Off the beat: Taking things for granted

“Stop taking things for granted.”

Although I have heard this phrase for years, it never really hit home until I moved to the United States in 2011 from my hometown of Bangkok. It was my first time living abroad for an extended period of time, and it was life changing in many ways. In addition to inspiring me to pursue a career in the civil service, moving to the United States also made the aforementioned phrase more real to me than ever.

Thailand is a country riddled with social problems. As much as it tries to brand itself as the “land of smiles” through elaborate and picturesque marketing, our country is not all that great, and we Thais are all too aware of it. The country remains dogged by widespread poverty, crippling corruption, an extremely inadequate educational system and a terribly inefficient bureaucracy, among other issues.

Nevertheless, signs of globalization are still very visible in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok, the capital city, where American influence is almost omnipresent. Almost everything about the United States — from television shows to celebrities to fast food restaurants to clothing brands — is extremely popular in Bangkok. Such loyalty to everything American is not just a fad but rather a genuine and persistent way of life for millions of people.

Talk about a cultural export.

Because of such acclaim, Thais have come to see the United States and everything associated with it as superior and the “gold standard” in their respective disciplines. It is, in essence, a cultural hegemony.

For instance, there is wide admiration for the American school system. Schools that adopt the American system are among the most popular in the country. The same can be said regarding corporate culture, as many local companies try to mimic their American counterparts. Clearly, it is the American soft power that places the United States as superior in the minds of many Thais, even if the country is some 8,000 miles away.

I was one of those people who definitely thought of the United States as superior to Thailand in every way.

From my tender years, I attended an international school in Bangkok that was based largely on the American curriculum. This served only to heighten my affinity for the United States. I learned about American democracy; the Boston Tea Party; the peculiarity of American currency, where the nickel is bigger than the dime; the illogical customary system of measurement; and its unique form of “football.” I felt assimilated into the country. Everything about the United States seemed to be better, and I often could not explain why. It just felt right.

During my senior year of high school, I felt an irresistible urge to leave Thailand and study in the United States for something “better.” Unfortunately and regrettably, I even felt contempt for everything about Thailand. I started neglecting the Thai language, music, customs and mannerisms, and various other aspects of Thai culture. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I finally took the 8,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco International Airport and landed in ecstasy. This was it! “I’m in the best country in the world, and this is utopia,” I told myself. For the first few weeks, it did feel utopian. Everything was new. I was on a honeymoon with dear Uncle Sam, and he treated me well.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Once the “high” of being in a new country faded, I started missing Thailand. Yes, the country I couldn’t wait to leave for so long — that “inferior” country. I was perplexed. Next thing I knew, I was desperately homesick.

Every little thing I used to take for granted about my home country became something I would die for just to have a little of. Real, authentic pad thai from the street vendors in Bangkok? I would break a limb for just a spoonful of that. What about that infamous heat and humidity? Or the smell of local markets? Or the sight of the Thai alphabet on buildings? I would trade anything in the world for all of those experiences. The exact same things at which I had directed contempt just a few months earlier became the things I relentlessly sought.

Gradually, I came to appreciate Thailand and the Thai culture much more than I did during my 18 years in Thailand. I became more fond of the language, arts, music, food and even the people than I ever had been before. I started listening to Thai songs on a regular basis, reading books about Thailand and practicing Thai again — a language that I had neglected for so long. I actually felt proud to be Thai.

Of course, my country is not perfect — there are so many things to be fixed. But it is still beautiful in its own flawed way. Human beings often don’t fully appreciate the value of something until it’s gone. When something is always with us, it tends to be overlooked. Perhaps it is human nature. Perhaps it is the way evolution programmed us to be. But perhaps it is also wise to appreciate our various blessings in life while they are still present.

“Off the beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members.

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