I came to this country as a single mother with the goal of staying at home and being with my little girl in her youngest years. What I got was that, and much more. Initially I intended to give my daughter a multi-cultural upbringing to show her that we are all human beings brought up in a variety of ways.
I wanted to stay in Thailand long enough to deeply understand the culture before moving on to another country. I must admit that even now, 8 years later, I feel I may never fully understand this culture. I make cultural mistakes a lot less then I used to but I am always learning and that is why I have stayed. The value of what I have learned is what I would like to share with you.
I am only speaking from my own experience, mostly in the deep south of Thailand and I am open to corrections in my understandings, but I will share with you how I see it. To understand who this culture has taught me to be I would first like to share with you a little bit about where I came from. I was born in the USA. As an American I was taught to always try to be bigger, better, faster and stronger.
My work ethics were drilled into me from a young age. I was taught to have back up plans to my back up plans and to always be learning from my past while planning for my future. Talk about a lot of stress. When I had jobs in the US I was taught to never take a rest.
If we had free time at work we were expected to find something to do or risk being made redundant. I also learned that I must make myself so valuable to my employer that I would guarantee a bright future with that company. The ongoing narrative in my head was one of non stop planning and perfectionism.
We were also taught that we must do what we love but now I feel that this is only an idea and not generally a real feeling that we obtain. Thai culture has brought me back down to earth and reality. One of the things I dearly love about this culture is that it is a more feeling based culture.
I have had the experience of going to work and my Thai manager told me that she didn’t feel my heart was in my work that day. She was correct, I was very worried about an ill family member that day but I had not said anything. She suggested that I take the day off to allow my heart to be ready for work.
I was quite shocked by this. My upbringing taught me to be professional and hide my feelings at work and deal with my personal stuff on my personal time. The Thai culture did not separate the two and even when I tried to hide my feelings the Thais felt it. I also appreciated that they only work if their heart is in it. Again, I was brought up with this concept however at the end of the day we just worked even if our hearts were not in it.
I continue to learn more about the Thai heart and I intend to allow more balance between my American thinking style and my Thai feeling style. This way of Thai feeling is much more here and now.
At times I feel very frustrated with the here and now style because future planning and step by step instructions with my Thai employees felt like a nearly impossible task but when I became flexible I learned that we can still get things done together in new ways then I had previously thought of. I had some big lessons to learn. I remember telling some of our staff to please do multiple things then I would notice they would disappear after one thing was finished.
I also thought I was being considerate when I would ask the kitchen staff to make my lunch when they had time because I could see that they were busy. My attempts to be polite were actually not appreciated because I was asking them to remember me and my order while they were focused on something else.
“I feel that in the USA we have been tragically separated because of our history and working style and the greatest loss is the loss of family.”
I was literally pulling them out of the now and distracting them by doing that. I finally learned to offer one step at a time with my staff and to order my lunch when people had the time to do it. They taught me to stay here and now along side my staff. Our potential productivity was slowed down a little bit but our happiness level increased greatly.
I believe this is a large part of the reason why Thai people look so young. They are not thinking about 50 things at one time, they are instead in a beautiful flow, working hard, from one thing to the next but not distracted by a crazy monkey running around in their minds. I will forever be grateful to this culture for giving me the experience I needed to understand that I can work hard and accomplish great things while being here and now.
I do also want to balance this with my upbringing and keep my ability to plan for the future and multi task but I feel that both abilities are very important at different times. The Thai language has also taught me many things. Coming from a native English speaking country I did not really understand how separating our language patterns can be until I lived in a solely Thai speaking area.
I finally found a Thai friend who was willing to correct my mistakes when I spoke in Thai to give me the opportunity to improve my speaking skills. I also found this quite funny because in the US we would absolutely correct people and guide them to speak in accurate ways. In Thailand I searched for years to find someone willing to tell me what errors in speech I was making. I understand that this comes from not wanting me to lose face and I now find that quite sweet but it took a lot of effort to improve when no one wanted to tell me I was wrong. One day I was practicing with my Thai
He asked me “Gin kow Leyyoung?” (have you eaten yet?) to which I replied “Chan gin kow leaw” (I have already eaten). He then blew my mind open by explaining to me that in the Thai language using the word for “I” with my friends is actually separating and formal.
Dumbfounded and open minded I asked him what I was supposed to say, he replied to use my name instead of “I”. In English if I were to say “Jackie has eaten already” people might assume that Jackie is a bit crazy but in Thai it makes us much more connected. I absolutely loved this communal aspect of their language. I also adore that I can call many people mom or sister or grandmother or grandfather because the roles are not left exclusively to blood family but are flexible to include the people who we interact with daily. I feel that in the USA we have been tragically separated because of our history and working style and the greatest loss is the loss of family.
In Thailand they have family everywhere they go. I would love to see what this sense of connection could do in the USA. Another friend explained to me that when a Thai says “I do not understand”, the meaning is different then the way we say it in English. For me, “I (self, separate from others) do not understand”, is a very mental expression meaning that my brain does not compute what the other person is saying.
In Thai they say “Jackie (inclusive way to refer to self) mai (does not) kow (come into) jai (my heart)”. They are literally saying that the information or experience does not go into their hearts.
Such a beautiful way of receiving information, not mentally but through feeling. I recently taught my daughter about addition of multiple digit numbers and how to carry the extra number up and add it to the next column. When checked her homework I realised that she was not writing this number down on the top of the next column like I had taught her. I was worried that she would forget and not add it in if she did not write it down.
When I asked her why she was not writing it down she explained to me that her teachers had taught her to hold the number in her heart then add it in to the next column when it was time. Again, I was blown away by the sweetness of the culture.
I also loved that they took something as mental as mathematics and brought the heart into it. Being in between the two cultures is also a great gift in the work I have been involved in. I have learned to balance the fun with the serious. I love that I can connect with my Thai friend in a relaxed and fun way but be present and professional with our foreign guests. I feel valuable here because I love and respect both ways of doing things and get to live in this fine balance between the two worlds.
Some guests would come to our reception desk and ask for things in a very aggressive tone to which the Thai staff would often run away from but when I spoke with the guest I would find that they were only asking for something as simple as toilet paper.
It’s a great experience to be in the middle and be able to coordinate communications between different cultures because I feel that many things are only problems because of communication differences. I also love the opportunity to share with people what I have learned to enhance their vacation and understanding of this culture.
Overall, I believe that my upbringing balanced with what I am learning in Thailand will, and is making me a better person. I think had I stayed in the USA I would have stressed myself into a heart attack at some point and all of my striving would have been for nothing.
I also do not want to completely relax into the Thai here and now ways because I do see the value in thinking, planning and pushing forward (just not to the American extreme). It is my hope that a healthy balance between the two can be found. Essentially, balancing what the brain and the heart want in order to be a more whole and complete person.
This is what I feel Thai culture is teaching me. I look forward to many more lessons and to navigating the Thai terrain while remembering who I am and where I came from but while allowing myself to be shaped by this beautiful country.