Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What I Wish Everyone Knew About Foreigners

At the end of February, my family moved from Southern California (land of churches, SUVs, parks, and lattes) to Bangkok, Thailand (land of temples, taxis, malls, and iced coffee).

If I had to choose one word to describe our first few weeks here in Thailand, it would be this: overwhelming. OVERWHELMING.

My husband and I have gone from being competent in our home culture to being needy and often confused foreigners in our new culture. We are like children. We even speak the new language like one-year-olds. We have to re-learn how to do the most basic tasks like bathing our kids, washing our clothes, and buying our food.

Here is a sampling of a few of the dozens of challenges we've addressed:
  • How do we bathe our children without a bathtub? (Answer: First, try to put a plastic bag over the drain of our shower to fill up the shallow shower tub. Realize that's ineffective and buy a large plastic bowl. Bathe them one at a time in that.)
  • How do we set up WiFi in our house? (Answer: Ride a motorcycle taxi with a bilingual neighbor to the WiFi company's shop to set up an appointment for the company to come by to set up WiFi. When they come, they add yet another line to the already overloaded power lines and connect it to our home. Voila! WiFi.)
  • How do we pay our electricity and water bill? (Answer: Bring the bill, which is almost entirely in Thai, to the convenient store down the street. Pay them, they give us a receipt.)
  • Where do we buy a broom to sweep our disgustingly crumby kitchen floor? (Answer: Outside the convenience store where we pay our bills, there is often a woman selling brooms. Buy one from her.)
  • Etc.
During this transition period, I find solace in the fact that millions and millions of people around the world and across time have learned to make a new country and a new culture home. Refugees, military families, ambassadors, business people, migrant farm workers, missionaries, and international students. While our individual stories are diverse, we share the struggle of learning to function in a new place.

Before moving to Thailand, if I saw a foreigner in the U.S. with very limited English speaking skills, I would often avoid speaking to them to avoid the awkwardness of them not understanding me, the awkwardness of me not understanding them, and the awkwardness of not knowing how to end the interaction. I now realize that the awkwardness I felt was nothing compared to the overwhelming awkwardness that new foreigners live with 24/7. Learning to live in a new culture is overwhelming.

In the midst of all the overwhelming feelings of being new and incompetent in Thailand, there is a saving grace: old, Thai women. I adore them. Despite my awkwardness and stupidity, they always caress my kids' faces and give them sugary treats. They smile at me, take the time to listen to my Thai, and teach me new things to say. Even though we can hardly understand each other, the old Thai women that I have met make me feel welcome here.

More importantly, they have shown me how to relate to brand new foreigners. They have shown me how far a small gift, a smile, and a willingness to point, bumble, and be awkward can go in making a foreigner like me feel more welcome and less overwhelmed. It makes me want to do the same for other foreigners, whether I'm in Bangkok, the U.S., or elsewhere.

In short, I want to be like old, Thai women.

So, here's to being kind to foreigners -- whether they are documented or undocumented; whether they are international students, refugees, or on a work visa; whether they wear a hijab, a sari, or a Hello Kitty backpack. A willingness to be welcoming, even though it can be awkward, goes a long way. 

Trust me.

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