Same Same, But Different: An Experienced Expat on Culture Shock in Thailand

Thailand has a popular saying: Same same, but different. Backpackers leave the Land of Smiles clad in flowy elephant pants and tank tops bearing the phrase. The meaning is simple: two things are similar, but they’re different. Street vendors use it to sell knock-off brands. Restaurants say it to compare dishes. Locals use it to brush topics aside — don’t worry, it’s same same, but different.

When I moved to Thailand, worries about adapting never crossed my mind. My parents had worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, and my childhood was spent in the U.K., Cuba, Germany and America. I moved eighteen times in thirty years: four countries, five states and eight different cities. I often traveled, uncovering colorful countries on my Scratch-Off World Map: Iceland, Mexico, Jamaica, Greece and most of Western Europe. Adapting was my jam. Why would Thailand be any different?

I landed in Bangkok just before dusk. I made my way through Customs, purchased a SIM Card, and stood in the taxi queue. When it was my turn, I pulled up my Airbnb listing on Google Maps. The woman behind the taxi counter looked over her glasses at the screen. She waved her hand at a man in a powder blue button-up shirt and navy blue pants.

“Udom Suk?” I said. A friend who had recently lived in Bangkok had booked the room for me. She said the place was near the Udom Suk train stop. “Udom Suk BTS?”

The woman responded in Thai.

“I don’t know what you’re saying.” I felt myself shrink. Thai is tonal. I’d traveled to countries where I couldn’t speak the language — countries like Germany, Spain or Iceland — but I could imagine the spelling of words. I could read the alphabet, search for roots, or at least grasp pronunciations. The woman’s words flew at me like a passing train. My ears couldn’t understand her inflection enough to know if she’d said a statement or asked a question.

An Experienced Expat on Culture Shock in Thailand

“It’s by Udom Suk BTS,” I said again.

The woman wrote characters on a slip of paper. She tore it in half giving one to me and one to the man in blue. Everything was in Thai except numbers. The blue man motioned for me to follow him to his taxi. He shoved my large roller suitcase in the trunk. I squeezed into the cab with my duffle bag and bulky hiking backpack.

“Meter?” I said when he started the car. My friend had warned me about Bangkok taxis scamming visitors by not turning on the meter. If a taxi driver tells you their meter is broken, she’d said, get out of the car. If I had to get out of the blue man’s car, I’d have to struggle with my luggage and try my luck with another taxi.

“Yes, yes. Meter,” the man said, pressing a button on top of the black box.

We drove for an hour from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Udom Suk. Bangkok looked like a city that had been left to rot. Everything, the sky included, carried a brown hue from smog. High rises, colored in sun-faded white, greens, and blues, displayed dark black smudges. Mold? More effects from smog? Billboards advertised typical things like beers and cars — surprisingly few featured Thai models.

The taxi turned onto Udom Suk and down a side street. A tall, white building sat at the end of the lane. Like everything else, the white exterior looked as though a dust storm had recently blown through. Electrical wires hung in clumps or crisscrossed wildly like a toddler’s manic drawing. The blue man unloaded my roller suitcase. A group of locals stared at me from a noodle stand. Anxious to get away from their curious glances, I dragged my bags up the five steps into the massive granite lobby. A laundry mat hummed in the corner. To my left, ladders and paint cans waited mid-use next to a long row of windows covered in butcher paper and blue marking tape. From firsthand experience, the hall reminded me of abandoned 1930s-era buildings in Detroit.

An Experienced Expat on Culture Shock in Thailand

Following the Airbnb host’s directions, I wheeled my luggage towards the elevators at the back of the building. Gold framed posters, nearly three-stories tall, depicted images of a man and a woman dressed in grand gold and blue outfits. Thailand’s beloved King Rama IX passed away the previous year. I didn’t know if the unsmiling man staring down at me was the late king or the new one. Was the woman the queen or the queen mother? I looked around the lobby: empty except for two fat cats. Even if someone had been there, I wouldn’t have known how to ask them about the posters.

Three Days Later

Three days later I stood in the last car of the BTS. I rode back to Udom Suk after an afternoon wandering around Old Town. I’d set out that morning to explore the Grand Palace and Wat Pho but only saw Wat Pho after miscalculating the time it would take me to walk six kilometers from the BTS stop to the Grand Palace. I needed to double Google Map’s walking ETA to account for playing real-life “Frogger” when crossing Bangkok’s busy roads.

I wore mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses, my favorite accessory because I could watch people without anyone knowing. A man across the car stared at me. He took his cell phone out of his pocket. He pointed the camera at me. I kept my head down to look like I was watching the ground.

My sister, who lives in Indonesia, warned me that people might take my photo. Above average height, pale and blond, I stuck out in Thailand — I stuck out in most of Asia. In Europe, and even parts of Central America, I blended into a crowd. In Bangkok, I practically wore a blinking, neon sign that read “FARANG,” the word for non-Thais. I knew people’s stares weren’t meant to be rude, but I still didn’t like it. Thus, I wore mirrored sunglasses so that I could act oblivious.

The man crossed the car and leaned against an alcove that led to the back of the train. With his back to me, he dialed a number using FaceTime. A woman appeared on his screen. They chatted for a moment. Then, not so stealthily, the man moved the phone, putting me in the full frame of the video. The woman laughed and called to someone off screen. A man joined her. He also smiled and laughed. I lifted my head and looked right at them, but, because of my sunglasses, they either couldn’t tell or didn’t care.

Bringing the phone back in front of his face, the man in the BTS talked with the couple on the other end. He looked back at me a few times. I looked around the train car. Surely another passenger would find this weird, rude, or invasive? No one moved. The man stuck me into the frame again. A third person had joined the couple. I looked at my outfit. Was there something wrong with me?

An Experienced Expat on Culture Shock in Thailand

An unspoken rule I knew before coming to Thailand was “saving face” (i.e. not getting embarrassed). In Thai culture, saving face is crucial. Students sailed through school no matter their grades and patients resisted questioning doctors, all in the name of saving face — both yours and someone else’s. “Never get into an argument with a Thai,” my “Lonely Planet” guide advised. “It is better to smile through any social friction.” As a farang, I had few rights in Thailand. The government often blames tourists themselves for crimes in which they are the victim. The reason? If the tourist hadn’t come to Thailand, then the crime wouldn’t have been committed.

Fueled by embarrassed rage, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I took a picture of the man. I tilted my glasses and looked him in the eyes. “What the hell, dude?” The man scowled. He said something to the three on the screen and hung up. The train slowed. Thankfully it was my stop. The man glared at me as I walked past him. I glared back, fully aware that to anyone else on the train I was the rude one; I was the one in the wrong.

Adjusting to Thailand

Adjusting to Thailand proved to be harder than I expected. During my first month in Bangkok, I felt like everything screamed at me: YOU ARE AN OUTSIDER. People ran into me, pushed me and leaned against me in packed subway cars as if I was a wall. In the West, personal space is coveted. A stranger leaning into me gets bumped aside, or I groan loudly to express discomfort. In Asia, to protest an invasion of my personal space wouldn’t just be rude, it would be weird. Thailand is crowded. Bangkok alone holds nearly nine million people (the 23rd most populous city on the continent; Number One is China’s Chongqing with over thirty million people). Pushing, shoving, and leaning is just how things are.

I’d read about Thailand’s storied sex tourism industry and had mentally prepared myself to see geriatric white men with teenage Thai girls wrapped around their waist. What I hadn’t expected was how the entire tourism scheme would cause white western men to strut around Thailand with a god complex.

In the U.S., it’s no secret that straight, white men can get away with a lot. In Thailand, that notion is twofold. I watched white western men grab the asses of Thai waitresses. Pairs of men bombarded Asian women at bars, inserting themselves into conversations and highjacking what was obviously a girls’ night out. The highjacked girls, non-working women, looked uncomfortable and upset but also scared, as if they weren’t allowed to walk away. I met British, Australian, and American men in expat groups and writing clubs. They referred to Asian women as “pretty pets,” and bragged about how many girls they were screwing at once. They recounted stories where Thai women expressed hurt feelings or displeasure. The men laughed. “I told her: This isn’t about you,” one man said. “This is about me.”

The overt objectification repusled me, but even more abhorrent was the open acceptance of it. The Thai women didn’t fight back, nor did they scold the men who letched at them— not that they didn’t want to. As with the pushing and shoving, white men with yellow fever was just part of the culture. Westerners, too, nonchalantly accepted the behavior. “What are you going to do?” one expat said to me. “It’s practically in the name: Bang-cock.”

Not Considered Weird…To Photograph a Stranger?

Seven months after the man on the train stuck me into his FaceTime call, I sat at a gaming bar with a group of adult students from the English language center where I worked. At the turn of the new year, I’d signed a one-year lease on an apartment. Approaching May, I still didn’t feel fully adjusted to Thailand; I felt antsy to move somewhere else.

I told my students about the man on the train. I laughed even though the experience still bugged me.

“Maybe I looked weird,” I said.

One of my students nodded. “You probably did,” she said. “But not in a bad way. I think it was a compliment.” She went on to explain how, in Thailand, to stare at someone or take their photo is not seen as rude. “We don’t do it to make fun,” she said. “We do it because something is interesting. It’s different. We want to share that.”

Not entirely convinced, I took a long sip of my drink.

“This is your first time in Asia?” my student asked. I nodded. “There’s your problem,” she said. “You have to remember: this is not the West.”

As my students all began talking about the ways the East and the West differ, I realized they were right: I hadn’t thought of the East as different. I’d thought of it as same same, and maybe just a tiny bit different. I prided myself on being a world traveler, and how that worldliness shaped me into an open-minded, accepting person. To see the East and the West as different felt closed-minded; it felt like the view of someone who hadn’t traveled abroad and seen that, on the whole, all places were the same.

An Experienced Expat on Culture Shock in ThailandIn

In reality, places were different. Sometimes they were a bit different; sometimes they were very different. I’d expected Thailand to be same same, but different. Because of that, Thailand felt different different, not at all the same.

I wondered how my experience in Thailand would have changed if I had acknowledged the differences. The bulk of my international travel and living had been in Europe — a continent whose countries largely follow similar cultural norms. Same same, but different.Most of the countries I’d been to were developed nations, with the exceptions of Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica. In Cuba, I lived on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base with my father; hardly the epitome of “roughing it.” Trips to Jamaica and Mexico were not spent in lavish resorts, but I traveled with friends and family, and we stuck to tourist-centric areas. Settling solo in a developing nation was an experience I’d never come close to. My history abroad made my adjustment to Thailand less frightening, but I’d been naïve to think it would be easy.

On the train ride home, I scrolled through the photos on my phone. I found the one of the FaceTime man. His expression looked different now. He wasn’t scowling. He looked confused. Maybe I had misjudged the situation. No one in the train car had reacted to his easily-heard conversation. Was that because it wasn’t rude? Perhaps he and his friends weren’t jeering at me. Perhaps they were just interested in something different. Unlike me, they weren’t ashamed to admit something was different. In fact, they’d delighted in it. Maybe to adapt to Thailand, that’s what I needed to do, too.

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