This weekend I had the opportunity to help with a program called “Getting to Know Uncle Sam” put on by the U.S. Embassy. It is a camp for Thai University students that the Embassy holds every 4 months in different regions of Thailand. It was interesting to work with students at the University level, since my daily work is with young students between grades 4 and 8.
The students seemed to learn a lot by the end of the camp. On the first day they were shown a picture of the 'Statue of Liberty' and most had no idea what it was. Its strange realizing that something that is such an important symbol of your home is nonexistent to others. But, by the end of the camp the students could identify it, as well as other “American” landmarks and facts. We did fun activities like made “s'mores,” watched a movie while eating popcorn, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Yes, a lot of it revolved around food- but this is Thailand!)
There was one session I particularly enjoyed and learned a lot from, probably more than the students since I am a from the 'west' living in the 'east.' There are so many differences in the way people act in Thailand compared to in the United States. Its easy to outwardly identify these differences, but it is hard to know what lies deeper, beyond an action. During this session we took a short test, which had very interesting results. So, I thought I would share a bit with you.
First, take a look at these two pictures. Answer the question, “Is he happy?” for both the top and bottom picture.
What was interesting in our session was that everyone in the room said “Yes. He is happy” to the first picture. When answering the question for the second picture however, most of the Thai students said “No. He is not happy” while the Americans in the room all thought the answer was obviously “Yes. He is happy.” In the east people are more concerned with identifying as a group, so their mentality is that if the people around a person are not happy, an individual cannot be happy. This is much different from the way American's think, where individualism and self expression is highly valued. Each person is expected to think and feel for themselves.
I've now been living here for about 8 months, but could realize from the first few weeks how collective the society in Thailand is compared to that of the United States. Most people do not feel there is a necessity to have personal space, and many times do not even have their own bedroom. I often feel rude when I discretely slip into my bedroom in the early hours of the evening because I need my “alone” time- something which seems to be completely foreign to people here. Sometimes I get aggravated because I can feel the vibrations from music blasting through the palm tree forests a couple of houses away as people are enjoying themselves at a party. It is considered “rude” not to share the music you are listening to with those around you. Apparently even if it is 11 or 12 at night. And don't ever think of trying to argue with someone and disrupting the 'group.' If you want to criticize someone its probably best to tell a mutual friend and count on them relaying it to the person in a less direct manner. There is no such thing as being “straight forward” here.
It can be quite difficult working in an environment where the decisions we make and ways we express (or do not express ourselves) vary. Its hard to know if people are really receptive to your ideas or if they are just shaking their heads and smiling out of politeness to maintain harmony. (And this is not even counting the language barrier..) I'm often worried I have said too much, or been too direct and offended someone, but never quite know because no one would ever confront me. These are some of the struggles faced when east meets west. It can be very frustrating and tiring, but in the end is a beautiful exchange that we can all learn from.