Culture Shock

The first 6 months was a fantastic honeymoon. The past 4 months? Not so easy-peasy. Living as an expat and working in an NGO in Chiang Mai may sound relaxed, sunny and laid-back, but it is just like a position back in the States and 10 times harder.

Not only do I have to adapt to a new company culture, I have to learn a completely new language to be understood, forget everything I was taught in the US and re-learn business and professionalism – the Thai way, – understand Thai etiquette, speak English differently, dress more conservatively, not eat lunch at my desk (ever), attend weekend conferences regularly, connect with an unfamiliar audience, figure out how to manage staff without letting anyone lose face, and the list goes on. Point is, I am attempting to change my whole mindset on how society works and be able to function within this new sphere. It’s the challenge I asked for and it’s the challenge I got.

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Conference in Bangkok

Below is a prompt from my Fellowship Program, PiA, and my response, which should give a clearer idea of my struggle with culture shock in Thailand:

Section 1: How would you evaluate your work? How could you be more effective?

Section 2: What differences and/or similarities have you found between Asian culture and your own culture?

Being an A-type personality in the Chiang Mai workplace will not make the most harmonious of relationships. Assertiveness does not tend to be a positive trait, obedience is expected and cherished and patience is one of the most beneficial qualities a person can have. This does not work in my favor in the least. Graduating from Berkeley and working for an innovation firm in New York instilled in me a go-go-go personality, question authority mindset and competitive soul. Even then, however, my NYC co-workers would comment, “You must be from California; you have such a chill personality,” and I’ve always considered myself ambitious, yet easy-going. Apparently, not easy-going enough for polite Thai society. After my 5-month honeymoon period in Chiang Mai, culture shock began to kick-in full force and 9 months into my post, it is still a struggle I tirelessly strive to resolve.

What many Americans do not realize is that new immigrants to the U.S. cannot simply immediately be “American” and speak every English word and colloquialism without hesitation. It is a frustrating and even overwhelming continual process of, for example, attempting to figure out the structure of new syntax and “unlearn” or adapt old practices into the new, while still retaining identity. It does no favor to immigrants that most people are not willing to acknowledge or understand the challenge. Thailand, while drastically more accommodating, functions in much the same way. Just as well, it does no favor to me that I also have the added beast of “white man’s burden” looming over me. Consequently, I find myself in self-reflection more often than ever before, philosophizing over the impacts of racial image, Westernization, globalization, and cultural trends and how each of those impacts affects my attitude and judgment in Chiang Mai.

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The Thai workplace, where tradition, hierarchy and social status reign, is well-designed to stun and bombard any new “Farang,” term for Western foreigner, with all these issues simultaneously and without warning. As I evaluate my work, what comes to light is not necessarily the quality of my reports (“quality” is very subjective over here), but the value of my interactions with the staff, effectiveness of idea exchange and my adaptability to Thai etiquette.

A few times I have come face-to-face with the statement, “You’re not in America. This is how we do it in Thailand,” a reversal of what we’re used to, yes? Flawed on many levels, this response is first of all, xenophobic, and secondly, an idea killer. I have to be constantly aware that every suggestion, comment, criticism I make is not putting Western and Thai ideals at odds, but that they are legitimate and “culturally transcendent.” As the Advocacy Consultant for 4 organizations under TLSDF, it is an obstacle everyday to bring forth new creative ideas in a risk-averse environment. Even if a process is extremely inefficient and I am asked for a better method, a mere suggestion of improvement will be met with instant refusal and the above statement. To be more effective in my work as a Farang, I have had to learn how to frame my proposals in ways that praise the current methods and compliment Thai culture, even if it has nothing to do with culture.

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Hierarchy is not to be messed with in Chiang Mai. At meetings, no one will criticize or disagree with anyone “above” them and usually there is only one head executive speaking the entire time. Because I now advise the Advocacy Team, I am faced with a dilemma. Even when I encourage the team to ask questions or make suggestions in meetings, not one person ever has. What a far cry from my NYC job where every meeting was rapid-fire discussion from very opinionated people. One advocacy staff later told me the silence is because “No one wants to be wrong. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” Well, I was not going to do that, so I instead researched management techniques. Every event and meeting, I make a point never to say “No” and to try different ways of motivating the staff to share their thoughts, which I have actually found to be very successful!

We just organized a recent 3-day event, Global Action Week, in which everyone was able to take charge of a specific task and run with it. All ideas were heard, listened to, brainstormed, and voted upon, then put into action. Global Action Week turned out to be the best and largest event for TLSDF, drawing a flood of donations and public awareness to our cause. Plus, the staff loved having greater autonomy and the Director loved the passion he witnessed. Both he and our main funder requested another event be thrown in the same vein.

Was this me projecting Western ideals on this Thai organization? I hope not, but I honestly don’t know. After all, I am entirely shaped by my upbringing: thought process, tone of voice, gestures, philosophies, sense of style, etc.

Whichever the case, what I do see is the Advocacy Team, never before being exposed to advocacy work, learning valuable skills (on their own!), a happy Funder, an ecstatic Executive Director, and an empowered advocacy staff. Also, I still have my job, so I suppose I haven’t offended too many people.

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On the other side of the equation, I have been stopped in my tracks and confronted with questions about American society, which I just cannot answer. Why do we eat lunch and work at the same time? Why do Farang volunteers dress like slobs when they come to the office? Why are Farangs so aggressive and always trying to change things? Why do Farangs not care about losing face? Why do Farangs talk so fast? Why do Farangs treat dogs like humans? Quite a lot to ponder and too much time to think about how many nonsensical or silly processes, rules and traditions America has established. To sum it all up, America does some things better and Thailand does some things better, but in terms of culture, there is no “better.” If only everyone could be truly open to new ideas, while not fearing the loss of their core identity, then I suppose life would be much more harmonious. Alas, life needs obstacles and this is arguably the largest yet.

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About redmudstain

An American Expat in Chiang Mai, Thailand ​ Not willing to settle down just yet - I'm only in my mid-twenties after all - I took a leap across the big big pond and fell onto Thai soil. Well, it was a little less spontaneous than that... ​ After a grueling application process, Princeton in Asia bestowed upon me a one-year fellowship with The Life Skills Development Foundation in Chiang Mai. A renowned child rights non-profit foundation in Northern Thailand, TLSDF is giving me the opportunity to research critical social issues, travel across field sites in the nation's upper regions, converse with the international human rights community and of course, learn Thai! ​ This is my life - the beauty, struggle, culture shock and adventure - in the charming city of Chiang Mai. Blog: https://redmudstain.wordpress.com/ UPDATE: Chiang Mai got me for 2 years!

4 comments

  1. Suzanne

    Jessica, Your post demonstrates that you’ve got the insights to transform yourself and meet the challenges. Princeton picked the right person. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

  2. Awesome post Jess. Really appreciate your take on the Thai work environment. sums a lot of my experience quite nicely too, although you’re definitely in a different (and more difficult) strain of it all.

    • Thanks, Hermes! I’d expect the University to be on a whole other playing field – all the office challenges, plus hundreds of teens to answer to! xx

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