American in Thailand: Living in a Country with No Schedules

February 20, 2014

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I finally lost my mind after five months in Wang Chan. It happened in the back of a big white mini-van in the Lamthong Mall parking garage, and while I can’t pinpoint whether it was the wasted gas from the idling engine or the lack of sleep I’d gotten the night before that pushed me over the edge, I know that the real reason was something bigger. Nearly halfway through my year of teaching in Thailand, I found myself confronting a sensation I usually associated with my returns home from long stays abroad: culture shock.

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That morning, I had gone to Rayong with several other teachers and administrators from my school. It was the day of my departure for five weeks of backpacking in Laos and Cambodia, and I needed to visit the immigration offices for a work permit check-in before I left the country (because hey, even living the dream comes with a few annoying technicalities!). After finishing our errand, my friend Lynn and I rejoined our colleagues for what we were told would be a quick stop at the mall. We were given an hour to wander the stores and eat lunch with the assurance that we would return to school by noon, giving me plenty of time to pack my toiletries and head to the bus station. I was happy; as far I was concerned, everything was going according to plan.

Until it wasn’t.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised when noon became one, which became two and eventually later. I had made the critical mistake of believing we had a schedule. In fact, the only such plan was my own.

Lynn and I spent hours trapped inside the van that afternoon. I realize that sounds extreme, but as I sat there counting the minutes until I missed my bus to Bangkok and gave up all hope of leaving for Laos that night, so were my feelings. Lynn, who is from China, was merely frustrated; I, being American, was furious.

It is inevitable that while we often travel to expand our understanding of the world, we also challenge what we think we know about ourselves. Before going abroad, I often perceived the United States in terms of its faults. I tended to see my nationality for all of its negative connotations, for things like materialism and self-righteous politics, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as characteristically American. Now, several years and many countries later, it’s laughable to think about how wrong I was.

Waiting in that van, I was exasperated with time wasted. I thought of how I could have caught an earlier songthaew back to Wang Chan if my Thai coworkers had just been straightforward about their errands. I thought of how my roommate had already confirmed our bus tickets, of how we were now short an entire day in Laos and had to cut our plans somewhere. I was thinking in terms of efficiency and the future–that is, like an American–in a Buddhist country where the here and now prevail. Obviously, my coworkers had meant no harm. It wasn’t that they were lying or not living up to their word when we didn’t leave on time, but that plans simply changed, or, really, that there had never been a plan, only fluid intentions. While I looked at the situation and thought it would have been faster to go to Rayong by myself, they looked at it and saw an opportunity to help me out and be good hosts.

The more I travel, the more I realize how American I am–and the more I embrace it. At home I might tend toward procrastination and impulse, but in Thailand my cultural predispositions for schedules and efficiency stand out, especially at work. It’s not that the grass is greener on either side. The grass is simply different, and it’s in appreciating those differences that I come to understand both myself and my home abroad better.

In the end, I kept my frustrations to myself that afternoon. I went home, had a delicious dinner out with my roommate, and left for Laos the next morning. As always in Thailand, mai bpen rai.

About Katie Kenney

Katie Kenney spent the year in Thailand, working as an English teacher and traveling the country.

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