Culture Shock From Thailand to the United States
At the age of fifty-seven, I was a divorced man not particularly keen on spending the rest of my life alone. I decided to try online dating. I had always been a world traveler and my two children were grown, so I could go wherever the wind took me.
After some false starts, I found a wonderful woman in Thailand. She was a Public Relations Manager and Psychologist working at a government hospital. We exchanged emails and talked on Skype for six months. I made two trips to Thailand, and a year later, we married in a traditional Thai ceremony. I had to return to the United States, but my wife could not travel until she received her visa. So I flew back to Arkansas, where I worked as a database administrator, and patiently waited for ten months.
Finally, her paperwork was approved, she passed the medical exam and interview, and she joined me in America. Although she had traveled to other parts of the world, she had never been to the United States. She experienced quite a bit of culture shock, but I helped her through the difficult times, such as when she failed her driver license exam twice.
Time Zone Shock
The first shock my wife experienced was the change in climate and jet lag. After a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, delayed baggage, hours spent waiting in line at immigration, then another connecting flight to Arkansas, she was tired, and the cold November air in Los Angeles made her shiver. The time zone difference between Thailand and the U.S. is twelve hours, so she spent the nights wide awake and felt sleepy in the afternoon.
In her forty years, she had spoken only the Thai language. Her alphabet has 44 letters, with 21 vowels and 5 tones. Every Thai child starts learning the Thai language in elementary school. In high school, four years of English is required. But her English studies were limited to one hour a week, so she spoke only a few phrases and did not know correct pronunciation. Also, in her community she spoke Isarn, the dialect of northeastern Thailand. She had little chance to speak or practice English in early life. She was fortunate to be employed at an international hotel for a few years, so she managed to practice some English with her manager, who was from France. She also listened to English pop music, and repeated the lyrics.
When she arrived in the U.S., all the natives spoke too quickly, and they used slang words she had never heard before. Any time she spoke with an American at the grocery store, restaurant, or a social setting with my family, she felt shy and embarrassed. In Thailand she was a leader, a famous public speaker. Here, she was a baby. Her senses had to absorb all these new sounds. For a long time, she experienced a loss of self confidence, and felt homesick.
Imagine her sensitive ears on hearing something like this the first time:
“Are you comfy over there? You want to go out and get a few things at the store? We gotta do this an’ that. Hey, how yawl doin’? You guys find everythin’ all right? Okey-doky?“
Comfy? What is he talking about? You guys? I am a lady, not a guy. I’m okay, I’m not a donkey.
Every day she encountered more slang words and had to learn vocabulary words. What should she say when she was introduced to someone else? She did not know American culture. In America, people liked eye contact. In Thailand, people don’t maintain eye contact for long. Americans like to touch. In her culture, she did not like anyone to touch her body. Every day she had to concentrate to try and carry on a conversation. Simple things that people take for granted, she found new. Thailand uses the metric system. In the U.S., people use the British system of measurement.
She frequently had to repeat what she said, because people did not understand her.
That was a big shock for her. In Thailand people drive a car on the left hand side. She arrived in the U.S. and everybody was driving on the wrong side. Imagine her confusion. I bought her a car one day after her arrival and told her to drive the car home. She did not understand the rules about stop signs and what the middle lane was for. There are no speed limit signs in Thailand. So she had to learn many kinds of signs. She felt nervous and confused every time she drove. Some times she made a wrong turn. She wanted to make a right turn, but turned left once. Everyone needed a car in America. She wondered how she would survive.
She failed the state driver’s license exam two times. The first time she skipped too many questions and the computer did not let her return. She studied for a whole month. The second time she did better, but the questions were different. The third time she finally passed. She was nervous sitting with the officer in the road test.
He said, “Not bad. Be careful about blind spots.”
One week after she received her license she was happily driving home, when she was stopped by police for speeding. Luckily the officer gave her only a warning.
She felt so relieved! She gave thanks to Buddha. After that she followed the signs. American law seemed very strict. In Thailand, people negotiate a settlement with the officer.
Some examples of confusing street signs:
PEDXING – what is that? Is that some Indian name?
YIELD – what does that mean? Does it mean go? If you stop somebody’s going to yell at you.
STOP – In Thailand it is for pedestrians. Cars don’t stop.
SCHOOL ZONE – We have to be quiet?
HANDICAPPED PARKING – We don’t have that in Thailand. VIP or guest speaker?
MERGE – A meeting point? A rest area?
4-WAY STOP – Main street gets first priority!
My wife had problems when she ordered food at most restaurants. Ordering food was a real challenge.
1. Ordering at the counter of a fast food restaurant. She thought she had to tip the server. Also, she did not know one has to pay before the meal is served.
At Kentucky Fried Chicken, she wanted to order fried chicken. So the trick is if you want legs and thighs you order “Dark Meat” and if you want breasts and wings you order “White Meat”. She wanted legs but ordered thighs. She thought the leg was the thigh. To her, the leg is chicken feet.
The server asked, “What side do you want?”
“What size? Small size, because I don’t eat too much.”
“I order 4 pieces. Small size.”
“No, I mean side. What side you want?”
“What size you have?”
“Beans, corn, coleslaw, mashed potatoes.”
“Corn on the cob or regular?”
What was she talking about now? Corn on the cup?
“Yes, I want corn on the cup. A small cup.” Oh, man. This is getting confusing.
The food came and it included biscuits. My wife said, “I didn’t order that. I didn’t like that.”
“That comes with the meal.”
“OK.” She ate the thigh and corn on the cob.
At a fast food store, she wanted to order French Fries. The server said they don’t have that. French Fries were on the menu photo.
They said “we have Potato Fries”.
Is that the same thing? She had to learn another term. She was learning something every day.
2. Ordering “Drive Thru”, She had trouble with the drive through. One time the store employee didn’t understand her English pronunciation very well, so her daughter went hungry. She repeated herself five times with no luck.
3. Ordering “at the Restaurant”. The server would offer some drink first and then offer the complicated menu. She did not understand all the menu items, but luckily she liked to try new foods. One time she ordered salmon with white wine. She expected a glass of white wine, but the wine was used in cooking the salmon. One time she could not order alcohol because the server did not believe she was forty years old. All customers who like to order alcohol have to show ID. In Thailand they never ask for an ID.
The U.S. custom is to include 10% tips in the bill. In Thailand, if you are not satisfied with the food you don’t tip. In America, people usually talk about who will pay the bill. In Thailand, the rich member is expected to pay. If a group wants to negotiate who will pay, this has to be done before eating.
Weather and Snow Shock
My wife came from a land with a tropical climate. She had never experienced snow. What a surprise to move to Arkansas and wake up one morning and see a white blanket of snow covering everything. At least Arkansas had mild winters, unlike the frigid North, where snow might cover the ground for months.
Our first winter we had fun building a snowman and having snowball fights. But driving on icy roads was scary. Our home was situated among steep hills, and sometimes I could not drive to work for two or three days until trucks came with dirt to melt the ice.
She bought extra warm clothes, a space heater, thick blankets, gloves, and boots to survive the winter.
Shopping for clothes was a challenge. Most Americans were larger than my wife. She had to look in the teenager section to find a comparable size that fit. Sometimes she tried to order online, but the clothes that arrived were too large. She had to sew her outfits. So she didn’t buy that much from online anymore.
She saw the sign named “Flea Market” in town. She knew what flea meant. But she wondered, why people need fleas? For the garden? In Thailand people just kill them. She went inside one, and saw old stuff, used clothes, and trinkets. I explained that a flea market just sold little things.
Debit or Credit and Checking Accounts
Most Americans spent their money by credit card or debit card or check. In Thailand most people paid by cash and wired money into bank accounts. My wife asked me why I did not give her cash. I gave her a debit card, and explained that it was easier and safer to pay everything by a card. So everywhere she went, she paid by debit card. She felt excited to be able to buy almost anything with just the swipe of a card. At the supermarket, the cashier asked her if she wanted cash back. She said sure I want cash back to my account.
No! It meant people can get cash from their account at the counter. In Thailand people get cash at the ATM only.
One time she went to the Drive Thru at the Bank. She was amazed and confused. She expected to meet a bank teller and ask for help. Unfortunately she drove to the outside lane. In Thailand they don’t have Drive Through services and she did not know how to operate the machine. She saw the round cylinder in a tube. How do I open this thing? She thought it may be the same as ordering food at a drive through. She communicated with the officer behind the window via speaker. She felt like a turtle. But the officer patiently explained how to operate the machine, and she made her first drive-through transaction. I laughed when I heard the story.
Vending machines were another mystery during her first few months. The machine said, insert 4 quarters. What was a quarter? She had to learn the value of coins. And machines were complicated too. She had to learn how to use a washing machine, dryer, stove, fireplace, air conditioning, TV remote, oven, dishwasher, and disposal.
Shop at the Grocery
Shopping was fun, but it was so complicated to buy groceries. She had to learn about many kinds of new foods. When she lived alone in Thailand, she usually bought meals from the street vendors or ate at restaurants. Food was less expensive in Thailand. Now she had to learn how to cook.
She liked to eat healthy food. She don’t like junk food, sandwiches, burgers, or pizza. She collected recipes and watched some cooking shows. I liked Thai food, so anything she cooked, I ate and enjoyed.
She found Oriental markets and learned how to cook from her mother and sister by Skype and learned from the internet food channel.
Food cost in the U.S. was so expensive. The prices shocked her. For example, in Thailand a bunch of bananas cost a quarter. Besides, she had a banana tree in her garden. In the Oriental store it was almost four dollars. She didn’t want to pay for that but wanted to eat them. The Oriental store didn’t carry all the meat, sauce, and other items she needed. So she created her own recipes for some kind of Thai dishes. She had to be creative and learn how to use an oven, dishwasher, and strange western kitchen gadgets. At least she could buy a rice cooker and steamer. Rice was an essential part of every meal. She could not find a hot pot in the stores, so she found one online.
The healthcare and dental cost in America was so expensive. She wanted to order birth control pills. She couldn’t without a prescription. In Thailand, people can buy the pills at the pharmacy without any prescription. She went to the dentist for a yearly cleaning, and he charged twenty dollars. In Thailand, the cost would have been two hundred Baht, or six dollars.
She went to the clinic for a checkup because of a bad cough. The nurse asked her where do you want to pick up your medicine?
She said, “Here at the hospital.”
The nurse said they don’t have medicine here.
What? This is a big hospital in the U.S. Why don’t you have medicine? In Thailand people can take the medicine in the hospital pharmacy like a one stop service.
Then the woman told her she had to choose the pharmacy location.
“Can I choose Walmart?”
The woman asked, “Which Walmart?”
She said the one that was close to Walmart Home Office. She went to pick up her medicine at the Walmart Superstore, the one near Walmart Home Office.
Shocked again! At the pharmacy, people stood in line to meet a pharmacist at the window and there were many ways to pick up medicine. What lane did she need to stand in? Pick up lane, Drop Off, or Over the counter? What kind of medicine would she get? She really needed her medicine now.
She stood in line and talked with a pharmacy employee and gave them her prescription paper. The person behind the counter said her medicine wasn’t here.
How could that happen? She took a deep breath.
The clerk told her she had to go to Walmart Home Office Pharmacy Shop.
Oh brother! She needed medicine right now please. She didn’t know there was a pharmacy at the superstore and a pharmacy in the Walmart Home Office. So she drove the car and used the GPS navigator. She arrived at Walmart Home Office and finally got the medicine! Whoopee!
How to get a Job
My wife wanted to bring some food home and pay for the bills and make her kid proud of her as well. She had 15 years experience in marketing and public relations, but in America she had to start at the beginning. Her English skills were not perfect, so many employers declined her application. What kind of job could she do in America? She took a course in Physical Therapy, but we lived in a small town and there were few openings. She thought about getting an advanced degree, but the cost was too high. She already had a masters degree in Psychology, but it was not recognized in the U.S.
She eventually found a job supervising disabled people. And she started a home business.
So to other people who face culture shock, her advice is, keep calm. You will prevail. She prayed to Buddha and meditated, listened to relaxing music, went to work out at the gym, started to play tennis, and made new friends. She searched for Thai people in the community, cared for her garden, and soon felt at home in America. She rearranged the house, and talked with her family in Thailand every week using Skype. I was a good listener and explained many things to her. I liked her Thai dishes.
So keep a positive attitude, don’t be afraid of culture shock. You will live through it and emerge a stronger and happier person.