Opinion – Thais face a cultural struggle upon return as ‘study abroad’ leaves many trying to assimilate back in the society

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Thai society has always glorified the concept of studying abroad, especially if that study is performed in the West. Leaving Thailand to go to a school to gain knowledge not readily available here is an alluring fantasy. How could it not be?

Many who have walked down this path are rewarded with the prestige of making their resume stand out and are almost guaranteed an above-average income. Socially, they can forever solidify their tale of once upon a time living in a foreign county to receive a superior education. 

For many Thais who are fortunate enough to go through this, the study abroad experience would become an indispensable part of their story arc. Yet the majority of Thais spend a maximum of two to four years in a foreign country (depending on the degree) and return home with minimal cultural unfamiliarity.

For those who spent their secondary education abroad, the cultural dissonance can be much more apparent. Your formative years are bombarded by the cultural markers of Thailand and those of the country you study in. Cultural markers, such as language or music, help create a sense of belonging and identity. There is a battle of cultural markers in me occurring indefinitely. A dialectical clash between my Thai and Western identities. It was inevitable given my four years in Switzerland and nine years in the United States of America.

The first identity crisis I experienced was the gradual loss of my Thai fluency. It didn’t hit me right away in one instant, but rather seeped slowly into every aspect of my daily life. I forgot how to say “table” in Thai after my second term at a British boarding school in Switzerland. My mind went completely blank when I tried to think of the word. I didn’t think much of it then.

Over the years, my fluency in Thai discreetly dwindled as my English proficiency soared. There were no Thai people in my class. I barely read Thai. There weren’t many opportunities for phone calls home due to dorm rules. It became more challenging for me to articulate complex thoughts exclusively in Thai. I needed to drop in English words here and there to complete my sentences. My thoughts and dreams had transitioned to being in English. My English-speaking persona had become the more dominant of the two.

To keep my Thai identity within my grasp, I tried to listen to Potato and Bodyslam (two extremely popular Thai rock bands that are still going strong today). It proved to be lackluster. Everybody else was listening to Kanye West. I didn’t want to be the odd one out.

There was only so much I could do to maintain that cultural connection in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Despite the internet being readily available at my school, I had no idea how to break into or navigate the then fairly young Thai internet culture (this was 2008-2010). Even when I went home during school breaks, I couldn’t connect with my Thai friends anymore. I didn’t know the latest fashion trends. I didn’t know what slang Thai teenagers were using. I had no idea what the hit song at the time was. These are all cultural time stamps that will mark an era for a generation in Thailand and I was not a part of it. 

I eventually came to terms with my disconnection from the Thai language and social trends given my distance from home and lack of opportunities to use Thai, but I was blindsided by how much my physical body became alienated from the standards of everyday Thai life. After months of not sitting on the ground as I did at home, accompanied by my adolescent growth spurt, I could no longer comfortably sit cross-legged. My knees were higher off the ground and my hips were rigid. Temple visits during breaks turned into painful stretching sessions as I struggled to keep my tight body upright during sermons.

My separation from my own culture didn’t mean that I was more connected to the European setting. The school that I attended had an internationally diverse student body. Most of the students were from European nations. Other than my brother and myself, there were no other Thai students. Despite all of us coming from wealthy backgrounds, I couldn’t relate to my European classmates. They bragged about their country’s FIFA World Cup Championships. They argued about which country had superior military power during World War II (the German kids tend to stay silent when it comes to this). They visited each other’s neighboring countries during breaks. I had very little in common with them. There was no social or cultural group that I felt I could fully become a part of.

Cultural Change in the USA

When I was admitted into a high school in Portland, Oregon, I decided I needed a reset. I needed to dedicate myself to something that was generally viewed as socially attractive and fostered a sense of community.

That was when I set my eyes on basketball and hip-hop culture. Although the interest was genuine, I thought that if I became well acquainted with these aspects of modern American culture, I can become “cool”, unlike how I was in Switzerland, and make meaningful social connections. My hope came true when both interests led me to form new friendships.

I also worked relentlessly on attaining an American accent and beefing up my knowledge of American slang because I thought it would help me fit in more easily. (I later realized that in a vast and diverse country like the US, there is no one definitive American accent.)  

That is not to say that I completely abandoned my Thai identity. I still went home during breaks. Before, I had no interest that I could use to connect with home. I had fallen out of touch with my childhood friends due to the distance and the lack of shared experiences. But now with my newly obtained basketball knowledge and skills, I have a chance to meet new people by breaking into the basketball scene at a local sports club during my summer break in 2012. There was no icebreaker like sports, or so I thought.

I didn’t anticipate the ruthless shouting of grown Thai men at the new kid looking for a place. In a weird turn of events, I was also bizarrely labeled as a foreigner by these men. They somehow thought that I did not speak Thai after I told them (in Thai) had learned how to play team basketball at my high school in the US. They began speaking to me only in English, and I would respond in Thai. It was an awkward arrangement.

After the game, they expressed their confusion as to why I didn’t tell them that I spoke Thai. I did. The man who shouted at me the most often asked me why I even came to play with them when I can just go play in America. He didn’t seem to understand that Thailand is my home country too. It felt like the pre-MAGA “go back to where you came from.” I felt like my Thai identity was denied on that court that night when I desperately needed affirmation that I still belong here.

My then 16-year-old self did not handle this rejection well. It further pushed me to assimilate with American culture even more. I went out of my way to socialize with my American classmates even though I finally have Thai dorm mates. I watched American sports. I took advantage of school trips that had me hiking in Utah, dogsledding in Minnesota, and drinking sweet tea in Mississippi. When I moved down to L.A. for college, I made it a mission to learn the ins and outs of the city. To this day, I know my way around L.A. better than I do in Bangkok.

By 2018, you would have thought I was born and raised in L.A. with my Chuck Taylors and Los Angeles Dodgers jersey. I Americanized myself as much as I could. That effort all culminated when a campaign volunteer came up to me to ask if I was registered to vote for the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. When I told her that I am not a U.S. citizen, she enthusiastically retorted, “well, you look like a citizen.”

The Americanization process was complete, but I was left with a void. I’m not American. I don’t have a green card. The goal was never to become American. The goal was to establish a strong cultural identity that I was severely lacking in Switzerland and Thailand. The void was feeling is for my Thai cultural identity. I had stopped paying attention to it. However, I knew I was going to return home one day and when I do, I would have to refamiliarize myself with Thailand.

I knew how much effort reacclimating to Thailand would take, so I wanted to get a head start before my homecoming. Reacquainting myself with the Thai language and culture in 2018 was a lot easier than it was in 2008. I never lost the ability to read or write Thai, but I did get severely rusty. I didn’t want to take Thai classes or read Thai books, so I took the unconventional route: social media. I began following Thai news outlets and meme pages on Twitter and Instagram. With this method, reading Thai never felt like extra work.

My main problem was my reading speed. Books were too tedious to keep me enthusiastic. Tweets and Instagram stories proved to be the perfect length for me to build my confidence in Thai again. Once the confidence returned, my interest in Thai songs, slang, and social trends started flowing back. For the next two years until January 2021, social media was my medium for rediscovering Thailand.

No, this is not my study abroad story arc ending with the reclamation of my Thai identity. I barely have any Thai friends. I am still more fluent in English than I am in Thai. I can read Thai at a quick pace again, but my typing is still sluggish. My flexibility has been partially restored, so sermons are more tolerable now. Yet I get stiff and sore after sitting on the ground for long periods. I’m terrified of driving in Bangkok, even though I can cruise on L.A. freeways with ease. The intercultural clash will continue in whatever form it takes.

This is not a cautionary tale to discourage those who plan to study abroad or wish for their kids to do so from a young age. This internal conflict is an essential part of the study abroad journey. I have come to accept that a singular cultural identity was not an option for me given the experiences I had. This is not a conclusion that anyone can easily arrive at. It is a product of an extended period of dissonance resulting from constant switches between two cultural settings. It requires struggling with the cultural markers that form your identity.

It would be a perfect ending for me to say that I have overcome this struggle. Unfortunately, I am still dealing with it as I write these words. The struggle is the core that allows me to absorb various cultural elements that make me who I am right now. I am forever stuck in this space between two cultures. And I’m not frustrated about it. Not anymore.

Naathapit Lamsam is a contributing writer who writes about cultural issues.


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