For the past six months, I have lived in southeast Asia as an English teacher in Thailand. Being a born-and-bred Californian, the experience has been an eye-opener for me.
I’ve visited numerous countries over the years, within the Caribbean, Europe, and even South America. But living in Thailand has made it clear that traveling as a tourist is completely different than taking roots as a resident. The latter requires really getting out of your comfort zone, and exposes you to the local culture in ways you easily miss when just passing through.
I’ve since become a huge advocate of living abroad, particularly for women and people of color. I’ve learned that the issues we’ve grown accustomed to as minorities aren’t necessarily universal.
My sense of self-worth is strengthened knowing that many of America’s social issues really are just “American issues” – not everyone in the world is opposed to me based on my gender or race. And from a growth perspective, living away from my norm has given me the space to look at my habits with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
I thought I’d share 6 of the lessons I’ve learned as an American woman of color living in Thailand.
#1. Solitude doesn’t need to be avoided or feared
My village is a tiny place: I believe the population is no more than 300.
My placement agency has a hard time getting teachers to come here (and a harder time getting them to stay) because the village really is quite isolated. I am the only English-speaker in town, besides the few Thai English teachers at my school who can speak a little.
This equates to me spending a lot of time alone.
Being alone has become my norm in a way I would’ve never imagined before coming here. I was always a social butterfly, stacking my weekends with plans. I used to feel sad and lonely if no one was available to hang out on a Saturday.
Solitude was a last resort. The enemy. Living here has completely changed that.
Solitude has actually become my refuge. After a full day of navigating a language I don’t understand, and a culture I’m still getting used to, I’ve come to crave time alone to process my thoughts. I’ve been enlightened to the healing properties that come with solo reflection, journaling, and processing your emotions without interruptions.
So much growth can be bred through solitude, and avoiding it can rob you of positive change in favor of mindless distractions.
#2. People are naturally curious. Be open-minded instead of offended
As Americans, we live in a unique bubble: most of us are exposed to many different cultures from a very early age; if not in real life then through media. Cultural representation is a standard here that isn’t the norm in other places.
Similarly, we’re unique in that our melting pot nation has never shared one common background, and being respectful of those differences is an expectation that we are taught early (well, usually…). Most countries are more homogenous, filled with people of one shared history.
These factors can combine to make the American traveler – particularly the American traveler of color – misinformed and easily offended if we travel to these places and bring our American mindsets with us.
Here in Thailand, I am the first Black person many people in my village have ever met. My students have remarked to me, “Teacher, you black!”, pointing at my skin. They have touched my hair with curiosity. And I permit these things (though I use them as teaching moments), knowing they do not aim to offend. They are genuinely curious.
Had I come here clinging to my perception that everyone should know the do’s and don’ts of respecting another culture, I might spend many days wildly offended.
But when you see things from a more honest perspective, it’s almost amusing. I’ve learned to let my guard down and not take offense where it wasn’t intended.
#3. Concepts of physical beauty are subjective
One of Thailand’s most fascinating beauty standards is their obsession with pale skin. They take the “white is right” ideal to a whole new level!
Everything has whitening serum in it, from lotion to face wash and deodorant. It’s even common to see women in makeup that is clearly two to three shades lighter than their actual skin! I spent months dumbfounded by what looked like an unfortunate makeup mistake.
But as I befriended Thai women at my school, they explained that pale skin in a sunny country with many farmers and day-laborers suggests a privileged life indoors. I found it an interesting social contrast: in America, tanned skin suggests you live a lifestyle of sunny outings and beach vacations (or at least, can afford a good spray tan).
As they explained that Thais carry umbrellas to protect their skin during even short walks in the sun, I introduced them to the concept of tanning salons. They couldn’t fathom that people with pale skin would pay money to darken it!
It was comforting to know that the “standard” beauty ideals of our society can be completely at odds with the ideals of another.
It really illustrates that beauty is subjective; in the eye of the beholder indeed.
#4. …But some beauty is universal
You would think that with their love for pale skin, I would be hopelessly unattractive in the eyes of Thai people. Yet not a day goes by that someone doesn’t tell me I’m beautiful. Seriously!
I live in a very rural area of Thailand, where villagers raise elephants and rice fields stretch for miles and miles. Black people visit Bangkok, the capital, pretty often, but have little reason to ever be in my neck of the woods. I am a first for most of the villagers, and make an effort to be friendly so they don’t feel shy around me.
My efforts must work, since my students, fellow teachers, and the locals alike don’t hesitate to tell me I am “beautiful” and “smile so lovely.” I have fielded many a crush from local men who don’t even speak English, but manage to convey that they find me beautiful and friendly and would like to know if I have a boyfriend.
I love that Thai culture has a greater appreciation for the beauty that actually matters. They have their beauty standards just like any other culture, but a kind heart and warm demeanor seems to take you much further here than it does back home.
#5. Genuine human kindness is alive and well; the bad is just more visible
I’m constantly in awe of the kindness and generosity extended to me here. So far, it’s been second nature for everyone, even complete strangers, to extend themselves to me in ways that just wouldn’t happen back home.
One day I was getting acclimated to riding a motorbike, which is a typical Thai mode of transport. I was so focused on regulating my speed that I didn’t notice my empty gas tank! Next thing I knew I was an hour’s walk from my home, surrounded by rice fields and with no gas station nearby.
Not knowing what else to do, I parked on the side of the road and began to walk back. Within minutes, a woman slowed to a stop in front of me. “Where you go?” she asked. I gave her the name of my village, and without another word she beckoned for me to hop on her motorbike. She drove me all the way to my doorstep! I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget her kindness.
I’ve been given countless rides to and from the nearest airport or bus station (over an hour away), at early morning and late night hours.
I will never get used to this; in LA, airport rides are inconveniences reserved for only your closest family and friends. But here they would almost be offended if I didn’t feel comfortable imposing on them for my needs.
#6. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Living abroad isn’t always fun.
I miss my family and friends, and sometimes feel out of the loop with what’s happening back home. I get bored of Thai cuisine, but can’t access Western or other international foods in my village. Sometimes I resent being placed here alone with no one to commiserate with or just chat about Western things.
I was here on Christmas Day while my entire extended family got together at my California home, and it may be the loneliest I’ve ever felt.
But despite the challenges, every day I check off here builds my character and contributes to my growth. I can literally feel myself transforming into the person I want to be, because every day is a formative experience.
Every challenge offers a lesson, and ultimately shows me just how much I’m capable of.
Living abroad may seem like an experience beyond the average person’s grasp, but it’s not. It’s all dependent on how badly you wish to see a change in yourself and break out of your comfort zone.
I quit a good job to come here, but I don’t regret it.
The takeaways I now have and the lessons I’ve learned will benefit me for life, in ways that surpass the benefits of a paycheck.
I encourage anyone who wants to see just how far they can stretch themselves to take a chance on the experience of living abroad.
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