A few weeks ago, I had finished my first project with my community that was completely planned, organized and executed by my community and I. Before I had started working in my community, the only activities that were organized for the youth were organized and facilitated by outside organizations or the Scouts program (like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in America), which leads to greater expenses to put on the activities. My community wanted me to put on a camp that involved Sexual Reproductive Health and Drug and Alcohol Abuse activities, and I wanted to put on a more overarching Life Skills Camp which focused on more fun for the kids because it was right before summer. At the end of the project, I would say that I am more than happy with how it turned out because the kids learned and also had a great time with their friends for their last week of school. I decided to put together the finished product in a video showcasing the activities that we did as a way to also show everyone what part of my job consists of and to celebrate the successes of the project. What the video doesn’t show you is the weeks of planning and discussions I had with my community counterparts, the set-backs both before and during the project, and the stressful moments throughout. However, there are three life lessons I have learned so far while working in Thailand, especially when doing this project with my community.
1. Don’t have expectations. During this project it was hard not to set expectations for how each of the activities would go or if the students would like what I had planned for them. However, I would have been setting myself up for failure. When working with kids I have learned that you cannot please all of them with the activities that you are going to do. Some of them may even wish they would be playing on their phones and texting the person next to them rather than play fun educational activities (yes I am biased). Also, the lesson I am trying to teach them may not come to all of them right off the bat. It is alright if the only lesson the students got out of the kickball activity was that they shouldn’t trip their teammates as they run to catch the ball. Once there aren’t any expectations it’s easier to celebrate the smaller successes, like the students having fun watching me make a fool of myself or my students helping each other understand the activity after I try excruciatingly hard to explain an activity in my broken Thai. If at least one student had a good time at the camp, then that would exceed my expectations.
2. No worries, roll with it. The problem with running a camp in a culture that is defined by the “keep calm and carry on” phrase is that you constantly have to roll with it, and that’s ok. The other Peace Corps volunteers and I were the only ones at the school besides the kids at 8:30am, but I planned for the camp to start at 8:30am. No worries, I just throw out one of the energizers that I had planned to do before breaking off to the different activity stations. The lunch one of the days was running late. No worries, we had all of the students do a meditation break in order to kill time. Some of the activities ran shorter than planned and none of the other activities were finished yet. No worries, we just played a large game until all the other stations finished. The point is, if I stressed over all the little setbacks or hiccups that happened throughout the camp then I would have spent most of my time stressing and not enjoying the work, leading to my last lesson.
3. Have fun. When working with kids, another big thing to realize is that they are like sponges of energy and attitude, so if I came to the camp stressed and low energy the kids would feel the same way. One time when I was teaching one of my classes, I was working on emotions in English, but instead of just saying the word to them I acted out the emotions in the most dramatic way possible as well. We couldn’t stop laughing because they misunderstood my angry face for constipation, and I will forever remember that day. I will make myself the biggest fool when I work with these students because everyone in their lives want them to be respectful and behaved, but they are never given the opportunity to be themselves in a learning environment. When you see me dancing or being a goofball that is just me being my best self I can be to show these kids that its ok to have fun even in a work setting. At one point, I do get on the floor to dance, and I will admit that would be one of my best selves.
I take these lessons to heart and I cherish the moments I have every day with these students, and sometimes I feel like I am the one learning more than the students are. I am proud of all the work my community and I have been able to accomplish over my first year here and I look forward to learning even more with my students. I hope you all enjoy the video I put together down below!
For this post I decided to do something new and do a vlog! I hope you all enjoy! The video is down below; In this video I reflect on my year, what is to come, and answering questions family and friends had for me.
I have always wanted to challenge myself physically in order to be stronger and more fit. Before coming to Thailand, I had it in my head that I was gonna do a big run like a half-marathon or a full marathon, but at that point in my life I was so overwhelmed with getting everything situated before leaving that it never happened. Fast forward to about 5 or 6 months into my service, one of my friends, also a volunteer, mentioned that she was going to do a half-marathon with a few others in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand and she convinced me to join. I registered and paid the registration fee, like an impulse buy in Target. I had not been training or running long distances at my site, but I knew I had to start as soon as possible. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The furthest I had ever run was a 5k for a charity run at my university and that wasn’t that bad in hindsight, but I also had been working out casually in order to fight off the freshman 15 that I so willingly gained. I started working out regularly at my site with at-home body weight workouts through an app a friend of mine developed, and I would go on runs regularly at this local damn on the outskirts of the village. Now, I am sure you are wondering, how do I run in extreme weather, like that of Thailand? I would like to reassure you that it’s not easy, but do-able. One day on my run some of the local kids in my village came to cheer me on as I would pass them on the trail, and this became a regular spectacle for them each day to watch me as I pushed myself to finish. The trail was one large loop and usually I would be out there running for about an hour, and the kids that would come stayed the whole time until I stopped. They would ask me how many times I went around the loop, while I was dripping sweat and panting, and anytime I said more than one their eyes widened in amazement. I appreciated them very much, and I consider these kids to be some of my greatest friends in my village; the kids ranging in age from 6-12 years old. As I started to run longer distances I had to change my route to get used to different terrain, which lead me to a road that would run along the sea of rice fields in my village. I ran past the rice farmers, many of whom started work at 5:00am, and they roared a loud “Su Su!” (Fight, Fight!) so that I would keep going. I ran faster. In the last month preparing for my race, my older host sister started to go on runs at a track in the city close-by and asked me if I wanted to go. I joined her every now and then when we both had the time and when it wasn’t raining (this was in the middle of rainy season in Thailand), and I was proud of her that she started working out with me. She continues to work-out and has made it a part of her daily routine.
Race day. My friends and I woke up early for our friend’s 4:30am send off for the Full Marathon start time. I needed to be awake anyways because I couldn’t sleep. My nerves were getting to me and I felt my muscles tightening at the thought of running 21.5 kilometers. I needed to turn my mind off, if that was even possible. We watched as my friend began the Full Marathon and my heart was pounding in anticipation. I needed to start getting my body ready for the race, so I did my usual stretches before any run. 5 mins before start time. We all got to where we wanted to be for the start and I had my friends by my side that were running the Half-Marathon also. My mind was racing full of many different emotions and memories that lead up to this point. 5 seconds. Am I ready? I heard a gunshot and my feet started to move forward.
The song Rise by Jonas Blue and Jack & Jack (a great song if you have not heard it; the song that got me through most of my training) starts and my adrenaline is high. I started the race off with a fast pace because I wanted to maintain a speed with a pacer who was going to end the race at two hours and thirty minutes. (I had no idea what a pacer was before my friend, who runs races regularly, explained it to me. A pacer is someone in the race that is hired to run at a certain pace for runners to keep up with so they know when they will finish the race maintaining that same speed.) For the first mile I was able to keep up, but it was definitely a faster pace than I imagined it to be. I was falling behind so I accepted I was going to fall back to the two hour and forty-five minute pacer. Mile three. I was past by the two hour and fifteen minute pacer, and I realized what I did wrong. For the first couple miles I was following the two hour pacer and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself in that moment.
During the race I tried to keep my head focused, but at the same time the sun began to rise and I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery that was Chiang Rai. I was amazed by the mountains surrounding the area with little villages here and there as we ran passed receiving “Hello”’s and “Su Su”’s. At one point when I was running, I caught the aromas of the food being prepared for those beginning their day early in the morning. Now, mind you know that most foods in Thailand are fried, so the aromas weren’t the most welcomed of the smells on this run. As the sun was rising, I could feel the heat of the day on my body, the sweat begin to build along the line of my back, and my muscles in my legs begin to burn as I pushed myself to run further. Mile six. I was lost in the sounds of my playlist on Spotify playing when all of a sudden I start to feel the trail steadily begin to incline and as I look up I see a hill ahead. My mind was telling me to push through the pain and make it to the top without walking, but my body was telling me no and that I couldn’t do it. My pace fell and I started to walk.
The hill was staring me down and I did not want this to be the stumbling block to my first Half Marathon. As I was walking, I see an older Thai man, he could have been no younger than sixty years old, pass me by simply jogging. I thought to myself, if he can do it so can you, so I got the strength to push myself to a jog. Mile eight. I had been able to keep a steady jog until this point. The two hour and thirty minute pacer past me at mile seven. My feet have a burn that I have never felt before that ran up to my calves, but I did not want to walk so I pushed. Mile ten. An old enemy approached, another hill (note: make sure you know the incline and decline of the trail before the race). I was ready to face it head on, as I did, and when I got to the top my feet hurt so much that I needed to walk again. This feeling of guilt rushed over me because in that moment I felt like I was letting myself down.
I needed some type of burst of energy and confidence to get me to the end, but in the back of my head came a voice that told me I couldn’t do it. That voice was the millions of comments I received growing up about my weight and body size, the questions I received about my ability to join different sports or wear certain clothes, and the comments bullies made throughout my childhood. I have been fighting those voices all my life. I had an opportunity to show those voices that I am better than them and that nothing can bring me down. I started to pick up my pace. Mile twelve. I had pushed myself past the point of no return, in the terms of pain, and I only had about a mile left. I began to see the large crowds of people walking back to their cars and I know I am close. My music builds and I feel myself gain speed running faster and faster. I can see the finish line. I feel tears building in my eyes and fall down my face. I am on the last home stretch to the finish line and people that I have no idea who they are cheer me on to finish. I hear the voices that lay subconsciously deep inside my head begin to soften into silence and I crossed the finish line.
Doing something like a half-marathon in Thailand was something I never saw myself doing, but I am glad that I did it. Training and even just working out in general in the spaces that I am in as I serve as a Peace Corps volunteer has taught me a lot. Most of the motivation to try to keep myself fit in the past was for other people and to make the feelings of insecurity wash away, but I found myself mostly unhappy working out when I was in America. At times it brought me more stress or frustration because I did not see any results, or at least the results I wanted to see. In Thailand, I have found myself working out to pass the time or in order to alleviate stress after long days of working in a classroom or at an office. Here I am doing my work-outs for me and only me. This has changed a lot of my perspective to how I saw myself in America because I was comparing myself to others constantly, but here I am able to build myself up as a person and realize my own true potential.
Appearance and the way others see you is an important factor to Thai culture. Many day to day conversations are centered around the appearance of those around them, like have they gotten a bigger stomach, are they smiling, is that person darker or lighter than you, or even about the clothes you wear. In an American context, many of us would take offense when other people make comments about our appearance because some believe that it is not their business at all. When I first came here, that was something that I dealt with a lot. I was constantly compared to others about whether I was more or less attractive or even my body size, and I took offense. I took offense when I was younger and the comments were made about the way I looked, and I believe I would take offense if that were done in an American context still. In Thai culture, I have noticed that many of the comments made are more observational rather than meaning to be seen as negative or positive, or at least that is how I see it. I noticed that many comments about weight and attractiveness in Thailand are made in a more humorous context and sometimes show the closeness of the relationship between the individuals (most of the time; sometimes people you have never met before comment on the way you look without invitation for them to do so as well). I would also argue there is no real consideration as to how the person feels about being termed “fat”, “ugly”, or “big”, but rather it has been stated as matter of fact.
I can only speak from my own experiences, but I have seen some negative outcomes of this factor of Thai culture. Some teachers point out the differences students have between each other according to size and body weight in front of the other students. Many of my kids in the schools like to point out the bigger students a lot for the butt of a joke in many instances. Those are negative aspects of this part of Thai culture. Students are taught to associate humor with the undesired traits in their community, which permeate into the everyday lives of the adults and children in the community as well. However, can we argue that Western culture in America is any different than Thai culture in this regard? I would argue not. In Western culture, we are not taught directly (most of the time), but rather subconsciously, that skinny and light or tanned skin is the most desired because of what we see in the media and pop culture. Many of the people that we look up to and want to be like come from pop culture, which influence us to want to be or act in a certain way. In addition, students today in schools across America are still being bullied or antagonized because they do not fit the popular mold that western culture deems the most desirable. I would admit that there has been a shift in pop culture and the diversity we see in the media, but there is still a stigma to fit in. I hope that we can work towards changing or at least shed a more realistic light on what should be desired by those everywhere, and that is being our best we can be for ourselves is the most desirable.
A lot of the projects that I do here as a Youth in Development volunteer is to help the youth in the community I serve realize their potential in order to build their own skills and to better their community within their own cultural context. Working in a cultural context different from my own can be very frustrating and demanding at times because as a guest to this country I need to be able to understand why they do the things they do and sometimes accept things I may not agree with. However, there are things within a culture that can lead to more negative, than positive, impacts in the community, and those are the issues that I can help address. Creating a more realistic approach to assisting how the youth see themselves as individuals fitting into the community around them is something I feel very passionate about. When I was growing up, I felt that every day I had to fit a mold that was sculpted differently than who I really was. I did not have to directly be told that I was doing something wrong, but rather that my subconscious self in my head was at a constant battle with my conscious self to be someone that I was not. I want to be there every time someone makes a comment about my students' looks, body size, or the way their hair looked that day to discourage that kind of behavior, but that is unrealistic. What I can do is help them build a more positive self-esteem and encourage body positivity amongst as many of the students as I can. I hope to help the youth in my community realize they should embrace themselves for who they are and follow their own path. If they want to better themselves by taking up a sport or taking more time to practice their English or even just to have more positive conversations, then I want to be there to support them in any way I can. Who knows maybe I can inspire some of them to run in my next big race.
If you need to know one thing about coming to Thailand, know that rice is a very important part of the daily life of a thai person. If you are eating a traditional Thai meal, then you are most likely eating rice. If you are going to the local temple to earn merit by the Buddhist monks, most likely one of the foods you are offering contains rice or is rice alone. I live in the Issan region of Thailand and one thing that it is know for is that the local economy in this region comes from farming and agriculture. For my friends and family in California, think of central California. Comparing it to the United States in general, think of the midwest of the US. Thailand is one of the largest rice producers in the world, so more likely than not, you are eating rice from Thailand when you buy rice from your local stores.
Around this time of year the rice farmers begin their harvest and they plant new rice for the next harvest. At the local government office for my village they have their own land where they plant rice and the community volunteers as well as the office staff work together to maintain it by planting and harvesting the rice when it is time. Luckily for me, I was able to join them for planting the new rice after the most recent harvest. Here is how my day went:
We started the day by meeting at our office to prepare the lunch that would be served at the rice field. We prepared individual sticky rice bags, fried chicken, and fried pork. These are quick and easy things that are typically prepared for lunch and are usually paired with papaya salad (som-tum), which is amazing and you must try it if you have never had it before. In order to prepare som-tum it normally needs to be had fresh so we took the ingredients for making the som-tum to the rice fields. On our way there it started to rain lightly and I was beginning to worry we were not going to be able to work on planting the rice, but everyone still met at the rice field in jackets prepared, rain or shine. I was not as prepared as they were, as I was in a t-shirt and shorts. There were about 40-50 people who were government workers or volunteers in the village that came together to work on the rice field. Right when the rice stalk came in everyone got to work.
(Please forgive me for any agriculture terminology that I am butchering in this description, but pictures are also shown on the bottom of the article). I never really knew how rice was planted until this day and it was fascinating and totally different than I imagined it to be like. First, a rice field is made up of one large area flooded with water and the area it filled with manure. The rice plant itself looks like a small stalk that is then pushed into the manure at the bottom of the water with a couple inches of leaf or grass sticking out. There is math behind how each of the rice stalk are planted and the distance from the next, but I have no idea what that is because they were explaining it to me in thai.
In order to work on the rice field I expected that I would be wearing some boots or something to cover my feet, but many of the people working with us got in the water barefoot. There were some people that had their own boots that they brought from home because many of the people volunteering had their own rice fields that they work on. There were no extra boots for me to wear so I toughened up, tried not to think what manure actually is, and I went in barefoot and got to work. I, luckily, did not fall in the mud, but walking through manure flooded with water was pretty interesting and slippery but the Thai people I was working alongside were not phased. Many of them were working swiftly like it was nothing, pushing about 5 stalks of rice into the manure per minute. It was very intimidating, but I had to show them that Americans are capable of the same things they are and they did find it very amusing that I joined them in the work.
You would think that learning how to push the rice stalk into the manure would not be too difficult, but for some reason it was very hard to get familiar with when I first started. In order to push the stalk into the ground, you must make sure you only have two stalk in your hand and then grab it by the bottom of the stalk in order to be able to stick it firmly into the ground. I was able to stick a few that actually looked almost perfect, but then I had a few that wouldn't be sticking up straight like they were supposed to, some fell over as I took my hand off the stalk, or I was told that I stuck the stalk too deep. Once I started to really understand the best way to get the stalk into the ground I realized I was moving ten times slower everyone else and I was only able to get one or two stalk in the ground per minute. The thai volunteers that I had a chance to work with were very patient with me and really wanted me to succeed, so they made sure I got it right and they congratulated me when I was done. At the end of the day I was tired and my feet were covered in mud, but I was able to make a deeper connection with my community which made it all the more worth it. We all ate lunch in a big group and some of us talked about how poor at planting the rice I was a the beginning and then progressively got better exchanging laughs. I felt even more closer to my community than I have ever felt since my first day.
My host dad is a rice farmer. Every day he gets up around 5:00am and he starts his day by going out to the rice fields or other plantations he has, taking breaks for lunch and water, and ends his day at 6:00 or 7:00pm. It amazed me how he could do this, and it amazed me even more that he does this every day, every week, and takes vacation only for certain holidays. Many people in my community own rice fields and they are constantly out there tending to their crop. I do not know if I would ever be able to do that as a profession, but now I know the amount of hard work they put in to do the work they do and I appreciate the job and agriculture in general so much more because I got to experience it personally.
One of the activities I like to do with the kids in my classroom is ask them about their short- and long-term goals, and the jobs they want later on in the future. Now, a typical answer that I thought to expect in schools from most students that came up in my classes were: Teacher, Soccer player, Singer, Volleyball player, Dancer, Doctor, Nurse, or Lawyer. Some answers that I was not familiar with before coming to Thailand that students in my class wrote were: Farmer, Fisherman, Cow Herder, or Pig Farmer. Honestly, before coming to Thailand I would have thought why would those professions be desirable to students aged 10-15 years old, but if you ask me now, I understand it. The people they look up to the most, maybe their biggest role models, have these very professions as jobs, and the truth is these kids want to be just like the person they put on their highest pedestal. For many of these kids, those are the people that work the hardest to provide for them the most that they can by working hard and pushing through the hardest challenges; the parents and caretakers of these very kids. There are a few things I learned from joining my community that day. The hands-on work of any profession to do with agriculture is tough and strenuous work, and those that do it are some of the hardest working individuals that I have now come to understand. The people in my village are some of the happiest people I could know, even in the face of challenges and work, and I am glad I get to spend the rest of my service here with them. Lastly, lessons can be learned through even the youngest of teachers, and I am proud that I get to work with these amazing kids.
Today was hard. Harder than usual because I had realized that reality is with you even when you travel across the country to get away from it.
About three years ago my grandmother from my Father's side of my family had past away. During that time I was away from home attending my university and after I heard about her death, I took the weekend to attend her funeral. By this time I had only attended one other funeral before for someone that I was close to; the first was for one of my cousins and at the time I was very young and do not remember much from it, except I remember that she died young and that I did not really understand what happened enough to feel anything for the situation. Today I wish I could know her at the age that I am now.
My grandmother's death was not sudden. She had health problems and many hospital visits prior to her death. For me, however, it seemed all too fast. Being away from home at my university had displaced me from long periods of time away from my family, which led to many life events or memories happening without me. I was not able to see her one last time before she died, and sadly I cannot seem to recall the last time I got to see her. When I got home that weekend it felt like everything was gonna be the same, but when I got to get together with everyone in my family at the funeral something was missing. Anytime I visited home from my university I had been able to see my extended family for big get togethers and my grandma would always be there sitting with excitement to see me again and asking me how school is going. My grandma would tell me in Farsi "It is very good that you are getting an education and I know you will do great. You are so smart. I am very proud of you." I did not have as good of Farsi, so I would answer back with "Thank you, I love you" in English, smile and give her a hug. I did not have her there this time to ask me how things were going and sharing her words of encouragement.
At the funeral ceremony, everyone was very solemn and deep in their thoughts or prayers. I remember sitting in the pews with my parents and brothers and at the front of the room a slideshow was playing of the many memories we had with my grandma. I could hear some people in the room crying with their families and all I could do was see the memories of my grandma play out in my head. In that moment all my feelings came rushing over me and I let the tears run down my face and buried my face in my dad's shoulder.
After we left we went over to the cemetery that she would be buried at, listened to some speeches, and had our last moments with her before they covered the hole. At her tombstone my family left her watermelons, and you might see this as odd, but it was what she loved to eat any time of the day and would always tell us kids to eat it so that we would be healthy and strong. I never listened. In addition to the watermelons, many families had also brought many flower arrangements and pictures to place with the plot because she had not yet gotten a tombstone placed there. Later that day we went to our favorite persian restaurant and ate all together as one huge family because it was something she would have wanted. At the dinner we all got up to say different stories about her that we thought were funny or were some of our happiest memories with her. By the end of the day we were all smiling and talking about plans to get together more often.
I can still remember many of the memories I have of my grandma and hopefully I will never forget. That day I realized how much I was gonna miss my grandma, and before that I definitely took that for granted.
I got in my host sister's car as she was picking me up and she asks me how my weekend was and what I did. We exchange a few sentences in Thai because I may speak Thai, but it is very basic at best. There is a silence in the car and then she says something in Thai that I can understand only a little bit, so I ask her to say it again. She then says in more simpler words, "One kid in the village died yesterday." After this she says to me that she thinks that I might know him because he might be a kid in one of the schools that I teach, but she is not sure and that she needs to ask her mom for more information.
Just hearing the news that one of the kids in the village had died made my heart drop. To have the added news that it might have been one of my kids that I teach made me feel like a knife went through my heart, but I had hope in my mind and did not let my emotions get the best of me. I didn't ask many questions and when we got to my house I said thank you for the ride and I went in my house. Throughout the night I had the thought of what happened in my head, just hoping and praying it was the wrong information or that it was a miscommunication.
The next day I taught at one of my schools (not the one my host sister thought the kid went to) and the day went on as normal. I made sure to be my normal self by putting on a face and making sure I was fully there for the students. I wanted to ask my boss about the information my host sister had told me to confirm what was really happening. I arrived at the office and everyone said hello and asked me about my day, everyone seemed to be going about their day like it was just any other day. I was able to talk with my boss and she was the one that brought up the news to me in the middle of the office. She had told me with little emotion in her voice that one of the kids drowned the other day trying to swim with his friends and it was one of the kids that would come with me on bike rides in our village. I was in disbelief so I didn't say much after she told me. One of my co-workers walks over to me to show me a picture of him and I instantly know who they are talking about. His name was Cho-gun, I had not remembered his name yet, but now I don't think I'm gonna forget. My head grew heavy, I just needed to be out of that room because I didn't know how to feel in a room surrounded by my co-workers. They seemed to be looking to get a reaction out of me, but all I wanted to do was go home. They told me that there was a "ngan sop" (funeral) for him tonight at his house and I had asked if I could go and my host sister had said that my host mom would pick me up that night to take me with her.
In Thailand funerals are somewhat similar to Funerals that I was used to back in America, but there are many differences. At the funeral we showed up late (something that is very normal for Thai people is showing up late to events) and were escorted to some seats. Once we took our seats the ceremony began. The set up of the funeral is that usually it is at the house of the person that had died and the casket is located inside the house. The casket is surrounded by flower reefs, house materials or other items gifted by those attending, different sentimental items, a picture of the person deceased, and there are lights similar to those we hang on our houses for Christmas but strung along the casket. At this funeral the family is Buddhist so the monks from the local temple come and set up for the ceremony inside the house where they chant different blessings for the deceased and the family. Outside the house there are chairs set up throughout the driveway and front yard of the house and is where the food for the dinner after is prepared. Usually these ceremonies are attended by people throughout the village, so many people come that the chairs for the reception end up filling the road in front of the house as well. Throughout the ceremony everyone is sitting in their seats Wai'ing while the monks do a chant and bless the ceremony. (to Wai is when you put your hands together close to your chest similar to when Christians pray; when performing a Wai it is a sign of respect for those when you say "Hello" or "Sawadee" and when in the presence of someone that is of higher rank than you, monks, elders, and those with high ranking jobs; another instance I have found that we Wai is at funerals). During this part of the ceremony my feelings were bottling up in my chest, but at funerals in Thailand no one is really showing any emotion. As I looked around as the chanting was occurring everyone's face was stone cold, maybe they were feeling sad inside but on the outside it didn't really show. I kept my emotions to myself.
During this part of the ceremony, some of the kids walk around handing out water to the villagers attending the ceremony. I noticed that the kids that were handing out the water were some of the kids that would also come biking with me. All I could do was smile and say "Hi" and they said "Hi" back with a smile and went about their duties. I wondered what they were feeling about what happened, if they were there when the accident happened, but the funeral was not the place.
At the end of the chanting, we went inside the house to bless the casket and put incense in-front of it. I was able to meet Cho-gun's grandma and my host mom explained that I was his friend that went on bike rides with him, she thanked me for coming. I didn't really say much because I did not know what to say except "I'm sorry". Then we ate dinner with some people in the village that we knew and they talked about work or the food we were eating. I didn't talk much again because my thai is limited.
We were on our way out and said a few goodbyes because most people had already left to return home. On our way out my host mom realized that one of the men we passed by was Cho-gun's Father so we stopped to say "Hi". My host mom said some things in Thai I didn't understand and then introduced me the same way she was doing all night, that I was one of Cho-gun's friends that went biking with him. Cho-gun's father said hello and thanked me for coming. As I looked at this man I met for the first time, I saw that his eye's were watery and puffy from crying and I was frozen. I had no idea what to say and I was choked up. All I said was "Hello" and "I'm sorry". We left and I was ready to go to bed because it was a long and taxing day. The next day I had to go to my other school for work and I acted as if nothing happened. Some of the teachers and the students talked about what happened, but not much, and everyone went about their day.
My emotions have been all over the place, both good and bad, these past couple days because there has been a lot happening with my job, personal life, and this came very sudden for me. When I was preparing to come to Thailand I knew that there were going to be many different challenges that I face being in a country that is halfway around the world. Language, Cultural differences, Solitude, New Job frustrations, and yes, Health, I believed I thought of it all. A funeral was actually one of my first events that I attended here in Thailand while I was training in Suphanburi and I had not met the person that had died or even anyone in that family for that matter. Since that first funeral ceremony, I had attended many after that. It just seemed to be something that was normal and it never really hit me that hard because I was separated from the event since I never knew the people that died. About a month ago, I had attended a funeral for one of my co-worker's Father and this was the first funeral that had made me feel something because I am close with this co-worker and I felt empathetic towards his emotions when he was giving his speech for his Father and cried. He was the first person I had seen thus far that had cried at the funeral of someone that died in Thailand. I cried then and let my emotions show; even though I had no idea what he was saying.
Attending a funeral for someone I knew was not something that I expected to happen while here in Thailand. After the day that I went to my office to confirm the information that my host sister had told me, I went home and could not help but cry. Cho-gun was not someone that I was very close with, but I have very distinct memories with him and I would call him one of my friends. We had learned early on coming here that drowning is actually one of the leading causes for death for youth in Thailand, while motorcycle accidents are the first, and it is because the youth here do not have experience swimming and do not know how. I want to be strong for my students and the friends of Cho-gun by being there for them and moving past many challenges, but its moments like this where I am at my lowest low and I question what I am doing.
How do I help students learn their potential in a language I have yet to master? How do I get around the challenges of the cultural differences that I cannot understand because they are so different and frustrating? Why don't they have swimming lessons for youth and seminars on safe motorcycle driving when they are the leading causes of death here? Am I going to have to attend more funerals here of people that I know?
Reality. I have recognized that all these questions and my feelings of apprehension and frustrations are valid, but I need to make a decision. Am I going to accept that this is all too hard and decide that I am not cut out for this by quitting and going home; or am I going to push through these challenges that I knew I was going to face, even if I did not acknowledge them, and stay strong for the kids that I am here for by being there and recognizing that life is full of challenges anywhere you go? I am going with the second option. In a perfect world, I would come here working within the schools doing activities with the kids and the teachers and help them recognize their potential is so much more than they expect, while also being happy every day for two years. We are not living in a perfect world. The reality is that there are always gonna be new challenges in my life, which seem to be every day here, but we are all able to get through these challenges, no matter how hard they seem. It is how we face these challenges that lead us to be resilient and strong to make it to the next day and do it all over again.
It has been a really long time since I have updated my blog and it is because things have started to pick up pretty fast here. Since my last post I have started my work at the schools in my community and I have started to get accustomed to a daily schedule, which consists of going to the schools three times a week (Tuesday-Thursday from 8:00am until 4:30pm; days end around 4:00 for the students at the schools usually in Thailand), I go to my local government office or my local health office on Mondays and Fridays. I am assisting the English teachers at two of my schools in my community, which the students range in age from 8-15 years old, and I help with English lessons as well as lead different life skills activities. In addition to helping with English classes, I lead a couple activities at a camp for drug and alcohol abuse prevention amongst youth, developing healthy relationships in youth, sexual and reproductive health, and teen pregnancy, which is held annually by my community.
I have gotten many questions along the lines of, "What is your job?". Well let me answer that for you. I am essentially a youth leader volunteer and I work with the local government office, health office, and the schools to create a bridge between each of these entities within the community. From there I help facilitate different activities with the help of different local officials in the community to provide the youth with opportunities to grow into healthy and engaged citizens who contribute positively to their communities. This job is not really structured like many other jobs in the United States because I am given little structure to my job and can really make it what I want it to be, which is also because I work with many different municipalities in my community.
Currently, I am at the beginning stages of my service and that just means that I am working to create relationships with those individuals in my community, which are the youth and community members that I will be working with. In addition, I am helping them understand what my role is in their community and gaining their trust, as I am a foreigner that is living within their community. On the weekends I am usually doing my housework, running and working out, taking long bike rides, hanging out with my host family, hanging out with the local kids in my village, and, if I find time, I like to take weekends away to visit friends at their sites or meet them in near-by cities for down time. I find myself in my head a lot since I have been here, and sometimes I have no idea what is going on around me or what I am doing here. I've found myself in a constant state of vulnerability.
"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they are never weakness" -- Brene Brown
The first day is always the hardest. That's what someone told me when I started my first job and there is some truth behind that statement for most jobs. However, I think that is because with every day came routine and learning from mistakes that happened before, but with the Peace Corps it seems as though I am constantly learning from mistakes or adapting to new situations. It has been almost four months since being at my site and about 7 months since I have come to Thailand, and I can honestly say that I still have no set routine of how my day goes or what work I will be doing. It comes with the job. In the Peace Corps you learn that your day can be filled with challenges thrown at you left and right and you get through it by rolling with the punches, constantly adapting.
My first day working with the kids at the school was eventful. I went to my largest school and my schedule was filled from hour to hour where I planned on shadowing the English teacher to see how she taught the kids regularly. I get to the first class with the teacher and she begins the class by introducing me, and I had about 40 tiny eyes looking at me as I spoke the broken thai that I knew to these kids, which they probably did not understand or struggled to understand what I was saying. From there the teacher had the students take out their English workbooks and then had me lead the class in a pronunciation lesson by having the kids repeat what I say (so much for shadowing). I went through the whole day doing the same thing in each of the classes feeling drained and annoyed that the day didn't go as planned. I got home and told myself tomorrow is a new day.
The next day I had to teach at my smaller school and the same thing happened where I was introduced to the class, except this time I was given full control of the class because the teacher needed to go do something for the principal. My anxiety was at its peak because I had no plan to lead the class that day and they did not have any workbooks to go off of (they usually learn from a recorded lesson on the T.V. ; schools that do not have English teachers or the resources to provide an english lesson have to resort to teaching with a recorded program on the T.V. or computer). I thought quickly and decided to have a lesson on introductions in English, so we worked on saying "My name is..." and "I like...". The lesson went really well and the kids caught on very fast, which impressed me a lot and I was able to learn some of the kids names. These two days were completely different, however, each of these days I had to be vulnerable and put myself outside of my comfort zone to do my job. Vulnerability is a part of the job in the Peace Corps.
I have found that being vulnerable is one thing that will get me through my service here. If I was not vulnerable, I would not be able to get in front of a class of twenty students to lead activities on life skills in a foreign language. If I was not vulnerable, I would not be able to immerse myself in a culture of different foods, religions, family dynamics, hierarchy and statuses, and much more that is different from the one I grew up in. If I was not vulnerable, I would not be able to leave my home and the comfort of my family and friends to live across the world constantly meeting strangers and befriending children as my closest friends. My vulnerability is what drives my day-to-day actions since I have come to Thailand, and it will until the end of my service.
One of my favorite stories from site is one in which my vulnerability paid off in the end. It was on a Saturday, and usually on Saturday's I tend to laze around and do my housework or watch Netflix because it is one of the only times where I do not have to be "on" all the time ("on" is a term us PC volunteers use when we are around locals constantly using the local language or even trying to be in a room with a bunch of locals being mindful of our actions). I was about to go take a nap when a bunch of kids from my village and some from my classes came by my house and asked me if I wanted to go on a bike ride. This was probably one of the first times that the kids came to me to ask to hangout or doing anything really, and I was shocked. I was very ready to just say no and take my nap because I wanted to rest, but I pushed myself to say yes. I asked them where they wanted to go and they said they did not know and they wanted me to lead them, so I decided to take them to where I go running usually because it wasn't too far and it had a great view. Some of the kids said they never even went there before and I was shocked because I think everyone in the community should go. We went around once and stopped to look at the fish near the water, and we stopped at this dirt pile because they wanted to take some pictures. I got to know the kids a lot better just from riding with them and just being in their presence. It was getting late so I wanted to get them home before it got dark, and on our way back they asked me this in Thai, "Are we your friends?" I said, "Yes of course." Once we got back to my house they said, "Same time tomorrow?" How could I say no. My vulnerability to not do what I wanted to do and just say yes to being with the kids led me to having some great friendships with these kids. I have my hard days and days where I will want to be alone, but I will always say yes to hanging out with these kids, my friends.
Every day I try to be vulnerable in the work that I do, whether it be speaking up for myself with the teachers or my other co-workers in the government office or putting myself in front of twenty to thirty students teaching about life skills or saying yes to the random invitations. This vulnerability has allowed me to gain confidence in my own self, while also being a good role model for my students in the classroom. One thing that I found to be very similar among most classes that I have lead here is that the students do not have the confidence to be vulnerable in the classroom or sometimes within the community. They choose to be shy or keep to what they know and it hinders their ability to grow as individuals. I make sure to show that being vulnerable is okay, and if you fail that's ok because you can just learn from your mistakes and try again. I want them to know that it is okay being outside of their comfort zone because life is not going to always be comfortable. Learning through vulnerability has been the best tool for me to get through the challenges I have gone through in life, and I am still learning. Peace Corps has challenged my vulnerability every day, but I know with every day comes new obstacles and facing them head on only makes me stronger. I hope I can pass this on to the students I work with.
Survivor. During a conversation I was having with my friend, also a Peace Corps volunteer, we were talking about some of the things that we have been having to deal with during our time as volunteers and they said this: "This is like a really strange episode of Survivor." Now this was totally meant as a joke and I can tell you that it definitely got a laugh out of me, but it got me thinking that there is a little bit of truth behind it. If you haven't seen the show before, the main premise that I would like you to understand is that there are groups of people put into a totally different environment outside their comfort zone and have to pass certain challenges to then be deemed a survivor. Some things that are totally different from the show and my experience is that I'm not on a reality T.V. show (not yet), there's no competition, I'm not living in that rural of conditions as the contestants on the show are, I am supported by Peace Corps and my community members, and I have access to my friends and family back at home. The truth behind the statement is that I am constantly outside my comfort zone, I am challenged in ways I never have before, and just "surviving" the day is something that comes to mind every so often.
People back at home constantly like to tell me that I look like I am having the time of my life and that everything I do looks like "so much fun". Yeah, I have been having a pretty good time and I cannot complain about getting to see parts of this country I have never seen before. I have talked about a lot of the things that are going great about this experience and I am sure you have seen all of my pictures with a smile on my face. But also who wants to take a picture of the bad times, when you're stressed, or just not comfortable. It's just not realistic. In this post I would like to talk about my "Survivor" moments.
I do not know when or if I will ever get used to the weather here. Since I have been in Thailand, the weather has been 70s and above. Recently, the weather has gone days of reaching 100 degrees for weeks straight because this is their hot season. Some buildings have air-conditioning systems, like supermarkets or stores, which make for loitering in a store more of a "fun trip" when you're bored. My host family's house doesn't have an AC system so I tend to stand, sit, or lay in front of a fan for a long period of time just to keep my self from becoming the latest waterfall attraction. Sweating is a pretty normal thing in Thailand and luckily it is not really deemed as being disgusting as it would in America, which is only because EVERYONE is sweating. I can tell you right now that I always still feel disgusting. A question that you will probably hear almost every day in Thailand is, "Rawn mai", which is "Are you hot?". Sometimes I don't know if it's a rhetorical question because usually when they ask it's when I feel sweat dripping down my face or have sweat stains on my shirt. All I can really do is laugh.
However, contrary to popular belief, it is not always hot. As a matter of fact, there are times when it's pouring rain and there are hard gusts of wind that comes every so often, and it's only humid (so a little hot) or rarely it can get cold. The next few months coming up are supposed to be Thailand's rainy season so I have started mentally preparing myself. In order to be ready for the rainy season before coming to Thailand I bought myself three things: a rain jacket, an emergency poncho, and a backpack cover. Back during my pre-service training we got a little taste of what rainy season was going to be like when we had to bike from our training building to our host families' houses during a big storm. Feeling clever, I broke out my emergency poncho that I kept in the bag I was using that day, luckily (or so I thought), and I braced myself. Now to paint a picture of what wearing this poncho looked like, while I frantically pedaled as fast as I could in order to avoid being in the rain for too long, I will say this. If you have watched The Wizard of Oz think back to the scene where Dorthy is flying in her house in the Tornado and hallucinates the wicked neighbor that then turns into the wicked witch of the west riding her bike in the tornado. Well replace the tornado for just hard pouring rain and wind. Instead of the person on the bike being a mad women laughing hysterically to herself, think of a large plastic poncho over a human and the poncho only covering half the person's body (cause biking with a poncho in hard winds and rain isn't realistic), and the person is wearing glasses that they can't even see through because of the rain, still laughing hysterically to themselves. The struggle was very real. Emergency ponchos are nice in theory, but I would give it a 0/10 and would not recommend the purchase.
The weather is constantly changing and I honestly cannot keep up with it, but the trick is just to embrace whatever weather it is that day. If it is 90 degrees and sunny in the morning, then I could have the possibility of it just being really hot all day and I will be sweating on the bike ride home or it could turn into a storm and I will just be hot and wet when I have to bike home. As I am writing this, the night before was a heavy storm that I witnessed for the first time at my site, and when I say heavy, I mean roofs of some structures were thrown into trees and the power went out from the wind, rain, and lightening affecting the power cords to the houses. Though, today, it is sunny with some clouds and 80 degrees.
Paa-saa Thai (Thai Language)
Understanding Thai language has become a challenge that really is an every day issue. I had training for about two and a half months learning about my program and learning the Thai language at the same time. I would say over all I had about 128hrs of learning Thai formally during that time and then the rest of the time I was able to practice the language on my own with the locals. I had a pretty good understanding of the language before heading to my permanent site, but then we were informed that some of us were heading to a region with a different dialect of the language we were learning (central Thai dialect), so there could be more to learn. I was one of those people. I live in a region called Issan, which consists of both Thai and Lao people, so the dialect they speak is a mix between Lao language and Thai language. The dialect has similar sentence structures and some vocabulary, but the differences are changes in most of the vocabulary and other aspects of the central Thai language. I have been at site for about a month or so and I have come to realize that not understanding the dialect is something that does come as a burden for every day conversations and trying to eavesdrop (we all do it), but when they want to talk to me they know to speak central Thai.
For the most part I can understand what people try to ask me and they can somewhat understand what I am trying to say, but there are times when I am sitting in a room full of Thai people and they have rapid fire conversations in Thai or the dialect and I can only catch a few words that I understand. Usually it's my name because they are talking about me. I honestly just tune out into a state of concentration to understand what they are saying and the next minute I wake from my blank stare to someone asking me a question that I understand: "Giin cow leho roo yang" (Have you eaten yet?). Now you're speaking my language. Thai language is a five tonal language, which just means that the way you say some words just by changing the tone at which you say it can change its meaning. When I am having conversations with some of the people in my community, they can be saying one word and I can understand it one way and actually they are talking about something totally different. There will also be times where I thought I said one thing, but I said it in the wrong tone or used the wrong vocabulary and instead of what I wanted to say I actually said I wanted to get married or I wanted to eat my hand. Using body language and pictures on my phone helps a lot, but I think back to when people didn't have smart phones and I just think how difficult things could have been. Most of the time the Thai people in my community are patient with me and they know that I am trying, but every day there is always some type of confusion over the language. The mindset that I have taken up to get through it is: "Fake it Till you Make it", this consists of a lot of smiling and nodding, so far it has worked out pretty well.
If you know me well, then you would know that I hate insects. I understand their usefulness and all that mumbo-jumbo. It is not that I despise them, but I just cannot handle an insect flying into my face, crawling along my arm, or even just looking at them. Quick side-note. I took a class at my university with my friends called "People, Pests, and Plagues", and the class was designated as one where it had a lab as well (I know what you're probably thinking: "What was he thinking?"). The reason I took the class was because I heard from other friends and classmates that it was the easiest class to take, I took it with friends (shout out to the bug club!), and I did not like science at all, so I needed it to be an easy class. It turns out that it just confirmed my hate for insects when I had to stare at each of them under a microscope and study what each scientific name of the insect was; Isoptera (termites) that's all I can remember, the ugliest looking of them all. So now that you understand how I feel about insects.
Thailand has a lot of bugs. Like a lot. Did I do my research about the kinds of insects in Thailand? No. Why? Well I already knew that was gonna be a given, and yes, it did come up in my "People, Pests, and Plagues" class where some of the bugs could have been located, and yes, Thailand came up. Mosquitos, probably the biggest nuisance of them all, are actually the one insect that I have come to terms with since being in Thailand. It is inevitable that I am going to get bitten by mosquitos because they are everywhere. In order to deal with it the best I can is after my morning showers I douse my exposed skin for the day in bug spray and I go on with my day. That's all I can do. However, there is at least one new mosquito bite a week. Thankfully I am not in an area with the possibility of getting Malaria, but there is still the possibility of getting the Dengue virus during the rainy season. So yeah, dousing. All the other bugs are red ants, ants, spiders (many different kinds), cockroaches, scorpions, and yeah my favorite ISOPTERA. I could give you a long narrative about every single experience I have had with insects while in Thailand so far, but I do not feel like writing a novel for this post. I will, however, give you two short anecdotes for your amusement because I think they are hilarious.
I have come to terms with the fact that I am gonna have a lot of experiences in Thailand where they will mostly all have the words "that time when". Here are a few of my experiences that I can say I have done so far:
- I ate a grasshopper
- I ate a cricket minutes after thinking it would be different
- I thought I ordered fried rice and got rice with a fried egg on top
- I got chased by dogs on my bike and fell in a bush my first day of riding my bike
- I was called up onto a stage to dance in front of people at a festival
- I told my host mom I liked to dance, so she said she wanted to take me dancing and I ended up at the same stage, at the same festival, and was told to dance in front of a bigger crowd
- I got in the car thinking we were going to a party, but it was actually a funeral
- I got woken up at 4 a.m. by the sounds of gunshots outside my house, but it was just my neighbor setting off fireworks in the drive-way for Chinese New Year
- I got scared there was a snake on the road, but it was just a stick
- I thought there was a stick on the road, but it was actually a dead snake
- My friends and I thought we told the taxi to take us to a Mexican restaurant in Bangkok, but instead we end up outside Bangkok and the taxi driver had no idea where he was going the whole time
- My friends and I thought we were lost in a taxi again the next day on the way to our bus home, but actually we were going exactly where we told the taxi to take us the whole time
- I went with my neighbors to a wedding of someone that I thought my neighbor knew, but we realize at the end of the dinner that we went to the wrong wedding
- I gave an impromptu speech to three meetings in a row
- I ate six meals in one day
- I ate ant eggs
- I ate a farmed rat (not the same as house rats)
- I thought I was eating chicken when it was in fact frog
- I went to work thinking I wasn't going to get wet during the time of the Thai New Year (water festival), and then ended up drenched head to toe having a water fight with kids from my office
- I danced with over a thousand people in a choreographed dance in the streets of my province for the 200th anniversary of their first governor
- I lead the staff of my government office and the people of my village in their longest parade giving merits to the king
- I was pelted with mosquitos as I was biking home in the evening, only two got in my mouth
- I have had over +300 pictures taken of me by other people that I do not know since I have arrived in Thailand
I have come to a realization that my service is going to be made up of "survivor" moments. However, "survivor" moments are experiences that can happen not just in Thailand but anywhere; well I mean most of them. I have reacted to my survivor moments with frustration, anxiety and confusion, but I have found that reacting with humility, optimism, and a smile is the key to surviving. I am learning day by day, but I know I'm going to survive.
Quick update! I have finally moved to my permanent site, which is Chaiyaphum located in the Issan region of Thailand. (Thai people don't use state, county, city, neighborhood, etc. like we do in America. They say Jangwat, like a state, Ampur, like a county, Tambon, like a city, and Mooban, village. Chaiyaphum in Thai terms is my Jangwat; pictured here.) I want to say that my host family and everyone that I met at my training site are amazing people and I learned so much from the little time that I had spent with them. It was an amazing experience to be able to "learn by doing" (shout out Cal Poly) while training for what I get to do for two years. The day we left for site was bitter sweet because I had to say good bye to so many people that have been by my side since the beginning. Saying good bye to the kids that I was able to get close to in my community was very hard, but they will always have a place in my heart and I will never forget the impression they left on me. My fellow trainees helped me get through the sometimes very stressful situations and enjoyed some of my happiest memories all within the two and a half months of training we had together. However, the day we left site and the day we were sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers is the beginning of my two year Peace Corps journey in Thailand.
Today, I am writing to you from my site and I still believe that I am dreaming. My new host family consist of a family of four: Meh Samlan, Paw Boontin, Pii Saao (older sister) Niit, and another Pii Saao (she works in Bangkok and I have not met her yet, but I will soon enough). The house is beautiful (cribs video to come) and the neighborhood matches in beauty. I live in a farming village where most people farm rice, vegetables, fruit, and/or raise livestock. For work, I work with my Bhalat (vice mayor; who is the sweetest person you will ever meet) and my counterpart (community development officer in the local government office; I believe we're friends already but who knows), and so far my schedule consists of going around to each of the villages making impromptu speeches about myself in Thai and meeting the village leaders. I made a routine of getting up early in the morning to run at a trail near my neighborhood and it helps me feel like I have some control over my life, since for now my schedule is subject to whatever they have planned for me. I will have more info to come, but just know that I am being taken care of and I have been having the time of my life here. I am so excited to see where this journey takes me and I know I will grow so much; more so than I already have. One thing that I am reminded of constantly is that I have the privilege of experiencing what people can only dream of.
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
synonyms: benefit, advantage
I have been wanting to travel to Thailand for a very long time because I am drawn by it's beauty and the way everyone who has traveled here describes how kind the people are and how fascinating its culture is. I would just like to say now that I can confirm that the people are beyond kind and their culture is something everyone should experience. However, during the time that I have been here in Thailand, I have had many wonderful experiences, but I am sometimes faced with frustrating and challenging experiences as well. I find myself getting frustrated for not understanding or not knowing what to do, getting stressed when I get put on the spot, and overwhelmed by the different experiences and new information that gets thrown at me each day while trying to integrate into a culture that is very complex. I needed to stop myself, take a step back and change the way I was thinking about my situation. When I took that moment to think I came to the realization that I am very privileged to be here, to experience everything that I have so far, and what I will be able to experience. As a Peace Corps volunteer, in any country, I believe that we are given a unique experience to learn from others and to work with individuals that most people in America would never get the chance to work with. There are many benefits that come with being a Peace Corps volunteer, especially as a volunteer in Thailand, and in this post I would like to discuss some of the things that I believe makes me privileged while I'm here. I think that recognizing the privileges that I receive as an individual allows me to appreciate the life that I have, my experiences, and the people that I encounter every day. (Before reading, please recognize that these are my thoughts and my thoughts alone, people that fall within any of these general categories could feel totally different than me.) So here they are:
I am privileged because...
Hello Friends, Family, and all those who are reading! I am in Thailand! It is near the end of January and I have been here for about a month so far and it has already felt like I have been here for years. I am doing this post in two parts because I wanted to update you all on my life, but for many of my blog posts I want to focus on one subject that comes to mind that I want to write about, so it is long but it will be worth the read.
On January 4th I had landed in L.A. and all my nerves were at their highest. I got my last In-n-Out Double-Double and milkshake and once I got into the hotel I had to change and the process of the Peace Corps Training (PCT) began. Everyone I had met here are amazing individuals and we already feel like a Peace Corps family. That first day we were able to introduce ourselves to the individuals that we will be with for the next three months until we move into our permanent community placement. That first day we were able to let out all our anxieties and feelings that were shared throughout the group and some of our concerns were confirmed and some reassured. The Peace Corps staff does not shy away from putting this experience into perspective and telling us the reality of what seems too good to be true. I think its needed, this is not a vacation. The next day we were off to Thailand.
That whole day was spent traveling from the states to Thailand in two flights (flight to Seoul took 12.5 hours, a 1 hour delay in Seoul, and the flight to Thailand from Seoul was 6 hours) and one bus ride from the airport in Bangkok to our hotel (2 hours) in a city called Suphan Buri. We arrived at our hotel with time just to take a nap since it was 5 a.m. Thailand time and our first meeting was at 8a.m. and we needed to eat breakfast. The next ten days we spent in our hotel learning basic language skills, about the Thai culture, and general information we needed to know before we moved in with our host families. To paint the picture in your head of what this week consisted of I will just say this: it is a bunch of information thrown at you that you hope to retain, but in reality all your emotions are pushing to the surface and you are trying to understand the new environment you are thrown into while also containing your excitement for the new adventure you are about to embark on with these amazing individuals that you gain unexpectedly real friendships with and realize you will leave them in little over two months. I only randomly cried once. Weather here during that week was actually not as hot as one would think when you are in Thailand. At some points we were cold and we needed to throw on pants instead of shorts when walking around the city. For the most part, though, Thailand is hot and humid. If you know me well enough, I sweat regularly in California weather, so being sweaty all the time is something I got used to real quick. Though, I don't feel as self conscious about it because everyone is sweating together all the time. The city of Suphan Buri was a beautiful city that was pretty modernized compared to what you are thinking when I say "Thailand". The city itself has store fronts, apartments, market places, gas stations, restaurants, homes, Buddhist temples and yes even McDonalds. While exploring a couple of us were able to visit a "Dragon Park", sing karaoke with the training staff, eat fried rice, pad thai, etc., and enjoy ourselves in the "calm before the storm." (What I like to call it since the next couple days were not as fun).
Ten days later, we were given our bikes (our form of transportation for the next two years) and were assigned our host families in the city of Don Chedi where we are going to finish the rest of our training. All the volunteers in our group live here together until the end of our training period. I live in the southern side of the province in a area called Rai Rot and I bike about 10 miles in total per day when I go to and from my language lessons, to our main hub and back to my house.
Before I describe my host family I would like to go over how Adoption day went (Us volunteers call the day we met our host families "Adoption day" because it truly felt like we were being adopted). Our training staff tried to prepare us as much as possible to be able to communicate with our host families when we first met them, but all that training flew out the window when I was face to face with the person I would soon call "Mom". Just think of any stressful situation where you had no way to convey what you wanted to say to the person you were with, you had some type of expectation for what they were gonna be like and they were nothing of the sort. I was sweating from the weather, but I started to sweat even more from the awkwardness and the stress of the situation entirely. But as the days went on it got so much better.
I live with an amazing host family and they surpassed anything that I could probably ask for because they truly do care for me as if I was one of their own. I live with my Meh (Mom in Thai) named Apon (56), which is her nickname that translates to Apple, and my Paw (Dad in Thai, but he's actually my Meh's Dad or Uncle; I don't really know the family dynamic that well currently, obviously) named Charram (84). We have a two bedroom house, one bedroom is for me and the other is for my Meh, and my Paw sleeps in the living room. There is a kitchen in the back of my house which is also next to the bathroom (hong-naam is bathroom in Thai, needed to learn that word right away; also ahb-naam is shower in Thai, something I also learned very quickly). The neighbors around me are all related in some way whether they are blood related or through marriage, which is really nice because I became close with all my neighbors very quick. Some people to mention are that I have three kids that are my neighbors that I consider some of my closest Thai friends named Bimon (6), Sen (10), and Dt-en(13). In addition, I am really close with some older Thais that I do not remember most of their names, but one that I know for sure is Meaw (37) (pronounced meow like the Cat sound) and she is funny and honestly an all around great person to be around, and also Bimon's mother. We are already Facebook friends. Something that came to my surprise is that I also have an openly transgender neighbor who's name is Victoria (32), which is surprising because I thought that it would not be accepted as much but it is!
To sum up my daily life so far, I would say that during the week I wake up around 5:30am or 6:00am depending on how I'm feeling that day and shower. My shower is luckily with a shower head and the water can be hot, but I tend to keep it cool. One of the perks of my homestay because other volunteers are not as lucky and they have to do bucket showers, which I am sure I will need to learn later down the line, but for now I'm enjoying the little things. Once I'm done ahb-naam-ing (thailish is my thing), I change to clothes I'm willing to sweat in, pack my professional dress and any materials I need in my backpack, and fill up my water bottle. My Meeh is a true blessing because while I shower and get ready she is preparing me a large breakfast that I never finish, but I appreciate it every time. (Pics will be posted on my images tab, check them out^). I then get on my bike and bi-chakayan (ride bike in thai) either about 1 mile to my language lesson or I bike about 5 miles to our training hub where we learn about our program and different topics that get brought up throughout our service. Each day we get a break around 10:45am and then we are free to get lunch at noon, but if I am at my language class I bike from the class to the training hub and then get lunch. Usually on the days I have to bike before lunch I am dripping sweat and just accept that I am not gonna stop until I get some type of air conditioning, which is thankfully provided in our training hub. We then end our day at 5:00pm and I either hang back with other volunteers to relax or I bike my way back home on the 5 mile trek. I have recently been playing soccer, joining the local aerobics class with the older women, or playing uno/badminton with the neighbors once I get back from training as a way to de-stress. Dinner is usually around 6 or 7:00pm and I am in bed by 9:00pm because biking all day in this heat really takes a lot out of you. Weekends are starting to become a little busier, but usually I hangout with other volunteers and their host families or the host families' children. One of the days I helped my Meh with watering their Banana and Mango trees, which I believe is how they make a living but I am still unsure. These past couple of weeks we were actually lucky enough to be in this city when they have their annual Don Chedi Festival, which is a way for the community to commemorate a battle between the King of Thailand and Burmese troops that Thailand had won around this time. The festival is something like a County Fair, but much larger in scale. Some other interesting things that I have been a part of were two Monk coronations, one I found randomly walking the streets next to the hotel we were originally staying at and the second other volunteers and myself were honorary guests, and I had the chance to experience a Thai funeral for one of the community members that had passed away a week or so ago.
Overall I have been truly enjoying my experience here in Thailand! Everyone that I have crossed paths with has been welcoming and accepted all of the volunteers, including myself, with open arms. In my first post I had a couple questions rolling around in my head that had me truly anxious before, but I have some answers. Winter is now and its 90 degrees. My host family likes me, I think. Thai people really do love Karaoke as much as I do.
Identity. Something many of us hold precious, and once lost some of us can truly break. The identity of every single volunteer, myself included, has been something that has become apparent right when we walked into the room where we all had met each other for the first time in L.A. on January 4th. My identity has not been something that I have thought about every waking moment of my life, but here in the Peace Corps, especially Thailand, it seems as though my identity is something on my thoughts often. When I first introduced myself to others I thought to tell them where I'm from, my background, what I did back at home, etc. and in a sense that sums up to some part of my identity. My identity also consists of many other things though, things that you can either see on the surface or something that you wouldn't know unless I tell you.
Peace Corps is an amazing experience that can bring a volunteer a sense of fulfillment, happiness, and excitement, but at the same time be one of the most challenging experiences someone can face. Thailand's culture is complex. At one side of culture you are met with smiles and nam-jai ("water heart" in thai, which is a way of life in showing kindness to those close to you and returning that kindness as well), but on the other you are met with comments, questions, or actions that are common within their culture, but could be met with frustration, anger, or sadness in American culture. In addition, to put it bluntly, you are the foreigner(or farang, as they say in Thai), and that just means your identity is put under the spotlight or the magnifying glass as some would like to put it. I can only speak on my experiences, but for many I would just like to say they have been faced with issues around their body size, skin color, ethnic background, age, and so much more that have caused many to either feel many of the emotions I had brought up earlier or even question if they can really go through with this.
To ease the tension, I am not questioning why I am here. I am in a good place, around an amazing support network whether it be here in Thailand or back at home, and I am beyond excited to start my work here. Though, I wanted to make sure that people understand the challenges that many of us face that can affect any person thinking of joining the Peace Corps.
For me there are actually two aspects of my identity that I constantly think about while I am here in Thailand. One, I am one of "the Americans" in my community. I never really thought in the past that being American was gonna be something that was a huge part of my identity, but here it makes up most of my identity. Let's be honest us Americans can stick out like a sore thumb, but here we are giants in a field of grass. Anywhere we go for lunch or if we are going out with our host family in the festival we have our picture taken, videos taken, and even the occasional selfie. We are celebrities. Though, this is attention that none of us had asked for. My life has become the entertainment of the local thai's and it gets old very fast. I had many instances where I had been introduced to many of my host Mom's friends just because I am a foreigner staying with her. When I was at the festival I thought it would be fun to dance to the music playing, and the next minute I'm thrown up on stage to then dance with the band, which was actually really fun at first. The next day my host Mom and my neighbors ask if my other volunteer friend and I want to go dancing and I thought that would be really fun to see what kind of night life there was, so I said yes. My host Mom then takes me back to the festival to then have my friend and I dance on the same stage that they had thrown me up on the other night. This time with a bigger crowd. In my eyes I was being used for my identity as "the American". At the time I felt uncomfortable and wanted nothing more than to be out of the spotlight.
Two. I am a male from America who's single. In America, we do not really like to ask personal questions about someone's life or about the love interests of someone we had just met. Here in Thailand it is the thing that you are asked within the first 10 minutes of conversation. Not only does it come up early in conversation, but it comes up in almost every conversation you have with any new person you meet here. I have a hard time telling my own family about my love life, now I have people I have never even met asking me 20 questions. For me, though, I have something that comes as an extra challenge when it comes to these questions. I am gay. Many of you either already knew or this is your first time finding out, so if you are in the latter group welcome to my life. Being gay is something that I often have struggled with when I was back home in the states, and I have actually had a pretty great handle of it for the past 8 years of my life. Though, coming to Thailand it seems that I have been thrown back into that hole we call the "closet" once again. For me its not that I care what people actually think of me and who I love, but here I work as a volunteer and I don't know if being out will affect how I am perceived in my community and how that will affect the respect I receive or the work I am trying to do. This is the same thing that I had pushed myself through in the states since the day I knew I was gay, but it was even bigger. I questioned if my family would love me, I questioned whether my friends would still wanna be my friend, would my boss at work care, would teachers treat me differently, will I get weird looks on the street if I held the hand of a guy on the street. I dug myself out of that closet and I burned all the anxieties that were holding me back from being who I really am. Now I don't know if I will let myself endure it once again for two more years.
I've thought a lot about my identity, and here is where I'm at. Addressing the "American" part of my identity, I just need to take a step back and see the world from their perspective. When I think back to a similar experience, I think back to when there were foreign exchange students that came to my middle school for a week. I remember how those that had the foreign exchange students staying at their house were proud and excited to show their friends their new friend that they had made from a totally different country. I remember that we all were jealous and that the person showing the foreigner off was doing it to show their appreciation for them being there. Now looking at my own situation, it is a little different, but similar in the sense that I know that my host family means well in everything that they are doing for me and that I need to appreciate what is in front of me. Yes it might be a little much sometimes having 50 pictures taken of you as you eat lunch like a hungry hippo, but it is out of appreciation for me being here. Now, addressing my identity as a gay male, its a process. I have learned that many of the questions that Thai people ask you when they first meet you will always be personal and about your love life. It just means that they are trying to get to know you and get closer to you. To be honest I often appreciate the bluntness of many of their questions. For many I am close to they know a lot of what I have gone through, and these next couple of months I will rely on falling back on what I've done before. When I get to my permanent site it might be a different story, but I have not decided if I want to tell my community or not about that part of my identity. In the end of the day I am here as a volunteer to serve the greater good of the country of Thailand by teaching kids and helping them grow to be the future leaders of their communities. I have found my coping mechanisms early on and I understand my identity enough to not care whether people know or not about my true identity. I have learned so much about my self as well as the type of people that the Thai community so far consists of. In Thailand, you can find the humor in any situation and once you are able to laugh at the situation you're in or at yourself you are doing it right. I have grown more than any of you reading could ever know and it's been something amazing to experience first hand. Looking forward to the many more lessons I will be learning here in Thailand. Thanks for Reading.
It is approximately 11:13pm PST on January 3rd, 2018 and I have finally packed the next two years of my life into a suitcase, a traveling backpack, a duffle bag and a backpack. I have so many emotions rushing through my mind that it is honestly difficult to put into words because joining the Peace Corps was something that I had set my mind on since November of 2016. I guess that throws everyone off since that is only about a year ago so let me rewind and let you know why I decided to join the Peace Corps in the first place.
Fall of 2016. I am a Fourth year at Cal Poly SLO (San Luis Obispo) and I am graduating June of 2017 as a political science major. Now you're probably thinking he should have his life figured out by then, and by the looks of what he majored in he's most likely going back to school for either Grad school or Law school. Well that was the plan, Law School. Though, if you know me at all, plans can fall through and change dramatically. I had planned to take the LSAT the summer before school had started in the fall, but when I tried studying I put it off. I told myself I needed to sign up to take the test early so that I would be able to have a score by the time I wanted to apply to Law school, and I didn't do it. I subconsciously (or consciously, depends on how you wanna see it) was physically and mentally apprehensive about devoting the next three or four years of my life to school and more debt. Fall quarter starts and I begin to question everything in life and I was positive I hit my mid-life crisis at the age of 20 (cue the shocked faces and the public deniers). All jokes aside, I was stressed beyond belief because I knew I didn't want to go back to school after graduation and taking a year off sounded terrifying.
It was not until I met one of my professors that I had realized that by avoiding the impending stress that is Law School I had allowed myself to explore many options that I never knew I had. This professor was probably one of the most inspiring and genuine individuals that I have ever met. Why do I give this professor such high regards? Because she put the world into a perspective for me that I may not have been able to realize without her guidance. There is a longer story behind what the professor had told me and the rest of the class, but in short I interpreted what the professor said as this (added a lot of my own words as well):
Why would you push yourself into a job, more school, more debt and more stress only to get stuck and be unhappy with yourself. Our world is full of ideas, experiences and life, which we all take for granted, and those that are unhappy are the ones that also regret not experiencing their life to the fullest. School and work will always be there, but you only have one life, so why not take what life has to offer.
I took that to heart and my mind was racing with all the possibilities you could think of. For an assignment in the same class we were told to explore routes one could take after graduation through different programs, either more schooling or take time for service in another country or domestically. That was when I discovered the Peace Corps. The three goals behind the Peace Corps were ones that I highly resonated with, which are:
1)To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2)To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3)To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Empathy and kindness. These are the words that come to mind when I read each of those goals, and they have been something that I admire in everyone that I look up to. Showing empathy for those around you and different from you allows you to see the world from a different perspective and to understand it better. Showing kindness allows you to humble yourself and have a greater appreciation for the life you are given. So I had made up my mind to join the Peace Corps.
Fast forward over a year and here I am all packed up and ready to begin this next chapter in my life. I have been wanting a change in pace in my life for a long time now and it is finally happening. Some things I am asking myself before I take on the journey: Has everything that brought me to this moment prepared me for what is about to come? Will the people in my thai community like me? Do Thai people enjoy Karaoke as much as I do? Will everything change back in the U.S. while I am gone? Does winter ever come??? The only thing I know for sure is that I will know the answer to all of these questions soon enough.
Before I end the post, I already know some questions that might be on your mind and the answers as well:
Where will you be staying for the two years of your service?
A: I do not know yet, but I will know close to the end of my three months of training and I will inform you all when I know.
How will we be able to contact you? Will you have Wifi? Facebook?
A: I will have all my contact information on my contact page of my blog (check the top tabs), but I will have a phone that I can call from and maybe txt (have to confirm), also regular mailing is available and you don't have to but getting mail sounds exciting (I will put the address for mail and packages on the contact page as well). I will have Wifi intermittently due to it only being available to me in certain parts of my community, but it is available. I will try to update my Facebook every once in a while (if I have time) to put pictures and videos up, but definitely check my blog because that is what I will primarily update you all with!
How often will you update your blog?
A: I do not want to set a specific time frame of how often I will update the blog, but I will try to post at least every month so that you all can be in the know about what I'm doing with my life.
What is the food you will miss the most?
A: Well I ate Thai food almost every week these past couple months and it is my favorite, but I will have an abundance of that in THAILAND. But I would have to say either street tacos or pizza (specifically Costco because that is the best). Also, Milkshakes. And any persian food that my mom makes. I have a lot of food I will miss.
Thank you for reading! The next time I update this I will be in Thailand!