*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.
Today’s What I Learned post comes from Dorette Skinner, a South African living in Thailand and wrestling with culture shock.
I come from South Africa – a country known for its diversity. Before I joined my husband in Thailand at the beginning of 2013 I read as much as possible about the country, the culture and its people.
The phrase ‘culture shock’ came up a lot.
I think those are the only words to describe this feeling I’m trying to express.
A feeling worth travelling halfway around the world for! Not because it’s pleasant, but because it might have the same effect on your life as a defibrillator will have on your heart. To give you a second chance at the same life.
I am grateful that I am still young and that God has already opened my eyes in so many ways. I also know that I still have a lot to learn! Today I would like to share ten of the most important lessons I have learned from living in Thailand.
- Slow down. One of the first things I’ve realized is that I was speaking way too fast. I had to learn to speak slowly or make peace with the fact that no one will ever be able to understand a single word I say. I also realized that I was eating too fast. Thais eat slowly and their lives basically revolve around food. The general pace of life I was used to living did not fit in here and to force it would have been frustrating. Instead, slowing down has become one of the greatest blessings. It feels like I am actually tasting my food for the first time and it’s considerably easier to think before I speak.
- Stories shape our minds. I noticed that many kids were drawing the same kind of pictures – something we would not typically draw. A few days later I saw a children’s book and realized it was one of the characters from the story. Every culture has its own stories and so does every religion. While we took growing up with Bible stories for granted, millions of children have never even heard about Jesus. If I did not take the time to read the stories of Buddha and even Mohammed, I would have no idea why it’s so difficult for them to understand what we believe. I have learned that there are indeed two sides to every story and storytellers tend to be biased. Not being open to listen to the other side of the story is one sure way of never finding the truth.
- It’s easier to spot an idol if it’s in the form of an idol. Temples and high places, big golden statues and spirit houses filled with food offerings. People burning incense and ‘making merit’ with the hopes of a better ‘next’ life…It’s easy to spot an idol if it’s standing in front of you covered in gold. If you know without a doubt it is a ‘graven image, made in the likeness of a man.’ It is not so easy to spot an idol if it’s something you have worshipped all your life, like money, sport, people or fame. I have learned that the only idols we get to break down are the ones we have built. The ones we have centered our lives around. Any stranger would be able to point them out in a second, but we became so use to them that we believe they are a normal part of our lives.
- We have all been fooled by the media. For over twenty five years I have associated ‘beauty’ with a perfect body and a tanned skin. I’ve never been the glamour type, but I have spent a lot of time in the sun chasing after this ideal. I also know many of my friends still spend hours to ‘work on their tans’, and there is a big market for sun beds and self-tan lotions. Imagine my surprise to discover that I’m now living in a country where being tanned is a sign of poverty and most women are avoiding the sun as far as possible. Every model looks like a ghost – in my opinion – and it’s almost impossible to buy a beauty product (even underarm roll) without whitening in it. I have learned to accept that I cannot change the color of my skin and I was never supposed to. I am now questioning every single beauty advertisement and I’m not trying to live up to unrealistic standards and expectations.
- It’s healthy to question your own beliefs. 95% of Thailand’s population consider themselves Buddhists. 73% of South Africa’s population consider themselves Christians. What do most of the people in your country believe and what do you call yourself? If you grew up in Thailand what are the odds that you would have been a Buddhist? I have learned that other religions are nothing to be afraid of. Being forced to believe something is evil. Not even knowing that there are other alternatives could be fatal. We cannot convince anyone of the truth if we’re not still convinced after considering all the options.
- I will never get used to some things, and it is okay. Seeing women begging on the sidewalks with babies on their laps should always bother me. Seeing prostitutes walking around on street corners should always break my heart. I don’t have to accept lady-boys as normal only because I live in a country where there are basically three genders. I do not have to go to the temples or give food to the monks. I do not have to bow down to their idols. I have learned that the things we are simply not willing to accept also make us who we are. It is part of what we believe and trying to justify it for the sake of others would also be unfair to them.
- You cannot run away from your problems. A good question to ask yourself before you move to another country would be: “Am I running towards something or away from something?” I have met many foreigners on this journey who seem to be running away from something. Their problems always catch up with them. Moving to another country will not heal your broken heart or fix your relationships. If you have a bad temper or tendency to complain, it might even get worse. I have learned that going back and still moving forward is sometimes harder than to keep on running, but it will always be worth it. And ‘going’ anywhere with a purpose in mind is much more rewarding!
- Languages connect people. It will be impossible to understand a culture without learning their language. As long as you cannot speak the language you will always be an outsider. A smile might take you a long way in any language, but it will never be a laugh or a tear. If you do not learn the local language of a country you will never get the inside jokes or the full impact of their stories. Something will always get lost in translation. I have learned that Thai is a difficult language, but nothing is impossible. It will always be worth the time and the effort.
- Grace is real. I could have been an HIV orphan somewhere in Malawi, a prostitute trapped behind a wall in a brothel in India or a kid growing up in the slums of Bangkok. I have done nothing to be who I am and I have no reason to take pride in anything I have done. My life has grace written all over it. I have learned what it feels like to be nothing but a number in a city with millions of people. I met people that are truly humble. I know that the best thing I can do with my life is to share as much of this grace as I can with as many people as possible for as long as I live.
- Travel light. If you move to a new country there is no room for baggage; physically and emotionally. You only take what you really need. And the more you travel the more you realize that you do not even need that much. To ‘go’ is the best way to let go of everything that always held you back. I have learned that it is better to give away than to leave behind. The only reason you need to go back is relationships. Everything else that is not important enough to carry with you wherever you go is not worth your time.
Dorette Skinnner is a South African expat ‘living the alternative’ in Asia. On a mission to share the Hope of Glory and tell His story. You can find her writing at reporterofhope.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterofhope
There are so many things I like about this post that I’m not sure where to begin….first off. The defibrillator – such a perfect description. A second chance at the same life. The never getting used to some things – so good to remember that these things should continue to bother us. It reminds me of one of my favorite posts on A Life Overseas on culture stripping by Rachel. But the words I loved most were “My life has grace written all over it” – may I never forget. An aside thought is that as a now adult TCK one of the things I realize is that I like myself better when I’m overseas….mostly because I am acutely aware of all the things you mention.
Thank you, Marilyn. I love that you can relate in so many ways and took the time to point out the most important ones. Being a TCK I’m sure you know all about second chances (and third ones 🙂 I’m going to see if I can find that post on ALOS – I’m sure I will also love it. I’m pretty new to all of this and I hope that I will always be reminded of the important things. Blessings
I really appreciate your point on idols. We can look down on those who worship manmade, carved images, and then worship our own reflection or an image created by God – anything but the Creator God.
“We could look down on those who worship manmade, carved images, and then worship our own reflection or an image created by God – anything but the Creator God.” Well said!
Thank you, willtravelwithkids! I assume that is your website name? Will be sure to check it out.
Your view on idols is confusing. If I follow your “realization” there are no idols unless its the idol of another and we must reject this in favour of there are no idols. Thailand , in your view, therefore has no idols – which is something more beautiful even if you refuse to bow. There are no idols to bow before.
Thanks for asking for clarity here, Ash. I was going to write more but just saw Dorette’s response too and I think she articulated it well.
Thank you, Rachel. And thank you for creating the opportunity for us to share. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. 🙂 Blessings
Ps! Would love to hear some of your thoughts on this. Have you ever been to Asia?
I’ve been to Malaysia, that’s it in Asia. I loved it! I think the two that resonated most with me at this stage in my life were: I will never get used to everything and that’s OK. I used to feel like I would have to totally adapt or would never be able to think critically because that would be coming from an outsider and so would be irrelevant or condescending or something. But now I know I don’t have to think everything is perfect just because I am a guest. Does that make sense? And the other was Stories shape our minds – I love hearing local folk tales and religious stories, especially the ones that get told over and over. They are SO shaping and I didn’t realize how much so. Thanks for asking!
Hi Ash, now you almost have me confused with this statement so I will try to clarify. In Thailand they have a lot of physical ‘idols’ – statues of Buddha etc. And people physically bow down before them. In the West it can be ‘anything but the Creator God’ like Willtravelwithkids pointed out. Just because we’re not physically bowing down before our cars, houses or whatever ‘idols’ we have created it doesn’t mean that we do not have idols. We have to identify the ‘idols’ in our own lives and ‘break them down’. If I could physically break down every single idol in Thailand, people would simply build them up again… but if their hearts changed and they’ve decided for themselves not to follow after idols – then only they would have the right to break them down. I hope that makes sense. Blessings
I loved this!! I think this series is a brilliant idea.. Hmm.. what are 10 things I’ve learned?? And it’s so true.. being in a new environment helps us to question, grow and expand.
Hi, Georgia. I’m glad you liked it. Maybe you should write something for the series… I’m sure that no matter where we are there will always be a lot of learning, ‘questioning, growing and expanding’. Thank you for commenting. Blessings
Georgia I echo Dorette’s comment – consider sharing a piece!