We all stereotype other cultures, whether we like it or not. The only way to really know how much of a stereotype is based in truth is to get to know real members of the culture. Every day as an exchange student is a brick in your host cultures perception of your home country. You’re on stage, representing, around the clock. You make mistakes, of course. Nobody’s perfect. But all in all, your friends and teachers build their understanding of your culture based on their interactions with you. This is particularly true if you live somewhere with minimal tourism and therefore little previous contact with your culture.
- Optimism: Thai people smile often. They look at everything in the best light. I break down the idea that foreigners are serious and upset a lot by looking on the bright side as much a possible.
- Open mindedness: Try everything. The food, the religion, the music. This is the best way of showing that you don’t have a cultural superiority complex. When my host mother offered me a pancreas on a stick, I tried it (it was nasty, in case you’re wondering). When my sister puts on a new K-pop song, I don’t immediately put in my earbuds. Because I personally am agnostic, when my school prays at the morning assembly, I pray with them. I wear Thai dress when the situation requires it. I listen when people speak in Thai, and try to understand. Exchange is about showing people that you want to learn about their culture.
- Helpfulness: As an exchange student, you always have something that your community, for the most part, doesn’t. In Thailand, it’s fluent English. That makes it the student’s job to share this knowledge as much as possible. Going to English camps gives Thai students an opportunity to work on pronunciation, and me the opportunity to get teaching experience and see the country. Helping out in class facilitates friendship; most Thai students speak more English than they let on…you just have to convince them that you won’t judge their accent or any grammar mistakes they make.
- Saying YES: This last one essentially ties the previous three together. As an exchange student, you have to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Assistant coaching the debate team. Editing and writing speeches for English competitions. Visiting temples and festivals. Going to the pool for your host sister’s swim practice so you can walk around and practice English with her friend. Getting cocoa with your host mom’s friends. Helping farmers with the rice harvest. Writing tests for the English department. Week exchanges. Massage and Meditation camps. Learning Thai cooking from some random ladies at some temple gathering dinner thing you don’t know the name of. Saying yes is the key to learning about your host culture, making friends, and giving something back to your community.