Expatriate. Expat. American. Foreigner…or, more specifically in Bangkok and the rest of Thailand – farang.
Keep in mind, none of these are offensive terms, (at least in the way they are used here) just ways of categorizing a non-Thai national. I’m proud of my upbringing, my country, my town, and my city, much like any other American. However, when I stepped onto campus at Chula, (as local students and professors call it, short for Chulalongkorn University) I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider.
Sometimes, it was quite nice. During the first few weeks of my co-op with the Faculty of Public Health, and even now still, everyday was and is an exciting breath of fresh air. Each day in the lab or in the seminars, there were new faces to greet, hands to shake, and names to remember. Everyone drew themselves towards you, peppered you with questions, welcomed your every move, and guided you along new and unchartered waters.
At the university, I’ve met some outstanding scholars and academics from countries all over the world: Switzerland, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Indonesia to name a few. I’m the young gun, a sheep amongst lions. Many of these men and women are tried and true professionals in their fields, some even working in public health for longer than I’ve been on this planet.
It’s intimidating; especially when a major capstone of public health research is to generate new knowledge. New knowledge. This was something I struggled most with. In an age where information and data is translated and transmitted in the matter of seconds, my first and most immediate contention to this concept of generating new knowledge was, what more do I need to know? What contributions could I make? Today, we have access to a world of resources, a matrix of professionals, and with a little bit of ingenuity, 4G LTE cellphone service, and Googling skills, it’s quite easy to find the answers to everyday questions.
My supervisor, a dean at the school, put the facilities, budget, and libraries at my disposal. No 9 to 5, no need to clock-in or clock-out, and no deadlines other than presentations and meetings. It was a blessing. I was elated at the flexibility she was allowing for. However, I mistakenly became complacent with these offerings. I wandered in and out of the offices during the first few weeks, with no direction, and more dangerously, no purpose.
Complacency was a real working theme that had invaded my life. I remained a stranger to my colleagues, quietly and bashfully offering small talk to them before and after each seminar, failing to establish any legitimate linkages. I was okay with this. Part of me expected them to carry their first-day enthusiasm in our interactions, rather selfishly. After all, didn’t they know that I was empty handed? Didn’t they know I was in search of a research project? I expected them to share their insights and their expertise, unprompted. Another part of me was simply afraid. Was there any real way I could articulately voice my interests that wouldn’t make me seem naïve, young, or foolish?
This approach to my co-op experience however, was just those things, naïve, young, and foolish. I was estranging myself from a party of renowned experts and dedicated, lifelong learners. I was an outsider. I quickly became dissatisfied with my responses to these opportunities and realized that I was very much taking them for granted. I was cheating myself of a profound chance to be a part of a faculty of doctors, leaders, and politicians. Isn’t that what I came here for?
I’m an expatriate, expat, American, foreigner, farang…whatever you want to call it. Ways of life here in Bangkok are different. They’re new. They’re intimidating. At the faculty, the research, the rigor, the population, it’s different. It’s new. It’s intimidating. For too long, I found it acceptable to keep those things that way. So, what’s next?
John is a 4th year health sciences student at The Bouvé College of Health Sciences. With a nose for exploration and travel, John will be writing from Southeast Asia about his experiences on co-op in Surin and Bangkok, Thailand. There, he’ll be volunteering in community clinics, in addition to conducting public health research at Chulalongkorn University. Follow his adventures on Instagram: johnsirisuth.