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.|