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July 18, 2013

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


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

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