One of the most striking differences between living in Thailand and living in the United States is the lack of differences in Thailand. It is a country that values hierarchy, non-confrontation, politeness, and community. One is expected to use “Greng Jai” when interacting with others, acting in a way that won't cause offense to the other person, or even worse, result in them losing face. There is emphasis on conformity and doing everything in the appropriate way. It must be “Riap Roy.” (A word used to refer to anything appropriate and proper, from the way one hangs their laundry to the homework a student turns in.)
After a while you start to realize there is a certain way of doing everything. After going to one monk ordination, you can most likely guess what will happen at another one. After seeing one wedding or funeral, you've seen them all. Of course there are differences, but you can always expect there to be a colorful banner strung in front of the plastic chairs around the tables set with “Hong Tong” whisky that is only “riap roy” for the men to drink.
Coming from the United States where the culture prides itself in its diversity and ego driven individualism this can become frustrating over time. Its hard seeing your students physically disciplined for things like not having their hair at the appropriate length, not wearing socks, or not having their uniform tucked in. These values infiltrate into the classroom by preventing them from questioning what they learn in fear of disrespecting their teacher and breaking their face. Critical thinking and creativity are sacrificed for the sake of rote memorization and orchestrated classroom responses.
Witnessing this everyday can feel at times like someone is jerking a chord strung deep within me, knowing that it is so contrary to some of the qualities I value most. But then I have to remind myself neither is better than the other; they are just different. By sacrificing some individualism you gain a sense of harmony and community that would otherwise be lacking. By focusing on your relationship to the people around you, you can practice a deeper level of respect that otherwise wouldn't exist. I'm still learning to adapt to this different value system, but its a journey that I think is worth taking.