This is a post by Jenny.
Nothing I read or heard before traveling could have prepared me for the culture shock and discomfort we’d face when arriving in a foreign country. It’s actually fascinating to understand and reflect on the feelings of discomfort that come from not knowing the social expectations. We felt most uncomfortable in our first two days in a new country because we’re so uncertain about everything and feel like we know nothing- what are the social norms? How are you supposed to act? How does everything work? All of the knowledge you have from your own culture is irrelevant and you feel uncomfortable not knowing how you should act – not even realizing how much knowledge you took for granted in your home country. Here are a few examples:
Walking/traffic: in Singapore and Thailand, they drive on the left hand side. They seem to make a left on red without stopping, motorbikes pass cars on both sides, really narrow streets still have cars driving in both directions, and most traffic rules seem to be more of a suggestion. This makes it really difficult to figure out how to cross the street, and even more difficult to decide how to walk on the street. Which side do you walk on? (left, according to our Thai friend Palm). Which way do you look to cross the street? (after a few near misses, you look every way, multiple times). After stepping out into traffic, I did get “oohhhhh”d by a car-full of high school kids. I learned my lesson.
Temples: there are gorgeous temples everywhere. Can we go in them? What are the rituals of a Buddhist temple (as opposed to the Catholic churches I am used to?) Can I take pictures? Am I allowed to go everywhere? Is anything I am doing offending anyone? So far, I think the answers are that I can visit them, I should be respectful by being quiet, discreetly taking pictures, and covering my shoulders and knees. I think close to the front/Buddha, I should go on my knees. It seems nice to offer a piece of incense or a flower, lei like item.
Bathroom: bathrooms are what mystify us the most, and are the thing we can least ask questions about. However, we have had a lot of good laughs trying to look up answers online . The pipes in Thailand cannot support flushing toilet paper, and the showers don’t have tubs or curtains! If you don’t put the TP in the toilet, what do you do? (answer: you put it in the trash basket next to the toilet). There is also a hose/sprayer connected to the toilet to clean off – but if I use the high pressured hose, I get water everywhere – all over me, on the toilet seat, and maybe on my clothes. Then, how do I dry myself off? If the shower head is just in the middle of the bathroom, how do I avoid getting water all over the place? Then, the floor of my bathroom is all wet all day. There will most likely be more blog entries about bathrooms..
Transportation: When you arrive somewhere new, figuring out the transportation system is a big challenge – we usually just walk A LOT for the first few days until we give in to figure out some better way around. What does the map look like? Do you pay ahead? Need to keep the ticket to get out? Which side do you stand on? These are all questions for big, developed cities like San Francisco or Singapore who actually have a public transportation system. Arriving and understanding how to get around in Thailand is a whole uncharted beast to us. To get a cab from the airport, we waited in line at a ticket counter to be given a number of a taxi to wait for – and every taxi cost the same no matter where we were going. There is not really a public transportation system here (no subways or buses), but instead there are shared cabs (songtaos) and private cab bikes (tuk-tuks). How do I know what to take to get somewhere? How do I pay? What color truck do I need for where I am going? What if the driver doesn’t know where the place is? How do I get one to stop in the first place? How do I negotiate a fair price? Luckily, after 5 days of only walking, we have now taken both a songtao and tuk tuk. Quite fun!
Restaurants: Seat yourself or wait to be seated? How do you order? Do they bring the bill or do you have to ask for it? Why is the waiter standing next to the table? Why is our food coming out at different times? Do I leave a tip? Is certain food going to make me sick? Will my belly ever adjust to eating this different collection of food groups?
Misc: How do I turn the lights on? Open the door? How does the shower work? Is there hot water? Every single time I leave the house, I need to look at a map, multiple times. Every time I am hungry, I need to hunt down food – a barrage of decisions to make when you just want to eat.
Ah, settling into a foreign land is a great (and exhausting!) part of the adventure!!
Note that this entry is being published a few days late and reflect our feelings from our initial arrival in Thailand – we have since settled and feel much more comfortable!