As I took a deep breath, I inhaled a thick, heavy stench of stale produce while dragging my sandals through stagnate sewer water in the side alleyway. Sweat dripped off every inch of my body, as if I had intentionally been sitting in a sauna, unable to hold my eyelids open any longer. 7/11, where are you? My blurry gaze led me through the Suphan Buri day market.
“You, try this!” A 70-year-old, wide-eyed, grinning Thai woman aggressively shoved a charcoal-fried scorpion on a stick in front of my nostrils.
Using all of the energy I had, I cracked a gracious smile with a simultaneous head shake. I continued the maze through severed pigs’ heads roasting on a spit, to the most delicious scent coming from rice noodles in a wok the size of an industrial-sized kitchen sink. Then, the most beautiful, intricate designs of woven silk robes caught my eye. My natural instinct urged me to stop, try some on, play dress up, but my body would not rest until it found the 7/11.
I quickly realized, I’ve lost my acquaintances. I’m on my own. Survival of the fittest at this point led me astray. Unexpectedly, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. About 30 yards ahead sat the convenient store I had longed for all morning. As soon as I entered the doorway, I closed my eyes and sat down on the cool, air-conditioned tile floor until I felt alive once more.
After the fatigue subsided, I reached into my pocket out of habit to check the messages on my phone. I gazed down, still in a brain fog, and saw the photo of my four best friends on my home screen. No messages. It was only 2 P.M., meaning it was 2 A.M. at home. Home. The euphoria drew a knot in my stomach I swallowed, along with my longing for what I knew. My normal.
The first of many flashbacks began as I continued to sit on the now chilly tile floor of the sacred 7/11. I thought about how naïve I must have been to think I had any idea what this experience would feel like. It was shock, longing for the familiar, wanting everything to be easy, not having to think whether or not I had enough toilet paper in my pocket to last me the rest of the day. Just as I began to doze off dreaming of the familiar, I heard: “Jackie, wake up weirdo. You’re sleeping on the floor of a gas station.”
It was Susie, my American partner in crime. She had quickly and happily snapped me back into reality.
Fast-forward eight months. I found myself in the same Suphan Buri market. This time it was rainy season, and instead of being drenched in sweat, my feet were soaked in water pouring down from the sky. This time I was not searching for the nearest air-conditioned store or miserably trekking on my own through the market. Umbrella in hand, I found myself bargaining for the popular tamarind fruit that was in high demand.
“Lot noi dai mai kah,” I said – persistently – to the vendor behind his fruit truck. It took a few more tries until he finally lowered the price by fifteen baht. As I walked away from the vendor and in the direction of a pineapple stand that had caught my eye, my good friend Aey (who happened to be a Thai native) flashed me a wink. He taught me well.
There is something about embracing change that brings out a different person in all of us. Although it wasn’t an easy concept or experience for me to wrap my head around, culture shock is a good thing. It’s not something that should be dreaded; it’s how we prevail in tough, life-altering experiences. Immediately after my first few weeks enduring the “shock” of immersing myself into a new life, I realized how incredible the human body and mind truly is. The fact I felt comfortable enough calling Thailand my “home” after about four months in, is remarkable.
I believe that culture shock is anything but a bad thing. Overcoming this shock to the system is what truly turns a tourist into a traveler. Learning how to make the best of an overwhelming experience helps you understand and appreciate your own culture: Where you came from. What you know.
It will also help you understand your own biases, but at the same time enhance the confidence of your own cultural maturity while living and being a native of the melting pot of our world. I believe once you are able to understand and accept change to be a positive thing, you have officially overcome the biggest obstacle of culture shock. The beauty of experiencing culture shock will teach you the valuable lesson that this world is a small place, and despite our differences, we are all similar and interconnected. Just remember, wherever you may be, if you stop and take a look around, life is pretty amazing.
One year and six new countries later, I returned home. As my plane descended into the Pittsburgh airport, I glanced through the window to see the famous Heinz Field where my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers play every home game. Excited, I turned and peered into my lap while the plane took what felt like the longest landing of my life. As I stepped off the plane, what I knew to be my normal was no longer.
As I was got off the plane, I thanked my flight attendant with a kind bow, hands in praying position, “Kab-Kuhn-Kah.” The “you’re welcome” from the flight attendant really threw me off as I had to remind myself I was back home. My real home. My first stop off of the airplane, of course, was for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Although my usual order rarely twisted my tongue, I began to have trouble thinking about what to say.
“Welcome to Starbucks, can I take your order?” My initial reaction was to laugh because I could actually understand what a stranger was saying to me. I tongue tied my order, and then was able to get it out to perfection.
“Okay, that will be $3.50, please.” As I rummaged my pocket for some spare change, I placed 3.50 Thai baht on the counter.
“Excuse me ma’am, but it is three dollars and 50 cents.”
I glanced down in total oblivion to what I just used to pay for my order. My cheeks flushed red with embarrassment, and without even taking my coffee, I excused myself from the counter.
“Oh no, here we go again.” I chuckled to myself, and rushed to reunite with my family.