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November 1, 2012

T for Thailand and P for Ptolemy

Walking on the street with my friends, I experienced one of the most violent sneezes ever. It was tremendous; I am certain that a Richter scale could have recorded it. After I recovered, both from the sneeze and the fit of laughter that followed it, I was baffled to find that no one else had noticed at all. Why not? In America a sneeze is accompanied by an entire ceremony of “bless yous” and “do you have any allergies?” Why did this go unnoticed? The answer is obvious: America is singular in its culture.

This incident illustrates perfectly what we exchange students were all taught regarding “cultural baggage:” The set of assumptions and values we share with others native to our culture, the root of culture shock in a new environment.

Sneezes, for instance, must be reevaluated and dealt with as a Thai would deal with them, which, evidently, is to not deal with them at all. Right and wrong in America can no longer serve as the medium of right and wrong in Thailand. American culture is no longer valid for me. This is the education of exchange students.

The previous weekend I found myself at a Buddhist temple located off a quiet bend in the road, set apart from the sulfuric companionship of the city. Here I was given a green curry that turned out to be quite tasty despite its chilis nearly making me gag from the intensity.

The flies under the canvas canopy agreed and were eating as much of it as I was. Irritated by this, I went to smack them down but caught myself, remembering that this was a Buddhist temple and that no living organism could be killed there as is dictated by the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the set of rules Buddhists follow. Insects must be allowed to dine with me if that is what they wish to do.

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