The Friendliness Embedded in Thai Culture
They came armed to study with mixing bowls, a handful of hot peppers, and pre-portioned baggies of garlic oil and lime juice. From her school-issued backpack, Dream pulled out a small plastic cutting board and kitchen knife, wrapped carefully in old newspaper. Min and Nuy took off to boil glass noodles. It was after school on a Wednesday, and normally we’d be spending this hour reviewing grammar or practicing English conversation. On this particular afternoon, however, my students had decided to switch roles on me. Today, they were teaching me how to make my favorite food in Thailand: yum woon sen.
My appetite for yum woon sen wasn’t exactly a secret. I’d revealed my love for the spicy seafood and noodle salad while teaching likes and dislikes in class one week, and for one reason or another, my students had derived some level of amusement from this fact. They smiled knowingly when I joined them at the crowded noodle stand after school, making room for me and giggling.
Dream even took the time to write out all of the instructions, illustrating each step with cute little sketches.
While passing me in the hallways, some had even taken to shouting, “Yum woon sen!” as a conversation starter of sorts. Somehow, weirdly, yum woon sen had become as fundamental to my school persona as my American citizenship. That Wednesday afternoon, when my students rushed off to the market to spend their own money on the necessary ingredients for my favorite food, they knew how happy I would be. Dream even took the time to write out all of the instructions, illustrating each step with cute little sketches.
It doesn’t take much time in Thailand to learn that such thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit are ubiquitous. I remember getting lost on the way to a party during one of my first weekends in Bangkok, when I’d been living here for less than a month. Having mixed up the name of the street where our destination was located, a few friends and I had gotten out of our taxi at the wrong place and somewhat blindly proceeded to walk toward the party. It didn’t feel like the right way. We stopped a woman on the sidewalk to ask about the street we needed to go to, looking only for a general sense of whether or not we were walking in the right direction.
As it turned out, she wasn’t from the neighborhood and didn’t know the street. It would have been easy to wave us away, to smile apologetically and keep going. Instead, she spent a solid ten minutes helping us, looking up the address using the internet on her phone and calling several friends who lived nearby. When they didn’t answer, she asked us to wait while she talked to the motorcycle taxi drivers on the corner. Embarrassed at having imposed on her so much more than we’d intended, we tried to insist that it was really okay, that we would find our own way. “No,” she said, friendly and firm at the same time. “I want to make sure you are going the right way.”
Of course, I know that the world is full of good people; this is, in large part, why I travel.
Where I live in the tiny town of Wang Chan, examples like this are endless. Strangers regularly pull over to offer me rides to school on the back of their motorcycles, even when I’m only two minutes away from the main gate. One afternoon, a woman I had met only once three months before ran into me at the coffee shop, stayed to chat for an hour, insisted on buying my drink, and invited me to go to the movies with her the next weekend I stayed in town.
That same week, when I realized I was short on coins at the market, the lady who runs the smoothie stand was quick to give me my drink on credit and hesitant to take my money when I tried to pay her back later. My roommate Krysten and I have befriended one woman in town who even gives me Thai lessons for free, in addition to offering us rides to run errands and helping us to research transportation options for all of our weekend travel.
Of course, I know that the world is full of good people; this is, in large part, why I travel. I know, too, that when we reminisce about travel it’s easy to indulge in the positive, to see the good in situations where we would only find stress and annoyance at home, and to see the extraordinary in events we would usually take for granted. It’s true that not everyone in Thailand has made my life easy: one employee at an Internet cafe coldly told me I could pay his friend when I asked if he could please copy down an address in Thai for me, and during a recent weekend traveling, a group of motorcycle taxi drivers rode away laughing when we tried to negotiate a price we knew was unfair, nearly leaving us stranded.
Still, in the nearly four months I have lived and worked here, my interactions with people have been overwhelmingly positive. Where certain acts would constitute going out of one’s way to be helpful back in the US, here in Thailand they represent everyday kindness. It is, far and away, one of the things I have come to appreciate most about Thai culture. In a country where I don’t speak the language, it goes a long way in making me feel at home.