06 March, 2018

Learning about Thai Culture on the Go

Tyler Cohen is a 2017-2018 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Banthuadthong School in the city and province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. He is 24 years old and from Lake Oswego, Oregon. In May of 2015, he graduated from Pitzer College in Los Angeles County with a B.A. in Sociology and concentrations in Philosophy, Studio Art, and Mathematics. In his free time, Tyler paints pictures, grows peppers and pumpkins, goes swimming, reads, plays basketball, and visits nearby waterfalls and beaches. After the completion of his Fulbright grant, Tyler plans on working for an organization that helps expand social mobility in America, and he hopes to pursue graduate study in Sociology and Art.

“Just wave your hand like you’re petting a dog, and usually they’ll stop,” Emma, my ETA predecessor, said as she shook her hand from side to side while reaching down and out into the bustling road. A songthaew (pickup truck with two benches and a canopy to protect passengers from sun/ rain) rapidly decelerated while merging across lanes to pull over near us. Emma and I climbed aboard through the rear of the truck. “Sometimes if they’re crowded, people hang on to the bars on the back and stand on the step, usually men” Emma explained as we sat down on the songthaew’s two benches. With its baritone muffler purring vivaciously, the songthaew raced down Pho Sadet, the 6-lane highway I live beside, into downtown Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Pho Sadet Viewed from the sapan looi (overpass) I walk across going to and from school

A songthaew on Pho Sadet zooming under the sapan looi during my daily walk home from school

We rode the songthaew to the end of its route in the middle of the city. As we walked on Nakhon Si Thammarat’s patterned tile sidewalk, Emma pointed out shops and sights with enthusiasm that boldly revealed how much joy she had found here. Somber with homesickness, I felt heavy even though what I saw was extremely exciting. The warm air, saturation of motorbike traffic, advertisements, little shops, and food vendors felt foreign to me, and it was sinking in that I was living on a new continent. We found a vegetarian festival with bounties of noodles, vegetables, and treats, and I added chilli powder bit by bit to test my spice tolerance. 

Like a child who had just stopped crying but saw something really funny, I smiled and laughed a lot that day even if the homesick part of me didn’t want to. I found out I had the opportunity to be an ETA in Thailand right before orientation started in Bangkok, so I arrived in Thailand a couple weeks late. Week by week after arriving in Thailand, I slowly evolved from feeling uprooted and unsettled to being absolutely in awe of my new home and the wonderful learning and memories to come.

Emma showing me around Nakhon Si Thammarat in October

One advantage of finding out about my placement as an ETA in Nakhon Si Thammarat so soon before the grant started is that my mind was a blank slate. I had no chance to overthink or glom onto overly specific expectations. Every day I have moments when I “wake up” and realize I’m in Thailand. Maybe I’m standing in front of a class and speaking too fast in English, maybe I’m drinking coconut water that a student’s mom gave me as I’m waiting for songthaew (after the fifth coconut worth of coconut water, I started handing payment to her son, my student, as she still didn’t accept payment), and maybe I’m awake at 5 a.m. because a bird or a cat wants to find a mate, and is loudly announcing that to the world. What is unique to Thailand in my reality might not exclusively be unique to Thailand, but because I’ve never been to Asia or a tropical place before, so much is so new to me. 

With a blank slate mind, I was and still am full of wonder during every mundane moment. Today, at the end of February, during morning ceremony I was smiling huge because of seeing all the students and teachers singing the Province song for Nakhon Si Thammarat, and some P-4 students looked back at me, pointing and laughing at my goofy face. Gradually over the past four months, thoughts from when I applied for this opportunity began to resurface in my mind: I would be an ETA in Thailand so I could experience Thailand’s education system, learn how to dignify and make a positive impact on youths’ lives while attempting to teach something that is not easy or quick to learn- a whole language, and also learn a whole new language myself which supposedly is very fun to learn—the Thai language. 

My mom taught English in Chiang Rai for two years when she was my age. She also had seen me playing with duolingo the past three years trying to learn Danish, German, and French. My mom said to me that learning Thai was so much fun because it is a tonal language with many expressions that utilize poetically telling symbolism to construct reality. She also cooked Thai cuisine for my family very often while I grew up.

My mom teaching English with a M-1 class in Chiang Rai

Thai food and language are key components of Thai culture about which I have many thoughts, but the aspect of Thai culture at the front of my mind has been transportation. I am not trying to argue that transportation is more important than food or language for understanding Thai culture, but transportation plays a role in the whole cultural web that includes food and language, and as one individual living in Nakhon Si Thammarat and teaching at Banthuadthong School, I have been able to learn a whole lot about Thai culture through the lens of transportation. 

In any society, people need to go places. Observing similarities and differences between America and Thailand in terms of how people get from point A to point B, and what they take along for the ride has given me insight on many cultural norms. Everyday I see motorbikes with sidecarts full of produce or a small popup snack station. I see lowered Nissan and Isuzu pickup trucks with modified rims, window tinting, lights, and paint jobs. I see ordinary cars (more new than old). I see songthaews, and I see hundreds of motorbikes, mostly Honda and Suzuki 100cc or 110cc. I will attempt to describe what I see from songthaew (my ordinary mode of transportation) as well as what I see when walking (the oldest method of transportation there is?). During my 7-minute walk to school, I pass by 2 body shops, a tire, rim and wheel shop, and through two oil change/ tire garages.

Students heading home from school passing through a mechanics garage

More students heading home from school—some on motobikes with their parents/guardians.

Transportation plays a key role in Nakhon Si Thammarat’s economy and it manifests itself as an aspect of culture in countless moments every day as individuals modify their vehicles that take them where they need to go while also serving as social status symbols, ride songthaew to fresh markets, drive slowly and carefully on a motorbike with a sleeping baby, or zip in their 2018 Toyota to Central Plaza (a big upscale shopping mall chain that can be found in many Thai cities, including Nakhon Si Thammarat). The people who make a living working on transportation vehicles do so not only by keeping them running, but by practicing the art of vehicular cosmetic modification. Trucks that haul 1000’s of kilos of rocks and dirt are decked out with colorful decal designs and lights, as are many buses. Cars and pickups frequently don custom rims, window tinting, paintjobs, lights, and bodywork. Even motorbikes often have colorful wheels and are made to look good. I have been told many times that appearance matters in Thailand, and I can see that this is true not only in terms of clothes, makeup, and hair, but with other social status symbols such as a motorbike, car, or pickup truck.

A car with work done by Pi Sak, my super friendly neighbor who runs a body shop
and also does a little bit of everything in terms of fixing up cars

A heavily modified Toyota Corolla

The wheel and rim shop I walk past every day going to and from school

An employee of the tire shop heading out to make a delivery

Of course, transportation primarily functions to move people and things between places. Maybe a car serves as a symbol, but you use it when you go places freely, which is the true privilege it provides. I have acquainted myself with transportation in Thailand by exploring as a tourist and also pursuing hobbies that make me happy—basketball and swimming. Most days after school I take songthaew to Nakhon Si Thammarat Rajapat University (NSTRU) to swim and play basketball. Pi Dtanee and Pi Mai from NSTRU’s swimming and fitness center greet me and we usually speak in English a little bit. One of my favorite parts of swimming here is when I catch my breath, slowly float on my back and stare up at the marvelous clouds. Sometimes I can see the moon or hues of pink, orange, purple, and green kissing the clouds during sunset. Looking at the sky alleviates homesickness quickly because it is a time machine beaming sights that the earliest humans saw, light from stars that have already died, and that I have also looked at with wonder from the ground in Oregon. And basketball always is a perfect cure for homesickness which I am so grateful to have found in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

NSTRU's swimming pool

Me shooting hoops at NSTRU's basketball court

Like a Los Angeles freeway, there is always at least a little bit of traffic on Pho Sadet. I’ve spent most of my life amongst America’s car culture, and Thailand has a different, but prevalent culture on its roads. In January, my school invited me to join on a 5-day teacher trip all the way up to Nakhon Ratchasima Province. This trip was wonderful because I got to know people from my school better, and it also provided me with extensive firsthand experience on Thailand’s highway system. Sometimes I would see natural beauty, sometimes agriculture, sometimes warehouses, and often times everyday life where people buy and sell things by the road or go places on motorbikes. When we returned from the teacher trip, I felt like I understood the location of my apartment a little better, next to Pho Sadet. I realized that I watch a performance of the local economy when I’m near the road.

A group of teachers, staff, the school directors, and I during the teacher trip

People boarding the bus on the final day of the teacher trip

By getting to see fresh markets that the songthaew line goes past during various parts of the day, I now have a bit of an understanding of the workday for a vendor. These small businesses require large time commitments because of preparation as well as patiently waiting for customers. Traffic lights in Nakhon Si Thammarat have clocks. When I’m on a songthaew and we have 90 seconds to stop at a red light, sometimes the driver runs off to buy a snack. Once we were next to a fresh market, and when the driver ran off the songthaew, I followed him and bought a bunch of “lady finger” small bananas. As I can see from Pho Sadet and riding songthaew, no matter whether you’re wearing a fancy suit, school uniform, or construction boots, you will look normal commuting on a motorbike. Transportation is essential for Thailand’s tourism industry, which is a big part of the economy. I personally have only experienced boats a couple of times here, but they are plentiful in variety and quantity. It’s clear that there is a lot to learn about boats in Thailand as they are used for fishing, tourism, and personal use. From the road, I can see rubber trees and palm trees, showing me firsthand how palm and rubber are two major cash crops of the south. Transportation has allowed for me to have a better understanding of how people make a living in Thailand, and how people spend their time shapes the culture that individuals play a part of.

People at a roadside fruit stand

Traffic in downtown Nakhon Si Thammarat in a residential but also popular shopping area

Fishing boats in Ranong from when Hannah, Katriya and i went to Koh Phayam for New Years

A pickup truck full of bananas!

It’s a cultural phenomenon to be going places! It’s an interaction between society and the land in which they inhabit. Nakhon Si Thammarat has sprawling communities and neighboring towns full of families who want their kids to get the kind of education that Banthuadthong offers. I’m amazed by how far some of my students commute to school, and the efforts that are required to make these commutes possible. Transportation opens up opportunities as people gain access to more resources, and an education is a prime example of how society can utilize transportation to expand social mobility. It sounds obvious literally, but when talking about social mobility as one’s chances of rising in social class or status, transportation is a big time door opener, like learning a new language. As I learn Thai language, it helps me absorb the qualitative information I observe. The difference between expressing thoughts and feelings in Thai language compared to English language, to me, can be represented by going home from school on a songthaew or van instead of a big yellow school bus. 

The schoolyard turned into a parking lot for the open house day last Saturday. Many families took songthaew, too

A student getting into a van for the ride home from school. These vans are like school buses.

Students in a van ready to head home from school.

27 February, 2018

A Little Birdy

Brittney Nadler is a 2017-2018 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Mae Moh Wittaya School in Lampang province. She is from South Elgin, Illinois. Last May, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a double B.A. in Global Studies and Spanish and a concentration in International Development. In her free time, Brittney has picked up many hobbies, including yoga, crocheting, and cooking. Brittney enjoys exploring her community, learning and practicing Thai, eating Kanom Pia, and reading. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to apply to the Peace Corps. 

When I imagined living in Thailand, my brain sloshed together a series of mental pictures I’d collected over the years. It was a messy jumble of Buddhism, traditional clothing, and rural roads, with a dashing heep of uncertainty. I had no idea what a year abroad in Thailand would actually be like, and what I failed to predict was the normality of it. After the newness began to wear off, I settled into a very average reality that every citizen of the world experiences: friendship, favorite foods, simple conversations, walks around town, beautiful sunsets, and more. I have many people to thank for this. Thank you to the community members who sell me pastries and fruit with the same promised deliciousness as the restaurant owners in my hometown. Thank you to my host teacher, Kru Yao, who takes me on errands with her and then buys me Dairy Queen ice cream at the mall like a true grandmother would. And above all, thank you to Owl.

When I arrived at Mae Moh Wittaya my first day, it almost felt like my actual first day of high school. Of course, no one at my real high school shouted my name up and down the hallways as if I were the coolest person alive, but the amount of nerves I felt was the same. I watched students run around and stare at me while they giggled with their friends, I waied to teachers who offered friendly waves and smiles, and I began to wonder how long it would take my introverted heart to explode from all this attention bursting forth from 750 students. 

I’m not sure when I first noticed the student teachers. My first day of class was nerve-wracking as I had to introduce myself in Thai in front of the school and attend a surprise midday funeral for a teacher’s grandmother. But at some point, I saw them. The only group of people my age for miles. Would they want to be friends? 

It started slowly. Another student teacher, Aum, teaches Thai in the classroom two doors away from mine. I would pass him every day and simply started with saying hello and wai-ing. He was best friends with Owl, an English student teacher. The first time I really met her was in the English office when I was trying to go to Sukhothai province but had no idea how to get there. This turned into a school-wide mission, as have many of my excursions, and Owl was on the case calling the bus station, writing down dates, times, and companies, comparing prices, and going above and beyond to help me. In the end I couldn’t even go, but her generosity really stood out to me.

A few weeks later at the end of the school day, the student teacher group was strolling around when they noticed me and invited me to the after-school market. It was like we had woken up that morning as polite acquaintances and ended the day as real friends. They were quick to joke with me (did you know Aum is actually Taylor Swift?) and weren’t afraid to speak in English and ask for help even though only one of the five teachers was an English teacher. The barrier had been broken, and I realized that we all must have been feeling nervous around each other, waiting for the other to make a move. I was so grateful they finally had. 

The week after that, Fulbright held its regional meeting in my province, Lampang. I casually suggested to the 11 other Fulbright teachers that they could stay in my house in my town, Mae Moh, the weekend after the meeting. This turned into school-wide mission number two, and before I knew it I was being called into a meeting to discuss the trip, organizing dates and times with the school van driver to take my friends to every tourist attraction in town, and visiting the homestay the director of the school had so graciously booked for us (I was sure having 11 people in the three beds in my house would be fine!)

I drove to the homestay with some teachers and Owl was there again.

“Where Owl goes, Brittney goes,” Kru Nikki said with a laugh. I liked the sound of that, like two friends taking on the world together. 

The meeting passed quickly and on Friday morning, Owl arrived with Kru Yao in the school van at the hotel we were staying at for the regional meeting. She had woken up at 8am, and I know for a fact she’s not a morning person. We set off to visit the Tung Bua Tong flowers, Mae Moh Mine, and Mae Moh Museum before settling onto a rustic dock overlooking a lake filled with lotus pads for lunch. 

Northern and central Fulbright ETAs enjoy lunch prepared by student teachers.

I had been told Aum wanted to teach us how to make som tum. There was som tum...but there were also numerous other dishes that he had made entirely himself. I was astonished and felt immense greng jaian important Thai phrase that roughly translates to not wanting to inconvenience or be a burden to other people. 

Northern and central Fulbright ETAs nap after a delicious home cooked meal.

And here I learned another stark cultural difference: when your friend in America invites you over to eat macaroni and cheese, you eat macaroni and cheese. When your friends in Thailand invite themselves over to eat nam prik ong, you have nam prik ong, baked potatoes, cucumbers, fried pork skin, papaya, pumpkin in coconut milk, two Chinese dishes, soda, and orange juice. 

We had sticky rice, nam prik ong, green curry, grilled chicken, fruit, chips, soda, and more. The student teachers sat a small distance away from us, not fully used to being around such a large group of farang. Everyone raved about the food, especially the nam prik ong, and I again wondered how I could be so lucky to work with teachers as amazing as them. 

ETA fellows (back row: Mike, Anne, Matt, Lauren, Brittney, Angie, Christine.
Front row: Owl, Roma, Yvette. Posing at the Tung Bua Tong flowers in Mae Moh after the regional meeting.

Later in the English office, I told Owl how much my friends had loved the nam prik ong.

“Aum wants to know if you want to learn how to make nam prik ong,” Owl later messaged me on Facebook.

“Yes!” I replied instantly. 

In my head, this would be a quick, casual hang out with the three of us. It was not. 

Owl, Boom (her boyfriend), Aum, Guang (the Chinese teacher), Yvette (another Fulbright teacher), and I met at the front of the market at 10:30am, half an hour later than we had agreed upon. Aum began to hand out ingredient and recipe sheets like we were on a third grade field trip to the grocery store. Amusement and happiness were coursing through my veins at this innocent, genuine action, along with the idea of how odd we must have looked to all of the vendors. Although there were only five ingredients on the list, he made me put a check mark next to each one we bought. 

 Student teachers teach Brittney and Yvette how to cook Thai and Chinese food.

We bought the ingredients for nam prik ong, and then they started purchasing seemingly random items. This isn’t on the five-ingredient list! I thought. And here I learned another stark cultural difference: when your friend in America invites you over to eat macaroni and cheese, you eat macaroni and cheese. When your friends in Thailand invite themselves over to eat nam prik ong, you have nam prik ong, baked potatoes, cucumbers, fried pork skin, papaya, pumpkin in coconut milk, two Chinese dishes, soda, and orange juice. 

Clockwise from the front: Guang, Brittney, Yvette, Boom, Owl, Aum.

The cooking was chaotic. I had never used my gas stove because I was positive if I turned the gas on I would explode. People were scrambling all over the place chopping, cooking, washing, and burning things. Smoke filled my kitchen quite a few times and we had to open the windows and turn on a fan as our eyes watered and our lungs burned from inhaling spices. 

Brittney cooks nam prik ong.

But it was amazing - it was hectic and fun and friendly and so, so normal.

Owl, Brittney, and Aum cook nam prik ong.

Our relationship continued to build from there. Aum taught me how to read and write in Thai after he saw me sitting in the library trying to teach myself. We all cooked together again, yet this time Yvette and I took the lead and made them an American breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes, hash browns and apple crumble. 

Thai student teacher, Aum, patiently waits to flip perfect pancakes.

I know they thought the eggs and pancakes were bland compared to the Thai versions and the hash browns were a little weird because we accidentally bought sweet potatoes, but the apple crumble was a huge hit. I gave Owl all of the leftovers after she continued to inquire about how it was made and how long it would last in the fridge, and she shared it with her family who were amazed that it was made from apple and not pineapple or papaya. 

Brittney and my ETA fellow Yvette prepare an American breakfast for student teachers.

We went to a skit competition together in Kampeng Pet province and she made sure I didn’t starve when it became obvious I couldn’t use chopsticks well enough to grill my own food at our hot pot dinner. She drove me to the mall during Christmas to buy gifts for students, I taught her how to bake chocolate chip cookies on Christmas day after a teacher asked me to make 800. 

Owl learns how to bake chocolate chip cookies on Christmas.

Student teachers Owl and Nuey learn how to bake chocolate chip cookies.

She took me along on a weekend trip to her school, the University of Phayao, and she is always up for a midday chocolate frappe or bag of deep fried bananas in the town.

Owl and Brittney spend the weekend at the University of Phayao. 

Our conversations have evolved from asking each other how to say something in each other’s language to discussing our friends, families, cute boys, pets, dreams, music, and everything in between. 

A quick trip to the White Temple in Chiang Rai after visiting the University of Phayao.

She is quick to laugh and I have never seen her even mildly upset, not even when we spent four hours in a school supply store buying materials for the entire school (one of us had a bit more difficulty containing all of her annoyance) or the time I unknowingly dragged her along on a three-hour post office trip (cue more greng jai). 

Unfortunately they are all leaving at the end of this semester, which is just one week away. I have been told there are no new student teachers coming next semester, and I think it’s better this way because no one can compete with the wonderful student teachers I have been so fortunate to befriend. Owl and Aum say they want to visit America, and I always tell them to come visit me in Chicago. I sincerely hope they do, even though Owl doesn’t like cheese and won’t get to experience the joy that is Chicago-style deep dish pizza. But I know our friendship will remain strong and that we will see each other again next semester, at least before I go back to America. A little birdy already told me.

Brittney and English student teacher Owl sing and dance to Baby Shark.

09 February, 2018

Love of Somtam and Happy Tears


Maya Berrol-Young is a 2017-2018 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Ban Kumuang School in the Ubon Ratchathani Province. She is from Dobbs Ferry, New York. Last May, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Art and Politics and a minor in Museum Studies. In her free time, Maya enjoys traveling around Thailand to meet up with fellow ETA’s, sampling various Thai vegetarian dishes, and reading. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to continue to travel and learn about other cultures before returning home to work in museum education.

I love somtam. I love the fresh taste of green papaya with jolts of spice from the lip tingling bird’s eye chilies cut by the sweetness of the palm sugar and tomatoes. In the U.S. I would insist on ordering it at every Thai restaurant. When the waiter would come to the table, they would ask me “is spicy okay?” and I would proudly and firmly respond “Yes, I can eat spicy.” My love for somtam was by no means the sole reason I wanted to come to Thailand to teach for a year, but I can’t deny it was a factor. 

Somtam and sticky rice at a local restaurant in Ubon Ratchathani.

When I received the news that I would be teaching in Ubon Ratchathani in the Isan region, I was a bit nervous. I looked at the map of Thailand, my finger tracing the distance between the dots representing my placement and that of the other ETAs. This was a small city far away from Bangkok or Chiang Mai and my school was in a rural area of the province. I am from a suburb of New York City and the idea of being in a place without a 24 hour transit system makes me uneasy in the States, but the idea of this in Thailand was another level of apprehension. My thoughts swimming, I set out to learn as much as I could about Isaan and Ubon-- its history, culture, and most importantly, its food. 

Helping to shread papaya for the somtam for all of the prathom (primary school) teachers on Scout Day.

I sat with my parents in our living room, each person on a computer or phone or thumbing through an old guidebook of Thailand searching for what we could find about Isan. “Maya!” my dad exclaimed, “Isan is known for somtam!” I released a great sigh of relief. Maybe I was moving halfway around the world, with a twelve hour time difference from most of my friends and family, unable to speak more than “sawadee ka” and “khob khun ka,” but I would have somtam and by the looks of our research a lot of it. Something familiar that I knew and knew I liked. “But Isan’s also supposed to have the spiciest food in Thailand,” my dad added. “That’s okay,” I replied, “I can eat spicy.” 

A few months later, all 22 ETAs finished orientation in Bangkok, moved to our respective provinces throughout Thailand, and started school. It was the first week of school and I was still getting adjusted to my schedule. As my predecessor had informed me, after I finished teaching third period I was responsible for preparing the fruit and setting the table for our lunch group of teachers from different departments and the school director. 

While I was putting out the forks and spoons for each member of our lunch group, I heard the tom tom tom of the mortar and pestle. I turned to see my host teacher grabbing handfuls of shredded green papaya and putting them into the mortar. She emptied the contents into a bowl and handing it to me said gleefully, “somtam for Maya!” I took the bowl from her with the widest smile and responded, khob khun ka and placed it on the table. No other teachers had arrived yet. Not wanting to seem rude, I stood awkwardly by the table while my host teacher continued to prepare food for lunch. The woman in the office next to ours came through the door, “Maya! Sit down! Eat eat eat!” Hurriedly, I took what I hoped was an acceptable chair and reached into the bowl and placed a heaping spoonful of somtam on my plate. 

My host teacher preparing somtam for our lunch

As soon as the somtam reached my lips I was clear that this was not the level of spice experienced at home in New York. Nor was it the level of spice I experienced in Bangkok during orientation. This was Isan spicy and it was no joke. My eyes started to water and my lips began to burn. My nose running and my face flushed, I tried to slyly remove myself to get a tissue. Thinking I had successfully not looked like a silly farang who couldn’t handle her somtam, I walked back into the room after throwing my tissues away. As I sat down my host teacher asked “spicy mai?” The table burst out laughing. “Yes, but it’s very good.” And that was the truth. Despite my face transforming into a bright red leaking mess, it was one of the most delicious things I had ever had. “Every ETA loves somtam,” my host teacher informed me. Though I had to excuse myself a few more times throughout the meal to dry my eyes, blow my nose, and drink water, I finished my bowl of somtam that day. 

My attempt at somtam (with a lot of help from my host teacher).

My daily somtam, though sometimes challenging to eat, is amazing. It is worth the embarrassment from my facial transformation and friendly chuckles from my fellow teachers. I feel similarly about many of my experiences since being in Thailand. I have challenging days when a really thought-out lesson isn’t working the way I want it to or when I am told that the bus I thought I should take isn’t running or when I receive last minute notice that my classes have been canceled. But those moments are also so wonderful because I will recalibrate mid-class and switch up my lesson plan or I will figure out another way to get to my destination or find something different to do that day to still engage with my students. There is real joy and success in persevering through challenging moments. Some of my fondest memories from this year have been when things have not gone as planned. Not one to enjoy the unplanned before arriving to Thailand, I’ve learned to love the rewards that come from unexpected challenges. 

View of our lunch table

But sometimes I need to metaphorically reach for the watermelon to soothe the spice. I’ve learned to reach out to friends when I feel homesick, to ask for help from my host teacher when my classes aren’t going well, and to go visit another ETA when I’m feeling lonely. I enjoy my challenges, but I also know when I need a break. 

Most days at lunch I eat somtam and I still cry every time (though I think I’ve gotten better and my host teacher is using more chilies). Sometimes I can eat the whole meal without reaching for water or fruit. Sometimes I need something cooling after every bite. The school director occasionally joins our lunch table and asks me the same question each time: “Are you happy?” Through the joyful, spice-induced tears, I take a deep inhale and with a sigh and a big smile respond, “Yes, I am very happy.”