17 August, 2016

Let’s Take A Selfie

Christine Fortner is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Thaikasikorn Songraw in Si Racha, Chonburi, Thailand. She is from Charlottesville, VA and graduated from Elon University a year ago with a degree in Education. Christine loves to travel and explore and has been to 6 continents. In her free time, she enjoys making new friends, running, and exploring the beautiful beaches around Chonburi. After Fulbright, she plans to move to Washington DC and pursue a career that makes a lasting impact on the world of education.

“Sure! I’d love to take a selfie.” These words have come from my mouth hundreds of times over my past ten months in Thailand. Everywhere I go I am noticed. Smile and wave! I feel like a superstar. Selfie is a word every Thai person knows, and a word that has brought me smiles, laughs, and community. Throughout my last year in Thailand, I have found that the phrase “Let’s take a selfie” and social media can be a bridge in language and cultural barriers.

My host teachers and me at Bang Saen Beach
Getting ready for Teacher Day

On my first week of school, I walk home and pass an older man sitting on a bench. He calls out hello and motions for me to come sit down. Totally normal.

“Take selfie? Ok?”

I take a picture with the man and think nothing of it. I sit down and am surprised by the English he knows. He is asking me where I am from and what I am doing here. It is my first week, and I am in no position to pass up any kind of friend. I engage in conversation and sit with him. Saying yes to selfies in Thailand is very important. It is an invitation to be make a friend and opens a door for cultural exchange. Little did I know that this particular selfie would lead to an amazing community right next door.

For the next week, I walk by this old man every day to and from school. We take silly pictures together and I even teach him how to play a card game. He quickly becomes one of my best friends in a place that feels very lonely. He speaks some broken English, but we find ways to communicate. That week I am introduced to his family and asked to teach their children each night. Thailand has taught me many things, and one important thing is to say yes in random situations, even when it feels out of your comfort zones. I agree to teach at their house in the evenings, and it quickly becomes one of my favorite things in my new home. The first time I go out with my neighbors, we take a group photo. That night the picture was posted on Facebook and captioned “my family.” While it was a small thing, the affirmation of seeing myself standing in their family picture meant a lot. From that moment on, I have truly felt like family with them. I eat dinner with them, travel with them, and am invited to every family event. What started with one picture and Facebook post has turned into a lasting community and family. 

My mom being introduced to my Thai family

This year with large cultural and language differences, I have had to redefine the word community. I find community here in so many different ways. Whether it’s the lady I smile at when I buy my daily dose of pineapple, the lady who sells me chicken at night and tells me I’m beautiful right after I went on a run, the man on the bench who brought me into his family, or the teachers at my school, I have found a way to feel like I belong in a place where I am so different
. Social media allows me to talk to people with few words. I can have an entire conversation made of stickers and emojis. No words needed. No language barrier in the way. I can comment on a teacher’s Facebook post and tell them they look beautiful. I can give likes, hearts, and stickers to affirm relationships I have made. It is very small, but it creates connections and allows a little part of the wall to break down.

Teacher Drummy and me are always ready for a selfie.

Making silly faces, funny poses, and looking weird are ways to connect and look beyond physical and cultural differences. It fills the silence and replaces the frustration of not being able to communicate with fond memories. What started with little moments of taking selfies or posting on social media, has turned into higher comfort level and allowed for deeper conversations and understanding about our different cultures. You don’t realize the power of language until you have to be intentional about everything you say. When people see differences, they automatically put up walls. This year I have used the silliness of selfies to break down the walls put up by language. I have used this to start forming connections and make people feel more comfortable around the girl who looks different. Being silly in selfies and social media allows my Thai friends to open up and feel comfortable with me. It shows us that despite our differences, we are the same in so many ways. We all love to laugh. We all love to be goofy. And we all love a good selfie.

Selfie on my way to school

Selfie at Scout Camp
Even my students love a good selfie

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