Visiting Thailand can be a culture shock for some people but getting to know some Thai people shouldn’t be scary or uncomfortable. Start with the staff at your Bangkok hotels and you will see that they are very friendly and even though there is a communications barrier, you can still find out what each person is talking about.
Some visitors are always complaining-mostly to other visitors who feel the same way, but sometimes to Thais. Stated or implied in their criticisms of Thai values, competencies and behavior is an assumption that things are better where they come from. Not-too-deep-down inside they enjoy feeling superior to the world around them. They make sense; the Thai world ‘doesn’t make sense’. For these visitors, Thai culture is there to fight against and to succeed in spite of.
All foreigners, to a varying extent, retreat into a ‘culture bubble’ made up of people facing the same problems in an alien culture. They become part of the ‘community of travelers’ or of the ‘expat community’. The culture to which they adjust is the lowest common denominator of many different parts: a culture of transplants. There are expat clubs, shops and mini-supermarkets catering essentially for non-Thais. Expats, whether from America, Japan, Africa or neighboring Asia, meet on cocktail circuits and invite each other to their houses.
A community of strangers in paradise, where the like-situated rub shoulders and where most of the Thais in the room are there to serve drinks, clear away the food and sweep the floor. Belonging to a club because it shows movies and serves the kind of food you like and sending your children to an English-medium school, etc. is only normal, logical behavior.
Thais in America or Europe behave in much the same way. This very human grouping together to pursue a common goal need not exclude all the benefits of the Thai world. Comparatively, few foreigners in Thailand are completely encapsulated. Many find they grow out of (or bored with) the expat situation as soon as they have found their feet in the new environment. Others use such facilities sparingly, whenever they feel the need.
The non-Thai visitor has a good chance of integrating with Thais, if this is what he wants. In doing so, he will retain his original cultural identity and the Thais will maintain theirs. Integration is not assimilation; the visitor has practically no chance of really ‘becoming Thai’, however much he loves Thailand and however long he lives here. For integration to take place, the visitor consciously or unconsciously removes the social barriers that cut him off from Thais.
This is usually a slow process. The foreigner finds himself decreasingly relying on the foreign community in Bangkok for friendship and entertainment, and feels increasingly at ease with Thais. Integration takes place to a varying degree with most visitors who stay some time. It gives the best of both worlds. When the barriers are down, one’s own culture can be enjoyed every bit as much as the new host culture. The individual has everything to gain and little to lose but intolerance (and, of course, culture shock).