April 16, 2010

Same Same, But Different.

I generally dislike the term "culture shock". This is mostly because I have always found the process of absorbing a new culture, language, and customs, and in turn, learning how to modify your behaviors and shape your sense of expectations accordingly to be much more subtle than the term implies. Traveling from Tanzania to Thailand and back again may have proved me wrong. During our recent trip to Thailand, it seemed no matter the setting, the conversation always came back to comparative observations between Tanzania and Thailand. Thailand served as an unexpected foil for our reflections and observations of our experience in Tanzania.

There was a T-shirt seen everywhere for sale on the streets of Bangkok reading, "Same same, but different," which in essence may well perfectly sum up a western's experience of the city. Movements and patterns around the city are recognizable, but somehow so striking. Bangkok has been at the helm of international influence since the 15th century, given its early trade arrangements and partnerships with Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, Chinese, and Japanese merchants, yet despite this Bangkok remains "resolutely Thai". This unique Thai sensibility made quite an impression.

A friend asked me upon my return, "Was Thailand as beautiful and amazing as everyone claims?" The short answer is "yes". The long answer requires a tacit recognition that had we taken this trip at any other time and place in our lives,  my impressions would likely have been different. Coming from Tanzania colored my view of Thailand, positively. Our trip was filled with taking advantage of modern marvels such as central air conditioning, beating the slog of standstill traffic and riding on Bangkok's sleek SkyTrain, and enjoying basic safety and security in the streets, carrying our cameras everywhere without fear of reprisal. Needless to say, such luxuries do not form the backdrop of our lives here in Tanzania. But even beyond these once familiar simple pleasures, I was truly impressed by two things in particular in Bangkok - fashion and design. My next few posts will be dedicated to these topics.

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