Life as an ‘Expat’

Chulalongkorn University – Bangkok, Thailand

Chulalongkorn University – Bangkok, Thailand

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.

How to Overcome International Co-op Culture Shock

Finding my way around the chaos of downtown Kampala.

Finding my way around the chaos of downtown Kampala.

Focus on the bright spots. In any place you go, you might initially find that you hate a lot about the place you’re in. The food is weird! There are crazy drivers! Step back and reframe. Although there might be some not-so-great things, there must be something good, however big or small, about your new environment. E.g., I really don’t like the mushy eggplant and flavorless maize mash that I often have to eat, but I can’t wait to have cabbage again! No one speaks English or understands what I’m saying, but what an opportunity for complete language immersion!

Connect with the community. It’s easy to go to a country and stay in a comfort bubble, but it’s not the best way to engage yourself in the local culture. Connecting with the community can be as simple as learning how to cook a local dish, attending a neighborhood church, or bargaining for fruit at the market. Learn how things are done locally, and try to assimilate. Remember that you are a guest in the country, so although you may look and think differently, you should be making the effort to learn the culture and adapt to your surroundings rather than having others adapt to your foreignness.

Continue hobbies from home. Something that can help with homesickness is to find an activity that you can take with you anywhere. While everything around you is changing, you are the same person wherever you go. Think portable. Cameras, sketchbooks, e-readers, journals. Personally, I like to read and run, and I can do both pretty much anywhere with just my kindle and running shoes. I even had the opportunity to participate in a triathlon while I was here, which was an incredible experience!

Embrace the unfamiliar. Of course things are different, but it just means there’s more to learn. Take the opportunity to learn a new language, make new friends, and discover cultural attitudes. You’re surrounded by a whole new world for a few months, so take your time to discover and appreciate as much as you can. Get excited about the fact that you might get lost in a crazy new city. Don’t be afraid to try strange foreign food that doesn’t sound very appealing. Stimulate your sense of adventure.

Create experiences with new friends. Travel around your new country! Go to a concert! Climb a mountain! Most things are more fun in a group – it can relieve stress, create bonding moments, and allow you to reflect upon your journey along the way. So be open to doing some crazy things when you’re with friends that you normally wouldn’t do by yourself. If you happen to be in Uganda, go white-water rafting on the Nile, climb Sipi Falls, and run the MTN marathon!

Maintain communication lines. When you’re going international, as much as you embrace your new life, you shouldn’t forget your old one. Co-ops are only six months long, and you don’t want to return realizing that you lost contact with all your friends from school and have to redo your freshman year socializing. Most places you go should have some Internet connection, whether it is luxurious WiFi or portable modem, so there isn’t much of an excuse to not contact friends and family. There are a number of smartphone apps that allow you to text or call internationally without crazy fees, including WeChat, WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Google Hangouts, just to name a few.

Record your experiences. Keep a blog, take a photo a day, or start a collection. An international co-op should be something you remember for the rest of your life, so make sure you have something to remember and show from your time abroad. For the past few weeks, I’ve been sending my father a photo a day of whatever I happen to experience over the day. By the end of the six months, I’m sure it will make an interesting slideshow: a mishmash of scenery, food, city, work, and people, that I can keep to reminisce about my amazing experience.

Mika White is a second year biochemistry major at Northeastern expecting to graduate in 2018. This semester she’s on her first co-op in Uganda interning at a rural hospital in the town of Entebbe. Mika loves to travel, read, and run. Feel free to reach out to her at and check out her personal blog for more a more detailed account of her experiences. 

The Case For International Co-op


Why leave Boston? I mean, it has practically every amenity, every resource, and every luxury you could possibly need. The standard of living, both nationally and internationally, is quite high. Around every street corner, there is something that will satisfy your hunger, whether it is for food, drink, or entertainment. Not only that, but the density of academic institutions and research centers is unrivaled in the United States. In what other U.S. city can you walk along five college campuses in 20 minutes? And, well, last but not least, Bostonians enjoy the changing seasons of the fall, winter, spring, and summer (although, the winter’s can be quite unforgiving – cheers to missing over 100 inches of snowfall). We are adaptive to these changing seasons, squeezing every bit out of each day, each week, and each year that we spend in our city. We’re a proud bunch of people, we’ll live and die by Fenway, we’ll wake up in the early hours of the morning to run or row along the Charles, and when push comes to shove, we will proudly represent Boston, MA and proclaim the city as America’s best.

There’s no other time in your life like your twenties, especially as a Northeastern student living off of the fruits of your labor during the sweet six (or so) months of your co-op. We’re not quite full-time employees, yet, we’re not exactly the intern – and we can still reap the benefits that the title, “student” bestows upon us. After having taken advantage of Boston’s resources, utilizing every which alley of knowledge we’ve been left to explore, using every tool we’ve been trained to employ, and immersing ourselves amongst some of the best professionals in the business – why not go ahead and take these things (along with your passport) and make use of them?

It’s a tough decision, leaving your friends, your family, and everything familiar behind. It isn’t a semester studying abroad, you’re not housed with other students from your university, and you’re not in a place where you are actively put in a position to learn. Co-op abroad grants you the freedom to explore, discover, and manifest your visions of a life after university, working in the field of your choosing. It’s a pretty cool life-style.

I’m just hitting over the two-month mark (of seven) of my time here in Thailand. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the country and even to places such as Singapore and Indonesia. South East Asia offers budget travel options, and going from Ho Chi Minh to Jakarta to Manila to Yangon isn’t so much of a far-fetched itinerary if planned correctly. Needless to say, I’ve made lifelong friendships, enjoyed some great company, and have devoured some great authentic cuisine.

The clinical portion of my co-op is now over, from the wound dressings, learning the basic techniques behind suturing patients, to the fieldwork and home visits, I have truly come to appreciate all that I’ve been able to witness and experience first-hand. In the coming weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to work alongside academics and scholars from all around the world in order to understand our most pressing health needs.

If you want the opportunity to create the life you dreamed of living, pursue an international co-op. Okay, perhaps that last sentence was a bit over zealous, but go ahead and start searching. Don’t be afraid. At times, travel can be difficult, especially when you are without the basic comforts of your home. New York Pizza isn’t right around the corner, nor is Newbury Street just a stone’s throw away. However, the excitement, the novelty, and access to new ideas, information, culture, and ways of thinking will take you much farther in the scope of it all. Go on.

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.