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 American culture is no longer valid for me.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.
A little frustrated about this, I thought about how this would never fly, as it were, in America. Yet, to accept the pests as my dining partners is to conform to the culture and succeed as an exchange student.
I found myself snared between cultures once again, though this time with my host brother as the butt of the circumstance. My family and I took a weekend trip to Phuket, the resort island on the Andaman Sea, and stayed at a fine hotel with more foreigners than Thais.
As my brother and I were making our way to the pool one morning, a couple of Americans stared at us as we passed, likely curious as to why the Caucasian boy was walking with the Thai and speaking a peculiar language with him.
My brother smiled and said “hello” to them as we walked by, not receiving a reciprocal welcome. I explained to him that unlike Thais, not all Americans greet strangers in passing and aren’t always as outwardly friendly. As my cultural instinct has me swatting at curry-deprived flies, his has him engaging with foreigners he isn’t acquainted with. They are normal reactions, occurring only because of inexperience and recent arrival.
Time is the wizard behind the curtain as always; the problem and the solution. It was only after a great deal of time that cartographers accurately put the world on a map, deeming China no longer the Middle Kingdom and it was only after Greek astronomers advanced far enough in their field that the sun was discovered not to revolve around the earth. Over the past two months of living in Thailand I’ve learned a lesson only a person residing outside America could receive. America is not the Middle Kingdom, nor is it the center of the solar system, it is just one nation with one culture among hundreds. Flying 8,600 miles away, sneezing, feasting with flies and simply stepping back, I’ve gained more knowledge about our culture than one could fathom.
Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.