I am 5’9’, platinum blonde, and white. To say I stand out in Northeast Thailand is an understatement. There are some perks of this. I always feel safe because I know people notice me and look out for me. People are intrigued by me and are very willing to help when I appear lost or unsure of how to order food, etc.
I cannot NOT stand out in Thailand but I have made efforts to understand the culture so that it is just my appearance that stands out and not my behavior.
To fit into Thai culture you must understand hierarchy, respect, and the importance of age. Thai people greet each other with a Wai, which is a type of bow that signifies respect for another person as well as acknowledge their age or societal rank in relation to you. CIEE orientation gives you a Wai 101 crash course and it will definitely impress your school staff and superiors when you greet them in the Thai way from day one. In Thailand elders are respected; that means giving up your seat on the bus, helping them get on the bus, greeting them appropriately, and respecting their authority.
Thai people are happy and relaxed! To fit into Thai culture you will need to relax, be ok with change, and be ok with celebrating a lot! Thai people love any chance for a party! There is always lots of free food and parades. Even when this interferes with your days lesson or plan, enjoy it! Some celebrations I have taken part in here have been school retirement parties, our school’s 52nd birthday party, many Buddhist holidays, and Songkran which is the Thai New Year. Thailand celebrations are one of the best parts of living here and a good way to connect with your community.
One way you can change your appearance to fit into Thai culture is to be aware of how you are dressed. When you vacation in Thailand you can get away with a Western style but when you are living here it is best to be more conservative. When I am in my city I try to avoid tank tops and shorts. If I do wear a less conservative outfit I try to stick to either my shoulders exposed OR my knees exposed. For example, I would not go running outside in a tank top AND shorts. Flip flops are seen as an equivalent to slippers and athletic wear isn’t common for outside the gym. Outside of a temple a Thai person would not mention your dress being appropriate or not but it does show respect to dress appropriately and you will draw less negative attention to yourself.
I didn’t realize the extent of culture differences between Thailand and America before moving here. A lot of what we view as just normal parts of our day are completely cultural. I make a point to not deem anything as “bad” or “wrong” just different. The best way to understand the culture or get questions answered is to ask! I have found Thai people love to explain and share their culture and beliefs. Showing you care about fitting into the culture and learning about Thailand will go a long way. We are not just here for vacation we are here to work and learn and it will be a much richer experience if you lean into it, embrace the differences, and adapt to the culture.
There's an adjustment period but if you’re patient, curious, and open you will become a Thai person in no time. You will know you have made it when you can order “Thai spicy”.