Thailand / Teacher Diaries

How My Culture Shock in Thailand Was More a Shock of Belonging

Olivia Griffin

Olivia Griffin

March 13, 2020

I decided to Teach English in Thailand for a number of reasons, but the underlying motivation was: I felt like I didn’t fit in where I was before. This is a feeling I’ve carried with me throughout my life, the majority of which I’ve spent in New Hampshire, the tiny north-east bit of America.

The notion to uproot my entire life and move to a brand new, foreign culture, that is so opposite from anything I was used to has always been enticing. But it’s a little ironic that someone who felt out of place would long to put themselves even more out of place in order to find a sense of belonging. I expected culture shock in Thailand, but not that the shock would be from the newfound belonging I felt. Here are some ways that my “culture shock” has really been the shock I’m expecting when I return home.

Culture shock in Thailand gave me a new sense of belonging

Though very few people around me speak English, and I still have a lot to learn about the customs, so far living in Thailand has provided me with a sense of purpose that I have never had before. I’m not saying that the transition has been easy in any way; it’s still a massive adjustment and with that comes many emotions, including homesickness and often feeling lost. But in some ways, the transition I’ve gone through has really been about me adjusting to a way of living and thinking that aligns more with my spirit. 

American overcoming culture shock in Thailand

Moving to another country can be scary, but Olivia found a sense of belonging she never expected.

Thai people are incredibly friendly

From my co-teacher always being concerned with whether I’m hungry (and having snacks prepared just in case I am), to the lady who rushed to my aid with vinegar the second I got stung by a jellyfish, Thai people go out of their way to be nice. Really, they will stop what they’re doing to make sure you’re okay.

This was a huge culture shock for someone coming from cold New Hampshire, where it’s customary to hunch over and stare at the ground as you walk past someone. Here I’ve truly felt that my well-being is important to others in my community. That kind of kindness brings it out in everyone who touches it. 

I’ve not only felt welcomed by Thai people, but also the other ex-pats in my community. They have been in my exact position, and are so generous in showing me around and making me part of the family. I will be honored when it’s my turn to do the same for someone new. 

rooftop view of beach cove in Thailand

It’s no secret that Thailand has some of the best views, like this one from our TESOL course excursion in Hua Hin, but the people are even more incredible.

I am a lot more aware of my impact on the world

I’ve never felt compelled to have the newest thing back home, and that’s one of the reasons I had trouble with the work-to-live kind of life I had there. Choosing more sustainable options when it comes to fashion and overall waste was not socially reinforced as much in America (at least where I was from). Here, it feels much easier to live minimally and only have what you need. Part of this definitely comes from being in transit and meeting some very inspiring people who also want to reduce their overall impact. 

Part of it is also just being more connected to my community. When I was working at a desk back home it was totally possible to disconnect; sit in my box all day, go to the grocery store and buy stuff from who-knows-where, and then go home and watch TV.

It’s not like that here. I see the impact of my choices as I walk through the streets. I see exactly where my money is going and who I am supporting when I buy dinner. Having an awareness of that changes the way I live entirely. 

Loy krathong lanterns with lighted candles

Rather than gift-giving like many Western holidays, Thailand’s second-largest holiday includes floating these lanterns, or krathongs, down nearby waterways.

There is a huge amount of respect for teachers in Thailand

Unfortunately, teachers do not get treated with the respect they deserve in America, they are greatly underpaid for the amount of influence they have over the younger generations. It’s not like that here. Being a teacher is one of the most highly respected jobs in Thailand, especially if you are teaching English to Thai kids, as this broadens their career prospects immensely. Literally the first night in my town, I wandered to a little gathering of Thai people and somehow everyone already knew I was the new teacher, and which school in the town I worked at. 

Because of the amount of respect, there is also a motivation within me to be the best teacher I can be. It’s a very rewarding and challenging job so far, and I love that my job allows me to immerse myself fully into the local community and culture. From the experiences I’ve had as an employee back home, I often felt disposable, whereas here I am valued for what I do. 

temple with clouds in background

In Thailand, you’re never more than a hop, skip, and a jump from a temple. They’re great places to meditate and reflect.

I am more in tune with myself than I’ve ever been before

Maybe this isn’t specific to Thailand, but to solo travel in general. Picking up my whole life and moving it across the world, to a continent I’ve never visited, where I am referred to first and foremost as “farang” (foreigner), has not been a walk in the park. It’s hard, and often all I have is myself.

Sometimes I need to cry for a few hours and acknowledge the intensity of this experience. At the same time, it is the most gratifying thing I have ever done for myself, and I wouldn’t change a second of it. I wouldn’t make this experience any easier, even if I could, because the ways in which I’ve already grown is worth more than gold. 

sunset over mountain and city

Many people move to Thailand with the intent of learning a new culture but end up learning just as much about themselves.

Teaching abroad is one of the most life-changing journeys you can go on. It comes with its challenges, as Olivia and other TravelBud alumni have faced but the growth and new perspectives that comes with embracing these challenges are, as Olivia puts it, “worth more than gold”. 

Olivia Griffin is a TravelBud alumni from New Hampshire who has been teaching English in Thailand since 2019. To apply for one of TravelBud’s upcoming intakes for our Paid Teaching program in Thailand, click here.

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