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April 18, 2013

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

By Zak Aldridge
The Daily Star

---- — 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.

During my first months in Thailand, I can recall the deep longing to be with the other foreigners I saw on the street. Traveling to beach resorts with my host family, places where the populace is almost entirely Caucasian, I felt the strong attraction to the foreigners in contention with my sense of obligation to my mission as an exchange student. Places like these are where an exchange student faces the ultimate test — will I try to be American or Thai? Will I dress like the Americans, speak English and eat bad pizza or will I strive to live as the Thais do? For an exchange student, shifting one’s entire mindset and constitution to best adapt to the location where they’ve chosen to live for a year is exceedingly difficult, but it is the only road to a satisfying exchange experience.

Eight months later I can confidently say that my exchange has been very satisfying. Using the Thai language at all times, adhering to their culture of behavior and conduct as well as eating only Thai food (that’s not too hard to do), I haven’t felt very American at all ... lately. Ironically, however, as soon as I have come to feel very comfortable living here in Thailand, I will be forced to go through the entire process of adaptation once again as I return home in another two months. Until that time, however, I think I’ll be Thai.

Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.