How to Immerse Yourself in a New Culture

The story of why I chose to study abroad in Chiang Mai actually started in Viterbo, Italy. This is where I studied abroad in the fall of  2016 as a sophomore.

I had a fantastic time in Italy; I had the best host parents I could ask for, classes that captivated me, and the opportunity to travel in and outside of Italy on the weekends. It was near the end of my term in Italy that I began to look if I could study abroad again. Looking at my degree requirements, I realized I could make it happen again. So naturally, I seized that opportunity!

While looking through all the different USAC programs, I came across Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The classes matched my major and interests, and the program was very budget friendly.  Taking this as an excellent opportunity to learn about another part of the world I decided to go abroad once more. I knew this experience would be remarkably different from my previous semester and was excited, curious, and a little nervous to what lay ahead.

Arriving in Chiang Mai

We had two full days of orientation, followed by a weekend filled with field trips to help us familiarize ourselves with our city before the semester started.

One of the reasons the USAC staff planned all of these activities was to fight any potential jet lag.  During the two days of orientation they provided us with all the information we could possibly need. They gave us a little red book that contained information about the area and school (it is essentially a guide for how to survive and thrive in Chiang Mai).  We also learned basic Thai etiquette for daily interactions. For example, they immediately taught us about the “wai” gesture used in greetings. The first couple of times I heard the director saying “wai” I thought she was asking us “why,” leading me to be a bit confused. I quickly realized that the posture of your hands together in a prayer position was called “wai.”

Greeting a new friend at the USAC orientation

School: Starting the Semester

Chiang Mai University far exceeded my expectations due to the sheer size of the campus. It is massive! While enormous, they conveniently have a shuttle system to get you where you need to be when you don’t feel like walking.

I was placed into all of the classes I requested–Thai Language, Thai Reading and Writing, Buddhism in Thailand, Asian Religions in the Western Imagination, and (drum roll please for the ridiculously long name) Comparative Conceptions of Scared Spaces and Pilgrimages; Monasteries, Temples, Churches, Mosques, and Landscapes.

Sample of Reading and Writing Thai assignment

The semester is still underway so we have started learning mid and high tone consonants in reading and writing. Essentially we are starting off as kindergartners. Thai has 44 consonants (yippee!), and lots of vowels (not sure how many to be exact). Its fun to write out the new letters, but it certainly twists my mind when you begin to attach sound to them and try to pronounce the combination of letters. While this class is becoming more challenging on a daily basis, so far it has been the most rewarding in the fact that we are now able to read the words we see and connect them with their meaning.

You may not realize that you need to wear a uniform at the university. Before you get too upset, I’ll say that I am actually a fan. It makes it so easy to get dressed in the morning. And there are cute elephant pins you get to wear. (The symbol for Chiang Mai University is an elephant.)

First day at Chiang Mai University

Side note: Elephants are everywhere (not literally, but used as symbols) from shrubs to statues, Chiang Mai’s campus is filled with them, and I adore it.

CMU Freshman Walk

Each year previous students and different faculties welcome new students by walking with them up the sacred mountain of Doi Suthep. CMU is near the base of Doi Suthep and serves as the starting point. I along with 25 other USAC’ers participated in this event.

We ran (but mostly walked) with the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration because that’s what we were accepted under when granted admittance to CMU. We got red shirts that said “trekking” and the year 2561 (they run on the Buddhist calendar over here). We had to meet at 4:30 am and walk to the main CMU entrance. The Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration was third in the lineup of 20 other faculties. As the event began, we ran out of the gates and were blessed by monks sitting on each side.

Walk to Doi Suthep

The road up Doi Suthep has a gradual incline, with many twists and turns. Lush greenery encompasses each side of the street for the majority of the route. Occasionally along the way, there were little waterfalls and glimpses of the city of Chiang Mai.

In total it was 14 kilometers to the top, and there were plenty of water and sport drinks stations along the way. On the last leg of the walk, all the freshman form Poly Sci lined up and did their chant; indeed, a spectacle to witness.

Volunteering

The USAC Chiang Mai program provides plenty of volunteer opportunities to choose from. I was particularly interested in assisting with teaching monks English. So far my experience has been enriching and filled with laughter. I volunteer, along with other USAC students at the monk University of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. These monks come from all over the world, including Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Nepal. For the majority of the class time we help with their workbook exercises, but near the end, we split off into groups where they can practice speaking their English. My favorite question I’ve been asked (and I’ve been asked by two separate monks by now) is if there are Aliens at area 51, which made me giggle. I found it impressive they even knew about that section of Nevada! Another thing that initially caught me off guard was that the monks had phones. They use them to take pictures of the work they had to do.

Teaching English to Monks

Did someone say Food?

I’m vegetarian and have been for a while.  I wasn’t too worried when I made the decision to study in Thailand. There are plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans. It will prompt you to learn your food vocabulary a little faster to know what’s on the menu!

My go-to restaurant so far is a little place called Bee Vegan. Everything on their menu is vegan, as the name implies. They offer a range of traditional Thai dishes (like Pad Thai and Khow Soi), stir-fry, salads, and many types of juices. You can get a dish for around 40-80 Baht ($1.25-$2.50 USD).

My other go-to place is a small smoothie and hair salon joint (I don’t think the health department in the states would agree with this one). It’s called Mommy Thailand, and Mommy Thailand makes THE BEST smoothies for only 35 Baht (around $1). You get a huge quantity for the price, and she doesn’t add any sugar, syrup or condensed milk. That’s one thing I learned quickly that in Thailand the drinks are ridiculously sweet. The first couple of times I ordered what I thought was going to be a nutritious smoothie, it turned out to be more like a milkshake (I mean… it tasted good, but I can’t have that every single day). Mommy Thailand will also make you laugh each time you stop by. One time she gave me a bundle of the mini bananas along with my smoothie. I’m still a little lost as to why she gave me all the bananas, but it was a very nice gift that I enjoyed.

Oh, and did you say Bubble Tea?!

I have finally restrained myself (okay this is not for sure yet) from buying boba/bubble tea every day. It is insanely cheap here. It goes for around 25-35 baht, which is approximately $1 USD.

Yoga

Back in Las Vegas, where I attend school, I’m a Yoga instructor. I knew I wanted to find a way to teach while I was here in Thailand. I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t going to concern myself with setting it up, immediately that was. It was during move-in day that the fact that I am a yoga instructor was brought up with a USAC employee (shout out to Malisa for making this all possible!).  She expressed an interest in wanting to help set up classes and told me to remind her about it in a couple of days once the program was in full swing.  She secured the room in the Political Science building at Chiang Mai University. The room is the same where many of my classes are held during the day.  She even let me borrow the speakers from the office to play music on.

Teaching Yoga

As of now, I am teaching twice a week. While it may not be the quintessential yoga studio, we make it work. Before I teach a class, fellow students and I push the chairs to the edge of the room clearing the space. I hook up my phone to one of my Vinyasa playlists on my Spotify to set the mood of the room. Most students didn’t bring a yoga mat with them to Chiang Mai, but they were able to purchase one for a relatively cheap price at the malls nearby.  Fellow USAC students participate in the practice, along with a couple of Thai students and USAC employees.  Not only do the students get to move and take care of their body, but it brings a moment of relaxation and helps with adjusting to life.

I am happy with the progress I have made in my first month of living and adjusting to the groove of Chiang Mai.  Time is flying by, a little to fast for my liking, but I’m excited to see what the rest of the semester will bring.

Alina Lindquist is an anthropology major from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She studied abroad in Chiang Mai in Fall 2018.