Dear Whomever is taking the time to read this blog, or Perspective Peace Corps Volunteer, or My family and friends, or My community members, or Someone who needs to hear this, or my Future-self,
We did it. I made it to two years and let me tell you I am full of emotions. Where has the time gone?! I can remember the day I got onto the plane to come to Thailand and then I blink my eyes and here I am packing up my house in my community getting ready to say bye. Throughout the months of my service, my friends in my cohort and I would always say we were ready to finally make it to the end of our service and be done. Well the day has finally come and there are so many mixed emotions. On one hand, I want to finally get back to America and join my family and friends to catch up on all the time lost and events that I had missed. On the other hand, I have a community of Thai locals and Peace Corps friends (let's be honest, family) that I grew close with over these past two years and I have to say my good bye's because who knows when we will see each other again. A typical question that Thai people like to ask us as foreigners working away from home is, "Do you miss your home?", and I would answer laughingly because of course I missed home and I was annoyed they even asked. Now, they started making statements saying like, "He missed his home, so he is happy he will go home.", but they would also add "Will you miss Thailand?" The thing that they don't realize is that when I hear the word "Home" there is more than one place that comes to mind. To answer the question of if I will miss Thailand, well the answer is: Yes, of course I will miss Thailand.
These past two years I have done a lot of introspection because well that is what happens when I am stuck in a village full of people that do not speak my first language. Thailand has taught me so much and it is kind of scary how different I have become since being here. Before coming to Thailand I found myself scared to be myself and just doing what others were doing because it was safe. Now, do not get me wrong, I am an outgoing individual no question about it, but internally there was a fight between who I am and what I thought was what other people want to see on the outside. However, while living in Thailand I noticed that individuality was not a common characteristic of Thai youth and the adults as well, which made me realize how can I try to teach that the students need to be more confident in their individuality when I myself was not confident in my own. I found my individuality in Thailand. Being myself made me able to find my place here and I stopped caring what people around me thought and in-turn I saw that many of my students started to feel comfortable showing their individuality as well. Being gay, I have always been "a lot" but in America I saw myself holding back who I really was to make others feel comfortable. I am done making others feel comfortable. I am ready to bring this confidence back with me. If you find yourself holding back who you are, bringing yourself down, or not being "too much", well I want you to know that it is not you who needs to change, but actually it is the people around us that needs to accept you for you and if they can't well then they don't deserve a place in your head space. They were too toxic for you anyways.
I have started thinking about what I was going to be doing when I got back to the U.S. and I have my answer: I do not know. Now, before the people reading this that had a ten-year plan since they were born have a heart attack, hear me out. I have a vision for what drives me toward my goals and I will find the jobs that lead me to that vision and goals, but does that mean there is only one path to take to get there, no. I have broken down this widely accepted notion in my head that was taught to me since I was a kid that I needed to have one plan to get one profession and that should be my goal for my life. Let me tell you right now, a job is not what makes life meaningful. Read that again. The one thing that brought me to want to go to a university was because I was told that was the next step in my career. I will say that going to a university for me was a great decision because it helped me realize that everything I was told growing up was not the one way to do life, but actually there are many ways to do life, which lead to my decision to join the Peace Corps. However, going to a university is not for everyone. These past two years I decided to walk the path less taken and it was the best decision of my life. Of course this is a risky decision because I was leaving the life I have lived for my whole life full of my family, friends, and an environment I knew and you pretty much have to give up your comfortability. But life is about making risky decisions so I can know myself and the world around me. Would I recommend you join the Peace Corps? Absolutely yes! Would I recommend anyone to join the Peace Corps? Absolutely not, but why not look into it and see if that is something you would be able to do because it only starts with an idea of: when will you ever have an opportunity like this again?
I am ready for my next chapter of my life. I will miss the people I have met along the way through this experience because they have all prepared me for what is ahead. I have this new found confidence in how I will meet the challenges that life will present me along the way and I know I have a strong network of support that will help me if I need as well. How do I thank all the people that have brought me to where I am today? Easy. Continue to strive for my highest potential in all aspects of my life, take risks that scare me but have the potential to make me challenge myself to be better, and remind myself every day that life will be full of peaks and valleys and many amazing experiences in the future. Last, but not least, I learned I can do hard things.
Pii Cy, Dtong-Khla, Ta-krai
People like to ask me to describe my experience in the Peace Corps, but for us volunteers we can’t really put our service into just one sentence or word because that was two years of our life. If we actually described our service to you sufficiently it would probably take hours, but I would most likely lose you after the first five minutes because you were expecting a few sentences or a couple words. However, don’t worry because I came up with the one sentence that can describe at least most of what my time in the Peace Corps was like and that is: Living an uncomfortable life comfortably.
I started the Peace Corps in Thailand without knowing the language, culture, or geography, but I definitely knew the food. However, now two years later I can tell you that each region is not defined by one “Thai” culture, but that there are many small communities of people with many fascinating cultures and languages (since each region has its own dialect) that live harmoniously in this beautiful part of the world. I am one week away from closing out my service here in Thailand and I can definitely say that I love this country and will happily call this my second home, but it took a lot of challenges and moments of feeling uncomfortable to get here. I had lived a life of comfort for the 22 years that I lived in America with some challenges along the way, but nothing like the Peace Corps.
The first week I met the people I would be working with for the next two years of my life and the family that I would look to for guidance in this community I knew nothing about. I was told to get into a car with complete strangers, said bye to my friends that I made in just two and a half months, and pretended to sleep in the six hour car ride to my community (talk about awkward). Jump to two years later and I can finally say that I made it to the end of my service, somehow. Many community members and children would call to me, “Farang!” (“foreigner” in Thai), and I would respond with “Pom Chuu Cyrus” (“My name is Cyrus”) with them only to yell out “Farang!” the next day. Every day in my community I felt like I was in a Zoo where in fact I was the animal attraction and everyone else were spectators into my life because anywhere I went I would get empty stares. I spent many days sweating through shirts and biking miles to get anywhere because my bike was my only transportation. I made Life Skills lesson plans for my classes every week to then be told I have to help teach the English lesson to the students and then have the teacher leave me alone to go have the day to herself doing god knows what. I forced myself to eat meals that I would never eat for the sake of integration. I planned and executed projects sometimes on my own that were supposed to be a team effort, but my counterpart was always too busy with other projects to be able to help me. Sometimes I was put on the spot to give speeches to people all in Thai with nothing prepared. I usually had to be the energetic, fun, and friendly teacher to give my students the motivation to join the class for hours throughout the day because by the first hour of school the students were checked out. I would also have to be a serious and not-so-fun teacher when I had to have serious conversations with students who were disrupting class, if there were cases of bullying, or when students were threatening each other with broken glass (true story) because the only form of punishment the other teachers knew was the use of a stick or yelling.
Days were long, but I enjoyed it for the most part not because I enjoyed being uncomfortable. It was because I found my solace. Comfort in a state of being uncomfortable was not easy to find and it took time and many moments of wanting to give up.
I found comfort in taking time for myself and nights alone at my house where I can be alone with my thoughts, cook for myself, listen to my music, watch Netflix for hours, and in comfortable clothes. I did not actually enjoy being alone before coming to Thailand and it was actually something that caused anxiety for myself. However, overtime I had learned to love my own company and taking time for myself. I also loved being able to have time at home to work-out and run in my community because usually it was my time to let my thoughts run free and decompress from the stressors of the day. Fitness has been a source of self-care for me for as long as I can remember and the heat of Thailand was not going to stop me even though I would be dripping sweat after every work-out. I picked up reading again while I have been out here which also helped fill days where I had nothing to do, which was often. It was something that I had to give-up while I was in college because usually school work, my job, and other responsibilities took precedent, but I am so happy I have had the time to lose myself reading. I planned trips to see different parts of Thailand and to meet up with my fellow volunteers because I wanted something to look forward to that was for me. This will also be something that I fully incorporate into my life when I get back to America because why limit yourself and your opportunities because of your work.
I found comfort in talking with community members I was close with and my fellow volunteers going through the same struggles as I have gone through. The most interesting thing about the Peace Corps is that if you talked to volunteers in five or ten different countries, you can probably find many similar challenges that they have all gone through. It’s relieving, honestly, to know that you aren’t the only one going through these sometimes ridiculous struggles like falling into the squatty potty, ants or other insects eating or ruining your things in your house, or locals harassing you to date or marry their children. I have a set group of people I go to in my cohort that we go to each other just to vent and feel validated by each other and after I find myself laughing at myself and my own struggles because they helped me realize how wild this life is. You know who you are. I also have community members that are there for me as well and we like to gossip about the people we work with and how much our work would be easier if something or someone would change. It’s comforting to know that I am struggling with the local people because I know then that it’s not because I am a foreigner.
Lastly, I found comfort in seeing my kids. Yes, there were definitely days when I needed a break, but for the most part days with them made the struggles worth it. At one of my schools when I got there on my bike dripping in sweat, one student would see me and then run back to the class he came from to let all the other students know I had arrived and you would hear a distant yell of excitement. Any time I would play games with my students, many of the younger students that I did not teach watched in awe and would always beg me to play with them after or to ask if they can join. The time I had at the school with the kids became a time of excitement and something to look forward to for the kids and that was all I ever wanted because I knew they were having fun. The one thing that made me the happiest teacher at the school was when they understood the concept I was teaching or if they took it upon themselves to explain the activity to their friends because it helped me know I was doing something right for the most part. Coming to school sometimes was rough, but they made it better.
Finding my solace made my service. If I didn’t, I probably would not have been able to finish my service. Doing things for myself was very important and I cannot wait to bring this newfound approach to life when I come back. For now, I will still ride this wave of discomfort for a couple more days.
I’ve had a couple hard weeks. Let’s be honest, I’ve had a couple hard months. It has been hard to write these last couple months because I did not want to write about something negative, but my friend recently told me, why not? I don’t really know how to answer that. It is hard to write or be up-front about what makes life hard, so here I am trying to be as real as possible.
It is my second year being in the Peace Corps and we had our mid-service conference that had brought this newfound confidence and drive that made me ready for the home stretch until I return home. I was told by many people that have come before me in the Peace Corps that the second year is a lot “easier” and I was really looking forward to that because I needed easier. Coming from the first year of my service, I started to understand my community and all of its flaws, but also everything that makes it so great. I love my community and everyone that I interact with as well. The people of Thailand have the biggest hearts and will do anything if it means it would help others because that is just who they are. My students actually want to come to my class when I teach because they started to actually understand my Thai for the most part and they enjoy the activities that I do with them. However, the flaws of my community are deep seeded and derive from the culture that is widely accepted throughout their country. The flaws consist of poor communication skills between organizations and within an organization, lack of drive to focus on the actual lessons but rather the image of an event or activity, the idea of hierarchy of age, job ranking, or gender and how it takes precedent over anything in any situation, and more. Now I am not an expert in Thai culture and I cannot speak to every aspect of their culture or the meaning behind everything that they do. Sometimes even the Thai people I talk to do not know why they do the things they do. Though, I have been living in Thailand for almost two years now, so I take notice to these things because they definitely affect my everyday life and the work that I do here. I will acknowledge that there are many people within Thailand that do not agree with certain traditional cultural norms and there has been a steady wave of change throughout the country mostly through the younger generations. This is something that we can most likely say about any other country as well, especially in the U.S.; whether you believe that it is a good or bad thing is up for interpretation.
Part of the job of a Peace Corps volunteer is to work around the cultural challenges respectfully and to inspire the locals you work with to become experts in the work you do with them in the hopes once you leave they can do that work on their own. I am not here to change their culture. I am here to inspire and encourage those I interact with to bring new ideas and actions in order to lead the youth to bring positive change as the future leaders of their community; that is where my frustrations come from. How am I supposed to inspire and encourage new ideas, when the biggest obstacle that I am met with is the culture of the community itself?
An analogy that I believe is an accurate depiction of what the youth I work with deal with is this: Imagine you are running a hurdle race, representing life. Each hurdle represents an obstacle or challenge you may face throughout your life whether that be individual, environmental, systemic, or cultural. For the most part you have to face these obstacles alone. Yeah, people in your life can assist you by lowering that hurdle, taking that hurdle away, or being a coach on the sidelines cheering you on to push harder and encourage you to go further. Though, you have to exert that energy and have that drive to push yourself forward. Each hurdle can be different in size representing the difficulty it can represent in your life and, sadly, each person in this race does not have the same size hurdles as you. The students I work with have hurdles that I do not believe most others face in other countries. Here are a few examples. Their parents work in other provinces, sometimes only visiting every other week, in order to make enough money to support their families. Due to their low income, many students aren’t able to continue their education past secondary education and stop going to school at the age of sixteen. Resources at the schools within the village do not have the money or resources to provide students the same quality education of the students that go to the city schools. In some households there are no adult role models besides their grandparents or older siblings. Sometimes classes are cancelled for weeks at a time due to events from the school or local government. Teachers on the verge of retirement have little to no motivation to teach and plan lessons. These are just a few that I know of and I am sure the youth in these communities are even met with many more hurdles. On the sidelines, I am there. I am there encouraging them to push harder, to meet the obstacles with a different approach, and encouraging other people in the community to do the same. However, I cannot be there for every obstacle and sometimes just encouragement and different ways to approach a challenge isn’t enough and at some point I will not be that coach anymore. I am left to hope they take what I teach them and it helps them and the adults in their life make the change needed to face these obstacles with the necessary resilience and drive to get them through the race.
Sometimes watching from the sidelines is hard, frustrating, and I feel defeated, which has been a lot of what I have been feeling lately. I came into this year with a new set of goals and the motivation to push forward projects that I was not as confident before to do. I had clear plans and expectations that things were going to be so much better. They weren’t, for the most part. The same obstacles were in the way and no one was there to move them out of the way for the students or myself. I felt trapped in a cycle of feeling useless. But there is a silver lining. I learned to just breathe. Just breathe, taken in my surroundings, understand the support that I do have (still wasn’t a lot, but it was there), and remember to never have expectations. I needed to understand to not put the weight of the culture of the community all at once on my shoulders, but instead recognize what I can manage with the support that I have. I have one teacher that is amazing and recognizes the obstacles in place and has already made the conscious decision that she cannot take it all on herself. She makes the effort to be there every day for the students and teach them as best she can, and that is enough. I have some of the best students that come in with amazing attitudes when it comes to the activities and lessons that I do, and they make the time for me when they know they do not have to. I have a counterpart that is constantly busy with some activity he is asked to put on by his superiors, but still is willing to work with me and discuss the logistics of my projects and be patient with the broken thai that I can speak. I have co-workers that are willing to help me when I need, even when it has nothing to do with the work that they do in the community. I have a host family that loves me like a son and takes care of me no questions asked. Lastly, I have a community of volunteers behind me dealing with the same obstacles and situations that I deal with and are willing to listen when I just need to let out my frustrations.
In a job where I face challenges constantly I try to look at what’s affecting me in my job and see what I can change to make the job easier for me or to work past the challenges. I can change my attitude going into my work. I can change the way I approach the problem in my job. However, in my life, I understand that there are things that are not in my power to change or fix. The systemic and cultural challenges are still going to be there in my way, and I know I cannot change them. Working internationally this is probably one of the biggest challenges that I have noticed for myself, besides the language barrier. I cannot change others’ attitudes or their work ethic. Every job that I have worked so far in my life has had the same issues and you learn to adapt and be resilient in the face of adversity. If life was not hard, then there would be no need for growth. My time in the Peace Corps has helped me grow and change to a very different person than I was when I first came to this country and I am grateful. I have so little time left with my community and it all seems surreal that in just a couple months this will all come to an end. These last couple of months left with my community I plan to be present and to take on what I can, which is how I should have been doing it all along. Sometimes I think about who I would have been if I didn’t join the Peace Corps and in all honesty I can’t because in every scenario I find myself going through this experience no matter what. I have been told that “you were made for this job”, in regards to being a Peace Corps volunteer, but in reality this job was made for everyone. We are living this job every day, interacting with people and cultures different from us all the time at home, school, or work, but the only difference is Peace Corps teaches you in extreme conditions. This experience also leads to the most important lesson. Just breathe.
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.