my blog from abroad
In honor of my five month anniversary with Bangkok I’ve decided to enumerate the ways in which Bangkok has changed me:
1. The way I speak
Living in a non-English-speaking country has, in many ways, changed my main methods of communication. Non-verbal cues and hand signs have become vital if not essential in day-to-day dealings with food vendors and shopkeepers. My miming skills have improved tenfold since living here. I’m still not a pro (*Jordan Sernik*) but I’m good enough to recognize when other people suck. (I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING. USE YOUR HANDS!!)
The non-verbals are of course accompanied by verbals of varying complexity. I generally begin with broken English, mixing in Thai when I can, and speak more fluently if my listener seems to understand well enough.
Me: “When Boi come back?”
“Uhh she Myanmar, she back tomorrow”
Me: “Yay! [thumbs up!] She cut my hair? [miming scissors slicing my hair]. Need haircut.”
“You cut hair tomorrow morning?”
Me: “No, mai dai, work tomorrow morning. Maybe tomorrow night [future-tense swoop with hand] . Thank you kha! Khup khun kha!”
Speaking in broken English is an ESL teacher no-no, especially in the classroom, but otherwise I would not be able to be understood on the streets.
Exciting news: I counted today and I’ve learned about 100 Thai words since living here. That’s not including all the numbers I know (1-999). Mostly I know foods (chicken, rice, soup, grilled, fried, milk, water, pineapple…), a few verbs (want, can, go, have…), and the essentials (hello, thank you, no/not, excuse me…). I’m still pretty stoked that I could pick up that much without trying very hard.
If my limited Thai is failing me, there are always a few go-to English words/phrases that Thai’s are sure to understand: very good, very beautiful, teacher, zombie, America, Obama.
Last thing on the topic of my speaking habits. I’ve gotten in the awful habit of lacking censorship capabilities when talking to my English-speaking friends in public. No topic is off-limits because it appears as though no one can understand a word of what I’m saying. False. Some Thai people can understand a good bit of English, but are just too shy to try to use it with us.
It becomes apparent to me how familiar I am with certain Thai customs of politeness when I’m surrounded by hordes of farang backpackers who just got here and don’t have a clue (I’m not saying all backpackers are ignorant of Thai customs, but it has become clear to me that many are).
For example, there’s the compulsion I feel to remove my shoes upon entering a shop or restaurant; there’s the quite natural tendency to dip my head and shoulders when passing in someone’s personal space or in between two people conversing; there’s the understanding that Thai people do not want to step over any part of my body if I’m sitting on the floor and that I should similarly avoid stepping over them.
It is absolutely necessary to exercise patience and flexibility when dealing with Thai people who may or may not have the English vocabulary to express themselves fully. All too often, I observe foreigners become impatient with a songthaew driver. They raise their voices and lose face, which is an absolute no-no. It actually makes me uncomfortable to watch others lose face. That’s when you know you live in Asia – when you can’t handle seeing people lose face.
I miss running outside, especially since I’ve been reading Allison’s jogging blog. Milledge Ave was steps from my front door when I lived in Athens, and in Atlanta, there was the park I could run to behind my neighborhood with trails along the river. Running on the streets in Bangkok is a formidable challenge, of which I have accepted approximately two times since living here. The sidewalks are just too crowded with people, street food vendors, motorcycles, soi dogs…the whole thing is just a lot of stop-and-go.
To compensate for this void in my lifestyle, I run on the treadmill at my gym (an activity I used to loathe). I’ve also been doing yoga in my room. It’s not the same as going to classes at Rubber Soul, but it’s something I suppose.
4. <<<<<STICKY RICE
Probably the most intense adjustment of all for me has been overhauling my diet completely. I was originally really concerned about the less-than-nutritious diet I am forced to keep while living here, but now I’ve just embraced the sticky rice. Literally, though – I clutch those 5-baht little bags of sticky rice to my breast and thank them for being so wonderful!
After my first two weeks of living here and subsisting solely on street food, I hit a wall. I wanted cheese. I wanted cheesy pizza, Indian food, salads, cereal…Then somehow I broke through the wall and now I’m pretty content consuming Thai food for every single meal. In fact, I don’t even think my body could handle a full-on Western diet right now. (By the way: as of late, I’m beginning to hit another wall. Really missing the healthy, fresh, varied diet of days of yore.)
My staples back in America: chickpeas, eggs and toast, stir-fried broccoli, black beans/brown rice/jalepenos/melted cheese, salads, fruits, cereal
My staples here: gai yang (grilled chicken) and sticky rice, som tam (unripe papaya salad. I know it’s a “salad” but it’s nutritionally pretty empty), tom yum (spicy Thai soup), penang chicken/pad pan garee vegetables/other masterful dishes cooked up by The Old Man all with rice and a fried egg on the side, yogurt, fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ice cream.
In short, I eat WAY more meat here than I ever did at home. I eat absurd amounts of white rice, which is something I almost never ate at home. I don’t get fresh veggies here, which makes me endlessly sad, and I almost never eat cheese anymore. Something that hasn’t changed about my diet? I still eat spicy. Really, really spicy.
It’s become compulsive. Maybe you’ve heard of the “Thai smile” – it’s really a thing! They smile for any and every reason, which I actually kinda like. As a farang, it’s a useful tool to break the tension during a language-barrier-ridden exchange. The problem is that I now smile maniacally at everyone, not just Thais.
I don’t think my “Thai smile” is as deep and genuine as the real thing, so you can see how it can seem weird and maybe a bit rude to Westerners when I meet them and can’t stop grinning emphatically. Sometimes I catch myself and I’m like, “Stop this. You can stop smiling and just use your words.”
6. It’s getting hot in here
I no longer sleep with air con.
I know, it’s shocking, but I’ve actually become quite comfortable without it, even though it’s like 85 degrees here on a cool night. But that’s another thing – I never check the weather. I used to be fastidious about this. I would check the weather in Athens for the day every single day before getting dressed. I learned pretty quickly that it’s useless to look up the weather here in Bangkok because a) they can’t really predict it and b) when they try, they just say it’s going to rain all the time. And guess what? It doesn’t. The best way to predict the weather is to look at the sky.
I take cold showers and it’s not so bad. I don’t think it will ever feel completely comfortable, but I’ve definitely adapted. For those who similarly don’t have hot water in their homes, I can offer these tips: jump around a bit while you’re under the water. Wash one body part at a time. Don’t shower in the morning when the water has had all night to become chilly; shower in the middle of the day or at night when the water, and your body, will be the warmest.
So that’s it for now. How have you changed your lifestyle to adapt to living abroad?