Friends and family ask us how it is living in Thailand. I usually say that we’re doing well. I talk about what we’ve accomplished since being here, the things we’ve learned, maybe a funny situation or two or perhaps some sort of oddity that is normal here but you’d never see in the States. But this doesn’t really answer the question. My answer does a decent job of diverting the real question and changing the subject. The reason for this is simple: I don’t know the answer.
My family spent eight months preparing to go to Thailand. My wife, being the wiser of the two of us, read about the culture so she has a greater understanding and appreciation of what we experience here. But by in large, we mainly focused on unloading our possessions, preparing our house to rent and telling our story to those who may want to support this endeavor. Of course, we knew the culture would be difficult to assimilate to, and I’m not surprised of how difficult it has been. But nonetheless, I’m finding myself in the midst of culture shock.
Culture shock, to me, is like the grieving process. From a cognitive perspective, grief is the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world in the absence of a loved one. My mind is trying to come to grips with a completely new reality. In some ways, I am grieving a loss: the loss of normalcy, my American culture. It’s ironic that I would mourn the loss of something that I’ve criticized so much in the past, but I digress. Practically everything is different here. From bathrooms to hygiene to food to cars, even electricity is different. And I’m honestly okay with these differences… well, most of the time. But everything is so different that my brain is finding it difficult to find a way of understanding it all, to form new neural pathways and fit it all into the schema I use to navigate life.
Consider our first two weeks since being here. Withing 48 hours of arrival, I was already driving a vehicle on the left side of the road. I’d had my blood test taken for syphilis(!) so that I could apply for a work permit. I had three children to protect in an entirely foreign environment. Everyone speaks an unknown language around me, and I had no idea if what I was doing was respectful or insulting. Let’s not forget the mosquitoes that were trying to suck us dry. In the background of all this is the realization that we do not know how long we will be living here, meaning that we don’t know what level of emotional commitment to make to people, institutions, language or culture.
So how do I respond? In the heated moments filled with frustration, I get angry and complain. But for the most part, I do nothing. In the past, I would have tired myself attempting to understand everything about the culture and acquire the language. The driving force behind this is the belief that I need to “grab the bull by the horns.” But for some mysterious reason, I feel permission to just sit and do nothing.
I’ve pondered this and wondered whether the effects on me will be positive or negative. I get a picture in my head of myself floating in a stream. I’m being carried down the stream by unseen forces, whether they be cultural, emotional or spiritual. But the point is that even though I’m not doing anything, I’m still moving. There’s still progress: I may not be trying to fight my way through this grieving process, but my brain is still making the much needed connections.
I guess my point in all this is, “Why fight it?” I could gripe and complain that things are different. I could spend hours expending my emotional energy trying to get used to everything all at once… and then burn out. Or I could choose to exist in the moment, try not to overreact when life doesn’t and just live. I won’t pretend to understand this process, but at least I can see that somewhere along the way, I will find the Good Life… and maybe some more Pad Thai.