My observations and impressions of Thailand when I arrived were, simply put, “different.” It was night when Carrie and I landed, so there wasn’t much to see, but the heat was heavy as I expected. The Thai people who came to pick us up at the airport were friendly, and that made me happy. I was tired, but I felt rather at ease at that moment. They seemed genuinely excited to meet us, and that made me happy.
One of the most distinct differences, I think, are the smells. Not all of them are pleasant, but walking down the street, there are a few that have stuck with me – stagnant water, exhaust from cars, and food from the street vendors and restaurants. We walk to school, so we go through campus and cross the stream that doesn’t seem to move all that much. But my noticing the different smells makes me wonder what America smells like to visitors outside of the country. What does Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania smell like to someone who has never been there before? I never thought about how desensitized I could be to my own environment.
Another huge difference between home and Thailand is the concept of time. It is not uncommon for Thai people to be late, but they manage to expect punctuality despite their easy-going nature. Americans rush everywhere and are impatient. We are very emotional people, where Thai people try not to show all their feelings. I have yet to see a Thai truly upset confused, maybe, but not angry. I feel like I can make mistakes here and things will be okay because no one is going to yell at me or anything of the sort. Thai people are friendly and accommodating.
Much like the people, there is a duality to the environment. I have found myself walking along paths surrounded by nature and across the road will be brightly colored billboards. There are concrete buildings alongside ponds and wooden bridges. The hostel we are staying in even has an open area by the lobby that has trees that is open to the elements. In America, things are much more segregated. Parks may be found in the city or streets may be lined with trees or shrubs, but there’s the city, country, and the suburbs. Chiang Mai has a nice intertwined balance that I find very interesting.
So far I have loved the food. I usually don’t like a mixture of different tastes, but here things are often sweet and savory at the same time. I was surprised to find that I really like this. I don’t always know what’s in the food, but I haven’t disliked any of it so far. I recently had ramen that was really spicy – but it had a sweet taste to it. I’m not the biggest fan of spicy food, but I did like it. I also like having rice or noodles with vegetables and meat. Everything is mixed together here and it makes it easier to feel like I’m eating balanced meals. There are also smoothies everywhere and they don’t taste like smoothies like in America. They actually taste like the fruit they are made of, not artificial flavoring. The watermelon one I had simply tasted like cold, crushed up, watermelon. I feel that there is a lot more variety for food and drinks here and despite it sometimes being hard to make up my mind, I like being able to choose. I like having more choices than water, iced tea, lemonade, and soda pop for my drinks. It was strange though, getting dishes with shrimp or crab. The shrimp so far haven’t been tailless and some of the crab dishes still had shell in them, making them more difficult for me to eat.
I think I expected to feel more like a foreigner in a strange land. I expected to feel distinctly American. Yet, other than the language barrier and the different ways of greeting people, I don’t feel out of place or like I don’t belong.
Our orientation involved a lot of different things. We watched a short video about "Mai Pen Rai" and how unique the country is overall. Through the video and being here for two weeks, it's evident that the people are very forgiving and easy going. We also went to get school uniforms, which was a bit confusing. The woman came over and found the sizes for us. Because of my size it was a little more difficult, and I'm glad to have brought some uniforms with me. Then we went to the mall, which was exciting. The malls were very different as there were a lot more stalls and entire grocery stores and such. It felt a lot bigger and more confusing that the malls back home. Overall, we were kept busy, but it was nice to see the city in the daylight and experience more of the culture.