Things aren’t always what they seem!
By residing in a foreign country, I’ve willingly subjected myself to living every single day not fully understanding or knowing what’s going on around me. No, I’m not saying I’ve become an airhead or unaware of myself or anything – rather, I am not in a place where I happen to know what people mean by the things they say or do all of the time anymore. For example – back in the States, if someone smiles at me, I can take it as a simple gesture of friendliness or goodwill. However, in some third world countries, if a smile is exchanged between a male and a female, it can be seen as a proposal of marriage. Glad I don’t live in one of those places, because, well, smiling’s my favorite!
When leaving your home country, your home culture, and the way you have always known things to be, it is super easy to criticize your new location. Maybe you think that the people don’t drive the right way, cook the right way, aren’t polite enough, are too polite, the people are inherent liars, they let their children run too freely, and goodness, don’t they know you’re supposed to bathe every day??? It’s easy to notice things that are different and judge from the get-go…
However, if you ever want to last in your new home… if you ever want to get to know any of your neighbors… if you ever want to enjoy your life again… you need to start asking the question “why” – sincerely! – before letting your initial judgments get too firm. I’ve had to learn this living in Thailand. I’m not saying I always remember it, but I do try, and it does make life just that much more bearable on the rough days. By trying to understand where somebody else is coming from, why they do or say what they do, and what lies behind it, we can learn so much from the people around us!
I used to think it was so silly that, here in Thailand, it’s pretty rare to find paper or cloth napkins of the size you would be used to seeing in a restaurant back in the States. Instead, there are tiny, 1-ply pink tissues that are, when unfolded, only about a 3 inch square. How wasteful to use so many little tissues when one large one would serve me much better, right? How NOT useful when trying to dab the sweat running down my face from eating chilies so hot I feel like my throat will be no longer of use to me, right? So frustrating. But, when I asked a Thai friend about this apparent lack of care for cleanliness in Thai culture, I learned that I was actually the one considered unclean and unpractical. What?! According to the Thais, it is much more sanitary to use one tissue to wipe your mouth, another to wipe off your utensils before use, another to clean up the pool of condensation under your cup, and another to dab the sweat from your brow. After all, who would want to use one large paper or cloth napkin to do all of those things. According to my Thai friends, that would be gross. Would I have ever assumed that explanation on my own? Doubt it. Thus, the reason I must live my new life in a constant state of learning, a constant state of asking “why?”
This not only goes for those of us who have chosen to live overseas, but it’s the same for those of you back in the States, too. The next time you see a mom who doesn’t seem to be in control of her screaming child at the grocery store, stop a second and think about the possibility that she could be trying to teach her child that he can’t always get what he wants. She may just be holding to her word and trying to mold her children into responsible future adults. The next time you see someone who isn’t the most attractive or able-bodied seeming to fumble their way through a department store, don’t laugh or poke fun. Appreciate the fact that this person is doing their best to take care of themselves, may have had a harder life than you could ever imagine, and offer them a smile or some help. I know we’ve all heard it before “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and it really is true.
The next time somebody looks different, acts or speaks differently, or does something in a way completely opposite to you, don’t always assume that your way of thinking or being is better – take the time to watch and listen first. You never know what you just may learn!