By Derek Phifer
Thailand is known as one of the friendliest places on earth. It’s one of the first things you learn about Thai culture when you research this beautiful country. Even with that information in hand, I still ventured off on my year-long journey to the “Land of Smiles” filled with trepidation.
I chose to travel to Thailand as an English teacher, and I was going to be living in a tiny fishing village named Chumphon. I was a bundle of nerves before my arrival. How would people react to me? Would they tell me to go back to where I came from? I had more questions in my head than a game of Jeopardy.
There was one particular week put all of my fears to rest. It remains at the forefront of my memories when I think of Chumphon, Thailand. I will always remember the week Thailand embraced me.
I always joke that I was the only black guy in Chumphon, but I think it might’ve been true. It was the primary source of my insecurity and any reluctance to hangout in town.
Well, the week started like any other. I went to Macro supermarket to do some grocery shopping, and I was greeted with the strangest of surprises. An older gentleman who was shopping with his family had been watching me from across the aisle. He wasn’t secretive about it either. Eventually, he walked over to me and politely inquired as to what I was doing in Chumphon.
When I told him that I was an English teacher, his face lit up like a Christmas-tree. He introduced me to his wife and kids and asked to take pictures with me. That’s not what shocked me. I had already grown accustomed to picture requests during my time in Thailand. When he invited me to come to his house for dinner with his family and friends, I was floored. He even offered me lodging in his guest-cottage by the lake in his backyard.
I didn’t expect any of the locals to be so happy to meet me.
Normally, the gym played slow-paced country music in the background, and that’s not what I like to exercise to, so I always had my headphones on. Hip-hop and soca help me power through gym sessions, and those genres of music were nonexistent in Chumphon. Between exercises, I’d 2-step and rap/sing along to my music as I recuperated. I guess I never thought about how weird that must’ve appeared to the other gym-goers and the employees.
I’m a gym-rat, so every day after work, I would go to the gym and get lost in my own world. This week, I happened to pay more attention to my surroundings during the workouts.
On Monday, I thought I heard a Jay-Z song playing in the background, so I removed my headphones. Sure enough, it was. I continued my workout and bobbed my head to the beat while rapping along to the song. Unaware of the growing number of eyeballs I was attracting, I felt like I was back home in New York at my local gym. After the Jay-Z song, they continued playing country music, so the headphones went back on.
On Tuesday, I entered the gym, and they immediately switched to hip-hop music. Once they started playing songs that I wasn’t particularly fond of, I put my headphones on. I began to notice that every time they changed the music, one of the employees would watch me intently as if they were taking mental notes.
On Wednesday, I arrived at the gym, and they proceeded to change the music again. This time, they lead with Eminem and other mainstream hip-hop artists. It became a game of cat-and-mouse as every time I would put my headphones on, they’d change the music. If they saw me bobbing my head and bouncing along to the music, they’d keep that playlist going. That game continued for the rest of my time in Thailand.
Eventually, one of the trainers told me how cool he thought hip-hop music was, and we talked about some of our favorite artists. I’ll never know the rationale behind their change in music selection, but I can’t help but feel like I had something to do with it. Regardless of the motivation, they made me feel comfortable, and I’ll always be appreciative of that.
One of my favorite activities is exploring, so every weekend, I would choose a direction and start driving.
On this particular weekend, I happened upon a stunning area that I dubbed “Rock Beach.” It truly was remarkable. The trees grew with their roots above ground, and the view of the horizon was breathtaking.
As I was admiring the scenery, I was spotted by two local fishermen who were sharing laughs and brews as they passed the time. They approached me with two of the widest smiles I’ve ever seen in my life and faces full of enthusiasm. The two fishermen peppered me with questions about a variety of topics as they tried to speak with me in English.
Eventually, they invited me to sit have a beer with them. They wanted to know all about my experience in Chumphon and how I felt about the people there. With bated breath, they held onto my every word as I told them about life in New York and the different places I had traveled throughout their country. They were genuinely interested in my perspective and what I had to say.
They were likely a bit drunk, but so what. These guys were so happy to see me that they hugged me like I was their favorite stuffed toy. They literally embraced me. After thanking me for teaching the children of their homeland, they asked me to stay in Chumphon and continue to teach the children because they felt I was a good person.
They’ll probably never know it, but that interaction left a lasting impression on me. I think that might’ve been the moment in which I finally stopped worrying about being accepted.
My year in Thailand was full of ups and downs, but I’ll always remember how happy I was and how comfortable I felt there. Maybe I’ll return when it’s all said and done.
Financial freedom fighter. Breaker of molds. Destroyer of misconceptions.
Derek is a world traveler and English teacher who encourages self-reflection through travel. You can read more of his work at http://jaded80sbaby.com.
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You can also e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org