Thailand is Same Same, But Different
“Same same, but different” is probably the most widely used English phrase across Thailand. Thai people who can’t speak a lick of English can say and understand “same same, but different,” and they use it in the most creative ways. For example, imagine you are looking at a shirt sold by a vendor on the street. You ask for another size. He doesn’t have that size, but shows you a pair of pants he thinks will fit you, followed by a big smile and “same same, but different.”
Not only is this a phrase heard frequently, but I have also seen many backpackers wearing brightly colored tanks that say “same same” on the front and “but different” on the back.
In many ways, this phrase encapsulates the attitude of Thailand. Where Americans might say “close, but no cigar,” a phrase that points out the negative, Thai people focus on the positive and find you an alternative. They see the connections between people and things, where Americans might see the differences.
This exact positive way of thinking drew me back to Thailand. Two years ago, I landed in Southeast Asia for the first time to study abroad, young and naïve, without a single clue about Thai culture. Over six months, I fell head over heels in love with this country, its people, and their positive, loving, and welcoming spirit. The temples, the food, the jungles, the mountains, the beaches—everything enchanted me in a way I had never experienced before. I was infatuated with the people the most.
The Thai spirit stuck with me on my return home. After one week, I decided that I needed to go back after graduation and started applying to anything I could find. My summer nights were spent slaving over application essays. I emailed every non-profit in Chiang Mai and met with professors and advisors, looking for ways to return to my beloved Thai people.
Finally, this past April, I received the news that I had been awarded a Fulbright grant to teach English in a rural Thai village for a year. At first, I was unsure. I had spent nearly 10 months planning other options with my friends and boyfriend, who were also moving to Thailand, which would bring me back to Chiang Mai. My opportunity to live rurally would allow me to give back and interact Thai people in a way that I wouldn’t find in the city of Chiang Mai.
During my initial days back, it was impossible not to compare my Fulbright experience to my time studying abroad in Chiang Mai. I could never just show up in Thailand and pretend that I don’t know how to speak Thai, don’t understand certain cultural things, or don’t know how to get myself around. In many ways, I felt like I was picking up right where I left off. Quickly, I have fallen back into my routine of having one 7/11 toastie a day, concocting the best smoothie combinations in my head, and letting Thai leave my lips without thinking about it. In a lot of ways, same same.
But, in many more ways, this experience is so different. I wake up every day before 10 am, something I haven’t done consistently since high school. For the first month, I found myself in teacher training eight hours a day, too exhausted afterwards to explore. Now, I teach English to 250 Thai students five days a week. Unlike my time in Chiang Mai, I’m not allowed to wear shorts, drink alcohol, or leave my house after the sun goes down.
When in Thailand, do as the Thais. Slowly, I have begun to focus less on creating similarities in my experiences and searching for parallels with the past. Instead, I celebrate the differences of my new Thai life. Surrounded by Thai people, I let their joy and positivity inspire me. Instead of getting caught up missing my old life in Chiang Mai, I find myself accepting and embracing my new life in the beautiful village of Mae Moh. I think I’ve almost perfected the way Thai people just let things roll off their shoulders. You make a big smile and say “same same, but different.”