Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in Southeast Asia
Studying abroad is by far one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’m not sure what first attracted me to Asia, but I knew I’d made the right choice as soon as I arrived. I grew to love not only Thailand, but the entire region and all the people and places that I encountered there.
I spent my first three months studying as an exchange student at Mahidol University International College just outside of Bangkok. I lived in a house with about 25 other international students and had the opportunity to make friends from all over the world. Our classes were all in English, and we were mixed in with the full-time Thai students, so I was able to make wonderful Thai friends who helped me tremendously with everything from transportation to shopping to hospital visits (food poisoning struck everyone in our group at least once).
Learning Thai was easier said than done. Our class was mildly useful, but I had trouble actually using the phrases I’d learned because of the tones and new sounds. Luckily, Thai people are wonderful and extremely generous. They are also patient. Most times I tried to speak in Thai, my audience would listen attentively, then give me a befuddled look as if to say “I appreciate your effort, but I have no idea what you just said,” and dart off to find an English-speaking friend.
Of course, I was visibly foreign, and like other visiting students and tourists, immediately earned the title of farang, which means foreigner. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ignorant Westerners that come to Thailand (and SE Asia in general) with little interest or respect for the culture, and therefore white people are often assumed to be rich, stupid, or insensitive. A lot of foreigners get scammed or pestered by vendors or taken the long way by cab drivers, and it takes some effort to combat this stereotyping. My friends and I quickly learned to say “I am not a tourist, I am a student” in Thai.
Despite this negativity, I found that even the smallest efforts earn a great deal of respect from locals – for example dressing modestly, eating with a spoon and fork, or behaving correctly at temples. Even failed attempts at Thai or a simple smile can open a lot of doors, and as I said, Thai people are wonderful and helpful. Once I mastered the public transportation, learned to give basic directions to taxi drivers, and began to bargain in Thai at markets, I started to feel a lot more comfortable. My proudest moment in this respect was the first time I went into Bangkok by myself – I took the public bus into the city and zipped around on the sky train, then directed a cab driver home using a combination of gestures and Thai. At markets, even when my attempts at Thai would fail and we’d have to resort to passing a calculator back and forth, I noticed that I was getting lower prices.
One of the best things about spending a semester in Southeast Asia is the affordability of travel. Classes were less demanding and only four days a week, and the other international students and I quickly became fond of the Thai bus system. I took weekend trips to Singapore, Cambodia and many other areas of Thailand. Our program had two lengthy breaks, and I spent these traveling through Laos and Malaysia. At the end of the first break, I spent a few days with a Thai friend and her family in Khon Kaen, which is in northeast Thailand. I was there during the Thai New Year, Songkran, where part of the celebration includes massive water fights. For those three days, you can’t step outside anywhere in Thailand without preparing to get soaked by a passing motorcyclist or pick-up truck with passengers throwing buckets of water out as they drive by, people in their yard spraying hoses, or little kids running around with squirt guns.
Despite all the crazy traveling I did and the amazing sights I saw, I tend to think back more on the little things that I loved about Thailand. Taking motorcycle taxis to school, getting raisin bread and coffee for 15 baht each before class, grabbing fresh fruit or a smoothie on the street on the way home, making emergency runs to 7-11 (a fixture in SE Asia), or heading into town for amazing ethnic food – my favorite was Indian. A lot of Thai habits have stuck with me. For example, I still tend to take my shoes off while I’m indoors, and I feel lost eating without a spoon and fork combo. I never realized how hard it is to eat rice with a fork until I got used to eating it with a spoon!
After the trimester at Mahidol, our program also took us on a trip to Kanchanaburi to stay in a village for a week and later to Vietnam to study health care and visit facilities there. The Vietnam program was great, and I learned a lot in the short time we were there – not only about health care, but about culture and history, and especially about the American War. We toured several cities in the north as a group, and after the program ended I went to Ho Chi Minh City for a few days and also took a tour of the Mekong Delta. I think Vietnam was my favorite of all the places I visited, and it definitely had the best food (a big selling point for me). I definitely want to return at some point.
I am so glad to have had this experience and feel like it has changed my perspective on a lot of things. Despite taking 6 levels of Spanish and visiting Europe after high school, I chose to study abroad in Asia – I think because I wanted a different and challenging experience that would take me out of my comfort zone. What I didn’t realize was that I would develop a new comfort zone. I am already making plans to return to Asia after graduation – it’s only a matter of choosing whether to return to SE Asia or experience somewhere new. In the meantime, I will cheer on all the SE Asian countries in the Olympics… which involves watching a whole lot of badminton.