Harry looked out his bedroom window to watch the sunrise. However, the sunrise was being significantly blocked by the Bangkok skyline. Harry let out an exasperated sigh and turned his gaze down to the street three stories below his apartment. Down below, the streets were busy even though they were tucked away several blocks from any of the main highways. Everyday, Harry could spot numerous motorbikes, street vendors with carts selling various food and coffee, and students walking by with backpacks in tow. The sights seen here tended to be quite different from what Harry grew up with back in his home state of Kentucky. He had grown up in the countryside, far from the big cities. Moving to Bangkok a few months ago for work had been the biggest transition of his life. They say moving is one of the most stressful things you can do in your life. For moving to a city on the other side of the world that speaks a completely different language, “stressful” was not nearly strong enough of a word.
When Harry was informed by his boss that he was needed to help run the HR department in their brand new office in Thailand, he thought it was a joke. Clearly he was not the best fit for the position. Not because he wasn’t a great HR representative (he thought he was actually pretty wonderful at his job), but because he knew absolutely nothing about Thailand or Bangkok or anything about the Thai culture. But according to his boss, there was no one else who could go on short notice. But Harry, being single and having nothing to tie him down to Kentucky, had no logical reason as to why he could not go to Bangkok.
And so here he was, standing at the window in his apartment, reminiscing about how he got himself in this adventure. At this point, the sun had risen and Harry realized he needed to get dressed for work. The commute to the office took about 35 minutes after his Grab driver arrives to pick him up. Harry hadn’t figured out how to drive in Thailand yet. Besides being a crowded city of 10.5 million people and thus crazy traffic, they also drive on the opposite side of the road from the US and seem to have very different traffic laws. Harry decided to not risk his life trying to learn how to drive just yet, so he ordered a Grab (the Southeast Asia version of Uber) to get to and from work each day.
As Harry made his way down to the entrance of his apartment building to wait for the driver, he passed by another resident and one of the housekeepers sweeping the stairs. Both greeted him with a big smile and “sawasdi!,” meaning “hello!” in Thai. That word and how to say “thank you” were pretty much all the Thai that Harry had managed to learn down pat. As it turns out, Thai can be very difficult for a monolingual native English speaker to learn. Thankfully, the Thai people were very gracious and forgiving if you make mistakes while trying to communicate with them. It also helps that Bangkok housed many English schools educating many of the Thai people in at least a basic level of Harry’s language.
The Grab driver pulled up to the door of the building and Harry hopped in. The driver looked back at Harry and greeted him with a big smile, “sawasdi!,” and put his palms together in front of his face in traditional Thai style. Harry repeated the greeting in turn as he was fairly accustomed to doing at this point.
“Ah, American?” the driver asked in English with a thick Thai accent.
“Yes, I am. Just moved here a few months ago,” Harry responded.
“Very good, very good,” the driver continued as he weaved the car through traffic. “How
do you like Bangkok?”
Bracing himself against the car’s frame as they made a sharp turn, Harry contemplated how to answer the question. “It’s….different.”
“How is it different? Is your city in the United States bigger than Bangkok?”
“Oh, no. Definitely not. I’m from a very small place in the States. Bangkok is much bigger than anywhere I’ve ever been before. I’m not used to the big city yet. Or really anything in the big city,” Harry explained as he watched the towering buildings go by. “Or anything in Thailand, as a matter of fact,” he mumbled.
The driver glanced back in his rearview window. “Oh, is Thailand very different from your life in the United States?”
“Very different.” Harry was still distracted by the steel giants looming throughout the city over the streets. The traffic was moving at a steady but slow pace as drivers bobbed and weaved through traffic and pedestrians bobbed and weaved attempting to cross the street. “I’ll tell you one thing: no one drives like this in the States.”
“I don’t think I understand what you mean, sir.”
“The traffic. So many cars on the road, all trying to get somewhere quickly, squeezing in between each other any chance they can, and yet you hardly ever hear a honk. No one gets upset when they’re cut off. People just let you pass. People walk through the cars that are trying to squeeze into the main road from around the corner. If you’re driving and see a person crossing the street ahead of you, you just slow down and wait for them. It’s almost like there are no official traffic laws but at the same time everyone understands what is going on and works together. Very different from the USA.”
The driver glanced back with a confused look. “Do people in the United States not work together to drive the cars, sir?”
“If they do, it is quite begrudgingly. With lots of horns. All of the horns.”
“I see. How about the food, sir? Is it very different from what you eat in the USA?”
Thinking back to the khao soi he had for dinner last night, Harry could feel his mouth catching on fire all over again. “It’s certainly more spicy than most American food. And the Asian food in Asia is in fact different from Asian food in America. But it’s pretty good. It just took some getting used to. And always asking for less spice in my khao soi.”
The driver chuckled at Harry’s low spice tolerance. “It seems you have a lot to adjust to here in Southeast Asia.”
The skyscrapers flew by as Harry contemplated his culture shock. “It has been a lot...but it hasn’t been terrible. Honestly, before I came, I hated the thought of living in Thailand. I figured it would be really difficult, which it has been, but it hasn’t been impossible. I definitely don’t fit in but the Thai people have all been so hospitable and gracious that I don’t mind not fitting in. I don’t worry as much now about making a fool of myself because the Thai people have been so forgiving of all my mistakes. To be honest, I never really felt at home where I’m from in the States. And now that I think about it, it’s starting to feel like maybe, against all reason, I could call Thailand home.”
As they pulled up in front of the office building, it was time for the conversation to end. Harry carefully opened the door and as he moved his way out of the car, he looked back at the driver. “I’m sorry for being so confusing. There’s a lot about Thailand that is….so different that it’s hard for me to deal with sometimes. But there’s also a lot that I’ve come to love a lot more than I thought I would.”
The driver met Harry’s eyes in the rearview mirror and smiled in the traditional Thai way. “I have found that is the best way to live life, sir. Compromising the things you dislike with the things that fill you with joy. Nothing in life is perfect. But there are ways to be perfectly content with life.” And with that Harry went on with his new normal day at work in Bangkok.