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Stories From The East: I Think I’m Turning Thai

by Andrea Eisinberg

Did you ever have a dream of traveling the world and working, living and learning a foreign culture? Andrea Eisinberg has been living that dream for the last 10 months, teaching English in Thailand. Here’s how the world looks to her 14 timezones away from home.

After almost a year of living in Thailand, it was recently brought to my attention that I may be turning Thai.

It was an unbearably humid 100 degree Sunday afternoon in Northeast Thailand. I was standing outside to catch Songtaew #3 to the grocery store where I could steal an hour of air-con.

I was wearing long jeans and a conservative polyester shirt – an outfit I’d once deemed unfit for such brutal heat. With no nearby awning for shade, I pulled out my umbrella for momentary relief of the beating sun. The pink songtaew approached and I waved it down using the Thai hand motion that meant “come here” – a downward palm facing hand formation that closely resembles what Americans might assume to mean “go away.”

There are 15 people already crammed into the back of the re-purposed pickup truck. A gentleman offers me his seat and joins the other men who hang off of the back in a manner that once made me sure they’d fall off and die. Nestled in between an elderly woman carrying a basket of raw meat and a mother whose curious baby tugs on my bag, I remember what friends’ from back home told me during my last Skype session: “You are so Thai.”

I took a sip from my water bottle through a straw and glance around at the dark Laotion-toned locals, expecting to meet many curious glazes as per usual songtaew ride, given the close proximity allows prime farang-staring time.

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To my surprise, there were no wandering eyes on this day.

Perhaps, after 10 months here, I am finally…blending in?

Once upon a time, I would have never left the house in such weather wearing anything but a tank top and shorts or a dress. But I’ve learned that Thai people dress very conservatively, coupled with the fact they’ll do anything to avoid a tan. You won’t see exposed shoulders or thighs in Thailand, in fact, they even opt for full body suits while swimming. I search their foreheads for any signs of perspiration that might indicate discomfort from their attire (nope!–I swear they don’t sweat).

As a farang in a non-tourist region of Thailand, I stand out enough as it is. In a culture where blatant staring is not rude, I’ve become accustomed to drawn-out looks.

I am almost guaranteed to run into students when I leave the house, and as a teacher, there is also a standard of respectability to maintain. Despite the killer heat, I dress as modestly as I can bear.

The Thai hand gesture meaning “come here” has become first nature; my farang friends and I even find ourselves using it with one another.

Gulping open-mouthed out of a water bottle suddenly seems impolite. You’re always offered a straw when you buy drinks, and it would be rude not to accept it.

Umbrellas are a standard accessory for Thais. If it’s not raining, than the sun shining, and heaven forbid some natural Vitamin D were to counteract all the money spent on whitening lotions. Although I still prefer my skin tanned despite my white skin being a hot commodity here, an umbrella does take the edge off the heat.

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After being corrected early on by a Thai teacher who was appalled that I didn’t know how to eat properly, it now feels awkward putting a fork directly in my mouth. It’s all about the spoon here and the fork is just the accomplice. And forget about the knife ‘€“ surely my cutting skills have atrophied during my time in Thailand.

It has become an instinct to greet people with a wai. Sometimes I find myself (embarrassingly) starting to wai the other foreign teachers.

I never enter a home with shoes on. I can’t stand beer without ice. When dishes arrive one by one, we don’t wait for each other to begin eating. I refer to anyone older than me by adding a ‘P-‘ before their name out of respect. I function on Thai time – perpetually ten minutes late. I instinctively stand and freeze when the King’s song plays in public spaces.

I may be a minority here, but this is still my home — for now. And no one wants to feel out of place in their own home.

Looking around that songtaew on that Sunday afternoon, I almost felt a sense of accomplishment.

Maybe, just maybe, I look like I belong here.

Andrea Eisinberg is a recent Ithaca College graduate who has spent the last 10 months living in Thailand teaching English in an attempt to nurture and fund her travel disease. You can read more of her stories at StoriesFromTheEast.blogspot.com.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.


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