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April 18, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: Will I be American or will I be Thai today?

When would someone have the ability to present themselves as a native of a country of their own choosing? When they’ve lived eight months as an exchange student, of course!

At this point in my exchange, I feel so comfortable in the Thai environment that being American has actually become foreign to me. That being said, it wasn’t easy to get to this point.

In Thailand, where the culture shock hits as hard as anywhere, an exchange student’s innate sense of tribe (i.e. one’s sense of belonging) is threatened so deeply by the task of adaptation that when confronted by it, the yearning to hold tight to one’s sense of being an American proves a struggle to overcome.

When an exchange student touches down in a new country, he or she is immediately confronted with the daunting task of changing his or her entire way of life to align with that of the inbound location. There are two reactions that immediately occur. The first is instinctive: Cling to your native culture and refuse to make the leap to connect with the next. The second reaction is pragmatic: Be open-minded and spend a year doing something unlike anything you could ever do back home. The decision an exchange student makes in response to this culture shock will inevitably make or break his or her exchange.

Although that reality may easily make someone choose to work against the instinct to fraternize with Americans for the sake of overcoming culture shock, that has never been so easy. The natural sense of wanting to be with others that share your roots undermines the progress of adapting to the way of life of a new people. It is a survival instinct to bond with those who share your heritage. During primeval times, to separate from the tribe meant certain death. An exchange student’s every whim is biologically against what is undeniably the way to an enjoyable exchange year. The desire to hang on to familiar life is powerful when living in East Asia amid a people and culture that share little in common with America or the West in general, and it is indeed what makes life difficult for an exchange student here during the first months away from home.

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