Before I signed up to study abroad in Thailand, some of my friends had told me not to do it. As a Thai American, ‘Why would you study abroad in a country you already know?’ was their logic. Well, my logic was, ‘I come here every summer already, so why not?’ Not only would doing it help me gain more credit (which I needed to graduate on time), I’m pretty sure I would learn something
And boy, did I learn a lot.
I go to a university that has more classes focused on East Asia and South Asia. I have never been able to take a class on Southeast Asia so I was more than excited to sign up for Cultural Foundations of Thai Society and Thai Dance. This was my chance to explore the history, religion, and culture of my own country. And though some people would say it is redundant since I am already Thai, it really isn’t.
Being Thai and taking classes about Thailand not only validated things I already knew, it taught me the reasoning behind some of the things I never questioned. It taught me to realise that some of the things I found normal and common, might not actually be that common from an outsider’s point of view. It also showed me just how diverse Thailand was as a nation. Not to mention, my Asian family members were proud to see me wearing a Thai college uniform and were just as excited as I was about going to CMU.
As I learned in class, the Thai government has a mission of uniting the Thai people under one religion, culture, and government. I am a product of that of that centralisation: I never knew we had over 72 dialects, I never knew that Lanna was its own kingdom at one point, I never knew we had so many hill tribes and ethnic groups living in Thailand, etc. Learning all of this blew my mind, and hearing it talked about in English instead of Thai also added onto the weird experience because it made everything sound so foreign to me.
Everyday after class I would call my mom and tell her all the new things I learned. She knew the basic things regarding Thai history, but when I started to delve into other subjects that further analysed the history and religion of Thailand, she was on a learning journey along with me. She herself told me that she was not taught half the things I was learning while she was in school.
Don’t even get me started on the field trips we took in class. I am from Phitsanulok, which even though is geographically in the north, the people and culture there is more in sync with Central Thai. Chiang Mai was already different for me but then we got to go to Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle, the White Temple, amongst other places! I learned so much and saw so many things I never would have been able to. Yes, I come to Thailand every summer, but it’s not a vacation. I visit family and live in my house while my mom takes care of family business. I don’t get to go to places like this!
Along with learning so many things, I was able to experience Thailand from a Westerner’s point of view. Everyone in my group knew I was Thai and that I could speak the language, and so whenever we explored Chiang Mai I would help teach them phrases and give them cultural tips. It was an odd experience, having to explain things I once thought was common knowledge (example: bowing your head when you walk by monks and keeping your distance if you’re a female). There’s other perks to me tagging along as well, one example would be that I could get us into museums on the Thai price instead of a tourist price. Also, this doesn’t apply to my friends, but when Thai people see that I am Thai and that I’m fluent in the language they usually give me discounts on things I’m buying from them or even free snacks.
A lot of the activities that we did together were things considered “touristy.” Like getting Thai massages, fish pedicures, and eating Pad Thai. On any other occasion, if I had been in Thailand on my own I never would have done these activities. But I did, because once again, I’m in Chiang Mai on my own, so why not? It allowed me to see how Thailand was perceived from the eyes of other American students and the result was great. It was also an educational experience, as we all knew that on some level the tourist industry is problematic. We were always mindful of this and we even talked about it in class.
It didn’t take too long for Chiang Mai to feel like home, and I think I actually prefer it better to my own town. I made friends with locals on my street, I know the Old City like the back of my hand, Zoe’s In Yellow is the place to be at night and I was a frequent guest, and Song Taews are my favourite form of transportation now.
This experience allowed me to learn more about my country, my culture, and see my people from a refreshed point of view. The locals and atmosphere of Chiang Mai is so different from Phitsanulok, it actually blew me away. I’m glad I did not listen to my friends who told me not to study in Thailand, because frankly I would do it again if I had the chance.