Cross-Culturalism, Revisited

Having been almost 9 months since my return to the States, I wanted to share one of the most positive experiences from living in Thailand as an American interacting with many foreigners — most of whom were Thai . But the most surprising form of cross-cultural relationship was with a Chinese national from Chengdu, China. My roommate, Ye, stripped me of all the preconceived notions and judgments of Chinese people from China. She showed me generosity, but also opened up candidly about not only her country and culture, but also her personal dreams and aspirations. Still today, I think about Ye and our relationship while living in a country so foreign to us and how it became home in a matter of just a few months. Here’s a look at the post I wrote on January 6, 2016:

Ye is 22 years old from Chengdu Province, China. She’s a student at Chengdu University studying Chinese — she wants to be a teacher. Like me, she is a foreign language teacher at my school in Mae Rim. She arrived one week later than I did, and her arrival started a beautiful friendship.

Ye and I are very different people.

Ye grew up as a single child, never traveled outside China until she left on a plane to go to Chiang Mai, and has never really been completely independent. She would go home from her university on weekends, never drank alcohol, and led a modest lifestyle. Ye grew up in a low-income area of China, in a village in Chengdu where her mother owns a Mah-Jong shop, and her father works endlessly as a carpenter to support his family. In Chinese culture, the people are highly inter-dependent. They eat together around a lazy-susan table, travel together, and most importantly, are never alone. Ye even told me that she “is never alone, always with friends.” She tells me she came to Thailand to learn how to be more independent. She doesn’t want to be the shy one too afraid to approach anyone. She doesn’t want to ride on the coattails of her more outgoing friends. She doesn’t want to feel dependent on others. All she wants is to be an individual rather than a follower.

I, on the other hand, would like to describe myself as a free-spirit. I like to go out on adventures on my own, I like to try new things. I yearn to travel more — I’ve traveled multiple times outside the US alone, and I loved it. I have 3 older sisters, all of whom are very different than me and each other. I grew up in the middle-income suburbs of Los Angeles, with a self-employed attorney father and housewife-turned-working mother. I’m a thinker — always thinking one step ahead of me and I want to do everything and anything. My mind can go a million directions and stay that way for a long time. I came to Thailand because I want to challenge myself — I want to prove to myself that I can live abroad and reach far beyond my comfort zone, because that’s the only way I can learn.

Ye and I are both very different people. But, I’ve discovered a common thread that connects both of us. Ye came to Thailand to “find herself,” she tells me. She wants to change to become a better person — a more independent, better person. Cheesy as it sounds, but on second-thought, Ye’s simple, yet thoughtful remark made me think about why I decided to apply to Fulbright in Thailand, and took it even a step further to ask: Why was I chosen and even more curious: Why was I placed in Chiang Mai?

Ye helped me realize more about myself in terms of what I want. All she wants is to change. She wants to make her parents proud of her, she wants to become an independent person, she wants to learn, she wants to meet new and different people. For me, in simple terms, that’s what I also want. I want to make my parents proud of whatever accomplishments I may achieve, and I hope to learn more about what I want to do in the future. As an English teacher in Mae Rim, I’m constantly challenged both by the language barrier and teaching, in general, and each day I’m learning more about what I want and what I don’t want. I want to find my true passion — and nail it. I want to explore my interests, find something that drives me to wake up in the morning and say, I can’t wait for today. In many ways, Ye and I are searching for similar things, but differ in our approach to these goals.

Just me, Ye, and Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai. Thinking about my friendship with Ye has made me also think about Chiang Mai, as a whole. Why do so many backpackers and ex-pats come travel here and end up living her for years or decades? What is so special about Chiang Mai that makes visitors want to become permanent residents?

Chiang Mai is a magical city. People visit because it’s the northern capital of Thailand. The food, the culture, the people are a different breed that make Chiang Mai an international city and not just the typical Tokyo, Los Angeles, or Paris-type cities. It’s a small city, but with a big heart. Having living in Mae Rim, I can only go into the city on weekends, but I find something new in Chiang Mai each time. Chiang Mai isn’t a city where you must go to this place or that place. It’s a city where you walk around the moat or within/outside the old city and just enjoy everything: the sights, the sounds, the pedestrians, the constant roar of motorcycle engines, the live music at bars/clubs at night, the laughter of a group of friends at a restaurant next door, the voice of backpackers onwards to their next destination, the barks of thousands of stray dogs rummaging for extra food, the sizzle of food stands at the nearby night market, or the sound of the honking songtaew taxis searching for more customers on the street. Chiang Mai is a city where you don’t do, you just have to experience the laid-back culture of the city.

Although both Ye and I didn’t have the ability to choose our location for teaching in Thailand, I think our placement in Chiang Mai wasn’t a random event. It seems like the universe, the Gods, or just fate destined us to end up in Chiang Mai. We’re in this incredible city where people from all walks of life join together in this huge melting pot and exchange ideas, form lifelong friendships, and eat ridiculously good food. There’s something about this city that makes me want to explore more and more each day.

Although I haven’t found exactly what Chiang Mai has in store for me, so far, I’ve found that meeting Ye here is just one small part of my reason for being here. Ye and I exchanged our different cultures, our opinions on various issues, our dreams (Ye dreams of owning a bake shop called Sweet), and our personal stories. Ye’s told me multiple times that if we hadn’t been roommates, she would’ve never experienced some of the things that we’ve done together so far.

I guess there’s always a way of looking at things, and for me, I think Chiang Mai is something that was meant to be for both me and Ye.