At the age of seventy-seven, I was a divorced man who was not very keen to spend the rest of my life alone. I decided to try online dating. I had always been a world traveler, and my two children grew, so I could go wherever the wind took me.
After some false starts, I found a wonderful woman in Thailand. She was a public relations manager and psychologist working at a government hospital. We exchanged emails and talked on Skype for six months. I made two trips to Thailand and a year later we got married in a traditional Thai ceremony. I had to return to the United States, but my wife could not travel until she received her visa. So I flew back to Arkansas, where I worked as a database administrator and waited patiently for ten months.
Finally, her papers were approved, she passed the medical examination and interview, and she joined me in America. Although she had traveled to other parts of the world, she had never been to the United States. She experienced quite a bit of culture shock, but I helped her through the difficult times, such as when she failed her driver’s license twice.
The first shock my wife experienced was the change in climate and jet lag. After a long flight over the Pacific, delayed luggage, spending hours in line on immigration, then another connecting flight to Arkansas, she was tired and the cold November air in Los Angeles made her shiver. Time zone difference between Thailand and U.S. is twelve hours so she spent the night very awake and feeling sleepy in the afternoon.
In her forty years, she had only spoken the Thai language. Her alphabet has 44 letters with 21 vowels and 5 tones. Each Thai child begins to learn the Thai language in primary school. In high school, four years of English is required. But her English studies were limited to one hour a week, so she spoke only a few sentences and did not know pronunciation properly. In her community, too, she spoke Isarn, the dialect of northeastern Thailand. She had little chance of speaking or practicing English in early life. She was lucky enough to be employed at an international hotel for a few years, so she managed to practice some English with her manager, who was from France. She also listened to English pop music and repeated the lyrics.
When she arrived in the United States, all the natives spoke too fast, and they used slang words that she had never heard before. Every time she spoke to an American in the grocery store, restaurant, or social setting with my family, she felt embarrassed and embarrassed. In Thailand, she was the leader, a famous public speaker. Here she was a baby. Her senses had to absorb all these new sounds. For a long time she experienced a loss of confidence and felt homesick.
Imagine her sensitive ears when she hears something similar the first time:
“Are you comfortable over there? Want to go out and get a few things in the store? We need to do this. Hey, how do you fork it? You all find it okay? Okey-Doky?“
Comfy? What is he talking about? You guys? I’m a lady, not a guy. I’m okay, I’m not a donkey.
Every day she encountered several slang words and had to learn vocabulary. What should she say when she was introduced to someone else? She did not know American culture. In America, people liked eye contact. In Thailand, people do not maintain eye contact for long. Americans like to touch. In her culture, she did not like anyone touching her body. Every day she had to concentrate on trying to have a conversation. She found simple things that people take for granted. Thailand uses the metric system. In the United States, people use the British measurement system.
She often had to repeat what she said because people didn’t understand her.
It was a big shock to her. In Thailand, people drive a car on the left. She arrived in the US and everyone was driving on the wrong side. Imagine her confusion. I bought her a car one day after her arrival and asked her to drive the car home. She didn’t understand the rules for stop signs and what the middle lane was for. There are no speed limit signs in Thailand. So she had to learn many kinds of characters. She felt nervous and confused every time she drove. Sometimes she made a wrong turn. She would turn right but turned left once. Everyone needed a car in America. She wondered how she would survive.
She failed the state driving license exam twice. The first time she skipped too many questions and the computer did not let her return. She studied for a whole month. The second time she did better, but the questions were different. Third time she finally went. She was nervous about sitting with the officer in the road test.
He said, “Not bad. Be careful with blind spots.”
A week after she got her license, she happily drove home when she was stopped by police for speeding. Fortunately, the officer only gave her a warning.
She felt so relieved! She thanked the Buddha. Then she followed the signs. American law seemed very strict. In Thailand, people are negotiating an agreement with the officer.
Some examples of confusing street signs:
PEDXING – what is it? Is it some Indian name?
RETURN – what does it mean? Does that mean going? If you stop, someone will yell at you.
STOP – In Thailand it’s for pedestrians. Cars don’t stop.
SCHOOL SONE – We need to be quiet?
HANDICAPPED PARKING – We don’t have that in Thailand. VIP or guest speakers?
MERGE – A meeting place? To rest area?
4-way stop – The main street gets first priority!
My wife had problems when she ordered food at most restaurants. Ordering food was a real challenge.
1. Ordering at the counter at a fast food restaurant. She thought she had to tip the server. Nor did she know that one would have to pay before the meal is served.
At Kentucky Fried Chicken, she would order fried chicken. So the trick is, if you want legs and thighs, order “Dark Meat” and if you want breasts and wings, order “White Meat”. She wanted legs but ordered thighs. She thought her leg was thigh. To her, the leg is chicken feet.
The server asked, “Which side do you want?”
“What size? Small size because I don’t eat too much.”
“I order 4 pieces small size.”
“No, I mean side. Which side do you want?”
“What size do you have?”
“Beans, corn, coleslaw, mashed potatoes.”
“Corn on the cob or plain?”
What was she talking about now? Corn on the cup?
“Yes, I want corn on the cup. A small cup.” Oh man This is getting confusing.
Food came and that included biscuits. My wife said, “I didn’t order it. I didn’t like it.”
“It comes with the meal.”
“OK”. She ate the thigh and corn on the slice.
In a fast-food store, she wanted to order french fries. The server said they didn’t. The french fries were on the photo menu.
They said “we have potato fries”.
Is it the same thing? She had to learn another term. She learned something every day.
2. Order “Drive through”, She had problems with the drive through. Once, the store employee did not tell her English pronunciation so well that her daughter got hungry. She repeated herself five times unsuccessfully.
3. Order “at the restaurant”. The server will first offer some drink and then offer the complicated menu. She didn’t understand all the menu items, but luckily she liked trying new foods. Once, she ordered salmon with white wine. She expected a glass of white wine, but the wine was used for cooking the salmon. Once, she couldn’t order alcohol because the server didn’t think she was forty years old. All customers who like to order alcohol must have ID. In Thailand, they never ask for an ID.
U.S.A. custom is to include 10% tip in the bill. If you are not satisfied with the food in Thailand, you do not choose in Thailand. In America, people usually talk about who has to pay the bill. In Thailand, the rich member is expected to pay. If a group wants to negotiate who to pay, this must be done before eating.
Weather and snow shock
My wife came from a country with a tropical climate. She had never experienced snow. What a surprise to move to Arkansas and wake up one morning and see a white blanket of snow covering everything. At least Arkansas had mild winters, unlike the crazy north where snow might cover the ground for months.
Our first winter we had fun building a snowman and having snowball matches. But driving on icy roads was daunting. Our home lay between steep hills, and sometimes I couldn’t drive to work for two or three days until trucks came with dirt to melt the ice.
She bought extra warm clothes, a space heater, thick blankets, gloves and boots to survive the winter.
Buying clothes was a challenge. Most Americans were bigger than my wife. She had to look in the teen section to find a comparable size that fit. Sometimes she tried to order online, but the clothes that arrived were too big. She had to sew her clothes. So she didn’t buy that much from online anymore.
She saw the sign with the name “Flea Market” in town. She knew what flea meant. But she wondered why people need fleas? To the garden? In Thailand, people are just killing them. She went into one and saw old things, used clothes and ornaments. I explained that a flea market just sold little things.
Debit or credit and checking accounts
Most Americans spent their money by credit card or debit card or check. In Thailand, most people paid cash and wired money into bank accounts. My wife asked me why I didn’t give her cash. I gave her a debit card and explained that it was easier and safer to pay everything with a card. So everywhere she went, she paid by debit card. She felt thrilled to be able to buy just about anything just by swiping a card. At the supermarket, the cashier asked if she wanted cash back. She definitely said I want cash back to my account.
No! That meant people could get cash from their account at the counter. In Thailand, people only get cash in ATMs.
Once she went to Drive through in the bank. She was amazed and confused. She expected to meet a bank teller and ask for help. Unfortunately, she drove to the outside lane. In Thailand, they do not have Drive Through services and she did not know how to operate the machine. She saw the round cylinder in a tube. How do I open this thing? She thought it might be the same as ordering food on a drive through. She communicated with the officer behind the window via speaker. She felt like a turtle. But the officer patiently explained how to operate the machine and she made her first drive-through transaction. I laughed when I heard the story.
Vending machines were another mystery in the early months. The machine said, insert 4 blocks. What was a neighborhood? She had to learn the value of coins. And machines were complicated, too. She had to learn how to use a washer, dryer, stove, fireplace, air conditioning, television remote control, oven, dishwasher and disposal.
Shop at the grocery store
Shopping was fun, but buying groceries was so complicated. She had to learn about many kinds of new foods. When living alone in Thailand, she usually bought meals from street vendors or dined at restaurants. The food was cheaper in Thailand. Now she had to learn how to cook.
She liked eating healthy food. She doesn’t like junk food, sandwiches, burgers or pizza. She collected recipes and watched some cooking shows. I liked Thai food, so everything she cooked I ate and enjoyed.
She found oriental markets and learned how to cook from her mother and sister of Skype and learned from the internet food channel.
Food costing in the US was so expensive. Prices shocked her. For example, a bunch of bananas in Thailand cost a quarter. In addition, she had a banana tree in her garden. In the Oriental store it was almost four dollars. She would not pay for it, but would eat them. The oriental store didn’t carry all the meat, sauce and other things she needed. So she created her own recipes for some kind of Thai dishes. She had to be creative and learn how to use an oven, dishwasher and weird western kitchenware. At least she could buy a rice cooker and steamboat. Rice was an essential part of every meal. She couldn’t find a hot pot in the stores, so she found one online.
The cost of healthcare and dentists in America was so expensive. She would order birth control pills. She couldn’t without a prescription. In Thailand, people can buy the pills at the pharmacy without a prescription. She went to the dentist for an annual cleaning and I have charged twenty dollars. In Thailand, the cost would have been two hundred baht or six dollars.
She went to the clinic for a checkup due to a bad cough. The nurse asked her where would you pick up your medication?
She said, “Here in the hospital.”
The nurse said they have no medicine here.
What? This is a major hospital in the U.S. Why don’t you have medicine? In Thailand, people can take the medicine at the hospital pharmacy as a one-stop service.
Then the woman told her to choose the pharmacy location.
“Can I choose Walmart?”
The woman asked, “Which Walmart?”
She said the one who was close to Walmart’s home office. She went to pick up her medicine at Walmart Superstore, the one near Walmart’s home office.
Shocked again! At the pharmacy, people were queuing to meet a pharmacist at the window, and there were many ways to get medicine. What lane did she need to stand in? Pick up lane, Drop Off or Over the counter? What medicine would she get? She really needed her medicine now.
She stood in line talking to a pharmacist and giving them her prescription paper. The person behind the counter said her medication was not here.
How could it happen? She took a deep breath.
The clerk told her to go to the Walmart Home Office Pharmacy Shop.
Oh brother! She needed medication right now please. She did not know there was a pharmacy in the supermarket and a pharmacy in Walmart’s home office. So she drove the car and used the GPS navigator. She arrived at the Walmart home office and finally got the medicine! Whoopee!
Here’s how to get a job
My wife would bring some food home and pay for the bills and make her child proud of her too. She had 15 years of experience in marketing and public relations, but in America she had to start at the beginning. Her English proficiency was not perfect, so many employers rejected her application. What job could she do in America? She took a course in physical therapy, but we lived in a small town and there were few openings. She was thinking about getting an advanced degree, but the costs were too high. She already had a master’s degree in psychology, but it was not recognized in the U.S.
Eventually, she found a job monitoring the disabled. And she started a home business.
So to other people facing culture shock, her advice is to be calm. You will prevail. She prayed to the Buddha and meditated, listened to relaxing music, went to the gym, started playing tennis and made new friends. She searched for Thai people in the community, nurtured her garden, and soon felt at home in America. She arranged the house and spoke to her family in Thailand every week using Skype. I was a good listener and explained many things to her. I liked her Thai dishes.
So keep a positive attitude, don’t be afraid of culture shock. You will live through it and emerge a stronger and happier person.