Thai Exchange Student

HELP! We have an exchange student from Thailand and we don’t know what to do with him. We didn’t expect to get him, he arrived in the U.S. with no host family and we made a last minute decision to help out.

What is the day of the average 17 yr old boy like in Thailand?

He is very nice and polite but he spends all his time in his room talking to his Thai friends online. We’re supposed to try to limit his computer time but we haven’t addressed this yet. How can we broach this subject to him? He seems to be getting ideas of expensive things to buy here from his friends back home. Fortunately we don’t live near any stores.
We live in a very small town and he seems completely bored with the types of things we’ve done so far. The minute he gets a chance he disappears back in his room. We have a boy one year younger and they get along OK but don’t do much together. His application said he wanted to be on the east or west coast and he ended up in the middle.

The other day he asked my husband if he could ride a motorbike to school. We have no idea what he was thinking. I already said I wouldn’t let him ride one since his mother won’t. Is he already trying to pull one over on his fake mom with his fake dad? What does he mean by motorbike? We have two fairly large motorcycles. Did he think we would let him rid a motorcycle to school?


Treat him like your new son - with the same rules as your other son. And I don’t care if he says his parents would let him stay up until 2:00 AM and watch porn while drinking beer (as if that were true), it ain’t gonna happen in this house!

Of course he wanted to live on the coast, probably had fantasies of living in a home on the ocean in Malibu and going to Hollywood parties. He won’t be the first foreign exchange student to realize “normal life in the US” is not what you see on television or in movies.

School, homework, movies, local fairs and festivals, sports, local foods and holidays, hiking, parties with other kids in school, the occasional side trips to nearby attractions and doing some minor chores around the house and helping set the table, maybe make some food he likes and show you how to do it…in other words, let him see how real life is in the USA. That is what he should go home knowing…that is what he should tell his family and friends so when someone says some stupid generalization about “all Americans do such and such”, he can pipe up and say, “well, actually, that is not true…”

Take the kid gloves off and start treating him just like a member of the family - your family, warts and all.

I suggest talking to someone at the boys’ school as well as the exchange agency. It is probably a good idea for the exchange student to get involved in some formal extracurricular activities–sports, drama, school newspaper, whatever works. I went to Spain as an exchange student in H.S. Not that there’s a lot of similarity to Thailand, I imagine… But one thing that may be similar, especially if he’s from an urban area, is that there was a lot more social life that “just happened.” In the US, especially in a midwestern small town (and I have lived in one) there is not much social life unless you are one of the kids who gets involved in school activities. If your son hasn’t been one of those joiners, this might possibly create some tension. Still, I think that’s the way to go. Teenagers are mostly interested in other teenagers. Family activities will hold little appeal.

The exchange agency can do an “intervention” with the student if it comes to that. Definitely keep them in the loop. The exchange agency also probably has rules about driving. Are you and the student both aware of what those are?

Also, is he from a more affluent family than you are? That may be another tension you need to come to grips with. It was my experience that there were a lot of things that were less expensive in the US, and people would ask me to buy them as gifts and sometimes reimburse me. Some shopping for expensive things may be normal, but obviously it is something that could go deeply wrong.

I remember being shown a graph of the typical exchange student year. It starts out with initial euphoria, dips into a trough of despond around Christmas, then builds up to happiness again come spring. That matched my experience, so be prepared.

Thanks for taking on this challenge. It can be a very rewarding experience, but also very challenging.

I’ve lived with two different host families, each time for three months. Without a doubt, that first time around is the hardest thing I ever did. Every single thing you do when you live in a different culture is a challenge. Even simple things- buying stuff at a store, eating dinner, are a minefield of things you can do wrong. And some part of you never gets over feeling like a freak.

All of this- on top of the loneliness- can make for a very difficult (but potentially very rewarding) time period. So please, have patience and remember that this kid is probably going through a lot, including a lot of things you can’t understand.

If we are talking about electronics, chances are that these things are either extremely expensive or even unavailable (at least decent quality stuff) in Thailand. It’s pretty common for people visiting places with a lot of consumer goods to bring back as much as they can to share and to sell.

Don’t worry too much. Remember that every minute he is out and about is work for him. When you live in a foreign culture, you are always “on”, never relaxing. Even sitting and watching TV with a family from a different culture is difficult. You are always worrying about if you are doing things right, you don’t know how to ask what you want, you don’t know if you are offending people or not. By the end of the day you end up just wanting to be alone, where you know exactly what is expected of you. I always felt really bad when I’d want to spend time alone, but I really needed that time.

Probably wants to ride a motorcycle to school. In Thailand motorcycles are one of the most common forms of transportation and people think of them the same we think of bicycles. They don’t really have the “badass” image that they have here- it’s just a way to get around. Though I imagine most kids wouldn’t be able to afford their own motorcycle, it wouldn’t be unusual at all for a 17 year old to ride a motorcycle around town for errands and stuff. He probably saw this as a totally reasonable request.

Some things about your Thai exchange student:

  1. Thais tend to spoil their kids, especially if they are boys, especially if they are an eldest son. The good news is that even with this spoilage, there is a sort of cultural requisite to respect older people and so he should be deferential to you (but not your son… age is everything). That said, Thai parents also don’t tend to tell their kids that they love them. The closest might normally be to let them know, indirectly, that they are loved.

  2. I’m guessing he’s from Bangkok. Not everyone in Thailand lives in Bangkok, but an awful lot of them do, and most folks with the wealth required to get their kid involved in an exchange program will be in Bangkok. If so he is used to a REALLY big city, with decent public transportation, lots of things to do, and decent, relatively expensive food.

  3. Thais tend to be very, very social. Being alone just doesn’t happen. When I worked at a Thai factory, I never saw a job done by one person when two or more people could get it done. To a Thai person, being alone is one of the worst possible things. So when he’s “alone” in his room, he’s really trying to recreate his comfort zone of having friends around.

  4. “Sanuk” (sort of pronounced suh-nook) is a Thai word that roughly translates to fun, but really connotes the idea of enjoying life. Thais are big on “sanuk”. Everything should be fun, or why do it? This is one of the reasons that Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”.

  5. Thai food: people from other countries are often not used to eating lots of different styles of foods, like many of us here might be used to. Thais are no exception to this. Back home he will have been exposed to American fast food, some Japanese and maybe a few other things, but he’s going to be used to having a form of rice with almost every single meal.

  6. Yelling and loudness: It’s considered extremely offensive to yell or even talk loudly to a Thai person when you’re upset or angry. The Thai phrase “jai yen” means cool heart, and it’s considered socially positive to remain very calm even when you’re upset (this comes from Buddhism).

Ok, how do you deal with all of this? First, I’d look to get him involved in as many group activities as possible at school. I assume he has some English skills, even if his pronunciation is not great, he probably understands a lot of spoken English and is decent at written English. It will help a lot if your family likes to make chores fun; if not, maybe learn some things from your exchange student. If possible, maybe get him involved by asking if he can help prepare one meal a week (he might not be much of a cook, but this might be a good time to learn). Try not to get upset or raise your voice to him, as you may lose respect in his eyes if you do.

Talk to him. Explain your rules and customs, and ask that he help you understand what he is used to. Compromise where you can, but don’t break your rules, just maybe bend them if perhaps by doing so you both might gain from it. Get him involved in as many social aspects of your community as possible.

Oh, and if you’re anywhere that gets cold at all, bear in mind that he will be not be the least bit acclimated to cold weather. He might not even own a sweater or light jacket. It just doesn’t really get cold in Thailand from Bangkok south, maybe a bit cool at night for a few weeks in December or so. Figure out to dress him warmly as it starts to cool down.

I agree with pretty much everything Shibboleth says except MAYBE #6, about the shouting and yelling. It’s true to some extent, but I see so many Thais screaming at each other that I’ve taken it to be some sort of cultural ideal that is rarely achieved. It’s true, though, that Thais won’t yell at each other as much as Westerners do. But one of our neighbors on our floor has a teenage daughter who is apparently just starting to act like a teenager, and the mother now frequently screams long and LOUD at her. I swear they must hear her on other floors, maybe all the way down to the security post, and we’re on the 6th floor!

In fact, I’ll never forget early on in Thailand, being lectured at length about how nice and polite Thais are to each other at all times and how they always act properly, only to be treated at lunch to the spectacle of an enraged Thai lady chasing what must have been her boyfriend down the street with a meat cleaver. Far from being frightened, the guy seemed highly amused and would stop, turn around, pull out his penis and wave it at her while laughing. This served to refresh her rage, she would scream even louder and pick up her pace, waving the cleaver even more vigorously. He’d run along some more, then laugh and wave his penis at her again, enraging her more, etc, until they were gone from sight. I often wonder whatever became of them.

But I digress. Thais tend to be much less mature for their age than Westerners. University students here, even in graduate school, generally remind me of high-school students in the West. A 17-year-old Thai will be much more childlike than a 17-year-old Westerner, and you really need to assert some rules. If your exchange student is from Bangkok, and you are in a small town, he’s going to be bored out of his mind. One thing, too, many exchange students are actually not willing participants, but rather are forced into it by their families.

Try to engage him as much as possible, and really, cut down on his Internet time.

This may be one of the best anecdotes I’ve ever read about a slice of human life. Imagine it, if you will, written by Kipling as a just-so story. The final line wondering about their outcome is like a strange moral.