11 January, 2018

A Beautiful Beginning


Breanne McNitt is a 2017-18 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at Chiang Saen Wittayakom School where she teaches Mattayom students. Bre is originally from St. Joseph, Michigan and graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A.E. in Secondary Math Education and a minor in Parks and Protected Area Management. When she is not laughing and learning with students, you can find Bre exploring Northern Thailand landscapes with her camera around her neck, riding her bike into the middle of rice fields, or listening to podcasts on an eighties-style green bus.








I boarded the plane to Thailand filled with energy. Not the energy you get from being nervous, surprisingly I wasn’t nervous, but the energy you get from embarking on a long awaited adventure. After over a year filled with essay writing and lots of waiting, my dream of being a Fulbright ETA in Thailand was finally beginning. It was not an easy road to get here. The application process forced me to stick to who I was and believe in myself despite the noise from outsiders. So when I received the email notifying me of my acceptance to be a 2017-18 Fulbright ETA in Thailand, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Working towards a big dream and having it pan out just as hoped is a surreal feeling.

During my 24-hour travel day to reach my new home, I just kept thinking about all that was in store for me. I was about to be thrown into a culture I had never experienced before and be surrounded by a language I did not speak at all. But as mentioned, I wasn’t nervous; I was excited for the challenge. A challenge that I knew was going to shape the rest of my life, and allow me to form incredible connections with others despite a language barrier. 

And now I find myself three months into this experience, and loving every moment.

My new home, Chiang Saen, is a beautiful, serene town. The “c-shaped” wall around the town connects to the MeKong River and holds in the town’s peacefulness. Trees grow in the cracks of the brick wall, and ruins are scattered around Chiang Sean. From the banks of the river, one can watch the sunrise over Laos in the morning, and at night enjoy a meal from one of the vendors (low tables are set up to eat off of as you sit on the ground).


Sunrise from the banks of the MeKong River, looking from Chiang Saen across the river to Laos


The atmosphere of Chiang Saen’s structure is only enhanced by the people who inhabit it. I have received nothing but smiles and helping hands since my arrival three months ago. On every bike ride to the market, the locals around me send warm smiles my way, and the occasional “Hello” is shouted in my direction as I peddle by. Little kids point at me and shout “farang,” (the Thai word for a westerner) to which I respond with “Hi” accompanied by a wave. I feel like a celebrity, but one who only receives positive attention. And although the attention is optimistic, being constantly noticed has been quite the adjustment for me--usually I try to avoid being the center of attention. 

Markets seem to be the heart of Chiang Saen. The Thursday Night, Saturday Night, and Sunday Morning Markets bring together a majority of the town. The food stalls are endless and the clothing and other knickknacks are abundant. Luckily, my minimal Thai language abilities allow me to navigate my way through the markets--a good skill to have when my diet now mainly consists of as many different tropical fruits as I can stuff myself with. The conversations are a bit confusing though, because as I am trying to practice my Thai the locals see me and want to practice their English. But we both get enjoyment out of this, so the exchange continues in its choppy rhythm. 

But for me, the true gem in this wall-surrounded town, is Chiang Saen Wittayakom School. Maybe I’m biased because in addition to teaching there I also live on the school’s campus—come visit and I think you’ll agree though. My two-story house is way too big for one person, but I am so grateful to have it as my beautiful home for the next year. A home I share with many different insects and reptiles. At first the Tokay geckos, snails, frogs, and scorpion were all very startling to me, but I’ve come to embrace them (well not the scorpion, I brushed him out of my living room the night I found him and he hasn’t returned yet). These unintentional pets add a little bit more life to my otherwise still, silent house. And they haven’t found their way to the second floor so I don’t need to worry about being crawled on while I sleep.

***


During the school week, I make the two-minute walking commute to my office. The students are all arriving at this time too, so as I pass them I’m greeted with “Good Morning, Teacher.” and “Hello, Teacher.” These warm welcomes knock the morning tiredness right out of me, and get me excited for another day. My office is a desk in a large room that the Language Department has claimed. I share this space with the other ten foreign language teachers--all of whom have showed me nothing but warmth since my arrival. The school has both Chinese and English language classes, and besides me and the two Chinese student teachers, everyone else in the department (and the school as a whole) is Thai. From my office it is also a very short commute to any of the classrooms I teach in. I switch between 4 different rooms, and they are on the same level as my office or just up one flight of stairs, but all in the same building. 


With students in my Matthayom 4/1 class on the first day together. This class only has 9 students in it, and is a nice mid-week break from the usual classes of 30+ students


My students range from matthayom one to matthayom six, which is equivalent to seventh through twelfth grade in the states. With just over four hundred students split up into the sixteen class that I teach each week, I get to interact with close to half of the students at the school. This is very rewarding, but also a challenge trying to cover topics when I only see them once a week. However, this lack of time has motivated me to make the most out of every class. And with no curriculum laid out for me, I get to pick and choose what I want to cover with my students. This is a fun, creative challenge for me. Every class has their own personality and generally has around thirty students, but I get a break from this chaos with my one class mid week that only has nine students in it (pictured above minus the one boy who wasn’t there that day).

The school day ends at 4:30pm, and I walk back home. Evenings are filled with a bike ride to the market, yoga, reading, ukulele, Netflix, and planning future adventures. 



Sunrise at Phu Chi Fa


***
Landscapes in Northern Thailand are like nothing I’ve experience before. So I am spending my weekends attempting to be a public transportation weekend warrior in order to interact with as many off these lush mountainsides and roaring waterfalls as I can. And luckily, Thailand has a lot of public transportation options; it’s just rarely posted online. But after asking around and a few failed attempts, the system starts to make sense. Northern Thailand is a special place. Many people come to Thailand envisioning the beaches of the south, and never see the magic (and cooler temperatures) that graces the north. My weekends have been spent falling in love with these landscapes of my new home. In Phu Chi Fa, I got to see one of the most breath-taking sunrises of my life as the sky filled with color and low fog covered the valley below. In Mae Salong, I explored hill tribe villages and tea fields that create life in the overgrown, green mountainsides. In the area surrounding my town, I’ve ridden my bike past the sky reflecting in the calm waters of Chiang Saen Lake and found myself a little lost in endless expanses of rice fields.

No matter where I find myself on the weekends, it is reassuring to know at the end of them I get to return to a town that I feel at home in--a town full of so many kind people who will go out of their way to help me. Like the unfortunate time I returned to Chiang Saen after a long day of travel, only to discover my bike was no longer where I’d locked it. I was flustered and shocked to discover someone had stolen my bike while I was away. After walking home, I messaged my host teachers and Alex quickly responded to tell me we’d go to the police station in a few minutes. In the US, police rarely blink and eye when you tell them your bike has been stolen. Often times you either have to fend for yourself or just give up and buy a new bike. With this preexisting assumption, I just figured my bike was gone for good and no one could do much to help. But Thailand is much different--at least a small town in Thailand is. We got to the police station and they were very engaged in all the details and I felt more at ease instantly. Alex helped translate everything I needed to tell the police, and the following day we met up with them at the “scene of the crime” to give more details. The police investigators noted the street cameras and said they’d check those and give us a call once they got more information. Even if my bike isn’t found, this at first horrible situation has turned into a very eye opening one. From Alex helping me through the initial frustration, to the police giving the search their best effort, to P’Tommy who is now letting me borrow his bike, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to be living in Chiang Saen.



Workers at the rice fields in Chiang Mai that we saw as we were wandering around the bamboo bridges


Weekdays are spent engaging with the beauty of locals and their lifestyle, and weekends are spent absorbing the beauty of the landscapes that cover Thailand. Life here is simple and beautiful, and I love every step of this journey as I discover my place in my new home.


08 November, 2017

Dand“Y”lions



Yeng Her is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thaikasikorn Songkraw School in Chonburi, Thailand, where he taught English to Prathom 4 to Matthayom 3 students (4th to 9th grade). Yeng is from Providence, Rhode Island and recently graduated from Brandeis University with a B.A. in Studio Art and minor in Elementary Education. Yeng can be found enjoying the company of his students outside of the classroom while creating a contemporaneous environment to exchange culture. When he is not conversing with his students, he enjoys photographing the beauty of Thailand, listening to the tune of music, strolling down his community, and exploring the delicious food that Thailand has to offer. After serving as the three-month Temporary Program Coordinator, Yeng will return to the United States to pursue his master’s degree in international education in hopes of coming back to Thailand to further develop the Thai education system and curriculum. 






Every weekend my father headed to the field and met up with our cousins to play soccer. Every day he had to dig for gold (picking his burgers), even in public. Every hour he told me to clean up after my older siblings’ messes, and every second he reminded me that I needed to be less selfish and more family orientated. Every time I never understood what he did and why he demanded these requests from me. As a young boy, I sat in the backyard outside of my parent’s rented apartment and watched the wind blew through the sea of flowers. With each rush of the wind, there were no flower petals scorching through the air, except for one. Dandelions—their puffy seeds were the only one flying with the wind and freeing themselves to explore another area. Each time I was outside, my Dad came and observed me and said, “That’s you, plain, simple, and no vibrant colors, yet the only one who’ll fly with the wind.” Proceeding to throw his gold away next to me. I didn’t fully understand what he meant and why such an analogy. Honestly, I was upset because he called me plain and simple. However, being here in Thailand, I can now, more than ever, comprehend what my father said.


Born in Phanat NiKhom, Chonburi, Thailand and raised in the United States, as a Hmong-American, I was always conflicted with the ideology of individualism and collectivism. Obviously, my father did and said things that I grew up frowning upon because I saw it as obscene. There was always a conflict, within me, between what ideology to follow or implement in situations. At any moment, when these moral conflicts erupt, I think back to the dandelions’ fluffy seeds and wish how I can fly away to another place. A place that can give the answers and sight to begin to empathize and sympathize with my culture, and my father. That place, I believe, will soon become Thailand. 




The Mekong River that My Parents cross to ensure a future for their family.

***

I landed in Bangkok, Thailand, eager to learn about the culture that had heavily impacted my family. Little did I know that everything would become apparent and clear to why my family’s (my father’s) values reflect more with collectivism and why certain gestures or actions are done. The beaming heat struck me while standing by the BTS, casually waiting as I jerked my face to see if the train was coming, right then I saw this man “digging for his own gold.” I initially brushed it off thinking maybe he thought no one saw him. Then, as I entered the BTS I saw another man “digging for gold,” too. A rush of emotions overcame me as it reminded me of my father and how disgusted I was with him doing this in pubic. Tears dripped down my cheeks and I quickly pulled back to recoup. All I could think of was how foolish I was to never ask my father questions, but instead judged him right from the start. This action was merely a common and less serious matter than what I or western culture viewed it as. I wiped the tears away as I stripped away the prejudice I had, realizing the growth I needed and the enrichment Thailand had and would provide for me. 





First time at Chatjujak Weekend Market in Bangkok.

***

After a month of orientation, it was finally time to depart Bangkok and head to my province, Chonburi. I thought to myself this is where I will build my own home and new family for the coming year. My Host Teachers have become my Thai siblings and like any other Thais, food is an important aspect of building relationship. Every weekday at 11:30, the high tones of Pi Pi said “Bpai gin kao mai?” (You want to go eat?) and obviously we all headed to the canteen to eat. After the fulfilling meal, we gossiped about our lives; while the pile of dishes was staring back at us demanding to be washed. Time passed and I finally realized the keen eyes of my pi pi that hovered over me as I stared back with no clue of what was expected of me. Just like my father, I was reminded that as the youngest person, in a group setting, it is respectful to clean up after your elders or anyone older than you. The light bulb just lit up in my head, I smiled and giggled because I grew up with the same values hammered into my brain. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t apply such values here in Thailand since I was familiar and practiced it back home. Again, this conflict of ideology confused me and this time I already flew like the dandelion’s puffy seeds to another place. That night I decided to truly use this chance, in Thailand, to educate myself experientially about collectivism while sharing the ideals of individualism with my Pi Pi. This, I hoped, would give me the tools to fully empathize with my father and the Thai culture.




My Pi Pi and I all glammed up as Thai Folk Lore characters.

***

The weekend came and my Pi Pi and I went to school to work on school documents or lesson plans. On a Saturday, the school field was full of people from the community, even my students were there playing soccer or just hanging out. I asked my students “sa nuk mai?” (is it fun?) and they replied with an enthusiastic “YES!” Saying that was a chance for them to see and interact with their friends and family. Observing this environment, I began to reminisce about my father and how he would play football (soccer) on a Saturday with our cousins. I gazed into the distance and I became overjoyed. The laughs, smile, and interactions of the Thais helped me realize what it means to be family orientated. It’s all about being together and sharing the moment as a family—Being present and building a closer relationship with each other so that everyone empowers one another to be the best version of themselves. Recognizing this, I grew to appreciate the moments that my family had together, be it good or bad moments. Through them all, we became stronger and fearless of the world together.



My students stretchingbefore football.

***

An August day with a breeze that melted you to the core, and the sun was hidden by the gloomy clouds. My Thai students stampeded up the stairs and asked me, “chop dokmai arai?” (What flower do you like?). I pondered and was going to reply with roses, but as a gush of wind passed by; I closed my eyes and saw dandelions’ soft seeds flutter everywhere around me. I opened my eyes and said “Dandelions.” My students stared at me with blank and confused faces. I forgot here in Thailand there are no dandelions. With the power of internet, I showed them and they were fascinated by the shape of them. My students loved how the petals turn into seeds that create a circular ruffle affect and the simplicity of the flower. Like the usual questions that I get from my Thai students, they asked “Tammai?” (Why?). I didn’t or couldn’t reply because some part of me struggled to produce a reason why, another part of me did not comprehend why. I answered with a simple, “suay na,” (beautiful). My Thai students made me wish I had asked my father more questions about Hmong culture and about the gestures and actions he had done, and the origins of it all. All it took was a simple why. 


Mind (students nick name) said that I was there (Mo. 3/1) favorite flower, then proceeded to hug me.  

***

Learning how Thailand’s culture impacted my father’s life hurt because every second is a reminder that he is no longer here, yet every time fond memories of him emerge too. I draw out the positivity from each incident and manifest it to find closure, in which I believe is bringing us closer as father and son. Having to leave the United States right after my father passed away, while my family was in a state of grief was a difficult decision. Thus, I came to Thailand not only searching for answers from the Thai culture, but also a family. Lucky for me they found me. As soon as I came to my province, a Thai family, who owns a nursery next to my apartment, adopted me into their family. Kun Mae (mother) owns and runs the nursery and with her daughter Pi Kang. Each day as I walked passed the nursery, Pi Kang chanted out loud, “Nong Yeng, gin khao rue yang?” (Did you eat yet?).I replied, “gin aa-gaad leeo.” (I ate air already). We both burst into laughter as she transitioned into her serious face and scolded me for not eating breakfast. After, the loving Pi Kang surprised me, each time, with different breakfast snacks to fill me up before school began. The hospitality that this family, particularly Kun Mae and Pi Kang, showed me only furthered my appreciation and gratitude to live life with a family orientated perspective. These beautiful, passionate, and caring women allowed me to learn and share the happiness of their family, without asking any favors from me. This has empowered me to love even more and share my love to those who need it. 



My Thai Family and I enjoying each others company presently.

***

With a blink of an eye, one school semester has already passed and now I can say that I assimilated pretty well to the Thai culture (collectivism). I have learned many Thai phrases and automatically use them in my own sentences. My family would express confusion when I use “na” or “jaa” at the end of my sentences. By now I am confident that I have a better appreciation and comprehension of Thai culture and its impact in the Hmong culture as well. Moreover, I recognized the importance and values of a teacher profession and how highly respected it is, compared to those in The United States. As a foreign American teacher, specifically a Fulbright grantee, this comes with privileges in itself. Nevertheless, teaching English in a culture that isn’t exposed to the diversity of America, where the people perceive America through the portrayal of Hollywood, will bring your ability as a non-white foreign teacher to questions. Solely because of my ethnicity I can be seen as less competent, intelligent, and capable than my White counterparts. The dreadful repeated questions of: “are you really from America?” “You didn’t learn English first?” “Which parent is White?”, strain the body and soul of one’s stability. As much as Thailand continues to help me understand my family and Hmong culture, I am committed to do the same for my students, Pi Pi, and community. To combat the pedestalization of White Americans, which stems from the systematic poor representation of media (and more), and in order to generate constant growth of Thais’ view of America through every interaction I have with them, I try to use every opportunity to educate and exchange culture and its values to certify that everyone becomes confident, comfortable, and empower to be themselves, without equating to white western standards. Thus, creating lesson plans involving visuals of different ethnicity, cultures, etc. to giving daily compliments to everyone is all to ensure my Thai students, and Pi Pi that although we are all different, we are all individual humans and that’s what makes everyone beautiful. 




My students waiing in the upmost respectful way to me on Wai Kru Day.


These interactions and experiences of the problematic glorification of White western standards in Thailand caused an epiphany within me. Removed from America and placed in a remote area of Thailand, I now fully grasp and first handedly see the detrimental effect that social media has on representation of America. How depiction of white western beauty standards, colorism, and under-representation within ethnicities contribute to an injurious culture exchange. As a result, I have seen negative perceptions toward certain physical qualities of individuals because it does not underline with what social media have subliminally affirm as standard and appropriate. Apprehending this allowed me to reason and rationalized the cultural practices of Thai, such as: skin whitening (surgery or cream), avoiding the sun (using umbrella during sunny days), elevating White foreigners (constant compliments and pictures), using color contacts (to exhibit a foreigner perception), and daily comments on skin color (comparing or remarks). That being said, I cannot give an excuse to the undertone message that these cultural practices are generating. Hence, I learn to conduct myself with confidence and appreciation of my own physicality, mentality, spirituality hoping to emulate the same energy and insight to everyone. 

The more I learn about Thailand the more I reciprocate the learning about America. I finally was reassured and realized the small validity I have made when my Pi said, “Yeng bai wieng mai, (go jogging/running?) so you can get a tan and look beautiful.” The vocabulary used brought joy to me because instead of using dark or black my Pi used tan. Most importantly, my pi exclaimed that a tan skin color is beautiful, something I never expected to hear in Thailand anytime soon, exemplifying that they not only recognized, but also slowly diverging from the white-centric beauty standards. Coming into my community with questions and comments like, “Did you get plastic surgery on your nose?” “What product did you use to get white skin?” “I want to have a nose like you.” and “I want the same confidence as you.” I am so exhilarated to see the growth my students and Pi Pi have gained. I have witnessed my students, who were shy, timid, and partial, bloomed into the growing outspoken, curious, and open-minded individuals now. Throughout the year, I saw the confidence in my Pi Pi flourished where we all were not afraid to be our true selves—no filters. Pi Jeffrey (my host teacher) started as a man who barely used social media, nor took photos/selfies and has now became the man with the confidence to accept himself, and showcase it to the world. Now, I hear the high-pitched voice of him saying, “Selfie, selfie, selfie,” and right after he will post them up on Facebook. From a barely updated newsfeed to everyday statues, Pi Jeffery inspires me to continue to be myself in order to allow others to be their real selves. Although, as a whole, the result won’t be prominent, I am still hopeful that the exposure to a ‘holistic’ American culture will slowly transcend and become applicable to the greater Thailand.




Borisat Thaikasikorn Songraw celebrating Buddhist Lent Day. With Director Paul, Host Teachers and Students. 


My Matthayom 1/2 students being their crazy self.

***

My time here at Thaikasikorn Songkraw sadly came to an end. I reflected on the amount of knowledge I’ve gained about Thai culture and how important it has helped me empathize and sympathize with my father and family ideology. I am now confident in myself to be comfortable to make decisions reflecting an individualistic, collectivist or both approaches, to balance the two ideologies and implement them accordingly. From my Thai family and students, I was given the chance to educate and exercise the ideals of collectivism. More than ever, I can cultivate my family morals and still be a radiating individual human. I am truly forever thankful to Thailand and the people who have impacted my journey here. I will carry with me the knowledge and values taught to me and employ them to those I love and care about. No matter what the barriers I might face in the future, I know I can overcome those and reach any individuals with the passion shown to me. Like a dandelion that floats wherever the winds blow and sprouts a new life wherever its seed touches, I hope I have implanted knowledge, confidence, and love to those I have encountered, learned from, and cared for in Thailand.



Director Paul, Pi Pi and I at the annual Chonburi District 3 Education Scout Camp.


ขอบคุณมากครับ (Khob Khun Mak Na Krub/Thank you very much) ประเทศไทย (Pra Thea Thai/Thailand)! This is not a goodbye, but only a see you again!






29 September, 2017

How Time Sings



  
Emma McDowell is from Cornwall, VT, and is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCAHM ETA placed at Bantuadthong School in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. She graduated in 2015 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a BA in Spanish and Hispanic Studies and Environmental Studies. When she is not teaching her P2, P3, and P4 students, Emma enjoys trying new foods at the market, exploring Southern Thailand, and spending as much time as she can at the beach. 




For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated with time. From the lunisolar Babylonian calendar, to the Roman Calendar, to the Mayan Calendar, to sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, stopwatches, and even apple watches, knowing the time and calculating its passing has been a significant part of human history. Years reduce into months, months into days, days into hours, and so on and so forth until every millisecond has been counted—given a name. I may not be a horologist, a person who studies how we measure time, but I do think about it a great deal, since, for most of my life, time has been my greatest fear. 



Now, I know that time isn’t one of the more popular fears like spiders, heights, or even clowns but it is non-the less an anxiety I carry with me. I worry about time wasted and time taken for granted, having too much time, or too little time, I fear that I will forget things, people, and places, losing those memories to time. As a child, I remember telling my mother that if I was a superhero, I would want to be able to control time—make special moments last longer, rewind mistakes, or even fast forward through tough phases. Maybe it is the omnipresence of the western definition of success, sayings like, “the early bird gets the worm”, or the fact that humans spend a third of their lives asleep. But time and how I use it, is always in the back of my mind. And now, as I sit here and reflect on the ups and downs, growth and change of this year, I find that time has been the only thing that has remained constant.




Kru Mem, myself, and my host teacher P'Mai



We were given a year. A year to teach, learn, and aim to “understand Thainess,” all wide and daunting tasks. I remember sitting in the cold plastic chair in the meeting room at Chulalongkorn University, feeling overwhelmed by the unknowns that lay ahead, and the very idea that my time here was already planned out—my return date to Bangkok planned a year in advance. So, I began to try and understand—endeavoring to use my time wisely. I consumed books, documentaries, and stories about Thai culture while studying the Thai language and trying my best to devour all types of incredibly spicy foods. I wanted to take advantage of my time and “su, su”, or fight my way through the challenges of language barriers and cultural differences. I prepared myself for what I might experience and thought I was going to see, and dove in ready to undertake all I had read about.


However, on my first day at school, I remember struggling through the initial hour of class. All of the sudden a classroom of 42 second-graders looked up at me with wonder and confusion. I suddenly realized that I was the teacher, and nervously started talking, trying to fill the silence with words. Little did I know that my students would simply repeat every word that I said, adding to the confusion and hilarity
making the time seemingly stretch on. The classroom, class size, and excitement of my students weren’t what I had envisioned prior to arriving, and all the preparation I had done seemed fruitless. I rushed to my office to try and create a better plan, focusing all my energy on making my time spent in class go smoother. I remember the first few weeks at school as a struggletrying to fill each class with a fun activity while simultaneously wrangling the lessons to fit into an hour. I found even in my free moments the same dilemmahaving seemingly so much time for things, while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by all the newnessunsure of how to fill my day and use my time. I wanted my new life to instantly “work”- and to understand my role, students and colleagues as fast as possible to make the most of the short period I had been allotted. Yet, all of what I had read about Thailand- the beautiful language, complex social order, and the close-knit community seemed to be there shyly hiding from my demanding eyes.




My Prathom 3 students and I



Like the birds. Every day upon returning home from school I was greeted by the symphony of my neighbor, Pi Sak’s, chorus of small gray songbirds fluttering about in their bamboo cages. Their feathers were not bright, and their song didn’t seem to be anything incredibly unique, and I was intrigued as to why he had so many of this seemingly unremarkable bird. Upon conducting my own research, I learned that the birds are known as Red Whiskered Bulbuls, and they are famous in southern Thailand for competing in singing contests. I was immediately intrigued and thrilled when my host teacher offered to take me to see a local contest. When we arrived, we saw more than 20 bird cages hanging on posts with a group of spectators sitting around. I eagerly sat down, and began to ask a million questions, “How is this judged? What do they win? How much does a bird cost? what do they eat?” Unfortunately, however, Pi Mai didn’t know the answers, and as she wandered off in search of a coffee, I watched the contest unfold
more and more questions popping into my head. Every few minutes a group of men would remove one of the hanging cages, and then sit back downwaiting, listening. I couldn’t see a rhythm or reason for the removal of the cage and as the time stretched on, my confusion and frustration grew. What were the rules? Who was in charge? If I couldn’t understand thissomething that was supposed to be a source of fun and diversion, how would I even begin to understand my new life here? In the silence of the drive home that night I remember telling Pi Mai how confused I was, and how “I just wish I understood,” to which she wisely replied, “Mai bpen rai Emma, all in time.”


Bird singing contest in Nakhon Si Thammarat



Many anthropologists argue that time is a social construct. Meaning, that humans created the concept of calculating time, and thus they can change it. Additionally, not all groups of people are the sameso their conception, understanding, and calculation of time can differ. Maybe that is why “Thai Time” is so seemingly unique from the western ideas of time. In this year have waited until 5 for rides that were supposed to come at 3, I have gone for lunches that I thought would only last 30 minutes but finished in two hours, and I have realized that song tow drives that were planned for ten minutes can actually last much longer if the driver is delivering a chicken to his friend. This concept of time being fluid and flexible, might lay in Buddhist teaching that assert that suffering in life (dukkah), is derived from attachment
not being able to let go. Many Buddhists believe that time isn’t something can be fixed or held onto. Like all changes in life, it needs to be accepted and let go in order to overcome difficulties.


So, I tried to surrender to time. Accept its ebb and flow. Wait to understand its abundance and scarcity, passage and stillness. I tried not to hurry through my day, but live it. I stopped rushing back to my office to meticulously plan and watched how my students held hands as they walked
seemingly more comfortable together than apart. I stopped agonizing about how I would order food and noticed how Pa Pid, the school chef, searched my face while serving me lunch, hoping I would like each new dish. I gave up stressing about missing class when morning assembly ran late and observed how my school spent time together, laughed together, listened together. And once I stopped fighting against time, stopped demanding that I understand, and accepted my newness, I realized that the details of my new life, that before seemed undignified or unimportant, where actually the ones that began to matter. Like how Kru Mem always packs an extra mango for me and leaves it on my desk when I am gone, or how Pi Gop sets aside a chair by the fan and ushers me over when we have a school meeting in the canteen. I found that once I stopped trying to fill my time and fight against it, I wasn’t alonetime could be something shared.



My teachers and I


This past month, I woke up early and went to get my favorite khao tom” from the woman on the narrow street that runs parallel to mine. As I walked, motorbikes whizzed by, their drivers clutching the infamous birdcages that have held my intrigue for the past year. Soon, I began to hear the chirping grow stronger, and I stumbled upon a bird singing contest. More than thirty cages were hung up and around them people sat, enjoying their morning tea and coffee, listening and carefully monitoring. I decided to join, and sat in the corner, watching and listening, attempting again to understand. I started to question the judging process, the organization, and the spectators. But then, I surrendered to the unknowns and let my mind wander. I thought about my neighbor Sak, and how he cares for each of his birds each morning and afternoon, how he shows his daughter Namoo how to change their water with care. I looked around and saw the soft, wrinkled smile of Pi Fatima, the mother of one of my students, who makes the best Khao Mok Gai in the market. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft chirps, and the wind blowing through the rubber trees of the neighboring plantation. I thought how nice it felt to be here, how comforting it was to be part of this group, this community. And suddenly, it didn’t matter why I was there, it just mattered that I was. I understood that some things, like the rules of the contest, I might never understand, and that’s ok, but I can’t force it to fit into what I want it to be, just like how I can’t stop the clock. 


And maybe that is all we can expect from everyone, including time. To accept it as it is, living each day, and embracing each person and moment as they come. To look and try to see what is in front of us
not search for what we expect. That life, and all of its gifts and burdens can be shared. Time and patiencenot a book, documentary, or website taught me that.


However, despite what Buddhism, my teachers, and the calendar tell me about time, I am not ready to let go of this year of my life. John Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “How great it would be to live in an endless state of leave-taking, to be missed without being gone, to be loved without satiety. How beautiful one is and how desirable.” I know that I will take all of the memories, friendships, and growth from this year, and suspend them in my mind, in that state of love and longing
a temporary forever I can look back on, knowing that I can never go back to how it is now. I can only go forward into the seemingly endless unknown that is time, and hope that it won’t fly away like a red-whiskered bulbul.


15 September, 2017

Rot Si Chumpoo (The Pink Bus)




Ortal Isaac is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thakhonyang Pittayakhom in Mahasarakham, Thailand, where she teaches English to Mattayom students. Ortal is from New York City, and graduated from the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary with a B.A. in Comparative Literature & Society and a B.A. in Jewish Literature. In her free time, she can be found exploring new parts of Thailand with her camera, running, and trying as many new delicious Thai foods as possible. After the grant, she plans to return to the United States and hopes to attend law school in the future.




It may sound strange, but some of the most memorable moments from my time living in Mahasarakham and traveling to different parts of Thailand have happened while in transit. Be it buses, boats, trains, vans, planes, tuktuks, songtaos, bicycles, or any other means of transportation, these are all places in which you can sit, look out at the scenery unfolding, and reflect with a sense of quiet, paradoxical stillness that is hard to find elsewhere. No matter the mode of transport, there is something special and transformative about these places; while sitting in these in-betweens, thoughts often flow deeper, farther.



Getting around in Thailand has brought more modes of transportation than I can count. I have taken many a cramped and sweaty minivan ride with far more passengers than the car could hold, been grateful for the cooling breeze while speeding through streets in a brightly-colored tuktuk, zipped my bicycle up and down the road that I live on countless times, and hitched beautiful, windy rides through a National Park in the backs of friendly strangers’ pickup trucks. I have somehow managed to squeeze myself into tiny standing spots at the very edge of numerous seemingly-full songtaos’ last steps with one small centimeter between me and the road below, traveled on bumpy, fourteen-hour swerve-filled night buses, watched the sun rise from early morning train rides, sped past mountains and majestic palm trees covered in fog while sitting on what can only be best described as a karaoke party-raft (disco ball and flashing lights included), and more. 



Sleepy neighbors on an early morning train from Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, to Khon Kaen

But somehow, some of my most beloved journeys have been those on the Pink Bus, Rot Si Chumpoo. Yet, these are also some of the most mundane. The Pink Bus, aptly named for the unmissable rosy hue that covers its buses and employee shirts, is not special to me because it is particularly dingy, odd, or fancy. It is not noteworthy because the rides I take on it are particularly long; compared to journeys on thirteen-hour night buses, my usual route on it from Thakhonyang to Khon Kaen ranges from only an hour and a half to three hours. The Pink Bus is a regular coach bus that serves several provinces in Isan—the Northeastern region of Thailand where I live. It is precisely because it is so familiar to me and has become such an integral part of my routine here in my province, that the Pink Bus holds a special place in my heart.


I remember the first time that I took the Pink Bus: it was a Friday afternoon, after my very first week at school. The past few days had been a flurry of new faces, names, places, humbling acts of kindness from complete strangers who would grow to become cherished colleagues, friends, and students, as well as lots of information that still didn’t fully make sense. There was a great deal of excitement, anticipation, and definitely a sense of feeling lost. Every second of every day was a lot to take in, new information to process and try to understand. After those first few days, I was going to Khon Kaen to spend the weekend with some fellow Fulbright ETAs placed in nearby provinces, who had also just gotten to their schools. I began the multi-step process of leaving my town, which felt a bit daunting the first time around, as I wondered how exactly I would manage to successfully reach my destination with just about two weeks of Thai language instruction under my belt.


With teachers and M2 students at school.



I biked from my house to my school, locked my bike and waited for the songtao to arrive. I quickly reached for the pocket Thai-English dictionary in my backpack, and found the word for ‘bus stop’—bogoso. Though I had very little clue as to what tone I should use in pronouncing it, I gave my pre-prepared phrase a try when the first songtao appeared and slowed down for me: “Bpai bogoso mai ka?” (Do you go to the bus stop?) After a second of visibly trying to understand the word that I thought I had correctly pronounced as bogoso, the driver repeated the word, only this time with the correct tone, (which I dutifully tried to memorize) and nodded kindly, ushering me to the back of the vehicle.


Once at the bus stop, which was nothing but an unmarked spot on the side of the construction-filled highway with a few people standing around, I approached a gruff-looking man sitting beside a small, white plastic table, looking out at the dusty road. I told him where I was going: “Bpai Khon Kaen ka.” Visibly confused by my existence, he responded with a string of words that I could not quite understand, gestured for me to wait, and I did as I was told. When the first bright pink bus arrived, he motioned quickly to me and I thanked him endlessly for steering me in the right direction. The bus was already full, so passengers who got on stood cramped together in the aisle between seats. Squished, confused, and still anxious about making it to my destination, nothing around me made sense yet: the jumble of small, coupon-like tickets I was handed upon boarding, the constant hum of a totally foreign language of which I could then understand very little, why we would stop at certain intersections and not others, and how on earth I would know when I would arrive at my destination. But it began to dawn on me that this bus ride—and my entire year in this new place—was going to hinge on trust and faith. Trust that in the end, things would simply work out. I had heard much talk about the sabai sabai mentality in Thailand; an ever-important outlook based on going with the flow, taking things as they come, without too much stress or concern placed on knowing everything ahead of time. But it was then that I really started to actively adopt this attitude. A few hours later, I made it to Khon Kaen, excited to have found my way, and my friends and I eagerly shared our experiences from the past few days. 

 
Learning Thai cooking skills from my host teacher and incredible chef, Khun Mae.


Since that first Friday, my rides on the Pink Bus have become a breeze, but they have never become humdrum. The route that it takes traverses some of my favorite, quintessential Isan landscapes: through small towns, open skies, and lush, brilliant-green rice paddies that line the road home. I often take the bus back right around the time that the sun begins to set, when everything is illuminated in a golden light that dazzles me just as much as it did during my first ride. The Pink Bus gives me a few hours to simply sit and allow myself to be struck by the beauty of everything around me, and how lucky I am to be here, teaching at my school, welcomed by such a kind and generous community of teachers, students, and friends. 


Selfies on selfies with M6/1

The familiar comfort of the Pink Bus provides a space through which I can see how much this once entirely foreign, daunting place, has become so beloved to me: a warm home that I did not know I would find. I know the roads the buses always take, the gruff-looking man at the station in Thakhonyang who, whenever I show up at the bus stop, now greets me like an old neighbor, with roaring laughter and a big smile. I know the way the delicate phuang malai—flower garlands—swing above the driver’s head along with every twist, bump, and turn of the bus, and the way the bus attendants chuckle and joke around in the local Isan language. I know the upbeat twang and rhythm of the mor lam songs that play on the bus’ speakers, the sleepy eyes of the university students I often sit next to, the way the water in the rice paddies reflects the sunlight at different times of the day. 



Rice fields along the Pink Bus route in Mahasarakham.


On these rides, I can stop, marvel, and reflect. They are a place in which moments from the week come back to me, allowing me to appreciate and think about them more deeply. As we whizz past verdant fields, I can picture the shy, smiling faces of the students who always pop their heads into my classroom as they walk to their next lesson, and remember how my ninth grade class, with all its jokesters, made me laugh so hard that they brought me to tears (yet again) on Tuesday afternoon. Looking out at the banana trees planted on the side of the road, I think of the way their large leaves rustle in the wind that always comes just before a storm, and remember the enormous, high splashes of water catapulted into the air with every kick from the boys who play soccer on the school’s rain-soaked field. I remember the look on a student’s face that silently spoke; today is not an easy day. The incredible deep fuchsia hue of the sunsets that I see almost every evening from my back window, and the students who always greet me with a reverent wai while never failing to practice their favorite slang from class: “Teacher! What’s up?” Gifts of fruit and khanom that hold, in their small plastic bags, sweet snacks, but more importantly: a great deal of love.


Isan sunsets from my back window.


Now, on my most recent trip home, I settle into a window seat on the Pink Bus, grateful for its air-conditioned interior, my shirt soaked in sweat from sitting outside in the sticky Isan heat while waiting in the bus station for my ticket number to be called. The bus makes its way through the familiar fields, and I lean my forehead against the window, looking out. As I watch the landscape sweeping by, I think back to my very first ride on this bus and my first few days here, feeling confused, lost, anxious, unsure of where exactly I was going and how to go about every little thing. I remember all of these moments, laugh to myself, and smile.


The last day of my first semester at school, in my classroom with fellow foreign language teachers and student teachers.

22 August, 2017

Sister, Sister




Tenzin Kyisarh is Tibetan American, a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) from Long Island City, New York. She teaches English in Muangchaliang School in Sukhothai, Thailand, to Mattayom 1-5 students (9th-11th grade). Last May, she graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a Certificate in International Relations. In her free time, Tenzin likes to explore nearby towns in Sukhothai, take weekend trips with her host teachers, play basketball with her students, travel around Asia with other ETAs, and eat a variety of food. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to travel and visit friends and family in Asia for a few weeks. She also hopes to find new opportunities in Asia in the education consulting field.



May 5th, 2017| Midnight before the wedding day in an unknown room| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 12:15AM:

It’s past midnight already. I wake up with cold sweat running down my back and forehead. It’s been thirty minutes since I woke up. Realizing that I only have 4 more hours to sleep I carefully rush to the bathroom amidst the blackout and sprinkle some water on my face and my back and put myself to sleep. The lingering scent of freshly washed blankets and bedsheets is unfamiliar to me. The scent reinforces that I am a guest here.

Although I was a stranger to the new and clean room, the efforts of the people who took time to think of my comfort felt very personal in this unknown place are palpable. I look over and realize that the AC is down. The power is out in the whole neighborhood from the rainstorm last night and the room is pitch black. But there’s a comfort to this darkness. I have the serenity that you experience when you’re sleeping at home with your family. Your sister’s room right next to you and your parents’ room right down the hallway. Somehow, thousands of miles away from New York in a new country sleeping in this peculiar room, this feeling of comfort has been established. Even though it is my first time staying in this room, I feel safe even with my pajamas drenched in sweat. I roll over to the other side of the bed to check my phone. 12:45am. Peace and warmth envelop me as I fall back to sleep.




May 5th, 2017| Getting ready at dawn during the wedding day| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 4:00AM:

It’s finally the day of the wedding. As I wake up to grab my makeup pouch, I think back to eight months ago when I went wedding shopping with the bride and groom. From choosing wedding cards to the venue, it dawns on me that I have been a part of this entire process. Though eight months have gone by in a flash, the numerous encounters and memories shared during those months are still vivid and fresh as if it had happened yesterday. And so, to see the two people who are very vital to making this experience wholesome is in short, magical. By the time I’m out of the room, it is already 4:30 a.m. I rush over to the next house to start getting ready. The wedding is at 7:00 a.m. When I reach the house next door, I go upstairs in the AC room to get dressed and do my makeup. As I enter the room, I see P’Nut, my housemate, surrounded by four women who are all helping her with makeup and hair in preparation for the big day. I stand at the door for a couple of minutes just admiring her. Even without her dress on she has an illuminating glow on her face. Her smile is the brightest I’ve ever seen it be. Her eyes are sparkling with tears of hope and enthusiasm. Her eyebrows look relaxed yet at the same time seem to be concealing the worry and anxiety of everything being perfect on this day. I walk over to P’Nut, put my hand on her shoulder, and ask her how she’s feeling and she replies “I’m good,” with a smile on her face. Yet, she tells me that she is worried that it might rain again like it did last night. I assure her by saying that rain is seen as a sign of good luck in Tibetan culture and give her a warm hug. After I am done with my makeup and hair, some of P’Nut’s friends help me get into my royal navy blue and gold Thai bridesmaids dress. After eight months of patience, I am finally wearing a Thai bridesmaid dress. I am very exhilarated, but at the same time I feel a sense of responsibility and pride wearing the dress. 




P’Jay, P’Nut and me at the wedding


May 5th, 2017| Wedding venue i.e., P’Nut’s House| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 9:00AM:

Rituals are over and the guests have left. Their seats have now been replaced by new guests who seem to be wearing brighter colored patung, Thai traditional skirt, then the first group. I notice some guests stop by the wedding to greet the newlyweds to make their presence known and leave a white envelope filled with money at the gifts section and quickly bid their farewell. “Tenzin!”, I hear someone calling my name. I look over to see if it is P’Nut. “Are you ready? The groom’s parade is almost coming. You have to go stand with other bridesmaids for the final wedding ceremony,” she says. Forgetting that there is a final ritual left, I rush over to stand on the line of bridesmaids who have blocked the entrance to the bride’s room. Each of us pair off and holds a small rope made with white jasmine flowers. There are eight of these “bridesmaids’ barriers” leading to the bride’s room. The groom’s parade is followed by his groomsmen, who are all attired in matching royal blue bow ties and vests, together with his relatives who seem a little drunk, enter the house and make their way towards us. 


 
The bridesmaids getting ready to form barriers

As the groom, P’Jay, answers the question/request given by the first pair of bridesmaids who allow him to pass as he hands each of them a white envelope and they then join the groom’s parade. I am the third “bridesmaids’ barrier.” When it is time for me to ask my question, I and the other bridesmaid tease P’Jay and don’t allow him to pass us. But, the groom’s relatives hug us randomly and make us both eat a piece of sticky rice as if to signify that we have surrendered. P’Jay heads over to the next pairs of bridesmaids to answer questions relating to P’Nut and he answers correctly, which finally leads him to P’Nut’s room door. 



Finally, p'Jay comes to the bride's godmother who's holding the flower barrier
  
The final barrier is P’Nut’s godmother who asks him three questions, two of which P’Jay answer correctly and is allowed to enter while sacrificing one of his groomsmen to a kiss from the godmother. After a minute, P’Jay and P’Nut walk out of the room walking hand in hand as P’Jay screams out “Yay!” holding up their hands in air. As P’Jay brings P’Nut out of her room, he is said to have overcome all the numerous hurdles that they might encounter in their married life. The ritual portrays how they will still be together even at the end of these various hardships. The worry that I have sensed earlier on P’Nut’s face is now replaced by the radiant beam as she is walking downstairs hand in hand with P’Jay. 



Groomsmen taking selfies with p'Jay

Seeing their happy faces, I am taken back to the time when P’Nut and I threw P’Jay a surprise birthday. The last-minute rush to plan the party and the obvious devotion that P’Nut has for him made me realize just how close P’Jay had become to me.


One of the many weekend travels with P'Nut and P'Jay


Fast forward two months, I am at P’Nut’s and P’Jay’s wedding where I get to witness the two of them begin their lives together as husband and wife. As I am staring at the newlyweds, P’Nut’s mother, Mae (mother in Thai), taps me on my shoulder and asks me if I’m hungry. While this is not only way of greeting each other in Thailand (and much of Asia by the way), it resonates with me because it connects me back to the first time I met Mae. She had given me so much food that the moment I got back home, I went straight to my bed and passed out. After that incident, I started calling her “Mae” as well. Every time I visited, she would make sure to make me her special spicy seafood salad or yam. Our relationship got stronger and closer with every dish she made. This was her way of showing she cares for me. And so, every now and then she packs me food to take home to eat during the school week.

At this point, there are hardly any guests left since most of them have moved over to the second venue for the lunch party. Only a handful of family members remains to help clean the house. I answer Mae, and say that I’m doing well and that I have already eaten as I head over to change out of my bridesmaid’s outfit to go to the lunch party.




During a local festival with P'Nut and P'Jay


May 6th, 2017| P’Nut’s House| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 9:38AM:

I eat the jasmine rice that Mae has served me for breakfast. I look over at the side dishes and put some Laab Gai (spicy Thai chicken salad), Gaeng Naw Mai Nua Sub (Beef and bamboo shoot curry) and Khai Tod (fried egg) on my plate. It’s been about eight months since I was introduced to P’Nut and her family and the relationship with them have organically developed into what feels like home. P’Nut being my housemate and also a fellow English teacher has been one of the most vital individuals who has made this experience so precious and special. I reminisce about all the times we have spent together as colleagues, housemates and as sisters. In the small rural town of Had Siao, where I did not know a single person, she has become my confidant, my sister. Being invited to the wedding as a bridesmaid and meeting all her old friends and far cousins, I feel a little overwhelmed at this affectionate gesture. 


At the Sukhothai FC football game with P'Nut, P'Jay, and P'Nut's cousin

Prior to Thailand, I personally have already been exposed to various Asian cultures. Growing up with multiple Asian cultures (Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese) as my backbone to view the world, when I receive all this love from P’Nut and her family, it still leaves me at awe. These sudden gestures of endearment provide me the support and warmth that is essential in shaping my experience here. Instead of comparing our differences, P’Nut and I have bonded on little things like finding the best place to buy the best green tea in town or debating which restaurants in town to get dinner after school. Though I do learn the value of difference in terms of culture and language, I am also able to embrace that difference and find that the Thai culture and its people are really not so different from my own Tibetan culture. As a foreigner when you first arrive, you’re unconsciously picking out the differences from your own culture. However, it’s only when you really spend time and build relationships with the people and the community that you realize that even when you are thousands of miles away, you can have folks who you can call family. The people who will always be in your life because they’ve impacted you in so many ways that have not only helped you throughout the journey, but also provided you with memories you can call “home.” So, to end this narrative about “Thai culture and people,” the precious relationships I’ve built here in Thailand have been the highlight of my experience. I have found a sister in this “foreign” country called Thailand, and witnessing and being a part of one of her most important rites of passage will forever remain in the fondest of my memories.