05 June, 2015

Same Same but Different

Rebecca Ryan is from Albuquerque, New Mexico and graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelors degree in Neuroscience. She is currently a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Thakornyang Pittayakom in Mahasarakam province. Next year Rebecca will pursue a master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. She will take her experiences as a teacher in the United States and Thailand to focus on education equality in her country. 

I initially treated coming to Thailand like it was a ‘Spot the Difference’ puzzle in the Saturday morning comics, comparing the mental image of the United States in my mind with the physical image of Thailand in front of me. I was looking for the places where the pictures did not match perfectly. 

Some areas where the frames did not fit were not hard to locate: the tonal language, driving on the left side of the road, eating with a spoon. Other differences required more time and awareness to notice: Buddhist traditions like merit ceremonies, the hierarchal culture, saving face.

With a ‘Spot the Difference’ puzzle though, you can overlook the larger picture when you only focus on the discrepancies between the two images. Was it a scenic view over the ocean, a restaurant, a market place…? The very nature of the image fades when you are focusing so hard on counting the number of trees or vegetables in each frame. Similarly, I found that I was focusing so hard on locating the mismatches in Thai and American culture I overlooked the actual image in front of me. 

Picture of M4/1 after English class.

The area that I came in search of the most differences was the classroom. After teaching for three years at a middle school in the United States I wanted to see how the structure of classes, curriculum, and behaviour of teachers or students would compare. While I found the differences to be many, the first and most apparent being the lack of desks in my Thai classroom which I could never have fathomed back in the United States, I found the similarities to be more telling.

Both groups of students wanted to feel safe in the classroom, socially and academically. This meant a setting where they felt comfortable being themselves as well as confident in their academic abilities. This commonality between students so geographically distant from one another told me more about what is important in education than all of the differences that I saw.
Hanging out with student teachers at Thakornyang Pittayakom.

Outside of the classroom the ‘Spot the Difference’ game turned up a variety of things, but once again the similarities I found resonated with me more. Due to my lack of Thai language abilities (I still get the tone wrong trying to say pork…) I often felt like it was hard to connect with people in conversations. It was easy to disengage when all you can catch is a few words and piecing together a response longer than yes and a smile is beyond reach. I soon realized though that while I may not be able to say pork correctly laughter is something understood regardless of the tone. One of the best examples of this is a mutual love for Mr. Bean, the rarely speaking British comedian, which I have found Thai people to enjoy just as much as people from English speaking countries. Despite how cheesy it sounds, in both cultures laughter does bring people together.

Another place I anticipated vast differences but in reality the images were very similar was during meal time. In my family while I was growing up every dinner was eaten together. No matter the day of the week or how busy we were we gathered around the table to hear about each others days. This family tradition carried on with me as I got older and eating a meal with those that I love and care for is something I cherish. In Thailand, while the food in front of me differs greatly than what I would be eating at home, bread traded in for sticky rice and butter substituted for fish sauce, the importance of coming together and sharing a meal is the same.

Sharing a traditional Isan dinner at English Camp.

There is an often used Thai phrase: ‘same, same but different’. Originally, I thought this statement was used to highlight the
different. From my experiences thus far in Thailand though, I learned there is a reason that the same, same comes first, the emphasis is not on the differences rather on the sameness - the things that we can use to relate to one another despite the language and cultural differences. Of course, the differences are interesting – a bus in New York City is a far cry from a Song Tao in Chiang Mai. But what strikes me first shouldn’t be the only thing I focus on. I can also learn about my own culture and the culture of Thailand by looking past the differences and instead, looking for the things that are the same, same.

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