“Sawasdee kha!” I exclaimed to Looknok Chatchanok as I sat down next to her at Peet’s Coffee. She smiled, maybe because she was happy to see me, but more likely because of my dreadful accent.
“Sawasdee kha!” she replied. (“Saswasdee kha” is how female-identifying people say “hello” in Thai). Chatchanok is a summer exchange student from Thailand who attends the same university where I was an exchange student in the spring. While I was there, another international student taking business classes with Chatchanok mentioned that Chatchanok and I should meet up when we were both in the United States..
“How are you?” I asked. “How’s everything going?”
Immediately after asking, I remembered something I learned while I was in Bangkok: These queries weren’t typically posed in Thailand.
“Why would you ask that?” one of my professors had said to me. “You can see how I am. In Thailand, we ask, ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘Where are you coming from?’ We don’t know that.”
Regardless, Looknook was kind enough to answer. “Good, thank you. How are you?”
A solidly American answer, I thought. “Fine,” I replied. “So, can I ask you a few questions about what you think of America, how your experience has been?”
“Of course, Holly,” she replied.
Chatchanok began living in a Southside apartment with four other Thai girls during the first summer session, a little more than four weeks ago.
Chatchanok grew up in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and one of its most populated cities.
“Bangkok is a really busy city. Berkeley, I think I like more than San Francisco. It’s a quiet place and there’s university life,” Chatchanok said. In Bangkok, Chatchanok lived at home with her family by Mo Chit, which is about 10 kilometers away from Thammasat University, where she goes to school.
“My dad still takes me to uni. The transportation here is really nice. And it’s free! Because we have Cal cards,” she noted.
We talk about how different the heat is here. It’s a dry California heat, compared to the stagnant Thai humidity that made me sweat just walking outside.
“I think I got tanner here!” Chatchanok says. “But like, the people here, they want to be tanner. In Thailand, they don’t want to, and we put on whitening everything, and umbrellas. … I think it’s the different leisure activities that people do, here they go hiking and walking, and in Bangkok, they go to shopping malls.”
I asked about how UC Berkeley students are different from Thammasat students. Chatchanok said students at UC Berkeley are very studious.
“Another difference is that (UC Berkeley students) always ask questions! Maybe, at Thammasat, we try to ask questions to the professor, but we are shy and we are scared,” Chatchanok said. Here, she said, students seem to have the confidence to say anything they want to.
I also wondered how Americans were different from Thais. “The similarities are that they are friendly,” she said. But Chatchanok hasn’t actually met many Americans so far.
“I expected Americans to be a lot more outgoing,” she said. “But I don’t meet that many people.”
I told her about how I was mostly friends with other international students when I was studying abroad, too. Oftentimes, though, I told her that my Thai friends wouldn’t want to talk about politics and asked her what she thought about it.
“Corruption. I hate it. I hate corruption. Even if you don’t want to corrupt, even your leader will force you to corrupt, or else they will kick you out,” Chatchanok said. “Do you know Thaksin?” she asked. Thaksin Shinawatra was a former prime minister of Thailand, a businessman who was supported by the rural Thais but also a notoriously corrupt politician who is no longer allowed back in the country.
“Yeah!” I said. “When I learned about him in my Thai politics class, I thought of (Donald) Trump.”
We talked some more, about American music and TV — how much Thailand loves Justin Bieber and Drake. We discussed how the Fourth of July’s fireworks aren’t as fun as Thai’s new year celebration — giant water fights in the streets — although we agreed that those festivities just wouldn’t be possible in America. And we talked about what we thought we wanted to do after we graduated. As we wrapped up our conversation, she said, “One last question: Have you ever seen Missy Franklin?”