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July 18, 2013

Local Voice From Around the Globe: Keeping Thai while re-entering America

By Zak Aldridge
Cooperstown Crier

---- — As I’ve begun my American life again, spending time with friends, holding up a job, etc, I’ve been able to stay above the tide of reverse culture shock and the sort of post-exchange despair that is common at this time for exchange students by meditating on some Thai-inspired thoughts. 

Concepts such as how to stay in the present and not the past; how to focus on my own progress rather than someone else’s and how to incorporate some of the virtues of my experience back into my “normal” life here. Those are all applicable to my situation now as a rebound student.

Having arrived back home only recently, there are still things about re-entry that are frustrating to me. The comfort of urban life there was easy to get used to and difficult to leave. Where once food was attainable in a three-minute walk in any direction, I am again residing in a forest where a three-minute walk in any direction will bring only trees and more trees. The comparatively short tempers of American people, too, are a new phenomenon that startles me at times. Whereas Thai people are rarely outwardly frustrated or unpleasant out of fear of disrupting another person’s “inner harmony,” Americans will frequently honk horns, raise voices and be jai ron, hot-hearted, in stressful situations.

That aspect of reverse culture shock makes me reflect on a memorable occasion in Thailand when I was about to learn that lesson in dharma, basic Buddhist principle. I was sitting in the car with my host mother waiting at a stoplight. The light turned green, but the car ahead of us didn’t advance. I suggested to my mother that she should give the horn a little honk to make the person notice. She said, “No, if I honk my horn I’ll pass to that person my own hastiness and ill-will and that is wrong.” This fundamental of Buddhism that I encountered in Thailand is one that I haven’t found in America, and one I’d like to practice while living here.

The last book I read while I was in Thailand was a sort of autobiography by Amy Tan called “The Opposite of Fate” in which the author touches upon the topic of place and language. Tan writes about the relationship language has with culture and the way in which Mandarin Chinese has no word for “yes” or “no,” which might relate to that people’s inability to be specific. Relating that to myself, I have found it difficult to bring some of the virtues of my experience in Thailand back home because my place and language have little recognition of some of the Buddhist tenets prevalent in Thailand. For example, remaining in the present is much easier to do while using the Thai language because that language has very indistinct past and future tenses. That’s an aspect of grammar that directly reflects culture, or, more likely, the other way around.

Tan’s mention of the symbiotic relationship between culture and language was one that I’d heard before and one that I’d discovered on my own as I became fluent in Thai throughout the course of last year. At present, however, it is all the more applicable. As friends and acquaintances ask me how I’ve changed, and try to discern the differences between pre- and post-exchange me, they invariably come up with few, and I think the reason for that is simply the language I speak. As long as I am using my American English I can only be the American me whereas if I were to speak Thai, I would act as Thais do and therefore changes visible in me are less apparent.

Having to put my experience in the past tense, i.e., “When I was in Thailand,” might be the most irritating aspect of re-entry because it seems to intensify my resolve that those 10 months were nothing more than a dream. Saying and thinking that puts an inappropriate distance between something that is still only three weeks passed. Staying in the present, however, can remedy both the issue of longing to be somewhere in the past and the daunting outlook of the future. The discouraging prospect of world traveler-turned-high school junior can only be eased by focusing on the here and now, a Thai would be quick to point out. Of course, world traveler-turned-anything is all but easy so it’s doubly important that I move forward conscious of only the positives of re-entry.

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