Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

An American expat who moved from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai talks about how she underestimated the how much culture shock she would experience in Chiang Mai. She loves the welcoming Thai people, low cost of living, affordable medical care, respect for elders, Thai food and more. However, she explains that Thai culture is very complex and it's easy to make social mistakes.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Chiang Mai

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

Yes. After the move when I started to try to learn Thai.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

I speak a little Thai. I learned it after the move. I would love to learn the language and have taken many different courses but I have not found Thai to be easy to acquire.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

No.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Significant. I moved here from Hong Kong where I lived for two years. Before living in Hong Kong, I had been a lifelong resident of the US. I experienced very little culture shock in HK. As a result, I underestimated how much culture shock I would experience in Chiang Mai.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I skipped the honeymoon phase and experienced the others. I have lived here five years, and I'm still in the cultural adjustment phase. Thai people are kind, friendly, and gentle. But the culture is complex. It is very easy to make social mistakes, especially if you don't know the language. Fortunately, Thais are very tolerant.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Increased eating, drinking, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. I was "homesick" for Hong Kong. Still am.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

Thai people are generally gracious and welcoming. They are extraordinarily tolerant. The food is marvelous. The cost of living is very low; medical care is inexpensive and excellent. There is very little crime. Older people are visible and respected. Humility, kindness, and generosity are valued.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The language. Without being able to speak Thai, one's social life depends upon other expats. Chiang Mai is very transient when it comes to expats. Many Westerners move here thinking it will be permanent but then cannot adapt culturally and move away. Single Western women looking for a dating life struggle to find partners.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Undoubtedly, I have and unintentionally continue to do so. It is very easy to make blunders because there are many cultural rules in Thai society. Thai culture is complex and hierarchical. It takes Westerners a while to gain appreciation of what that means.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Learn to speak Thai. Don't expect Thailand to be anything like where you grew up or have lived before. Thai culture is fairly insular because it was never colonized. Based upon my experience, unlike Westerners, Thais do not value efficiency or individualism. They do value social harmony, relationships, and collectivism.

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