My niece asked me a great question about what the biggest difference is here. And I feel like that is a loaded question that I won’t be able to answer in this post, or even over this year. But I’d like to explore it. First of all, I don’t know if there is any one big difference here; I think there are so many small things that are different, which contribute to the feeling of being in a totally different culture.
However, I think the biggest difference for our specific situation is that we are much closer to people who are poor or marginalized. We could have found this more in the U.S. as well, but it might be at a more intense level here regardless (I’m not sure; I’m not an expert).
As far as the cultural differences, there are many. For instance, this culture is much more relationship-based. How you refer to someone is based on their age and your relationship to them. For an older sibling or even an older colleague/friend, you use the prefix “P.” before their name. For someone closer to your grandmother’s age, you use the prefix “Yai” (rhymes with guy). So it is not unusual or rude to ask someone their age.
Another way this culture focuses on relationships is that you greet everyone throughout the day. You say, “Sowatdee” (and end with “kha” if you’re female and “krop” if you’re male with a rolled ‘r’), and “Y” the person (which is to put your hands in the prayer position and bow to them if they are older or more respected than you, like a monk).
The Thais tend to be less confrontational than us Americans. However, there still can be conflict. A little while ago, there was a conflict between two of my coworkers. The follow-up included private conversations with our supervisor. This can be tricky because it is also very important to save face, or not experience embarrassment. Unfortunately, one of the workers did not come back to work much after the incident. She was newer to the project, and there were some other factors as to why. But I’m fairly certain that this incident was a contributing factor.
John and I also need to be aware of this because we also need to be as fair as possible - as to how much time we spend with people or how we interact with them. Since this culture is also more group-focused, they are much more aware of what is happening between people. So it would be obvious and people could be hurt if we were spending more time with certain people, or giving more attention to some than others.
Then there are more simple, amusing differences:
- Everyone is saying the weather is getting cold. John and I feel it, too; we even wear our light sweatshirts for part or all of the day regularly in the past few weeks. But all you Midwesterners will laugh because on the cold days, it might get down to the 60’s (but more regularly only 70 degrees) and the highs are still in the 80’s or higher.
- We are definitely a little adjusted to feel that this weather is cooler. But you gotta understand how hot it was. For our first three months, it was so hot. It was usually 95 degrees as a high (without humidity) and 70-75 degrees for a low if we were lucky. Some nights it felt like the heat never broke. It’s so hot that I was told a previous volunteer changed her underwear three times per day - and even though I don’t do that, I know how she felt!
- The current weather is so unusual as well. It feels a little like fall right now, and we just completed our one and only rice harvest for the year (only for this part of Thailand: other regions have more than one rice harvest per year). Yet it’s also like spring because all of the flowers have been blooming post-rainy season. To add another twist, even though we won’t do another rice harvest for another year, our community and plenty of others in the region have been planting their secondary crops - like mushrooms, cucumbers, garlic, onion, etc.
- Have we mentioned how we hardly wear shoes? We do wear them outside but whenever you go inside a building, you take them off. For some public restaurants and stores, you can wear them inside, but that can vary. We also sit cross-legged on the floor as much as we are able, alongside our Thai friends.
- They use so much baby powder here! It makes sense because it’s so humid. Our friends often put it all over their body. Throughout the day, if your face gets too shiny, you might re-apply, too.
- We wash our clothes in a washing machine, but we line-dry our clothes like everyone else. John and I figured out that you need to plan when you do this. If you hit a couple of rainy days (as you often will in the rainy season), your clothes won’t fully dry easily. We ended up with one big load of laundry that smelled like mildew until we washed them again. Now we try to save the washing clothes until we know we’ll get some sun on them.
- The sun is so strong! You can’t leave your drying clothes in the sun too long, or they will completely use their color. We also feel how strong the sun is on our skin. We feel the need to put on hats much more regularly and to get shade when we are able.
- I’m not sure if it’s partially attributed to the fact that it’s often so hot here, but our Thai friends will sit around and hang out without seeming to do much for much longer periods than we do in the U.S. (or do we even do this in the U.S. at all anymore?).
- When I asked Antonia about whether the patients have much access to books, she explained to me that Thai people don’t tend to read a lot on average. She read once that on average, a Thai person will read only 8 lines of text per year. I’m not sure if this is still true (or if I’m quoting her accurately), but I haven’t seen many people read here.
- You eat with your hands here. This region (the northeastern region, also known as the Issan region) eats mostly sticky rice. The sticky rice naturally has more starch in it. Once it’s prepared (I’ll leave those details to John to explain more thoroughly), you take a little in your hand, ball it up a bit, and use it to scoop up some of the main dish. People often share their dishes together.
Well, I think that is plenty to get started with. Thanks if you read this far!
I do want to be clear that in spite of these cultural differences (or perhaps a better word is: observations), there are many similarities. People are much the same the world over. Teenagers can still be teenagers - more on that at some other time...