One of the coolest things about friendship is being able to admire the people that surround you. Mike and I became fast friends while I was living in Michigan. We bonded by our mutual love of movies and computer programming. He is now living the “dream” by being the owner of the software firm Gaucho Software developing apps for Macs and iPhones. Mike and his wife Katrina have become one of my closest friends as an adult, and our love for good restaurants and interesting conversation have made their visits to Kansas City as much of a vacation for me as it has been for them. When I heard that through the Mount Pleasant Rotary Club Mike was going to spend a month in Thailand I could not wait to hear about the experience and see the pictures. The more I heard and read about the trip, the more I wanted to interview him to share some of what he learned while being in such a different culture. Some of what he found out while in this trip might truly surprise you.
Logtar:Had Thailand been in your radar at all before the opportunity to do a cultural exchange there?
Mike: Not really. Of course I had heard of the country, but I didn’t know much about its people or their culture.
L: Had you ever thought about visiting places for the cultural experience rather than just a relaxing vacation? if so what was your top pick?
M: Whenever my wife and I go on vacations, we always try to learn about the culture of the place we are visiting. We’ve traveled to different countries in the Caribbean, for example, and instead of hanging out on the beach all day, we will usually try to do things the locals would do. Things like go to plays, or attend fairs or festivals in a park, etc. If I had to visit a country just to learn more about the culture, Ireland and Poland would probably be my top picks, as those are the countries where my family is from.
L: How many different cities did you get to visit while in Thailand?
M: We moved around quite a bit during the four weeks we spent there. We spent a lot of time in Bangkok, it being the capital city and the most populated area in Thailand, but we also traveled up north to Saraburi, Angthong, Lopburi, Nakhon Sawan, and Chainat. Halfway through the trip, we had a couple of days to relax and breathe in the beach town of Rayong. The great thing about the trip was that many of these cities are off the typical path tourists take. Thailand has a lot of touristy cities in the southern part of the country along the ocean, but we spent most of our time up north. In that respect, I feel like I got to see a more accurate picture of what it would be like to live in Thailand.
L: So what would you say the most surprising thing was about the infrastructure in the Thai cities?
M: I think what struck me the most was the electrical infrastructure–phone and power lines. In the middle of Bangkok, you will see power lines wrapping in every which way, and there were often times I wondered how they could maintain the system and keep it all working. From what I hear, the power will often go out in smaller cities during monsoon season, because it will just rain so hard that something will short out. After things dry up, the power comes back on and everything is back to normal. The land-line phone infrastructure isn’t as developed there as it is here in the US, and for that reason most Thai people have cell phones. Since cell phones are the dominant means of communication, the network coverage there is amazing. Even out in the middle of nowhere, it was pretty rare for me to be missing cell phone reception. The cost of a mobile phone plan was much cheaper as well. We had pay-as-you-go phones, and only spent 1 Baht/minute (about $0.03) for calls within Thailand.
L: So what was stronger, the desire for western food or the excitement to try new dishes?
M: Wow, that’s a tough one. At first, it was definitely the excitement to try new dishes. The food in Thailand is amazing. With their proximity to the ocean, seafood is almost always on the menu. Our hosts would almost always order or prepare our meals “pet nit noy”, or with just a little spice. Even then, I had some of the spiciest food I had ever eaten. Everything was fresh and delicious, and their fruit is to die for over there. I’ve never tasted anything like the fruit in Thailand. After a few weeks into the trip though, we really did start to yearn for western food. We were all a bit surprised to find that nachos was the dish we were all craving the most.
Unfortunately, cheese and dairy are almost impossible to find, and I don’t think I saw a single corn chip the entire time I was there.
L: So no craft singles available anywhere? What about McD’s?
M: I saw cheese just a couple of times while we were there, but for the most part it’s just not part of their diet. There were several McDonald’s, as pretty much anywhere in the world, but the menu was different. It is against their religion to eat beef, so most of the items on the menu at McDonald’s were chicken or fish. I actually never ate at the McDonald’s while over there, because I thought it would be crazy to waste a perfectly good ethnic meal on something like fast food. Pizza Hut was also popular, but again the menu was different, with most pizzas coming with some form of seafood as toppings.
Of course the pizza had cheese on it, but these are all western restaurants in an eastern culture. While eating traditional Thai food, I never saw cheese on the table.
L: Out of all of the foods that you tasted, which one are you still craving?
M: I really enjoyed eating a green curry dish while we were there. Since returning, we’ve made it from a recipe I found online, but it’s just not the same because you can’t find a lot of the spices here that are common ingredients in Thai dishes. I also really miss green mango and sticky rice as a dessert. While talking to someone there, apparently sticky rice only grows during certain times of the year, and we were fortunate to be there during one of those times. The best I can describe it (as it was prepared) is a form of sweet rice, but better, and it really compliments the flavor of the green mango.
L: It seems like being with host families gave you access that probably most people don’t get. In general, how content are Thai people with their lives?
M: It was wonderful being able to spend time getting to know the host families we stayed with. Thai living is much more casual than the fast-paced life here in the States. Mai pen rai (meaning nevermind,or don’t worry about it) is a principle of which most people there live their lives. It’s very rare that you will see a Thai person who is stressed about something, because it is seen as just not worth the trouble to be worried about things all the time.
The Thai people were split between two socio-economic classes–upper and lower–and there was only a very small middle class. The upper class people were typically business owners.
Thailand being a rapidly developing country, it’s very easy to start a business there and make good money off it. The upper class people would work long hours, but they would be able to improve their lives with the money they earned. I stayed with one family who had 4 full-time maids, 3 drivers, and several gardeners. The maids and the drivers were living in guest houses on their property, and the wealthy family lived a very high quality of life in that respect because they never had to worry about taking care of the “little things”. On the flip side, you have the lower class people, who make very little, but have a high quality of life in other ways. Health care is taken care of over there, so that’s never a worry. The lower class will usually work much shorter hours, but will enjoy themselves more when they aren’t working. Almost every night of the week, there was some form of market or carnival in even the smallest of towns we visited.
L: So the picture of third world countries where every single person is starving and looking for a handout is a little skewed?
M: I would say that stereotype is definitely skewed. In the little bit of time we spent in touristy areas, we did see more people asking for hand-outs, but we never saw that in the “local” non-tourist areas. There were very few homeless people in Thailand as well.
Everyone seemed to have a place to live…it might not be the nicest home, but they would have somewhere to call their own.
L: Do you find to be the national pride over there a lot different than the pride here in America?
M: The Thai people certainly have a different type of pride for their country than Americans do. It’s not that the quantity of their pride is different; it’s just that they are proud of different things.
Americans seem to be proud of our accomplishments, technology, and “might”. The Thai people are proud of what they provide to the rest of the world. Thailand as a country imports very few goods. Almost every material that is used in Thailand comes from within the country.
Instead, Thailand exports a very large quantity of goods to countries around the world, and they are very proud of that. The Thai people see themselves as building products that the rest of the world needs, and this is their way of doing good things for people all over the globe. Discovering this really put things in perspective for me as a person. Many people in America will donate to local charities more often than charities abroad. I’m not arguing the honor of donating to a local cause, but I’ve now started to look more to the outside to see where I can help that may not be close to home. Usually, you’ll find that your resources can be put to much greater use in a country other than our own.
L: From your last visit to Kansas City, I learned that you experienced reverse culture shock from coming back, what was the most lasting change in way of thinking or behavior did you experience after being in such a different culture for an extended period of time?
M: Since returning from Thailand, I’ve really tried not to worry so much about the small stuff in my life. Like I was mentioning earlier, the idea of mai pen rai. I would really like to integrate that theory into my lifestyle from here forward. I’m trying my best to focus more on the important things in life, like family and friends. All the other small things seem to always work themselves out, so why should I stress over them?
L: Do you think that every American needs to travel abroad? or are the concepts that you learned something that can be told to others?
M: I believe people can learn a lot about other cultures simply by reading about them, but I don’t feel like you can understand what the culture is all about until you go and experience it first-hand. It is difficult to put feelings and emotions into words, so you can’t really expect to understand a culture from words alone.
The Rotary Foundation’s Group Study Exchange is a great way to experience another culture, and I would certainly recommend that anyone interested should check with their local Rotary Club to find out more.
L: How close do you think you could get to being fluent if you were to live there? Do you think you could make a living as a software developer in Thailand as a foreigner?
M: One concern I had when starting this journey was the language barrier. To my relief, it wasn’t really a problem, as many of the people in Thailand speak at least a small amount of English (English is taught in schools from a very young age). As for myself learning Thai, I’m pretty confident I could do it in a reasonable amount of time. While we were over there, we met a high school student from Colorado, who had spent 7 months in Thailand as part of the Rotary’s Youth Exchange program. He was able to speak fluent Thai with minimal difficulty. I asked him about it, and he said he began studying the language a few months before leaving for Thailand, but it really wasn’t as difficult to learn as he expected it to be. After learning the language, I don’t think I would have any problem making a living as a software developer in Thailand. The cost of living there is much lower than here in the US, and I feel like it would be easier to find work in a country that is developing as rapidly as Thailand is today.
L: So my last questions is pretty simple. Did you keep in contact with any of the people you met there? Do you plan on going back to Thailand?
M: I’ve sent a few brief emails to people we met in Thailand, and I plan to keep in touch in the future. Of course, with the program being an actual exchange, a team of 5 people came from Thailand here to Michigan the month after we came home, so we had a chance to spend a lot of time with them both in Thailand and here in the US. I certainly hope I can make it back to Thailand someday.
Having met so many friends and realizing how much of the country I still haven’t seen yet, I can’t imagine not going back again at some point down the road.
To learn more about this trip you can visit Mike’s own blog as well as the blog of the Rotary International District 6310 GSE Team. You can also check out the pictures that they took in this amazing trip. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I found so many interesting things about Thailand chatting my friend.