I’ve been travelling Europe a fair amount since I moved back to the UK. It’s the best thing about being back: it’s so easy and so cheap to hop on a plane and spend a weekend in a different European city, and it’s surprising how I didn’t appreciate that until I left.
Anyway, a friend and I went to Athens for a few days. I had wanted to go for a while – it’s such an incredibly old city. I should refresh my memory, do some research and make this factual, but for now I’m just going to say I think it’s been constantly inhabited since around 4500 BC. That’s not an accurate date. But you get the gist.. very old city. The home of democracy, philosophy, such renowned scholars, Plato, Socrates, Greek gods and goddesses… so much that intrigued me.
As I sat tutoring my Vice Director’s 14 year old daughter, I started to think about the pressures of modern culture, the differences between Thailand and England and the effects these pressures have on the people in that culture.
In England at the age of 25 I felt the pressure to be in a relationship, get married and think about a career. I guess it is about growing up but why in a world in which we have fought for equality and equal rights do we still find ourselves dealing with the same pressures our ancestors felt? Why is it not ok to enjoy being by yourself and embrace it? All my friends in England are in relationships or desperate to be in one. Some to the point where I am not sure they really know who they are anymore. They have become broken, pathetic display pieces for womanhood and so far away from those women in the 60’s that burnt their bras for us. These women would be unrecognisable to modern society, if indeed we had advanced beyond this animalistic need for companionship and constant reaffirming of self-worth.
Miss J and I have discussed these pressures and have come to realise that now, in Thailand in a different culture there is no pressure to be in a relationship although you do appear to get the worried look from people when you tell them that you are travelling alone. In Thai culture it appears that a women would stay with her family – for some even share the bed with their parents – until the day that they get married and leave the home. So although the pressure is off to get married they have the support and constant assurance of their families they are never alone. Families I have met in Thailand want to take care of me, they want to invite me to be part of their family, be that live with them, eat with them or worship with them. This to me is strange, but in their culture it is strange that I have left my family and decided to travel alone. I don’t mind being accepted into a family at all, it is nice to feel welcomed into a new culture. I draw the line at being married off to sons but at the moment this has not happened although I have known it happen to many western women.
It was the pressure inflicted on society that made me leave behind the life I had and delve into this unknown society. Turns out from the outside at least that this culture is very similar – perhaps all cultures are – but at least I am content now with seeing the world and these different cultures, and although driven by a sexual urge sometimes I am not desperately seeking a mate to distract me from the life I want to lead.
One thing I expected when I left the UK a year ago, was that the people I would meet from then on would be similarly minded to myself. Obviously, not in all aspects, but that would have a bit of motivation, a bit of a curious mind, and an element of the explorer to them. Of course, because we would all be away from home, living within a different culture.
This presumption didn’t come from nowhere: I’ve worked in Spain, the USA and studied in China, and while I didn’t love all of the other foreigners I met, they all possessed these qualities – which I also recognize in myself.
To want to leave home and live within a different culture, you must have a desire to see new things and go new places, otherwise you’d never have left in the first place? To move somewhere alone, you must want to meet new people, otherwise you would have stayed with your friends and family at home? To actually DO it and go – not just talk about it – you must possess some initiative and gumption…… SURELY.
Well, that’s what you’d think. Or what I thought.
However, when I moved abroad, I discovered this was not the case at all. I’m not saying the people I met were boring, wait.. Yes, I am. A lot of them. I met a significant number of girls and guys, somewhere in their twenties, who had all done exactly the same as me: that is, move to Asia to teach English. Some wanted to save money and pay off their student debt, but most claimed that they wanted to travel and get out of the mundane lifestyle they’d somehow fallen into at home.
Did they really believe that themselves? We didn’t get much time off in the country I was in, but when it came to the few bank holidays we did have, none of these people made any plans. I was suggesting weekend trips to Tokyo or Fukuoka here, there and everywhere, but the weekend in question was never a good time. In the middle of winter, I wanted to go skiing every weekend, but next week would always be better. Despite countless Christmas crawls, nobody wanted to go to one, yet insisted that Christmas be a big occasion because it wasn’t a national holiday over there and we were all away from home.
Generally, most of the people I met were content with sitting in a bar in the local vicinity (this bar was mostly full with..interesting characters that appeared to have left their home country for one reason only: they didn’t fit in) every Friday and Saturday night, drinking the local beer, or going to overpriced Western restaurants, followed by another few hours of the same conversations in chain coffee shops like Starbucks – something I was not content with. What part of that is different to what we could be doing at home? When it was the same every week, nothing changed, meaning there was nothing new to talk about. Complain about Korea, complain about our jobs, complain about our money situation and how bored we were. Well, we would be because we didn’t DO anything!
Where was the desire to try the local food? Where was the desire to see the country’s historical architecture? Where was the desire to visit the city’s quirky amusements, or the countryside’s beautiful scenery?
You are probably thinking that I could have done things myself. This is true, and in the end I did, but the biggest thing that prevented me were last minute cancellations. You see, often people would plan to do something, or go somewhere – sometimes everyone would seem so keen – and then, the night before, everyone would cancel. This would leave it too late for me to find other people to go with, arrange to go on a tour, and often to sort out alternate transport or accommodation. I couldn’t very well go skiing by myself – well, I could but it wouldn’t have been as much fun, and the three-hour journey each way would have been lonely. If we’d arranged a trip to the countryside, I could go alone, but how could I afford the pension (house) without five other people to split the cost with (hostels aren’t common in SK)?
So, the point of this post, is people who cancel. I’m very lucky that I’ve found Miss J and Miss D in Thailand, because I know that if we have plans, which we do most weekends, they will happen. This weekend was one of the few that we didn’t, recovering from Koh Phi Phi and preparing for next week’s adventures. But there are three other girls in my town that I know well and work with. They are very nice people and although we don’t click fantastically, spending time with them is not a chore. One of them was visiting her boyfriend, but the rest of us decided to spend the weekend together.
However, on Saturday, I get a few messages in the morning. I know this is not good news, and force my eyes open to read the following: ‘I’m too tired, just going to stay in. Meet you for dinner at seven’. I was half-expecting that. Fine, I’ll explore alone. At least they still want to go out tonight, I think. So, I meet them for dinner, and the conversation turns into something like this, ‘I can’t be bothered to go for some drinks now….‘ No amount of convincing will work. I am visibly irritated, but they insist that it’s good because it means we’ll all be fresh and up early for the trip we’d planned the next day. Ok, I relent..
Next morning – Can you guess what happens?! Yes, you’ve got it: everyone cancels! Too tired! Well, I cannot do this trip alone because it involves a few tuk tuk rides which are fixed price and, although feasible when split three ways, not practical on an individual budget. THANKS GUYS. They left me with no time to arrange to meet a friend in a different part of Thailand or to research somewhere else I could go. Which is how I ended up at a controversial tiger zoo… (more coming on that soon)
I made some great friends in Korea regardless, and I do like the girls I live with over here. And I understand that people have different desires and live at different paces, and that some people are content with doing something big every so often and chilling out the rest of the time. The trouble is, that I get bored of chilling out. And that I want to do and see everything now. And I think that I expected that everyone I would meet after leaving England would have the same attitude. Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s what disappoints me, but..
I ask, would you fly half way around the world to sit in your room all day, every day?
Would you fly to a boiling country not to see the sun?
Would you fly to Thailand never to eat Thai street food?
Would you go to a country and see nothing except the street you live on (and barely that)?
This is what I don’t understand. I would respond with a definite no to all of these questions, and I cannot comprehend a different answer. But for others, it seems they really do go far away to do these things. It makes no sense to me, and it irritates the hell out of me.
My room in the UK looked like a cross between a budhist shrine and a fortune teller’s den according to an articulate friend. Ok, so I did have a lot of bhuddas, hanging things and shisha pipes in my room but a room is to chill right? So atmosphere is important! Am I buddhist? No, but I liked some of the philosophies of Buddhism. Appreciation of all living things, self control and elightment. So I had a pretty ignorant take on it, elightment sounded great, I lack self control and appreciation is never a bad thing.
Fast forward six months and here I am in the midst of Thailand, Buddhism and culture as far away from my little English boudoir as possible. Thailand fascinates me and undoubtly will continue to. It’s beautiful, diverse and different. I still have yet to see a lot of it but from what I have seen I have been ‘enlighted’ – not via a vow to monkhood but more a realisation that I was ignorant to before. Contradictions or mixed signals. Thai people have a beautiful nature, most are calm and polite. It is not in thai culture to be critical or ‘unpolite’. This is also a teaching of Buddhism, to keep a neutral emotion. So if this is the case is politeness really politeness as we know it? Or is it generic? Wow now!!! prob a bit too phylosphical but I’m sure you get what I’m saying. How do you know if someone in thailand actually likes you? Thais also are non-direct, talk will circle before you are aware of it. This is because Thais are non- confrontational people, but then when you finally hear the ‘talk’ you are then aware that everyone has been talking about you so prob best for the person to discuss it with you in the first place. This would surely create less conflict?
Now don’t mis read this, this is not a blog that is meant to be critical, its more a camparison of cultures. Who really is right and who is wrong? It used to really irratate me when people got over aggressive in trivial situations back home. I remember going to fill up at a garage and drove past a patiently waiting queue of cars as I was in a world of my own and went right to the front. Waiting by the pump, I could hear this shouting. I remember turning round to a guy that was literally screaming at me. ‘What the fuck??!!!’ ‘what the fuck??!!’. So I wind down my window and say, ‘Sorry, how can I help you?’ He goes into this rant. I wait for him to stop and simply say ‘Ok, it was a mistake. I’ll drive to the back of the queue’. He looked puzzled, slightly embarassed and left. Sooo, I feel we could have done with a bit of thai culture there for sure!
I guess it ties in with culture ‘shock’, you leave a country where you know most things and come to one where you are like a baby. You have to re learn how to read people, situations, what’s appropriate, what’s not and just what’s not what they do all over again. The most hilarious story I heard of late is where Miss L stood up along with another teacher and ‘whai’-ed from stand up to the floor in honour of their director. Except it wasn’t their director. A ‘whai’ is where you place your hands together in a praying postion and bow ur head. The lower you bow, the greater the respect. I think it’s not whether you love or hate a culture that matters, it’s how you deal with it. Thailand may be confusing to me at the moment but with time it will all make perfect sense.