the overly-forward American. But I’m only considered forward because everyone else is too nice to make the first move. The politeness of Thai people has turned my once laid back, non-confrontational self into a mover and shaker, and its stressing me out.
I arrive at the Three Kings Monument, where I had arranged to meet a friend, exactly on time. 5:59 PM. I take a seat on the edge of the sidewalk and watch as several Thai men are playing giant, twenty-foot long drums while groups of monks are cheering for their favorite drums (I will never know what was going on). Twenty-five minutes later, I’m laying down on the sidewalk, sighing heavily. “Thai time.” None of my students come to class on time. Meetings never start on time. The listed “Store Hours” of any shop are very loose. The “Thai time” phenomenon also rubs off on anyone who lives here, myself included. If someone tells you they’ll meet you at 6:00 PM, it means they’ll start to leave their house at 6:00 PM. Ok, so someone might be very relaxed and are just moseying about their day, but I just lost twenty-five minutes of my life on this sidewalk. Twenty-five precious minutes. When my friends arrived, I acted as passive-aggressive as humanly possibly.
So here I am, after an afternoon of activities, walking with a friend to get food, and I’m grumpy and frustrated.
Wait, wait, wait. This isn’t me. I’m a relaxed person. I’m the kind of relaxed that causes past girlfriends to become frustrated that I’m not more concerned with…what we’ll have for lunch, for example.
Let me think for a moment. Why am I angry? Well first of all, there was really cheery music playing in a cafe. They even had a Beatles song thrown in there. Next, I was stalled for a brief moment by three drivers who were all so nice that they let me cross the intersection first. Then, I had to sit in a peaceful monument area, watch an odd cultural event, and relax for twenty-five minutes (something I rarely fit into my days).
Whats wrong with me? These aspects of Thai culture that “I just don’t jive with,” are such small, simple parts of my days. Are these really the reasons why I’m nervous about living here for another year? Because of a cheery, kind, and relaxed country of people? I came here to learn about a new culture. Instead I’m letting small differences stress me out, and make me into the “Overly-forward American” that I had wanted to briefly escape from by moving here. Thai culture is so rich, and in one year, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Oh, and also, my students are way too awesome for me to leave them.