Residing In the ‘Land of Smiles’ As a Western Minority

When I received the USAC email notifying me of my acceptance into the Chiang Mai study abroad program, I was completely ecstatic! As a West-Indian female student living in the rural town of Arlington, MN, the idea of studying abroad in an effort to expand my cultural horizons was beyond comprehension for both myself and my family. Even throughout the application process, I was very doubtful of my ability to be able to study abroad because it seemed so mentally and financially intangible. However, I was accepted and was given the opportunity of a lifetime to examine Southeast Asian politics and anthropological studies in Chiang Mai!

Thus, after my acceptance into the program, the scholarship application process had begun. When I began applying for different scholarships, I noticed a common inquiry among all applicant questions: What is your purpose for studying abroad? After pondering away from conventional motives such as the delicious Thai cuisine, temples (Wats), elephant pants, and Chang beer, I realized I chose to study in Chiang Mai to better understand my place as a minority in the ‘Land of Smiles’ in comparison to the United States.

Study abroad students attending Chiang Mai University need to dress in uniform

Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I was confronted with several forms of race and religious-based discrimination. This led me to seclude myself from my culture through the process of assimilation. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I began to re-immerse myself in west-Indian culture, became comfortable with myself being different, and truly recognized myself as a minority. Thus, studying away from that reassurance I felt at Gustavus evoked fear of nonacceptance and discrimination I could face being in Chiang Mai. I had no idea what to expect studying abroad as an underrepresented student.

However, my first week in Thailand completely eradicated any fear I came into the program with. During the first the week of orientation, I was met with the warm and welcoming smiles of the USAC facility along with the CMU Thai buddies. The USAC students were also given the opportunity to tour Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and Old City, which was home of the Lana Kingdom and the Sunday Night Market.

USAC students are given the opportunity to tour Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Exploration of these areas provided me with immense insight on the foundations of modern Thai culture and society. I began to understand the connection between Thailand’s societal foundations and my place as a minority. I discovered that although I am a minority, I never felt out of place or a sense of inferiority within Thai society because I am also a westerner. Essentially, Thai society caters to western culture and provides a sense of comfortability with residing in a foreign country. For instance, a majority of street vendors and local restaurants have their dishes translated in English. A personal experience I’ve encountered was at my favorite coffee shop, 333 Mini House & Café along Suthep road. When I first walked into the café, the barista at the time was watching a sports match and listening to Thai music. As soon as I sat down at a table, the barista turned off the TV and Thai music and began playing popular western music from a YouTube playlist. This has become a recurring pattern every time I went to the café with my friends. Even if the café was filled with a majority of Thai students, the barista began playing western music every time I came.

Additionally, as a westerner, I was never looked at as different. For example, the first time I explored Suthep road and the Sunday night market, I was not met with discriminatory remarks or unwelcoming glares from Thai people. In actuality, no one seemed to take any notice of me until I approached them. In a sense, I felt a form of inclusion from this lack of acknowledgment. For as I learned from one of my classes-‘Social and Cultural Dynamics in Thailand-‘ different is perceived as normal. This mindset was greatly depicted in the interactions I experienced which allowed me to view my own identity as a strength rather than a weakness within the Thai community.

Samantha Raghu attends Gustavus Adolphus College and is an alumna of the USAC Chiang Mai program.