Zachery S., Thailand – Thammasat University (Sociology)

ACADEMICS 

1. What types of classes did you take abroad and how did they compare to UCSB?

I took 3 courses in a faculty (department) called S.P.D. which stands for Social Policy and Development as well as a Thai language course which was in the faculty of Thai Studies. These courses were similar topics to what I have covered in my major of Sociology at UCSB. I had a class called Strategic Communication for Social Change, I had a class called Transnational Corporations and Labor Welfare and another class focused on Gender and Social Diversity. All the classes had a particular focus on either Thailand or the South East Asian region. The courses were all taught in English by expats from other countries except Beginning Thai language. This was not always the case for other faculties. The professors were very casual and laid back. The class sizes were fairly small, much like a section with your TAs would be at UCSB. The grading was also very laid back because our classes were mixed with Thai students who had different levels of English proficiency. My courses were once or twice a week. The courses that were once a week were around two and a half hours long. In comparison to UCSB I found Thammasat to be less intensive. 

2. What was your favorite class abroad?

My favorite class was Gender and Social Diversity because it described a particular perspective of Thai culture that was so unique. Thailand is known to have a very vibrant transgender and LGBQ community that is much more in the public eye than in the United States. Getting to learn about Thai culture through these topics, while living in the metropolitan hub of Bangkok was truly fascinating. 

3. Did you intern, volunteer, or conduct fieldwork or research abroad? If so, tell us about your experience.

I interned for an NGO called ANFREL, which stands for Asian Network for Free Elections. Their main focus is on “Election Monitoring” which essentially reports on the democratic integrity of every major election in the South East Asian region. I was brought on as an aid to research and help create a report on the Sri Lankan Presidential election. I was able to not only research and create a pre-emptive report on Sri Lankan politics but was also brought on to attend the election in Sri Lanka. I joined a team of 30 election observers from all over the world. Myself and one other intern were the only Americans on the entire team. It was most unique and influential experience and it may be the defining experience of my entire time abroad. 

HOST  INSTITUTION

4. How would you describe your host institution?

A small but beautiful campus perched on the side of the famous Chao Phraya river in a very historic and touristic part of Bangkok. On my walk to school I would cross a bridge that was buzzing with passing motorbikes. As I would look across the bridge, I could see the entire view of the Bangkok skyline. On the river, motor boats of all kinds would pass by, and right beside all this noise and activity sits the University of Thammasat. A half a mile away from campus is the Grand Palace where Thailand’s royalty reside. Thammasat is not comparable to UCSB in any way. Thammasat is a much smaller community with a much smaller population than UCSB and a much smaller campus but the university sits in a very busy part of the outer city. 

5. Are there student clubs/organizations that UC students can join?

There were definitely clubs and organizations but they weren’t geared specifically towards UC students which comprised a small portion of the entire international student community on campus. Most of the non-academic clubs and orgs were orchestrated by Thai students.

HOUSING

6. Describe your housing situation.

My housing was a hotel style eight story dorm called Amarin Mansion. It was not strictly for Thammasat students. A majority of the students were international, with a few non-student guests at times. My housing was arranged through UCEAP which gave us a few options to choose from. I lived in a single studio apartment with my own bathroom and balcony and a queen size bed. The apartment came slightly furnished but without any bedding. My housing situation at Amarin was very different than I.V. mainly being space, privacy and rent. I had too much space for a single and I paid around $400 a month for rent which included utilities. Amarin had a food service which served all kinds of Thai dishes and even provided room delivery service. I walked to school every day which took around 25 minutes. To get into the heart of the city from Amarin could be anywhere around 20-50 minutes depending on traffic, which was noted as the worse than L.A. by some. 

FOOD

7. Where did you eat most of your meals?

I seriously ate 5 meals a day from anywhere and everywhere. Food is easily accessible in Bangkok. I would sometimes eat at the restaurants by Amarin or at Seven-Eleven, from street vendors or at school. I probably ate the most at the other dorm’s cafeteria which was called 3J. Their cafeteria was open 24/7 which was a great option after coming back from a late night out. On occasion, EAP hosted these amazing dinners for all the UC students at Michelin star restaurants. 

8. How much was an average meal? Do you have any budgeting tips for future Students?

An average meal was around $4 USD, some even less depending on what you’re eating and where you are. Tourist spots will charge more of course. I did not personally budget, I ran wild and was lucky enough to make it last. When it comes to food, there is no place in the U.S. where food is that cheap and accessible so budget for your trips and worry less about food, just enjoy and try everything you can. 

9. Would it be difficult for vegetarians/vegans and others with strict dietary restrictions to find meals?

I was not too particular about what I ate so I wasn’t too cognizant of this issue. My friends that were vegetarian or vegan seemed to have mixed reviews. There did seem to be a language and cultural barrier that made ordering with specific instructions pretty difficult at times. I noticed that most Thai dishes had some sort of meat in it. 

10.What local food or drink do you miss most now that you are back?

This Thai dish called Pad See Ew which translates to stir fried soy sauce noodles was a staple of mine. I had never heard of it before coming to Thailand but once I discovered it, I ate it almost every day. I also loved getting Thai iced-teas or Boba teas offered pretty much anywhere in the city.  

HOST CITY

11.Describe your host city.

Loud, active, developed, messy, concrete jungle, beautiful. Bangkok is a large metropolitan urban hub, much like the larger U.S. cities such as New York or Chicago. It doesn’t really have a city center. It has more popular districts which are often used the reference of a city center. It’s very diverse. The city is full of expats coming from all over the world. For instance, I was able to watch a rugby match in a Kiwi bar surrounded by Canadians and Kiwis, all of who were local expats living in Bangkok. 

12.Was it easy to get around?

It was pretty easy to get around but could also be very frustrating. The traffic was often gridlocked and the streets of Bangkok look like a nervous system with bridges rising and spiraling all around each other. The most common way to get around was by taxi which were either state-run or operated by an app similar to Uber called Grab. There were also scooter taxis waiting on most of the street corners. This is how most locals seemed to get around, on the back of a motorbike. I did not use the bus very often although it was the cheapest option. To get far into the city or out of the city and to an airport I would often take the city’s subway or airtram systems. The subway was called the MRT and the airtram was called the BTS or SkyTrain. This was often the best way to avoid the traffic. It was pretty easy to get around in the city with English. There was often a language barrier but for the basic necessities and directions, Thai people would understand and go out of their way to help. 

13.Did you feel safe in your host city? Do you have any safety tips for future students?

I felt very safe in Bangkok. I am a man and was often mistaken as being Thai so I never ran into any sticky situations. Thai people are also generally the nicest and most helpful people. I feel less safe at UCSB and the U.S. in general than in Thailand. In general, it’s safest to walk about in groups. I also wasn’t in any areas I would consider to be dangerous. People did get pick-pocketed and cat-called but only in the party/touristy areas such as Khao San Road. 

14.What were some interesting/fun things that you did in your host city?

Bangkok was a place of endless fun. A main attraction for any visitor in Thailand revolves around shopping and eating. Night markets are everywhere and accommodate these two activities very well. There were plenty of cultural festivals to attend and the night life was very fun. In my first month, one of my favorite artists Flume was performing for his first time in Bangkok. I was front row for the entire show. A common trip for my friends and I was to JJ day market which was the largest outdoor market in Bangkok. We would often be there the entire day. One of my favorite activities was to play basketball at the Siriraj Hospital with my friends and the local Thai medical students. We would sometimes play 3 times a week and all get dinner together after. 

HOST CULTURE

15.Describe any cultural differences you experienced while abroad.

Thai culture is much more laid back. Thai people don’t look to be as rushed as Americans look. They are much more courteous drivers, I never once saw any kind of road rage despite the fact that everyone cuts each other off. Major cultural differences revolve around the motorbike (scooter). In Thailand it’s the most common mode of transportation and they are everywhere. Policing is present but very limited. It is common to see motorbikes driving on the sidewalks and pedestrian areas, sometimes driving the opposite way or running red lights. It is common to see all kinds of things on a bike. Not uncommon to see an entire family or a pet or both. Both toddlers and the elderly get around the city on the back of scooters. Thai people dress modestly, always wearing shirts that have sleeves and often in very modest colors such as black or white. Crop tops and tank tops are typically the indication of a foreigner. Street food has a much larger presence than in the United States. 

16.How did you handle culture shock?

I can honestly say I didn’t have an initial culture shock. I had some general background knowledge about the country and I watched a lot of vloggers videos about Thailand. I knew in a basic sense what to expect. 

17.What is your favorite aspect of your host culture?

Their calm demeanor and friendliness. They know how to be helpful without being too helpful. There is a happy medium. Americans won’t always go out of their way to help you. The Japanese will go overboard trying to help you and make you feel guilty by doing so. Thais have it just right. This may sound like a strange argument but as a half Japanese half American I can say this statement makes sense. 

TRAVEL

18.Tell us your favorite travel story from your time abroad.

I went to the Philippines for Christmas with my international friends from my dorm. We were in a small backpacker village called Port Barton which was a village in its truest sense. Virtually no internet service anywhere, plenty of wild animals all over. One day my German friends met some local Fillipinos who invited us to sing karaoke with them, which was the first time I had ever really participated in karaoke. After, our lodge hosted a pre-Christmas party where I met some Spanish guys who informed me they were opening the first nightclub in the village later that night. So I went to the grand opening and was among the first customers. After the club I met up with my friends and others we had met that night and decided to go for a swim in the ocean. As we were swimming I realized that my hand was glowing. In an instance I realized I was swimming in the midst of thousands of bioluminescent phytoplankton. Every movement made our bodies glow, it was like we were on another planet, like a scene from Avatar (James Cameron version). 

REFLECTION

19.What was your biggest fear about studying abroad that turned out to be no big deal?

I was pretty worried about getting pick-pocketed but I developed good habits that lowered that chance. I was also lucky compared to others in certain instances. 

20.What was your biggest challenge abroad?

My biggest challenge was figuring out who I wanted to spend my time with. Studying abroad is a challenge for anyone to navigate relationships and personality types, especially when traveling. Travel compatibility can be complicated. Fortunately and unfortunately I hung out with two different groups; The international students from my dorm and the UC students from the other dorm. Figuring out which group I wanted to be with more was a good problem to have but there are definitely some people I regret not spending time with and other people I regret spending too much time with. 

21.How have you changed as a result of your time abroad?

I have probably matured in a lot of ways that I am only beginning to realize or that I won’t realize until later in life. I have a new addition to my perspective of the world, maybe some new values adopted as well. An unexpected outcome of my time abroad is that I am much more cynical of the United States than I used to be when it comes to our history of foreign policy in Asia and much of the world. I feel that I have a better understanding of the relationships that serve me well and the ones that don’t, and this includes romantic relationships. I always felt pretty level headed about the relationships I have with my friends but my abroad experience really made me think about the character qualities I admire in people. The most valuable change is my comfortability attempting new experiences on my own. I was able to live and travel Asia pretty much on my own terms and sometimes by myself. Solo traveling was extremely liberating and I believe it was a good test of my ability to handle myself as a young adult. 

22.What is your advice to prospective UCSB EAP students?

If you know the experience will be memorable and not totally dangerous, just do it. Don’t hold it off because of time constraints, financial concerns and definitely don’t hold off because of your comfort zone. Although being out of your comfort zone in the States is a valid excuse, abroad it is not, the entire purpose is to expand your comfort zone so that you may learn more about yourself. This sounds cliche of course but study abroad is the time to live in the now. There is no other time in your life like it. 

Always secure your transportation ahead of time and check the departure times before a trip. Logistics is a skill and creating good habits will save you a lot of grief. That being said, don’t get too down on yourself when you mess up. I’m talking about when you miss your flight or train or whatever but this goes for any context while you are abroad. Just expect to mess up and take it all as a learning experience that will benefit you in the future. Final tip, create relationships with locals and people of your host country or at least students from a different country. It is easy to form groups around people like you but I promise, you will learn so much more about your host countries if you expand your social circle. Although I have some Thai friends, this is still a regret of mine and many others. 


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