Cultural Competency

Okay.  I feel the need to write about this.  I may ramble a little, but hopefully, some of these ideas spark some conversations or thoughts. I think it may be in response a little to my post about Rules. Since we’ve been here, many of our experiences have been attempting to understand the rules.  However, there is a difference between a respect for cultural rules and a disregard for rules! Maritza has a highly tuned in sense of cultural appropriateness. I’m not sure if she got some of this from me, or if it is part of who she is.  She doesn’t like to be inappropriate. She is a great observer of people. 


My own sense of cultural sensitivity probably comes from growing up inside of many different cultures. I remember as a young girl learning to wear skirts in our village instead of shorts.  I had grown up to the point of needing to cover my thighs (appropriate clothing for women in our village). I also remember figuring out what to wear in Micronesia. Dressing appropriately was a safety issue. It was appropriate there as well to cover my thighs.  Cultural dressing customs are important around the world, aren’t they? In America, women cover their upper bodies, but can leave their arms exposed in hot weather. Men can take shirts off, but not inside a store or at the dinner table. There are signs posted to wear shoes inside of stores.  Here in Thailand, it is common to take shoes off before entering a store. There are rows of shoes outside stores.

In Thailand, most women cover their upper arms and thighs. I’ve seen so many instances of travelers (foreigners) wearing tank tops and short (very short) skirts and shorts. I’m not sure I completely understand the point of this. Is it an unawareness? Is it a blatant disregard? Is it done in defiance (it is hot)? Or is it done from a lack of awareness (didn’t read the guidebook or look around)?

What do we expect from visitors to the United States? I’ve heard that we expect them to not wear their cultural head coverings. I’ve heard that we expect women to wear tops (not only bottoms). I’ve heard that we have rules about wearing shoes and shirts in stores. We expect that people don’t splash water on the floor in a public bathroom. We expect people to talk at an appropriate level. There has been quite a bit of talk recently about ‘foreigners’ coming to America.  It hasn’t all been nice. So, I’ve been thinking about the other side. What about ‘foreigners’ traveling in other countries?


How do we present ourselves in a country that is much more culturally singular, not as diverse?  What do we do?

As we were waiting for the bus, foreign women would walk by in tank tops and short shorts.  One tall lady with very long bare legs stood inches from a man’s face. He looked away embarrassed. Did she not notice? As I looked around, I saw that all women other than foreigners were wearing pants, long skirts, and shirts with long or short sleeves. There were so very many foreign women wearing short shorts and tank tops.  Did they not notice? Thai men and women sat a little apart from each other, quietly talking, as they waited for their bus.  Several foreign men and women had their arms around each other, kissing, or touching each others’ bottoms.  Did they not notice people looking away, embarrassed?

Why does it seem that foreigners expect to have the comforts of home? Why does it seem that they should feel cheated when having to pay .50 cents more for a ride on a songhiew (public transportation with negotiated prices for rides.) We are the visitors. Shouldn’t we be grateful and respectful guests?

I’ve been asked about whether or not I am cheated as I travel. The answer must be, of course.  Although, I’d say that as a guest, I should pay more. Think of it this way, my hourly wage (around $20) can pay for a night’s lodging, an hour long massage, taxi rides to and from a street market, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and drinks for an entire day here.  How much are people actually making off of my one hour wage?  Of course, I should expect to pay a little more as a visitor.  I really shouldn’t have a hissy fit when I’m asked to pay .50 cents more to ride into town than my local neighbor. It is appropriate.


I also think that we should pay attention to the tone and volume of our voices when traveling. If everyone is fairly quiet and uses a gracious and self-effacing tone of voice, then it is our obligation, as guests, to take the same tone. I have not seen one instance in our travels so far where a local person has raised their voice and gotten angry.  I have seen the frustrated mocking voices and facial expressions on local salespeople at foreign ignorance. Two men from Denmark were asked to please lower their voices on the bus yesterday.  The bus was very quiet, and they were quite loud.  Did they not notice?

It is common for salespeople in street markets to say “Sawassdee (hello)”, “Welcome”, and “Please take a look at my stuff.” How many people ignore these requests!  How hard is it to turn around, say “Sawassdee”, “Krap Khun Kha (thank you)” and “You have beautiful stuff!” How rude we look as we ignore these cordial invitations and walk away without looking the salesperson in the eye and saying “Sawassdee”.

In Little India, we did walk away.  I wrote about it in the Rules.  But, I think maybe I was wrong to give this advice to Maritza.  I’ve had a more pleasant experience, turning around, saying “Sawassdee, you have beautiful stuff!”. Maritza has noticed the difference as well.

I wrote about Maritza’s bouncy, joyful, busy self surrounded by the still and quiet people in the subway in Singapore. I’ve relaxed a little. Her joyful dancing and determination to become friends with everyone creates more authentic experiences .Last night, we were supposed to be having a relaxing, calm, quiet massage, but she giggled, danced, and bounced the entire way though.  The result was a friend who laughed at her, taught her to count in Thai, and gave her a hug as we left. If she had lain there quietly with her eyes closed, appropriately, she wouldn’t have made a friend.  She thought it was the best massage ever.

We might wonder, why wear hot clothing? Why talk softly? Why be nice when feeling frustrated? Why not touch each other in public when in love? Why pay attention?  (It is hard work…as indicated by my Rules blog). How is it possible to understand and follow every culturally appropriate rule?  It isn’t.   But, if Maritza and I pay attention and are open and friendly, I think we’ve at least shown that we respect our status as visitors and guests.


That, I know from experience, is important!

Pushing Limits and Finding the Silver Lining

SAM_3563 SAM_3561

From Langkawi, Maritza and I flew to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur. We had a great little nest in the airport in Kuala Lumpur.

From there, we hopped in a taxi to our hotel, King Royal, with a massage salon, hair salon, and a street food buffet outside. Maritza bravely tried the rooftop pool, but it was awfully cold. Our room was huge, and in true Thai fashion, beautiful.


Maritza got a cold the day after we arrived, but slept through the long taxi drives to a floating market and back to the train station.

SAM_3568Since we had to wait an extra day for the train, I searched for and found half price tickets to Siam Niramit, a small village replica downtown Bangkok with a spectacular show depicting the various cultures and historical and religious traditions of Thailand. We even managed to navigate the sky train and subway. Of course, she made a friend as we waited for the shuttle bus to the subway. We were glad to attend, but it was a bit tough for Maritza to be feeling miserable. So, we had hour long massages in the middle of the night after the show and went straight up to bed.

Before we headed to the train station, we enjoyed a hair cut.  In Thailand this means, several shampoos including head massages, several conditions with head massages, and a long brush and cut.  Quite puts a person to sleep.  We even napped before a final packing to get to the train. Check out our laundry.   I paid about $5, and it all came back folded so very pretty. Here is also a picture of our ‘stash’ for the long train ride.

We got on the train a little early and found our spots! This time we knew how to buy the 2nd class sleeping seats. (Two years ago, we bought 3rd class seats on an 18 hour train trip….meaning regular airplane style seats for 18 hours without air conditioning, seriously uncomfortable).  We were in a ‘women and children’s’ car, so no men allowed! We bought some orange juice and mixed fruit to enjoy while the other passengers got on board. t Maritza was thrilled.  She had her very own cubby on a rocking train.

I slept fairly quickly, but the attendant told me that Maritza slept very little.  She wandered around a bit, had some snacks that we’d brought along, and watched all of the movie Little Women. The bathrooms in the women and children’s car was spic and span.  It even smelled good. In the morning, we brushed our teeth and packed up our stuff.  We put away our night time socks and packed up our backpacks. They brought us the Western breakfast of toast, eggs and orange juice. I’m not sure how 1st class would have been different.  We felt quite pampered. Finally, we arrived at the Chiang Mai station.


There we found a red bus driver who took us right to our condo where Lin, the condo owner, met us with instructions.  We’re the first people to stay in this sweet tiny condo. It was all ours! She gave us lots of instructions, which I was worried might go right through my tired brain. We had several security codes to remember and keys not to lose or forget.

However, after a shower, we felt awake and ready to shop. I knew that for our two week stay, we’d need a few things like towels, a pan (for pancakes), and some groceries.  We weren’t sure how transportation worked, but we felt ready to take a little walk to a store and find these things.

We had along several IKEA backpacks to carry things home. Off we started! Luckily, we bought some better walking shoes in Langkawi. We found an ATM for money right away and thought we were on a roll.  I didn’t realize how far out of downtown Chiang Mai we were.  We kept asking people along the way for a supermarket, but they weren’t sure exactly what we were asking for.  After hiking for about 3 kilometers (thinking that the supermarket must be just around the corner), we found a little outdoor market. We did need a toilet, so were pointed towards the toilet just beside the market stalls, in the midst of the slabs of beef, fish, and durian. Yup, it smelled pretty strong. We bought our way in (less than one cent).  I decided to use the squat toilet, and Maritza went to the Western style toilet.  As I finished, a lady waiting was horrified at my uncouth non-washing of the toilet.  So, I apologized, embarrassed at not knowing how, and scooped some water up and threw it down the toilet. She kept yelling at me, so I shrugged my shoulders as she threw three scoops of water on, around, and over the entire toilet and floor.


Off we trudged to the Tops Supermarket, just down the road. A few kilometers further down the road, we finally arrived. We bought our vegies, fry pan, towels, cereal, milk, shampoo, and conditioner and stuffed our IKEA backpacks.  Everything fit, and as we had a coffee and ice-cream before heading back out, I hoped we’d see the tuk tuk sitting there to take us home. Of course, there was no tuk tuk waiting.

Instead of standing there, we decided to start walking. After a kilometer or more of hiking with several pounds of provisions (think fry pan, milk, cabbage, carrots, shampoo, and conditioner), a tuk tuk stopped  We explained that we needed to get to Himma Condo.  He didn’t seem to know where we were going, and we weren’t 100% sure, but hopped in anyway.

As we rode along, we started recognizing places we’d just walked by.  There was a 7-11 (of course, there are 7-11’s on each block or so), another ATM, places with mopeds for rent, and many many places we recognized.  As we kept going, we became pretty sure that he’d passed our place.  He made a U-Turn and let us off.


Thinking that our place was just around the corner, we resumed hiking with our heavy backpacks.  This time, I began to giggle in frustration.  Maritza was hiking like a trooper (remember, we’d just hiked over 5 kilometers to get to the supermarket, and now we were hiking again with heavy backpacks under an extreme lack of sleep the night before on the train). We passed a 7-11, mopeds for rent, and many ATM’s…..still not seeing our condo. Finally, we sat down to rest and have another cup of coffee. Later we went back to this little coffee shop retreat and became friends with the owner, Pim.

After fueling up, off we went, trudging along kilometer after kilometer. All of the sudden a huge sign appeared (HIMMA PRESTIGE LIVING).

IMG_20160202_192049991We were nearly home. We trekked up the driveway, peeled our backpacks off, and put our tired feet up.


The point of this blog was enjoyment. Maritza managed to enjoy Bangkok even through a cold.  She slept on the train, and I limited our activities. Even though the train really wasn’t luxurious, we both enjoyed the little cubbies for sleeping, reading, snacking, and watching movies.  It seems everywhere we go, Maritza manages to find friends and enjoys meeting people. And even though it was a terrible several hour long trek to the supermarket, we managed to laugh later at not knowing how to properly scrub down the squat toilet. We rested in a beautiful little coffee shop where we found a friend, who would become an important part of our time in Thailand.

It is possible to find silver linings!






Ahhhh. The Ocean.

Somehow, the ocean is soothing and relaxing. My father’s sister, my auntie Elaine died this week and we were a bit tired of big cities, coming from the back woods of Minnesota, so, we needed a little healing and soothing for our tired big city blasted souls.

The taxi dropped us off next to a little shop on a busy beach street.  He said the hotel was just around the corner.  We dragged our suitcases over a construction site to check in.  Our room was pretty nasty. It faced the street and was covered in pretty bad smelling carpet.  I wasn’t sure we’d want to stay for long. After getting a bit upset with the ladies working at the front desk for not paying attention to our desire to move to an sea view room if we could stay longer, they found us a sea view room. I apologized later for my rude American behavior.

It was quite safe to walk across the street where we had some Pad Thai, Sprite, and Heineken. In the morning, we checked out of our disgusting room and moved to the seaview room.  Check this out!

IMG_20160127_182740515_HDRThey had found us the best room in the entire hotel! I’m sure of it.  Of course, I went to apologize from my rude behaviour and was forgiven.

For three days, we swam in the ocean and the pool. Worked on planning the next legs of our journey, made friends, walked the street, watched people, and ate yummy food.

IMG_20160126_112443123_HDRI find it very soothing to cry in the ocean, and I did. I mourned for Auntie Elaine and missed my dad, mom, and sister at the funeral. Maritza and I had time to talk about expectations and our different needs.  A Jellyfish stung my foot on the first day of swimming. The pain was pretty incredible, but we found ‘beach boy’ friends who cared for us. Even on the last day, they swam in the pool with Maritza and felt sad about her leaving.

She thoroughly enjoyed herself here. She swam for nearly three days straight.

I drowned the jellyfish sting pain in a huge latte at Starbucks.  It worked.

We really slowed down, connected, and readjusted our expectations.

By the time we left for Bangkok, we felt refreshed and soothed.