Rude? No, Just Curious. Disrespectful? No, Just Learning: My Experience Managing “Rude” Interactions in a Culture Where They Were Normalized
My name is Harrison Haywood IV and I am a junior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts here at the University of Michigan. I had the pleasure of studying abroad this past spring (2023) in Chiang Mai, Thailand with the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates Program (GIEU).
In American culture, there are a lot of things that we deem rude or disrespectful that other cultures don’t. For example, we refrain from staring, pointing, and invading people’s personal spaces. This is not something that was avoided in Thailand. To say that it was common would be an understatement. Everywhere I went I was met with people’s eyes, following me as I moved through a space. Children would point. Some would come up to me and enthusiastically speak Thai that I couldn’t understand. Some people would run up and side-hug me while someone else took our picture (completely unannounced). There were even a couple of people who showed me pictures of American basketball players asking if I was the person in the photos. It was shocking. I should mention that I am a six-foot-six black male so that was the root of a lot of the attention.
Originally, the attention was slightly off-putting and it made me uncomfortable, especially because the interactions were so random. Eventually, I realized that there was no malicious intent. When these interactions happened, people were always excited; the energy was high and people were happy. People were experiencing something new, so they approached me out of curiosity. I started to use these interactions as ways to mutually learn from the Thai people who would approach me, asking questions about them and their lives using pieces of Thai I’d been learning in our weekly Thai lessons.
One of these interactions was with a woman that owned a beverage stand and it led to the formation of a great friendship. She’d stopped me as I was walking past her stand on the way to the center where our program was based. She walked up to me and vertically extended her arms alluding to my height. I’d laughed in a way that I’d recently mastered to make these interactions feel less awkward for me. We started talking about the most random things and then she made me the BEST (and cheapest) taro milk tea I’d ever had. I would visit her truck almost every day and would even receive an occasional discounted or free drink. That became a common theme. We’d go places, and talk to people, they’d watch everything we did, stare and point, they’d give us free food or drinks, treat us with the hospitality I’d never received anywhere else, and go out of their way to make sure we were well taken care of.
We were told very early on that we’d be the first Americans, and for some of us, the first black people some of the locals had ever seen. It didn't occur to me that that was actually the case, though, until I started to get treated like a celebrity: a sight to behold. It wasn’t disrespectful, rude, or malicious, but loving, educational, and ambitious.