I did tons of research before moving to Thailand so Cole and I came prepared for all the big stuff: the fabulously low cost of the living, the “mai pen rai” attitude, the students being extra naughty during English class, the extreme heat, the delicious food, etc. Yet Thailand still managed to catch me off guard in a number of ways. The following are six things that may surprise you, as they did me, about Thai culture and life as a teacher in Thailand.
Any temperature below 70°F is unbearably cold
One evening in December, four of us American English teachers went to our city’s weekend market to eat and shop. We arrived dressed in long pants and long sleeves yet found ourselves shivering as we ate. By the end of dinner we felt so cold that we decided to skip shopping at the market entirely. I checked the temperature and laughed out loud when I saw that it was 68°F! What would have been a comfortable temperature to us at home, sent us running back to our apartments now that our bodies had acclimatized to Thailand’s hot weather.
You will have copious amounts of free time
When I pictured life in Thailand, I imagined my days being action-packed and full of adventure. But after settling into my teaching job, I actually found the opposite to be true in the most wonderful way. My life here is very relaxed and stress free. You can easily get all planning and grading done within the school day while you are not teaching. This leaves you with evenings and weekends completely free to travel, exercise, explore your town, spend time with friends, or just binge watch shows on Netflix. The relaxed pace is completely opposite of how I lived my life in the United States. I have enjoyed researching topics that interest me, writing a blog, going for long walks at a local park, and chatting with my Thai landlord in my new-found free time.
Many students suffer from rotten and decaying teeth
When I first arrived at my school, I was shocked to see so many of my students with black and toothless grins. We teach at a private school where most families can easily afford dental care, so why are these kids suffering from tooth decay at such a young age? I suspect it has something to do with the sugary milk that the students drink for snack multiples times a day. The initial shock of seeing this problem wore off but I am still perplexed by the issue. The students brush their teeth everyday after lunch at school but this is apparently not enough to combat the problem. I have tried to include lessons about dental hygiene, avoiding sugar, and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables for each of my classes.
You may shed a few excess pounds
After living in Thailand for three months, Cole and I were pleasantly surprised when we stepped on the scale and realized we had both lost weight. Now after seven months in Thailand, most of the clothes we packed are too big. Many Thai dishes consist of freshly cooked ingredients and are served in small portions, which is a welcome change from the processed food and gigantic meals we were eating back home. The produce we buy at a local market is also fresher and much cheaper than in the United States. If you stick to a mostly Thai-food diet combined with other healthy habits (exercising daily, avoiding sugar, eating fruits and vegetables, etc.) you may be flying home a little lighter than you came!
Your comfort zone will expand immensely
Before moving to Thailand the thought of being stranded in an unfamiliar place, where no one speaks your language, praying for the right bus to drive by would have given me a minor panic attack; now that’s just a typical Friday night. Living in Thailand has put me in all kinds of situations that would have made me uncomfortable before—being lost and unable to ask anyone for help, eating unfamiliar foods, communicating with people whose language you can’t understand, performing a traditional Thai dance at your boss’s retirement party, the list goes on and on. Looking back I’m astonished at how quickly my comfort zone grew to include these situations. Living in Thailand has helped me be okay with not knowing and not being in control. After a few months in Thailand you may find that you’ll feel comfortable and at ease anywhere and with anyone.
You can form incredibly meaningful relationships with people who barely speak your language
This final surprise didn’t hit me until it was time to leave our school and community. We spent the last 4 months of our time in Thailand living in a beautiful apartment complex owned by a very sweet Thai man and his wife. She was introduced to us as “Ma” (meaning mom in Thai). Ma didn’t speak a lick of English. Each morning we would greet her as we left for school. She would smile, wave, and sometimes launch into speaking the local Isaan language to which we would awkwardly smile, nod, and attempt to explain that we didn’t understand until she stopped talking. So I honestly figured that she just thought we were some awkward, slightly rude foreigners who always tried to shove too much clothing into her washing machines.
On the day we moved out of the apartment, we presented a gift to Ma and her husband, Wanchai. It was a handwritten card, a framed picture of us with Wanchai and a few other momentos. We passed off the gift and babbled on in English about how thankful we were for them. I looked up to see Ma’s eyes filled with tears. And at that moment it struck me…this woman loves me. And I love her. Smiling and nodding at each other for 4 months was enough to form a bond that brought us both to tears when it was time to break it.
I could write several more pages about all the Thai friends who graciously loved and accepted us despite our many shortcomings in the language and culture.
Here are a few photos of some of the friends we’ve made over the last 8 months: