From the second-happiest country in the world, Denmark, (Damn it, Finland!) to the land of smiles, Thailand. As mentioned in my previous blog post about culture shocks, I already have some techniques for adapting to new cultures, but that doesn’t mean that it gets easier, rather that I have learnt a better way of dealing with the unknown.
I have now spent three months in Bangkok and I am still struggling with coming to terms with the city. Again, I thought that after living in China for almost a year and a half, immersing myself in the new culture would take me no time and very little effort. Rookie mistake.
Let’s go point by point:
Thailand: Land of smiles
There are 13 types of smiles in Thailand (at least!) according to Thai people. This, coming from Denmark where basically there are two types – the awkward smile when you make eye contact with an acquaintance, and the smile you have on your face after three bottles of Carlsberg – was a challenge. The problem is that for us, almost all the smiles look the same; hence it is very open to misinterpretation.
I won’t go through all the types of smile in the Thai culture, but I will present my favorites here:
First, Fuen Yim. It has been described as “not real heart” smile, and it is a sassy smile for trying to express “You are not being funny, but I will smile at your comments regardless and try to move on”. Why is this my favorite? Probably because I, unconsciously, use it a lot.
I tend to get awkward during social encounters and networking events where there are many people I don’t know well, and this smile is perfect for those situations. I wouldn’t say it’s a fake smile, but just not a smile with your heart in it. Ah, also because it reminds me of the smile that the characters of Friends make when Chandler makes his silly jokes!
Second, Yim Yaw: the teasing smile. Also known as the “I told you so” smile but without actually saying the words – we don’t want to be that I-told-you-so person, right? I think my boyfriend gets many of these from me… Oops.
Third, Yim Thang Nam Taa, or the “I am so happy I am crying inside” smile. I guess smiles can be interpreted differently also among Thai people, but as far as I understand, this one is a very sincere smile, no pretending, no politeness, pure happiness.
And last, the comforting smile, or Yim yae-yae. That smile for occasions where something bad has happened, but there is no point in crying as you can’t go back in time!
I think now we can all guess that Yim means smile in Thai! Whether you recognize the type of smile or not, arriving in Thailand and seeing everybody smiling at you gives you a welcoming feeling about the country and culture.
What I like most: Thai food
If I should mention what I will miss the most when my adventure ends, it is without a doubt Thai food. Every type of curry they serve here, the huge variety of fruits and vegetables in each dish, good rice and (of course) at a good price.
Not gonna lie, at first, my body rejected Thai food. It is too spicy: even the most harmless curry is hot for my Scandinavian food standards, where the spiciest thing I’ve tried was a schnapps with chili. China somewhat prepared me for what I thought were high levels of spiciness, but Thailand is just a whole new story!
Thus, whenever you eat out in Thailand, always ask for mild to medium spicy. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
What I struggle with: the weather
Living in an endless summer, all year round, not having to worry about bringing a jacket just in case, nice summer dresses every day, ice cream and a book by the pool after work… Sounds like Paradise right? Well, not quite.
After three months, my body is still not used to the weather here. My inner Viking is longing for slightly colder weather. No, I don’t miss winter in Denmark (who does?), but what about those sunny spring days in Copenhagen, when you just bike around the city, feeling the breeze on your face, and end the day having a beer by the lakes in Nørrebro, wearing a denim jacket because as soon as the sun goes down, it gets chilly? Those are the days.
Here it’s just a bit too hot and humid for a girl like me, used to big jumpers and scarves. Every morning, I need to consider what to wear according to which clothes hide sweat stains better (aka black & white). However, I lived in Denmark for over four years, which means 75% of my wardrobe is monochrome, so I haven’t had the need to shop for office clothes yet. It also helps that the business casual dress code is leaning a bit more towards the casual side.
And on top of it all: it is rainy season. This doesn’t mean that it rains all day, every day. In fact, when it rains, it pours for about an hour or two and then stops. It just happens that those two hours are always at the exact same time that we are supposed to leave the office, between 17-19. Long taxi queues, traffic jams (seriously, I have never been in a city with worse traffic than Bangkok!), and after-work activities postponed.
What do I do to cope with the heat (and the rain)? To start with, I always bring a second T-shirt or outfit to the office, in case we decide to grab some beers after in Khao San Rd. Office clothes and outdoor activities in Bangkok don’t mix well!
Days here are very hot, nevertheless, they cool down a little bit when we finish work. Just in time! During weekends, after careful research, I managed to have a list of nice cozy study cafés with AC – and for the evenings, I go to malls. There are malls everywhere, one of them even has an airport theme going on and every floor is decorated as if it is an airport!
And for the rain? Well, three months and I still haven’t bought an umbrella or raincoat, so I just embrace it – and sometimes dance in the rain as if I am in a movie. Let’s look at the positive things in life!
What surprised me:
My group of friends consists of foreigners. We are all interns at the United Nations, we come from everywhere and we have all lived everywhere – and while I love learning from others about their experience and stories, this also means that I haven’t had the chance to interact with many Thai people.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learnt anything from the new culture. In fact, I learnt that every day of the week has a color associated with it. Monday is yellow, and the King was born on a Monday.
Thus, all of Bangkok (and Thailand) is full of yellow flags with the royal emblem, and you can find the streets full of decorations in yellow – and sometimes blue, the queen’s color. In the beginning, I thought that yellow was just the official color for the Royal family as it resembles gold, but later I got to know the real reason behind the choice of color.
Now I am just hoping for a future King to be born on a Tuesday, the pink day! I found this very interesting because they take it quite seriously. Not only in relation to the Royal family – although I remember how almost everyone was wearing something blue on the queen’s most recent birthday, or how many people try to wear at least one yellow accessory on Monday, the King’s color day – but because, since I know this, I pay attention to what colors they wear and I have realized how they try to match their clothes to the color of the day – and specially if it’s their day.
Also, I am on a slow mission to get to know more about Thailand from the locals, thus I am becoming close friends with the administration ladies from the office to see what they can show me. Stay tuned!
My takeaways so far:
Bangkok is quite international, so it was an easier adaptation than in China. The weather is very challenging, my body is still not used to this heat and humidity, and I do miss rugbrød with smoked salmon – thus I highly appreciate that, while I love Thai food, it is very easy to find other cuisines around.
After three months, I am still very eager to learn more about this country. Next month, I am planning to travel up North and visit some temples and elephants (always a sanctuary! Don’t ride elephants in Thailand, elephants are beautiful animals that are not mean to be ridden!) and I also signed up for language exchange so I can learn a bit more Thai. I believe learning the basic words of the language when you move to a country is a sign of respect for the culture and a way to understand the people better. I hope it won’t be too hard and that I won’t start mixing Chinese and Thai!
And yes, as I’ve said, moving to new countries is always challenging but once you step out of your comfort zone, there’s no way you want to go back. So, if you’re considering moving to Thailand for your internship or exchange, please come! I’m sure it won’t disappoint you.