As any foreigner or expat knows, making friends while traveling or living overseas is an important part to maintaining one’s mental health and understanding an unfamiliar culture. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to make many friends along my travels without any major obstacles or issues. That’s why I find it odd that this last week I actually lost the first friend I made in Thailand.
It is with regret I write this post, but I take from it a lesson—something I try to do from all the failures, scratch that, hiccups, I encounter in life. Since I spent the previous couple months in the Americas, it will be my point of comparison for Thai people and their culture. In Latin America, I have found that fewer people speak English than here in Thailand. So, one would think that Americans would have an easier time making friends in Thailand, since communication is theoretically easier and there is a larger friend pool to draw upon. Well, the devil is in the details as they say.
A greater percentage of people in Thailand speak English to some extent, but of those who speak some English very few speak English fluently. There are also certain culture differences between East and West. In the US and Latin America people tend to object quite quickly when someone says something offensive to them. I think Americans (North, Central, and South) all feel a certain freedom in how they express themselves whereas Eastern cultures tend to be a bit more conservative and withholding, especially during the early stages of friendship.
Well, enough psychoanalyzing, I’ll just tell you what happened. A month or so ago I made contact with a very nice local Thai gentleman, and we began meeting up a couple times a week for dinner, shopping, going to temples and cemeteries, etc… Last weekend, he even joined me for a 17-hour trip into western Thailand to visit a waterfall and a WWII cemetery I’ve been dying to see. (hehehehe, I amuse myself way too easily)
The trip was very long, but we had a marvelous time—or so I thought. A day after the trip I sent him a text and never received a response. The next day, I sent him another, and again no response. Now I was a bit confused because I can see on my phone that he is reading the texts, so I know he is okay and there aren’t any technical issues at play here. I pushed a bit the next day, asking if I had done something to upset him. And then he let me have it…
Yeah, you read that right. I did indeed call him a dork on a few occasions over the previous week. I don’t even remember the exact occurrences, but dork is something I commonly call my friends. Typically, it is in response to some corny joke they tell or when they are overreacting to some stupid-looking touristy mishap I all too frequently find myself making… but it is always with love and in good-nature. He also informed me that I was very harsh at times, and he just wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. Our friendship is over.
I’m not going to try to defend myself. It’s not nice to call people dork, and that’s the truth. But, I am fascinated by the whole event on a sociological level. Here I was, a foreigner on the other side of the world, and I was behaving as though I was shootin’ the shit with my friends back in the states. Never stopping to think about what would be appropriate in his culture, but expecting him to totally understand mine. Never thinking that he might not understand the figurative way in which I exercise the English language. I lost my first Thai friend through a combination of my own ignorance and ego and, while I am sad about the loss… I am in some strange way happy to have had the experience and the accompanying lesson.
I’m curious if anyone else has ever found themselves in a similar situation… where your own obliviousness towards cultural differences blew up in your face? Shoot me an email or leave a comment on this post. I know I can’t be the only one!