Prior to studying abroad in Thailand during the spring of 2017, I would have never imagined that I would be lucky enough to fly more than 15 hours to Southeast Asia. Opportunities like these are what tiny Boricuas from the hood only dream about. But through Skidmore’s financial generosity, this salsero (salsa dancer) was able to make his way across the Atlantic. You’re probably wondering “what’s with all of the Spanish lingo and Latinx references?” Well, follow along as a talk about how the accumulated sazón and adobo that I have been storing within me my entire life grounded me during intense and emotional culture shock, and resulted in effective cultural exchange between me and those I met in Thailand.
Hot. Like, coño, it’s hot! I remember that being my first reaction as I stepped off the airplane in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Mind you, it was the middle of January, and Boston was around 11 or 12°F before I took flight. But I was amazed at how beautiful Thailand was: everything in my line of vision was covered in green. The only time I ever felt as invigorated when landing somewhere new was when I visited Guatemala. So, that’s what I kept telling myself. “Okay, Ricky. You’re thousands and thousands of miles away from the U.S., thousands and thousands of miles away from your close family and friends, pero like, this may not be as different as you had imagined.” And as I met the first Thai people at the airport (some of our instructors from the program institution), I realized how that was so far from the truth.
Generally speaking, Thai people are the nicest people I have ever met. They greet you with the widest smiles, laugh at all of your terrible jokes, and try to stuff you until you physically cannot move anymore. But that is not to say that they aren’t complex individuals just like any other people. Their history is very unique, being the only country in Southeast Asia that was not officially colonized. The way they discuss concepts and topics regarding racial and ethnic relations, socio-economic/class divides, and political tension is different (obviously) than the way U.S. Americans discuss them. One of the first intense conversations I had with my host family was one regarding my “hyphenated identity.” Regardless of where I am, I introduce myself as Puerto Rican-American, emphasizing the distinction between the two places if the person needs further clarification. When I first spoke to my mother over FaceTime in front of my host family, my host family was slightly intrigued to know that I spoke Spanish (as they never had a host student who either spoke Spanish or at least spoke Spanish while in Thailand). This lead to me discussing my identity, and explaining to them that although I was born and raised in the United States, my roots extended overseas to a small island within the greater archipelago known as The Greater Antilles. We both appreciated the conversation, because they did mention the ethnic tension that existed in Thailand. But what proved to be one of the more memorable cultural exchanges was the one where I was taught my family’s “shimmy dance,” and in exchange I taught them how to salsa.
One evening, my host family was having an event at their place. In Thailand, they take “play time” very seriously. Family and friends flooded my host family’s front yard, and there was beer, wine, music blasting, and the sound of laughter almost drowning out the music. Despite my incompetency of the Thai language at the time, I still was able to have meaningful conversations, as there was at least one person at every table that spoke English fluently. As much as I enjoyed the company, I really began to feel homesick. The family party reminded me of how close my family is back home, and how gatherings like the one my host family hosted would bring us all together. At one point, the homesickness had to be visible across my face, because my host sister approached me, and asked if I’d like to request a song. I decided to take advantage of the moment, and I asked her to play “Vivir Mi Vida” by Marc Anthony. I began to teach her how to dance Salsa, and the rest of guests watched in amusement. They joined in with their dances, and a bunch of them asked if I could teach them the basic steps as well. In this moment, I looked around, and I realized that despite the fact these people didn’t physically look like me, and had grown up in a different cultural context, they were devoted to making me feel safe: devoted to making me feel at home. After that day, I would hear salsa coming from my host sister’s room from time to time—and it felt great to know that I left a stamp on someone’s life.