I have been here for almost two weeks now, and since my last entry, a lot has happened: school orientation, moving into my apartment, opening a bank account, my first week of classes, exploring the city, joining a gym, conquering the Bangkok bus system, using the river boat taxis, navigating Thai malls, grocery shopping, dealing with the warning of a terrorist attack in Bangkok, and my first adventure in Chinatown with some Richmond Spiders. I have included some pictures taken around the city to give you an idea of the setting. All of these firsts have included learning many interesting nuances of Thai culture:
1. The importance of politeness: as I mentioned in my last blog post, Thais as a whole are some of the most kind and friendly people that I have ever met. They are always smiling, always willing to help, and completely accommodating and understanding of the fact that I am a foreigner in this city. Most of the time, Thais are not out to rip you off in order to make an extra baht or two. That being said, many natives have warned us that it is essential to reciprocate this kindness. Once you get angry or hostile with a Thai, the smile stays but suddenly their helpful, genuinely kind demeanor goes out the window.
2. Eating street food is much cheaper than cooking at home: counterintuitive, right? In the US, cooking meals at home is emphasized everywhere – partly because it is healthier, but also because it is cheaper than going out to eat. Here, however, on average, eating a big meal on the street costs about a dollar or two. Buying fruits and vegetables on the street is easy and cheap, but buying fruits and vegetables in the supermarket is extremely expensive. I am not complaining, though; fresh mango and pineapple at every hour of the day, with stir fry, rice, Pad Thai, and spring rolls on every corner… Thailand is truly food heaven.
3. Some strict cultural customs are NOT negotiable: a) Never say anything bad about the King and the royal family, because it is against the law and very offensive. The current King is a beloved man here in Thailand, because he is truly someone concerned with his people and has done an incredible amount for Thailand in his sixty-some years of rule. He is also the longest reigning monarch in the world. b) Never put your feet up anywhere — for example, on a seat in the bus, in the movie theater, or on your desk. Showing a Thai the bottom of your feet is one of the rudest offenses, and is taken very seriously. Apparently a picture of President Obama with his feet up on his desk in the oval office caused quite an uproar here. C) Twice a day, when Thailand’s national anthem (of sorts) is blasted on the loudspeakers around the city, everyone — including foreigners — must stop and pay respect until it is finished. Not doing this is considered incredibly rude.
4. Buddhism has a big influence on Thai culture: By some estimates, Thailand is 95% Buddhist, which is made very evident by the thousands of temples and shrines blanketing the city. As I mentioned before, I have been overwhelmed by the politeness and genuine kindness of Thai people, and I learned recently that much of this has to do with Buddhism. There are five precepts of Buddhism, which guide people to live a happy and enlightened life. This will, in turn, help them to reach the afterlife. These precepts include refraining from stealing, killing, lying, and engaging in adultery. These rules, and the hope of accumulating enough karma to reach the afterlife, are taken very seriously, which I believe is a large reason why Thais seem so incredibly kind.