So you've decided to move to Thailand! Welcome to the exciting world of "So, what exactly am I eating again? Oh, chicken blood? Lovely".
I am originally from Canada where I was brought up in the suburbs. Upon graduation, I moved to the city, found a corporate job and settled into the wonderful world of mundane monotony. I was sick of living what I felt was a routine, soul-crushing, pencil-pushing, life-sucking existence. I realized that I needed a challenge that would let me feel - anything different!
When I was in university, I had this insatiable zest for life. I was eternally optimistic (yes - I was that person) and felt like nothing would ever be able to make me become an ordinary person just working the 9-5.
Then, reality hit and I became accustomed to routine. Sadly, I became that person who just settles for custom and bitches about lost opportunities. After two years of the grind, I decided that I needed a drastic change.
I packed my bags and moved to Thailand to eventually become an English teacher. I was offered jobs in different parts of Thailand, but I quickly decided to move to a village in the North East region of Thailand, as opposed to a city.
Moving from a city in Canada to a village in Thailand is a radical change (I know - Duh!). It's the type of challenge I was looking for and the fact that the lifestyle was so radically different from city life was a BIG point of excitement.
Naturally, culture shock is something that you come prepared for. You come prepared to eat different food, meet different people, learn a different language, experience a different life. As prepared as I thought I was, there were still some things that truly intrigued me.
These were things that I was not prepared for when I moved to the village:
Sounds like common sense, but I was NOT prepared to be one of the only two Western women living in the village. As a result, we are always stared at everywhere we go. Grocery shopping, to the doctors office, biking, sitting on our lawn.... We are ALWAYS the subject of town gossip.
To villagers living in the North East of Thailand, it must have been strange to see two independent women walking about without men around us. Many people would ask me where my boyfriend was. When I replied that I didn't have one, they would ask the question again, as if my answer would change the second time.
When I repeated the same answer, the silence that followed was almost preferred to the inevitable question of "Why?".
Now, I was a proud, single woman but it is really difficult to answer that question to someone from a culture that doesn't really understand equality and independence in women.
My explanation of "needing to see the world" and "wanting to travel anywhere" and "nowadays women don't need to have a boyfriend to do things" and blah blah blah would generally just get me blank stares and another attempt to understand me:
"Oh. So you like women?"
".... Yes. I like women"
Everyone knows your business
People seemed to always know where we were, what we were doing, how long we were there for, who we were talking to, what we were eating, what we were wearing. The entire town seemed to know everything about our lives!
This didn't bother me as such, but it presented such a different reality as opposed to living in a city where you are virtually anonymous!
I was at the market buying some fruit and people came up to me saying something along the lines of, "it's a good thing that you're eating fruit because you weigh too much to eat a lot of meat".
Now, luckily for me, every sundown my skin turns green and I warp into a scaly looking ogre thing (channeling Princess Fiona - I TOTALLY feel your pain), so my weight is the least of my concerns. But my initial reaction was still shocked - not that someone was implying I was fat, but telling me my exact weight!
This gem of a stranger decided to answer my unasked question with "Oh, the nurse at the hospital told me".
As a part of my teaching contract I have to get a medical checkup done once a semester. The nurse who took my application must have thought the information vital to share. Once again, this didn't bother me but it was a far cry from the realm of privacy that is associated with medical institutions in the West.
Sometimes when I'm walking around town, people will still shout from their scooters as they drive by, "Maya! How is your infection doing?" I wish there was enough time for me to clarify with them that it was a LEG infection.
White is alright
I was truly shocked to learn the value that Thai people (especially from villages) place on beauty. I was even more taken aback when I saw how far people went to attain their vision of ideal beauty.
Over here, people love white skin. Like, LOVE it. In the North East of Thailand farming, construction, buffalo herding and fishing are the most common jobs that the average Thai person will have. These are all jobs that imply you have to work in the fields and in the sun all day and are, therefore, poor.
If you are whiter-skinned, it is generally accepted that you are rich and you can afford to either hire people to work for you or you have been fortunate enough to obtain a better paying job in an office somewhere.
Since such an importance is placed on light skin, mostly every product has a "whitening" label on it. Popular Western brands like Nivea, Oil of Olay, Jergens, Johnson and Johnson, and so many others all have released whitening-moisturizers, whitening-sunscreen, whitening-powder, whitening-body wash, whitening-deodorant.
These bleach-filled products fill the shelves of every grocery store, department store, 7/11 and local convenience stores.
It becomes a challenge for Westerners living in small towns (like me) to shop for basic essentials - I love to jog so I NEED my deodorant! The brands listed above are all from the West so they are naturally very expensive.
There are Thai brands that are more affordable for the average Thai person, however they don't put the same quality ingredients into their products so there people everywhere - students, adults, teachers - who are essentially bleaching their skin everyday! It is SO unhealthy and you can see the damage that is being done to the younger generation, not only to their skin, but to their image of beauty and confidence as well.
The pace of life
I was not prepared for how slow the lifestyle can be. This may sound like common sense, but consider yourself warned - if you are moving to a village, everything in life will move slower. This is not entirely a bad thing. Coming from a city, it was such an eye opener and a welcome change to not constantly feel rushed to be somewhere, to do something, to meet someone.
While slowing down and appreciating life is a wonderful opportunity, at times it can feel monotonous (which is ironic, because the fun adventure that I set out to have also has aspects of routine to it as well!).
Living in a village is not the ideal setting to foster hobbies. In Canada, I could go rock climbing or to the library. I could go to the movies, to the mall, to the outdoor paint-balling park, to a volleyball match, to the city square, to a guitar lesson..... I could go anywhere!
Now, I can't even go for a walk past 8 pm because it gets dark out and the crazy stray dogs try to kill you if you walk when it's dark.
In Bua Yai, you can either stay in your house and read or go to the local pubs and drink (which is where you will find the town drunk who also moonlights as a part time police officer and a part time mechanic).
The reality of living in a village - expect a slower lifestyle.
Unless you are able and willing to entertain yourself, it is easy to either become bored or fall into a false sense of reality and think it's normal to drink yourself into a stupor every day of the week.
Take your time - don't rush!
People over here have truly mastered the art of just being able to sit and enjoy a beautiful day. There is no guilt associated with not always having something urgent that needs to be done. This was one of the first differences I observed when I moved to Bua Yai.
It appeared to me that because people were so much more relaxed and content that everyone was SO friendly. Anywhere I went, there was always a host of people ready to offer me a smile, a ride, a drink, a meal. It was so refreshing to be in the company of people who were so open and willing to communicate with a stranger.
I remember when I first moved here, I was walking down the street and a random couple entertaining a crying infant called my name from across the street. I walked over not knowing what to expect - maybe some friendly conversation, perhaps a dinner invite or even an explanation as to how they knew my name, as I had never seen them before. Instead, they handed me their child to play with while the wife went in and mixed a whisky soda for me (this, by the way, was all done with no formal dialogue because they spoke barely a word of English and my Thai at the time was comparable to a chimp's understanding of theoretical physics).
To me, at least, this was something that does not happen very often.
It was one of my favorite experiences living here though because it was so far from my reality in Canada.
In the West, people don't smile as much and we certainly don't go out of our way for strangers as much. It is generally accepted that even though strangers have the best candy, you don't give your newborn infant to a random people walking the street. (disclaimer - kids, don't take candy from strangers. That was a joke).
The above writing was written with the intention to inform people about the realities of living in a village. It is impossible to write about all the subtle and in-your-face-differences you are bound to experience, but I have tried to capture ones that intrigued me the most.
At times when you feel your privacy violated, your views on social norms challenged (drinking in the open with a random baby - I seriously can't get over that!) and you start to feel yourself slip into possible alcoholism out of sheer boredom, remember that you're still living a dream that so many people would love to live.
Make the most of your experience, soak in all the culture you can and learn more about the world.
Living in such a small town with no distractions really helped me to find my roots and my balance again. I was able to think about my life and truly clarify what was important to me.
Was working at a 9-5 job with a good salary and a comfortable life important? It does, after all, provide more stability and security as well as guarantee a much stronger financial future.
Or was throwing caution to the wind and just trying to experience everything life has to offer more of a priority?
I come from a family that, for the most part, lives a habitual life - I truly see no shame in that. My childhood and adulthood have been shaped by the amazing foundation that my family made for me.
But I had worked the scheduled life and I wasn't happy - moving to Thailand put me in the right head-space to really figure out if that life was for me.
I'm still figuring out everything as I go along. I'm the first one to admit that I don't have all the answers. The one thing I know for sure, without a doubt in my mind, is that moving to Thailand was the best adventure of my life.
Anybody who wants to see the world, to challenge what they believe, to test themselves, to push themselves, to cross new boundaries, to open new doors, to break free of monotony, even if you just need some time to zen out and figure out what you want to do, moving to another country that vastly contrasts what you've grown up with it is a good opportunity to just clear your head.