Conversation overheard at a bar. I didn’t catch the names, so I’ve just made them up.
Harold. Is this your first time in Chiang Mai?
Caroline. No. This would be my fourth time visiting here. May as well move here right?
Harold. I guess so. This is my first time in Chiang Mai.
Caroline. How do you like it?
Harold. It’s okay. Everything is so cheap.
Caroline. Yeah and the people are so nice.
Harold. Who? The locals or the foreigners?
Caroline. Both I guess.
Harold. I’ve mostly hung out with other foreigners. Haven’t met that many Thai people yet.
Caroline. I know a few.
Harold. Really? What do they think of foreigners?
Caroline. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I guess they like us, right?
Harold. I hope so. Can I get you another beer?
Foreigner anxiety: wanting to fit in with the local culture but still retaining an awareness that one will never be of that culture. Is it insulting for me to try to bow? Or should I just not bother? I want to respect the culture and the people while still acknowledging that I’m merely an observer of this place and all its customs, but how?
If I have any truth to say on the matter it would be this: people, particularly in Asian countries, know that you’re a foreigner. Don’t attempt to disguise it, but don’t let it be an excuse either. You don’t have to be anybody but yourself when you travel.
People like it when foreigners can speak the language, yes, but most understand that it is an unrealistic expectation of foreigners that they should speak the native tongue. All I recommend is learning “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” but if you have the time and means try to learn a little more.
Ultimately what is important is being yourself. Locals know their own culture, and while I’m sure it’s nice to see foreigners learning and respecting that culture, I imagine they might want to learn about your culture, and what makes you unique. Sharing is so important, and is perhaps inseparable from traveling in general. Above all, don’t just come to absorb and give nothing back.