Elizabeth O’Casey is a graduate student in Public Policy and an International Ambassadors for International Degree and Education Abroad office. She recently returned from Thailand working for the Peace Corps as a Teacher Collaborator and Community Outreach Organizer. Below, she shares an entertaining experience that gives insight into a completely different culture.
My Peace Corps friend, Todd, recently moved into his own house. He’d been living with a host family for the previous months and he was excited to have a space of his own. Eying the growing basket of laundry, he resolved to do laundry the next day.
A new day dawned and he got to scrubbing his sweaty, dusty clothes. In Thailand, many rural folks do laundry by hand, in a big black bucket out behind their house. It’s a process that stretches on for hours. So Todd was feeling pretty good about himself, hand washing the whole lot. He had rung the jeans, shirts, and underwear out with a Mr. Clean-like fervor.
He walked out onto his front porch and looked around. Where to hang the laundry? He spotted a white cloth rope that was tied to the perimeter of the house. Perfect. He began hanging his clothes on the rope. He knew socks are generally despised in Thailand. So, he hung them far away from his shirts and pants. The Thais see the feet as dirty and go so far as to wash socks separately to make sure the filth of the socks doesn’t mix with the other clothing. There is a strong concept that the head is (sacred) and foot (dirty) in Thailand. So, my friend considerately hung his socks in a separate area of the cord.
Seconds later, a neighbor came running up to him frantically, and began tearing off his underwear (from the line he hung it on, not the ones he was wearing, don’t worry!), jeans, and shirts. She pointed horrified to the socks, and motioned for him to take them down. He followed her request, incredibly confused. He stared as his pile of freshly-washed laundry lie in a heap at his feet. She returned minutes later, offering him a pole from which he could hang his clothes, explaining his mistake.
What happened? Well, Buddhists believe the white cord is a sacred Buddhist instrument. It’s used in every religious ceremony. Sometimes, the white cord will be tied around the wrists of people attending the ceremony to ward off the bad luck and spirits, and to protect the wearer. Sometimes, the white cord is held when the monks are chanting. Other times, the white cord is tied around the entire house, blessing the occupants, warding off evil spirits, protecting the house from ghosts. The cord is blessed by the monks. And my friend was hanging his socks and undies on this sacred cord.
It would be rather like a Thai exchange student coming to the states and using the church cross as a place to hang his underwear. Funny, but also sacrilegious; no doubt any number of little old ladies from within the church building would take up their crochet needles and go after that ‘crazy Thai kid’. So, the white cord is kind of like that. Sacred. Blessed. And an important Buddhist symbol.
Here’s the thing about living abroad: you get the best stories. Go to a place you know nothing about, and you’ll come home full of tales about this once far away land. Before I went to Thailand, I knew three things: It was hot, the beaches were beautiful, and the food was spicy. I came with suitcases full of hilarious, and at times, unbelievable stories. I encountered stories of embarrassment, like hanging undies on Buddha’s spirit. I had stories of unexplainable oddity, like the school closing early because elephants were loose in the village, and I had stories of heart, like when I walked into a classroom of 10 first graders who ran up to me holding hand-picked bouquets of flowers.
You may leave the states with a suitcase full of clothes, but I can promise you this: You’ll return home full of incredible stories that are a direct result of you living out your wildest dreams.