We have heard the stories: Westerners go to Thailand and find that suddenly their world is turned upside down. People react to them in ways they cannot understand, the language is not even remotely similar to European languages, the food is strange, the traffic seems chaotic, people are smiling but you have no idea what they are really thinking, relationships don’t work at all like in the west, and the religion can be contrary to western beliefs. It can be confusing indeed, and it is called culture shock.
After a lifetime of thinking, acting, eating or working in certain ways and in a specific cultural environment, we become conditioned to assume that our way of life is the “normal” one and everybody else is different or strange. Especially those who have never traveled outside of their country can find it hard to accept that people from different cultures might have totally different values and ideas about life. It takes an open mind to accept others who seem very different from us as equally right and see their different viewpoints as equally valid.
Culture shock is not limited to Westerners visiting exotic countries. Thais, like people in any country in the world, think that their ways are “normal” and “right”. So for the sake of our story, let’s imagine that a Thai is visiting America. The following is what might be happening in the mind of the Thai who just landed in Los Angeles:
“Why do people look so serious here and why is nobody smiling at me? Why do so many people seem to be in a hurry and why is nobody interested in talking to me? How come so many people look frustrated? They don’t seem to be very happy here!”
“I can’t find food here. In Thailand I just have to walk to the next corner to find a food vendor. In this country I have to drive for miles to get to a supermarket. And the food is tasteless here. Where is the chili sauce? How strange that there are no open food markets here and no street vendors where I can pick up a snack at any time like at home.”
“Why do I not see people walking around in the towns? Everybody is in their cars. It is quite difficult to meet people here and to make friends. At home I know everyone in my neighborhood, but here people don’t even know their neighbors who have lived next door for years.”
“How is it possible that a policeman gave me a ticket for crossing the street? There were no cars coming. In Thailand I can cross the street anywhere. They have very strange rules in America. They don’t make sense to me at all. There seems to be a rule for everything and there is no flexibility. In Thailand we have rules too, but we only follow them when it makes sense. Here you have to follow them if it makes sense or not. How strange!”
“How come I never see anyone sleeping or relaxing? Back home in Thailand napping and relaxing is normal, but here people seem to think that this is a very bad thing. I heard that people who nap or relax during work time are seen as lazy, and they can get fired from their jobs for that. How stressful and cruel.”
“How offensive that people tell you straight what they think of you, and they even point out mistakes or errors in front of others. Don’t they have any manners here? Don’t they mind losing face in public? People are so direct here, it is intimidating and embarrassing. It makes me feel really uncomfortable.”
“People here are really shameless. They are hugging and kissing in public. Some women don’t even wear bras. This is really embarrassing.”
“They all want to shake my hand. What a strange habit! I don’t like being touched by people when I greet them. I see people hugging each other as a form of greeting. I sure hope nobody will ever do that to me. How repulsive!”
“I hear people raising their voices, arguing and even yelling at each other. How uncivilized!”
“Why do the children here not want to live with their parents anymore when they turn 18? And why don’t families stay together here? In Thailand we place much more importance on family relationships. Don’t they feel lonely when they all live in different places?”
These are some examples how a Thai might perceive America or any western country. It is culture shock in reverse, directed at our western world and values. Maybe it will help you to see through the eyes of others a little more and maybe it will lessen your culture shock when you travel to other parts of the world.
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