No Longer a Tourist

BANGKOK, Thailand — Oh, dear.

I’ve committed the cardinal sin of office etiquette. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

When out to lunch with a few coworkers, one of the girls from my office flounced her hair and asked, smilingly, “notice anything different?” I don’t know if I was too distracted fighting for my spot in line or digging for a ฿20 note, but I made the unforgivable mistake of shaking my head “no”—I had not noticed her haircut.

Though five minutes later we were laughing at someone’s wild clubbing tale (it involved a broken elbow), the mistake had not been forgotten. As of that moment, I was no longer the farang in an all-Thai office, welcomed and helped by an incredibly friendly group of people who tried their hardest to pretend that it was not uncomfortable to have to switch to English for exactly one person in a 150-person company. By committing a minor, completely normal social faux pas and seeing the reaction I would expect from one of my American friends, I—and she—realized that I had ceased to be “different.”

There is an inherent awkwardness in being the only intern at any company, but when you add to that a very major language barrier and being (half) a world away from almost everyone you know, it seemed that even if I loved my work, normal camaraderie might never be possible. Though by no means do I blend in, I'm now a unique part of others' lives rather than a tourist superimposed onto their week.

That moment helped me to realize how easy it is to feel at home. Just as I would in any other city, I eat, sleep, work, go to synagogue. A modern transportation system whizzes me and some friends to one of the giant, air-conditioned behemoths that is a Bangkok mall. The pull of a lazy Sunday often tries to tempt me away from touring this new, beautiful, fascinating place, as it would in any place that I call home.

Curiously enough, the most different part of my life here is the only thing I do with other people “like me”—visitors and expats, temporarily or permanently in the Land of Smiles. At Thai-language school it is painfully clear that we are all foreigners, struggling through the simplest phrases that any Thai three-year-old has mastered. It’s an interesting group — businessmen, retirees, teachers, drifters—with one thing in common: we’ve made a home here. Regardless of differences in look, in culture, or in language, people are more similar than they are different.

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