28 September, 2015

How Ronald McDonald is the Buddha of the Fast-Food World

Tram Kieu is a native Cornhusker hailing from Lincoln, Nebraska. She is a graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University and earned a BA in Global Studies and a minor in Spanish. Tram is a 2014-2015 ETA Fulbrighter in Kalasin province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. When she is not learning how to sing Isaan songs, Tram enjoys trying new foods with the exception of the voluntary or involuntary ingestion of insects. After her time as a Fulbright ETA, Tram plans to continue dedicating her time to teaching English wherever she is in the world 
and working towards empowering women 
and girls through education.

Ronald Mcdonald and Buddha

If you think about it, monasteries in Thailand are a lot like McDonald’s.

Thai monasteries are ubiquitous throughout Thailand as are McDonald’s restaurants around the globe. Located in almost every nook and cranny, small or big, there are approximately 45,000 monasteries in Thailand. While there are about 36,000 McDonald’s locations in the world, numbers don’t matter as much as the cross-cultural lessons between these two iconic representations of Thai and American cultures.

The cliché selfie with Thai-Ronald McDonald.

First off, when you step into a McDonald’s in Thailand you are greeted by Ronald McDonald in typical Thai fashion: with a smile and hands clasped together to greet you in a wai position.

In Buddhism, the framework of Buddhist practice consists of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community). When examining the significance of the Three Jewels from a Big Mac point of view, you could say that Ronald McDonald is a representation of Buddha, the menu would be the Dharma, and the employees the Sangha. Although Ronald McDonald is not as highly revered as Buddha, their images are easily recognizable throughout Thailand and the world.

A handmade clay hagiography of Buddha on a monastery pillar in Chiang Mai.

Buddha images and statues are strewn on almost every conceivable surface in Thailand: on walls, car dashboards, bus windows, or tree trunks usually depicting Buddha wearing a yellow, orange, or saffron-colored robe. Likewise, Ronald McDonald also dons a somewhat similar universal yellow “robe.” He, however, also wears big, red clown shoes and has a head of bright red hair.

 Buddha statues on the roots of a bodhi tree.

When in a foreign country, and especially in Thailand where there are only three seasons: hot, hotter, and very hot, air conditioning in a McDonald’s feels like heaven. Similarly, while some go to McDonald’s to bask in the air conditioning and free wi-fi, others go to monasteries to receive “free spiritual wi-fi.”

But all things considered and humor aside, I chose to write about the topic of Thai Buddhism because religion and daily life go hand in hand in Thailand. More specifically, I chose the topic of funerals because of the importance of Buddhist concepts to understanding life and equally important, death.

Having lived in Thailand as an ETA, I have attended more funerals than I have ever in my life; in fact, I have never once in my life attended a funeral in its entirety. This past year, however, I attended seven funerals in total, two of which were from my own family in Vietnam. These past twelve months have taught me that community and family are synonymous. I have been invited to a plethora of events such as weddings, parades, beauty pageants, monk ordinations, funerals, and even death anniversaries. Whether it is a celebration of life or death, maintaining relationships is the cornerstone of Thai and Vietnamese cultures.

Death is a very somber and often times avoided topic. No one really enjoys talking about death or the feelings associated with the passing of a loved one. When intertwined with Buddhist beliefs, customs, superstitions, and interpretations, it is difficult to decipher what Buddhism is and to what degree it plays a part in Thai culture. I had so many questions and at times, it was difficult for my colleagues and family members to explain the significance behind the Buddhist rituals. Therefore, I took it upon myself to share some key aspects of Buddhist funerals here, specifically, Thai Isaan funerals, compiled from the personal experiences of my Thai colleagues and my own observations, so that others can understand the beautiful metaphors about life.


To begin, wai-ing is a Thai custom of showing respect when greeting, saying goodbye, showing appreciation, and praying. A wai is said to resemble the shape of a lotus bud formed when two hands are clasped together. The lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhism as it represents a Buddhist’s journey in life. Because the lotus grows in murky swamps and is still able to blossom into a beautiful, untainted flower, it represents a  person’s growth within society.

Wai-ing will most likely be the first aspect of Thai culture you will learn because greetings and seniority are important in Thai culture. As a result, there are various different wais for different groups of people in terms of age. For instance, a typical greeting from a peer or younger person to an older person would consist of a wai positioned near the chest with a slight bow. To greet a monk, or show respect to an image of the King or Buddha, you would place your wai with the tips of your fingers between your eyebrows. Interestingly, the King does not wai to anyone except to monks, and monks do not wai to anyone unless to show respect to an older monk or to Buddha.

Molly, a Chinese teacher from Kamalasai School, making a blessing after a prayer session.

Ajaan Chinadarat, an English teacher from Kamalasai School, wai-ing during a funeral service.

Water and the belief in reincarnation

Prayer sessions are the focus of every Buddhist funeral in Thailand. During the entirety of a funeral ceremony, merit is created for the deceased through prayers. Each day, prayers are led by four monks chanting in Pali Sanskrit. This merit, or good deeds, will aid in the deceased’s reincarnation for the next life. After the prayer sessions, guests and family will make a blessing and pour water either next to a tree or on the ground as “to return all the goodness and natural elements” back to the earth.

Monks creating merit and chanting during a prayer session.

The number 3

The number three is an auspicious number in Buddhism. It symbolizes the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. When Thais wai to a Buddha image or make a procession around a pagoda, it is typically done three times as to pay homage to the Three Jewels.

Moreover, it is common for funerals to take place three days after the person has passed and last a minimum of three days. Generally, funerals last a total of seven days, however depending on when the person died, the cause of death, the auspicious day for burial, and the deceased family’s monetary situation, funerals can last between three to 100 days.

Additionally, before the cremation ceremony, the last rites of passage will take place and everyone will take part in creating merit one last time for the deceased. A procession of family and friends will walk counterclockwise circling the monastery three times. This procession represents the journey to heaven and family, friends, and monks are escorting the decreased to the next life.

A funeral procession to honor the passing of the former vice-principal at Kamalasai School.

Buddhism is a fundamental aspect of Thai culture and life. To understand Thai cultural values, you must first understand Buddhism. Although Buddhism is not the official religion of Thailand, Buddhist beliefs are very much an integral part of Thailand’s political, cultural, and social fabric--over 94% of Thailand’s population self-identifies as Buddhist. This number is proof that Buddhist teachings are deeply ingrained in daily life, and the reason why there are more Buddhist monasteries in Thailand than there are McDonalds in the entire world.

This past year, I have learned that perhaps the sabai sabai, or the nonchalant approach towards life in Thailand, comes from Thais’ view on death. First, funerals are metaphors of how Thais view their role in life and the afterlife. While the passing of a loved one is always a great loss, life and death should both be celebrated. Second, although death is the last rite of passage, it is also viewed as a passage to the next life. As a result, death is in a way celebrated rather than mourned because of its inevitability and impermanence.

Lastly, relationships are important in Buddhist practices because we experience the same life passages and we are interwoven in the way we conduct ourselves. More importantly, we coexist and live on the same earth. Natural elements such as water and the earth play prominent roles in funeral ceremonies because water represents the continuous momentum of life and the earth represents all the merit that we have accumulated throughout our lives. When guests pour water onto the ground, it is an act of solidarity. It is about renewing life and transferring merit to which we all work to accumulate in our everyday actions, speech, and thoughts.

Whether you are Buddhist, or not, or enjoy eating a Big Mac once in a while, remember that cross-cultural lessons can be learned anywhere in the world, even at a funeral or a McDonald’s.


Reference for a description of a Thai Isaan funeral

Day 1 – Bathing rite and San Sai Ceremony: Approximately 30 minutes after the person has passed away, family members will prepare the body to be placed in the coffin. The body will be cleansed and dressed in new clothes, and turmeric powder will be applied. Next, the ceremonial san sai, or blessed unspun white cotton thread, will be tied around the neck, wrists, then feet by the oldest member of the community or the eldest child. Lastly, a coin will be placed in the mouth as to signify the money to be used in the next life.

Day 1-6 – Prayer: Prayer sessions will begin around 7 P.M. each day and will last from 30 minutes to an hour with intervals in between. It is customary for family and guests to dress in black or white attire. During prayer each day, four monks will lead Buddhist incantations in Pali Sanskrit. Each of the four monks represents a superstitious Thai belief about death: 1) sleeping and not waking up; 2) going and not coming back; 3) old friends that could not attend; and 4) illness and not being able to regain back health. After the prayer session, guests will be offered a meal. Food is provided as a way to give thanks to guests for their time, gifts, money donations, and participation in prayer and creating merit for the deceased.

Day 6 – Funeral Service: On the sixth day of the funeral, the last rites of passage will commence and everyone will take part in creating merit one last time for the deceased. Following the procession, a funeral service will be held consisting of prayer, sermons, offering of cloth or robes on behalf of the deceased, and perhaps a traditional Thai dance performance. During prayer, a ribbon or san sai attached to the coffin will be passed among the monks to transfer merit directly to the deceased. Cremation or burial is a personal choice, however in Isaan, cremation is more common.

Depending on the family, the number of monks invited during the funeral service is equivalent to the deceased’s age. A younger male member of the immediate family will usually ordain as a novice monk, the highest form of merit-making.

Soon after, flowers made from sandalwood shavings attached with a candle and incense will be passed out to the guests and to be burned during cremation. The sandalwood flowers are placed under the coffin as to symbolize the communal lighting of the cremation fire. Following, a small booklet is given out with pictures, past accomplishments, and other writing as to share all the good deeds that were done during the deceased’s lifetime.

In addition to the sandalwood flowers, hand folded ribbon flowers with a one baht satang inside are given to guests.

Before the cremation process begins, coconut water is poured over the body and the cremation will take place in the late afternoon after guests have left. The ashes will then be collected in the morning and read for auspicious signs.

The ashes are collected in a white cloth, which symbolizes purity.

Last Day – Last Rites: On the morning of the last day, alms in the form of food will be given to create merit and prayer sessions will continue. Guests will be invited to eat breakfast and then head to the monastery. The next and last ceremony is a prayer ceremony where monks are offered food on the behalf of the deceased. In the final steps, family and friends will pour perfumed oil and sprinkle fragrant flower petals over the ashes. What happens next can vary. Families can keep the ashes at home on an altar or at a monastery to continue merit-making ceremonies until the 50th and 100th day, or scatter the ashes over a body of water.

I would like to thank Ajaan Sompon Chungchaiya, Ajaan Chindarat Photisai, Ajaan Waraporn Suwannasri, and Mali Chongwarin for answering my numerous questions and helping me compile information for this narrative, I could not have done it without you all.

26 August, 2015

My Time in Numbers

Griffin Gosnell is from Phoenix, Arizona. She graduated from Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Art. Griffin is a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Maelao Wittayakom School in Mae Lao, Chiang Rai, Thailand. When she isn't teaching or traveling around beautiful Thailand, she has delved into learning Thai, taking free online courses, practicing yoga, and doodling. Following Fulbright, Griffin will spend time with her much missed family and friends, then she will most likely pursue a Masters degree in Marital and Family Therapy with an emphasis in Art Therapy at her alma mater, LMU.

It's hard to fit the past nearly eleven months into a two page narrative, so I figured I could share with you my time in Thailand in numbers.

Learning Thai is no piece of cake, but keeping track of all my new words has helped me a lot. Highly recommended.

Number of Thai words/phrases in my iPhone notepad: 163 

I try to write down everything new for me. While I haven't been great at learning the Thai alphabet, so I'm unfortunately still illiterate in Thai, I've learned Thai through simply talking to people and writing all my translations - English to transliteration of Thai. And although they may not be perfect, and I probably have never used the correct tones, I'm still able to communicate quite well with the people around me. Additionally, I've found that when I rely on Google Translate, I get translations like: "you're right!" = "koon kwaa." Which literally translates to "you are on the right." Nice try Google, you are not right. The translation I was looking for was "took tong."

Numbers of “wai” I give during a general morning at school: 35

“wai”-ing is a Thai greeting and shows respect. Thais wai to say hello, goodbye, and thank you. A wai consists of a slight bow to the other person with your hands pressed together near your chest, head, or forehead, depending on who you are wai-ing. Generally, you wai anyone older than you, and as one of the younger members of Mae Lao Wittayakom school, I try to wai every other teacher and staff first thing in the morning as a “good morning” greeting.

Students at Mae Lao all lined up for morning assembly and the national anthem.

Number of times I've heard the national anthem: 140
I've most definitely heard the Thai national anthem more than I'll ever hear the American national anthem. And so much so that I can practically sing along during morning assembly, to which the teachers around me snicker as the "farang" (foreigner) sings to the tune of "Plehng Chaat Tai" (Thai National Anthem). The Thai national anthem is played twice a day everyday, once at 8am (or during our school's morning assembly) and once at 6pm.

This wonderful woman kept me well-fed all year round. 

Number of som tams (papaya salad) eaten: probably as many times as I've heard the national anthem played 
As a vegetarian, finding veg-friendly meals at my school has been difficult, but thankfully, I love som tam and I love my som tam lady. Asking if you have eaten or what you're eating is a huge part of conversation in Thailand. And as such, teachers ask me what I'm eating or have eaten for lunch. I reply, "som tam." "Gigi, som tam, again?" They ask. "Tuk wan, tuk wan," (Everyday) I respond. "Aren't you bored of it yet?" They inquire. "Not yet!" And tuk wan, we have this conversation. I'll miss my som tam and my quick Thai chats about my "boring" lunches. I hope I can find me those papaya salad ingredients in the USA.

Number of hours taught: 400 

Now I say approximately, because Thailand is pretty notorious for canceled classes for everything from school cleaning days, the school's birthday, English competitions, sports days, ASEAN days, religious ceremonies, the King's birthday, and more. But while teaching, I have enjoyed many successes but also setbacks. Teaching is hard, especially a second language. Thankfully, my students have been wonderful, and each day I teach, the more fun we have together. I will miss the lovely students of Mae Lao very much and wish them all the most success in everything they do!

Number of massages: 16
When else will I be able to get $6 massages whenever I please?! And plus, teaching is no walk in the park, gotta de-stress every once in a while.

Mae Lao teachers and students after the teachers won the soccer championship!

Number of times I've been told not to eat spicy food: 1
Right after I got slammed in the face with a soccer ball during a student versus teacher game, the only advice I got was "geen pet mai dai" (you cannot eat spicy food). I am a lover of all things spicy, so this advice was... Not what I wanted to hear, but also confusing. Why can’t I eat spicy food?! What I hadn't thought of was the ball slamming my teeth into my lips and breaking the skin a bit, so the teachers were worried it would sting. I went on to eat some pad see ew without spicy peppers for the first time that night.... I healed quickly and quickly resumed eating spicy everything. And as always, I was very thankful for the kindness and caring of all the teachers around me!

Number of international meals shared: 4
Whether Mexican or Italian, I have really enjoyed cooking meals to share with my fellow teachers. Foods such as tacos and pizza are hard to come by in Mae Lao (as in don't exist), so it has been fun sharing a part of my life with them.

Number of times this pescatarian (vegetarian who eats eggs, dairy products, and fish) has eaten things outside of the scope of her diet: too many.
Now, I have to admit, some of these were by ....choice? If you can call it that. I've eaten a HUGE scorpion, a deep fried frog, tons of unintentional pork, live wasp larvae, grasshoppers, and crickets, oh my!

Number of ants eaten unintentionally: enough for forever (still haven't eaten any intentionally) 

During internship month, I lived in Khao Sok national park. Bugs had no mercy there. And one day while eating my honey toast, I was so delighted at how yummy it was that I scarfed one slice down so fast that I didn't even realize that all the "wheat specks" that I thought I was seeing were actually teeny tiny ants that had found their way to the deliciousness of the honey. And then to my belly.

Number of countries seen: 4
Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, duh! All four of these countries, although in close proximity, have such amazingly different cultures, foods, and languages. They all made me fall in love in different ways. In Myanmar, I would suggest eating Tofu Oon, an incredible tofu soup in the Shan State that I still dream about today. In Cambodia, I would recommend seeing the Phare Circus – absolutely incredible – a true testament to how far they have come since the Khmer Rogue. In Indonesia, don’t miss the laid back Gili Islands where you can relax, surf, or, my favorite, scuba dive. And in Thailand, make sure to engage with the Thais – I have never been met with as much hospitality as I have here and will truly miss the smiles I see everyday. It certainly isn’t called the Land of Smiles for no reason!

Number of times I've had to stop a bus for emergency toilet stops: 4
Road trips with a colon disease are hard, but thank goodness for the good ole "tong sia" trick, which literally means "broken stomach." You can infer the rest.

Number of Thai provinces visited: 14
I have had the privilege of traveling nearly every weekend in my time in Thailand. Usually just to neighboring Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but I try to go further on all my long weekends.

The difference between hottest and coldest temperatures: 50 (in Farenheit)
It was so cold during the winter that students built fires outside of my outdoor classrooms. And so hot that... just take my word for it, it can be so hot.

Spirit + smiles + lots of singing = successful English camp!
Number of English camps participated in: 2 (so far) 
English camps are a great way to get students excited about learning English and get me to understand how hard it is to dance and sing on a microphone at the same time – the Hokey Pokey is a lot harder than it looks. Respect, Beyoncé, respect.

Number of blog entries written: 26
As an extrovert living in rural Thailand, writing in my blog to share my experience with family and friends has been a way for me to connect regardless of how far away I am from home.

Number of books read: 5
Shhh... Now I know what you're thinking, "I read five books a month!" Well, I'm a non-reader, so this is big for me. So let me bask in my five-book glory.

Number of photos taken: 4,704
And these are only the ones currently on my computer... being a procrastinator, I still haven't uploaded many on my camera's SIM card, oops! I take so many that I have to delete a million pictures every time I want to take one!

That's me planting a coconut tree at school!

Number of trees planted: 2
After a devastating earthquake in 2014, my school is still in the process of repairing old things and building new buildings. Planting trees to help in this rebuilding process is something that I've had the opportunity to do not only once but twice since I've been here!

Me and fellow ETA, Michelle, at 30 meters down under in Koh Tao.

Number of meters I've gone under the ocean: 30 
Over travel month, I had the opportunity to go scuba diving. One of the most incredible experiences of my life hands down. It's literally a whole new world. And you're breathing underwater?! Definitely recommended if you ever get the chance.

Number of seconds a day: 300ish
For over two years, I have been capturing my life everyday with one second video clips (there's an exception where my phone shattered, you'll see it in there… and some days where I’m human and I forget, womp womp.).

With each second from nearly every day since I packed up in Phoenix, AZ to now, I hope to share with you a piece of my time here—my students, my fellow teachers, my friends, insects, landmarks; sunset captured; lessons taught; meals cooked—as a Fulbright ETA in Thailand.

one second everyday from Griffin Adwoa Gosnell on Vimeo.

21 August, 2015

From Market to Mat


Michelle McNamara is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Villanova University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. After graduating, Michelle taught 4th and 5th grade through Teach For America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Outside of the classroom, Michelle plays beach volleyball, enjoys running, and cooks all possible Thai dishes imaginable. She is currently teaching at Choom Chon Ban Fon Wittaya outside of Lampang.

“Yenee tam arrai?” My favorite vegetable saleswoman said, asking me what I planned to cook that evening. I arrived at the market around my usual time at 5:30 PM. Sometimes, this is too late as popular food items, such as cilantro and mint are already sold out. But I view this as a creative challenge and end up making substitutions like ginger for chilies, cucumber for papaya, or pork for chicken.

My favorite market stand and vendor.

The Ban Fon market is large. One corner is dedicated to live fish swimming in buckets and another corner looks like a free pig-anatomy class. In the outdoor section there appears to be an elaborate game of “Can you tell the differences between eight types of rice?” I cannot.

 Various types of rice at the market. 

Each section is manned, or I should say wo-maned because women make up the majority of shopkeepers, by vendors who without fail, ask me what I’m making each night. Usually my response earns a “Gaeng mak!” or “Very good!” as I hope I’ve been correctly translating in my head for the past ten months…

But today, when I stood in front of my veggie lady, I was a little hesitant to announce my intended dish. I received some raised eyebrows from fellow teachers at my school when I mentioned my culinary quest to make Khao Soi, a curry noodle dish local to Northern Thailand that involves many ingredients, a roasted curry paste, and deep fried noodles. It was also a Tuesday, meaning my weekly “Eat Food and Speak English” dinner club members would be sampling this dish. That was intimidating.

My two neighbors, Riam and Dee, at our weekly Tuesday night English Language dinner.

“Tam Khao Soi?” I said uncertainly. I watched the whispers pass down the row. News, any news, seems to spread very quickly in small communities and it was interesting to watch the whispers pass from mouth to ear. As it turned out, this instantaneous spreading of knowledge made my market trip much easier than usual. My vegetable salesfriend quickly gathered the Khao Soi ingredients, seven vegetables and spices whose names I hadn’t yet committed to memory in Thai, that she could provide and pointed me to my next stop, egg noodles. I bounced from egg noodles (And my discovery that the market had a refrigeration section!) to the woman who specialized in pickled Chinese cabbage (she received the most points in her direction meaning her cabbage was probably the most delicious) to the chicken stand. A couple weeks before this trip, the saleswoman at this stand breached our language barrier by grabbing her chest to teach me the word for “chicken breast.” The market is a classroom unlike any other. 

I traveled home with my ingredients, my grocery sack full of turmeric, garlic, cilantro, dried chilies, ginger, chicken, egg noodles, pickled Chinese cabbage, limes, shallots, and coconut milk.

Me with my motor and pestle, a necessary tool for making curry paste!

I smashed the garlic with a wedge knife and peeled the turmeric with a tiny knife. I grabbed the chilies between my index finger and thumb to prepare them for chopping. I itched somewhere near my eyes. 

Regret. My face burns like the heat of 1,000 suns. 

I roasted all the curry paste ingredients in aluminum foil while preparing the deep fry noodles. My face also roasted. I temporarily hate chilies. 

In another pan, I battled against the heat sensor of my induction cooker. 

The oil got hot, yay! Noodles fried, oil splashed. The induction cooker overheated and switched itself off. I turned the cooker back on. The oil got hot, yay! The induction cooker overheated and switched off again. I groaned.

Following a combination of the various online recipes, I added curry paste, coconut milk and chicken stock to the wok one by one. I boiled egg noodles al dente. I dried some of the oil from the crispy noodles, still hot from deep frying. I placed the plate of Chinese cabbage, lime quarters, and sliced shallots on my yoga mat, or on Tuesday nights, the makeshift dinner table.

The finished product!

When my diners arrived, I assembled the dish. “Hey, it looks good at least?” I thought to myself. I served them their bowls and then like a totally calm, relaxed, and collected chef…I stared at their faces without blinking and waited for a sign of disgust. It never came.

Arroi” my neighbor said, giving me her verdict. 
“Hey this is English language night!” I replied. 
“Delicious!” she uttered, taking another bite.

21 July, 2015

Soccer: A Gateway to the Thai Culture

Graduation Day with M6 Students
William Glass is from Birmingham, Alabama and graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida with a BA in international relations. William is currently a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Jorakhe Wittayayon School, Khon Kaen, Thailand. Outside of the classroom William enjoys riding his bike through the surrounding rice paddies and eating the local spicy foods. After the grant he plans to return to the United States and gain meaningful work experience before attending graduate school.

Soccer or as the Thais (and the rest of the world) call it “football,” is an important part of Thai culture and derivatives of the game can be seen across the country. Takraw nets can be found universally in every city and rural school. Futsal courts are squeezed in between buildings in the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Large soccer goals adorn the front lawns of local government buildings and factories in the countryside. The local markets sell Bundesliga, La Liga, and Premier league jerseys at almost every clothing stall. Bumper stickers from the Thai leagues can be spotted on the backs of cars, trucks, and even motorbikes. It is easy for even the casual observer to see that Thai people love soccer. Yet there is a deeper role that soccer plays within Thai culture that after spending nine months in Thailand becomes more apparent to me each day.

Jorakhe Wittayayon School Soccer Field

First let me explain the important role the beautiful game has played in my life. Growing up in the South, soccer was barely a blip on the radar. Most people only paid attention once every four years (if that) when ESPN would show highlights from the World Cup. Beyond that, soccer did not exist except in far away lands to be played and understood only by foreigners. All that mattered in my hometown was American football. Let me be clear not just any American football, but specifically college football. The most common question asked to new acquaintances was “so are you an Alabama or Auburn fan?” As a soccer player in Alabama, I was a part of a subculture where only those who truly loved the sport played throughout their youth. A dedicated few of us traversed every season continuing to train and play year round simply because we found a unique comfort and joy playing an outsider sport. Only as I got older did I truly begin to understand the global reach that soccer possesses.

Ten months ago in early September, I was preparing to come to Thailand and was struggling over what to pack and what not to pack. I spent hours going over my mental checklist in order to eliminate unnecessary items each day. I would take out most everything and contemplate if I really needed this shirt and those pants, until I eventually condensed all my “necessities” into one checked bag and a carry-on. The one item that I never considered leaving behind was my soccer cleats. No way I was leaving those bad boys at home. I had been to Thailand once before and had had an opportunity to play a pickup game of futsal in Chiang Mai. I knew the popularity of the sport and was determined to use it as a way of connecting with my community early in the year. A few weeks later it was time to depart and with my cleats packed, I headed to the airport ready for the land of smiles. 

Jumping ahead to November, I had just arrived in Isaan, which is famous for its extra spicy food and brutally hot summers. I had been placed at Jorakhe Wittayayon a rural high school located about 30 kilometers west of Khon Kaen city. It sits back off of a major highway surrounded by rice paddies and sugar cane fields. As I pulled into the school for the first time I remember seeing the long entrance gate and driving up past the dirt patched soccer field and taking in all of the greenery and newness. Approaching the first building, I immediately noticed a small futsal court and two takraw nets that sat out front of the main office building. At last, I had finally made it and was allowing everything to sink in as an intense stream of information and emotions were thrown at me all at once. 

Takraw courts

I was nervous for the first day of school and arrived early dressed in a suit and tie eager to meet the students. Before morning assembly students played futsal while those just arriving to school sat around the edge of the court and watched. Periodically students would call their friends out of the game and a rotation between players began. It was mostly the younger students playing this early in the morning. The older students were still half asleep as they sauntered into school. Yet as I passed the courts periodically throughout the rest of the day, I would see a different set of students from every level playing in their off period. It started to become clear how important the game was for the students. At lunch students rushed through their meal and hurried to the futsal court to be the first ones to play. 

I had taken a few days to get familiar with the teachers and now wanted to put my plan into action and start connecting with the students through soccer. I had told my host teacher how I wanted to play soccer with the students and she had relayed this information. Later in the day she approached me saying, “The students would like to play football (soccer) with you. Go and join the friends.” After school I changed out of my teaching clothes and picked up my cleats as the anticipation of playing with the students built. I was excited, but also a little nervous as it had been awhile since I last played and was out of practice. I walked up to the soccer field only to realize no one was on the field! There had been a miscommunication and the teacher had really meant futsal, not “football.” So I left my cleats on the sideline and played in my tennis shoes. It was great to be able to play and start connecting with the students through the game. I knew very little Thai; just enough to say hello (sawatdee khrap!) and I am full (eem mak!). Thus playing futsal became an early way for me to bridge the communication gap. I found myself playing after school everyday with the students whether it was futsal, takraw, or soccer. It became my routine and I looked forward to the afternoons where I could relax and cut up with students using the universal language of soccer.

M1 students playing futsal before school 

I saw this openness mirrored in other ways as well. When the futsal court was already taken students wandered over to the takraw nets and casually began kicking the small reed ball over the net. A pattern emerged on the futsal court where the younger students would only play each other and the older students would only play each other. This age divide was quite clear and understandable as the 19 year olds were physically much more developed than the 13 year olds. Interestingly, this same divide did not occur on the takraw courts where older and younger students playing together was the norm, rather than the exception. Parity existed between the students, no matter their age or skill level. The purpose of the sport was not hyper competitive, but rather about enjoying the time together. This wasn’t clear to me early on as I was struggling to remember when and where my classes were much less distinguishing the Mathayom 3s from the 4s. 

M6 students and I at Buriram Football Stadium

I mentioned earlier that I have begun to understand the deeper role soccer plays in the Thai culture. Thai people truly are some of the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever met. I found the cultural willingness to include reflective in the Thai style of play. The female students regularly play with male students after school. A lack of gender segregation exists that allows those who want to join to do so. I saw this during sports day at my school where the boys helped coach the girls’ teams and vice versa. Older students could be seen mentoring the younger students and working together to accomplish their goals. It was a beautiful thing to watch and gave me a deep insight into how the community aspect of Thai culture is reflected in the sport. The Thai style of play focuses on inclusion and cultivating relationships. Whether it is different ages playing takraw, female and male students playing futsal together, or a foreigner teacher playing soccer with his students, Thailand is all about fair play. Playing soccer with my students has become an integral way for me to connect, as well as a resource for me to better understand Thai culture. I am so thankful for the kindness they have shown me and for the unforgettable moments on the field.

09 July, 2015

Thai Family Ties

Shayna Rosen is from St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Truman State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and French. Shayna is a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Watbot Suksa School in Watbot, Phitsanulok, Thailand. In her spare time, she enjoys entertaining the ever-growing number of cats and dogs surrounding her house, trying to figure out how NOT to accidentally say inappropriate things in Thai, and playing her ukulele. After Fulbright, she hopes to continue traveling, seeking out meaningful relationships with people and culture, and eventually find a job that makes her as happy as when her students have collective “aha” moments. 

One of the things that you read about or hear from everyone and their mother when you’re getting ready to travel to Thailand is how generous and kind Thai people are. I took this with a grain of salt, figuring that I would need to look into the water supply if every single Thai person that I met while I was here turned out to be constantly smiling, helping, and sharing. After living here for 9 months, I can confidently say that Thai people are people too, and my encounters and conversations with locals haven’t universally been rainbows and butterflies. That being said, I have also witnessed and experienced some of the most selfless, thoughtful, and loving behavior of my life here in Thailand, and a great deal of it has come from my neighbors.

Let me set the scene: on October 29th, 2014, all of the ETAs woke up at varying hours of the still-dark morning, took vans to the airport, and flew to our provinces. My plane left Bangkok at 6:20 in the morning and landed in Phitsanulok before 7:30. By 8:30, I had eaten a spicy bowl of noodles, been driven through the tiny town of Watbot, and been dropped off at my house. I was exhausted, hot, and completely overwhelmed by all of the changes that had occurred in the five hours since I had woken up that morning. As my host teacher pulled out of my driveway, I remember feeling almost instantly sad and lonely and realizing that I had no idea how to do things as basic as buy myself food.

I chose to put all of these concerns to the side for the moment and take a nap. That afternoon, feeling refreshed and ready to conquer Watbot, I decided to make my way to the town 7/11 for water. I had barely closed my front door when one of my neighbors approached me. She introduced herself to me and in typical Thai fashion, asked to take a selfie with me. I obliged, we selfied, and then exchanged Line and Facebook information. When I got back from 7/11, I shut myself away in my room, turned the air conditioner on full blast, and tried to decompress. This only lasted a few minutes before I ended up on Facebook. (Kids these days.) I opened the page to find a friend request and several notifications. When I clicked to see what these notifications were about, they were from people liking a photo I had recently been tagged in. This photo turned out to be the selfie I had just taken with my neighbor, which had immediately been posted to Facebook with the caption, “welcome to my family.” 

Shayna and her neighbor, Goi, in their first selfie together.

A little cliché, perhaps, but from day one, my neighbors have welcomed me into their family with open arms. Nine months later it has become second nature for me to refer to them in conversation as “my Thai family” or even, “my family” on occasion. I grew up as an only child, with two parents who, looking back, loved me fiercely, but not always in a way that was evident to me at the time. My parents separated when I was young and the after-effects and ongoing issues surrounding their separation consumed a great deal of my childhood and adolescence. Growing up, I don’t remember having what I would consider to be a functional family unit, but my Thai family has allowed me to experience one of the most loving and accepting family units that I could imagine.

Spending time with them has been one of the most enriching parts of my experience as at ETA. One of my goals this year was to fully immerse myself in Thai culture, and my Thai family has helped me to do this in countless ways. From helping me make Krathongs for Loi Krathong, to explaining which bugs were best to eat cooked which way, to demonstrating how to make merit when the monks came to town, to taking me to temples hidden away in the countryside, waterfalls and national parks, a school on top of a mountain, and to live music in the city, to showing me how to cook numerous Thai dishes, to teaching me more Thai than I would have ever learned otherwise, my Thai family has been an integral part of my immersion into Thai culture. I feel especially lucky to have gotten a glimpse into what it’s like to grow up in a close-knit Thai family.

Shayna at a Chinese Temple with her Thai mom, P’Jeap, and extended Thai family on Father’s Day.

Not only that, but if it weren’t for them, I probably would have starved to death by now (or at least been relegated to a diet of only mama noodles, rice, and the occasional meat or veggie), been stung to death by the bees who thought we could share my bedroom, and not ever been able to wash the sheets on my bed. I would have missed out on shared laughter over disgusting puréed carrot shakes that we pretended were delicious, cats being scared to death by frogs, photo shoots in every       Big C department, trying to pronounce various cities on a map of the US, and paper lanterns that didn’t seem to want to fly.

I feel so grateful for the kindness that my neighbors have shown me by accepting me into their family as another daughter, yet treating me as an equal. The almost nightly family-style dinners that we have shared, the small acts of kindness they have offered me without asking anything in return, and the effort that they have gone to to communicate with me and make me feel welcome in Watbot are some of my favorite memories of my time in Thailand. During my first month at my placement, P’Jeap, my Thai mom, went to the trouble of finding my phone and typing a message into Google Translate so that she could tell me that she was worried about me when I didn’t come eat dinner with the family the night before. It’s such a simple motherly thing to do, but in a place where “home” can sometimes feel light-years away, this small act meant the world to me. Sometimes, it feels like all the kanom (Thai snacks!) in the world would barely be a start of a “thank you” to my Thai family for how meaningful they’ve made my time here.

Plus, there’s the added bonus of having been able to take on the role of “cool aunt” to my 7 year-old neighbor, Fogut. I’ve been used as a pillow, an enemy for her to fight off with banana-tree leaves and flowers, a duet partner, a teacher, a way to play iPhone games all night, a jungle-explorer, and a life preserver. Occasionally, when Fogut stands outside my house calling my name until I come out and play with her, I regret taking on this role with such gumption, but the English that she’s picked up, the smile that she gets on her face when she sees me come home from school, and the time that I’ve spent getting to be silly and carefree because of her is unmatched. By the way, if you’re looking to hire a super sweet musical duo to perform “Let it Go” in both English and Thai at your next event, I know who you should call. ;)

Shayna and her neighbor Fogut enjoying dessert.

I may not have the same level of independence at my placement that some of the other ETAs have at theirs, but the opportunity that I’ve had to delve into Thai culture, build community despite language barriers, and feel like a member of a Thai family is a unique experience that I feel privileged to have had. I feel as though my cultural understanding is greater than it ever could have been without this experience, and that I am happier in my rural placement because of these relationships that I get to strengthen every day. The thought of leaving my placement in a few months is one that is already difficult to fathom, but after many dinnertime conversations of reciprocated ja kid teung mak mak (“I will miss you so much!”), I’ve already promised my family that I’ll be back in two years. I can only begin to imagine how much kanom, karaoke, and laughter will be shared at our two-year reunion.

02 July, 2015

Forgotten keys and surprise hugs: Adventures with my Thai host teacher

Valerie Sauers, known by her Thai nickname Warie, is from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in May of 2011 with a degree in Spanish and Anthropology. After graduation she spent three years in Spain putting her language and anthropology skills to use and teaching English in the Basque Country. She is currently a teacher at Ban Ku Muang school, in a small village outside of Ubon Ratchathani, where she teaches kindergarten through junior high students that learning English can be fun! After the grant she plans to return to the USA where she will spend the holidays sipping tea in hopefully freezing temperatures, indulging in home cooked meals and getting in some much needed family time before moving back to Spain.

Eight months into the grant, it’s hard to recall exactly what went through my mind as I strategically packed and repacked my suitcase last September. I suppose that if I had to put it into writing, which apparently a narrative requires, I’d have to say that I expected it to be more.. well, rustic. To live in the middle of rice paddies, have no access to American delicacies (peanut butter and granola bars!), to spend the year without internet or cellular services trading those connections for new ones that would be made in my village. When we first got our placements I was maybe the only person who did not email my host teacher. Coming off of a three year stint teaching English in Spain through a government program that did not have the most ‘hands-on’ host teachers (read: full independence), I imagined that my relationship with my Thai host teacher would be similar if not the same. We would work well together, she would help me file paperwork that I couldn’t understand, and make my schedule. While our work relationship would be positive, outside of school we would have our own lives that could occasionally overlap, but typically wouldn’t. 

In early July I received an email from the then current ETA kindly asking me to email my host teacher, she was anxiously waiting and very excited to hear from me. Somewhat surprised and a little nervous, I put aside my Lonely Planet guide book and sent her an email. She replied a day later with a short introduction, a lot of excited !!!!!!’s, and pictures. I laughed as a I struggled to figure out her age. Thai women have this magical ability to appear ten to twenty years younger, a secret that I still want in on. The days flew by and as I shoved the last minute purchases into my already stuffed suitcase and said goodbyes I wondered what my new life would be like. I romanticized the village life (turns out I live in a city, not the village!), the eagerness of my students, and was the perfect mix of nervous and excited about the new relationship I would build with my host teacher, Pi Nuan, whose name I was not quite sure how to pronounce. 

Pi Nuan and Warie dressed in traditional Isan style outside of the English department at Ban Ku Muang.

Orientation in Bangkok gave me my first taste of Thailand and its own impression of the culture. The bustling streets were full of a colorful life that seemed to be about as true to traditional Thai culture as NYC comes to showing you typical American life. With a month in the rear view mirror I boarded the plane destined for the Isaan city, Ubon Ratchathani (Ubon), my first peek into traditional Thailand. As I waited for my luggage, my heart began to pound. Being one of the older ETA’s and having international experience, I wasn’t sure that I would know how to have a host teacher. My mind skipped from thrilled to nervous that it would feel like too much help or too overwhelming at times when I might enjoy independence. What if I needed a break from people? What if I wanted to do something alone? Would it be okay? Would she like me less?

I grabbed my luggage and made my way towards the exit. The large glass doors slid open revealing our welcoming party. Pi Nuan stood on the far right sporting jeans, a red flannel shirt and the world’s cutest pigtails. She bounced up and down with excitement, a huge smile on her face and roses in her hand. Even though we had met briefly at orientation, I had butterflies in my stomach that hinted at meeting for the first time. We hugged and I discovered that even in heels she came up to my chest. She’s what I like to call “Thai size,” think extra extra small. Here it should be noted that size does not refer to the personality or character of an individual, only their physical appearance. 

Pi Nuan capturing a moment of rest during a teacher dance practice for a community event
that was held at the school.

That first day was a whirlwind in which the four kilometers from the airport to my apartment seemed like forty unknown miles and pork soup for breakfast never tasted so good. Well fed, stocked with new Thai snacks (fish flavored peas anyone?) and water, I settled in with the promise of a shopping trip the following day. Exhausted from the early morning wake-up and introduction to my new life, I felt relieved to be left alone and happy that it had come about naturally. As I face planted into my bed I felt thankful that Pi Nuan had just seemed to know that I needed some personal time.

The next day began early. Fresh out of the shower after a morning run, I heard a knock on the door. Grabbing a towel, I answered to find that the other ETA’s placed in Ubon were already picked up and we were leaving a little ahead of schedule. Flustered, I dressed and grabbed my belongings, padlocking the door behind me. I hopped into the air-conditioned mini van and my heart sunk. I had forgotten my keys. Embarrassed, I turned to Pi Nuan and told her, envisioning the first impression I was undoubtedly making. She gave me a pretend face of shock, laughed and told me not to worry, which of course I did. When we arrived home the padlock had already been cut and the door was unlocked. I thanked her and she promised me that it was nothing before giving me a hug and reminding me to bring my keys tomorrow. That week I went on to lock myself out three more times. Yes, I locked myself out four times in my first week as a Fulbright ETA, the definition of a responsible young adult. Each time I went to Pi Nuan like a dog with my tail between my legs only to be greeted by laughter and promises that she wasn’t laughing at me, she was laughing at the situation. My tears dried and I laughed with her as the landlord’s brother removed my window in an attempt to ‘break in’ (the window is still held into the wall with duct tape), cutting himself in the process, but never once complaining. The fourth time, when I called Pi Nuan at a funeral to tell her I had done it again, she told me that she almost couldn’t believe it and laughed so hard, which was not appropriate considering where she was. She made me promise not to cry, telling me that it was nothing for her to leave and call Pi Joe (my landlord). As I waited for Pi Joe, a bag of mango in hand to accompany my broken Thai that would serve as an apology, I dried my tears. Pi Joe tried to tell me it was ‘no big deal’ as I forced the mango upon him, my heart swelling at the loving and understanding reactions I was receiving from both him and Pi Nuan. I quickly made a sign “KEY??” to hang on the door and was thankful to have a host teacher.

I live in the city and ride with Pi Nuan to school every morning. It’s about forty minutes and we spend the time talking, singing to classics like Britney Spears, soaking up the glorious air conditioning and asking questions. She tells me, “Warie (my Thai nickname, Valerie is kind of a tough one), you ask so many questions!”, before answering each one in sufficient depth. She in turn asks me about different aspects of American culture and a lot about Spain. I find comfort in sharing my former life and we marvel at the differences and many similarities between the three cultures. Turns out everyone loves to eat. When I felt the first pangs of homesickness, I told her, because even though I had only been in Ubon for a month I felt comfortable and relieved to share it with her. She told me it was normal, encouraged me to Skype with loved ones, and gave me ‘surprise hugs!’ throughout the day, something she continues to do periodically. When I ask her what she would do if she didn’t have to go to school, she chuckles and tells me she doesn’t think about it, this is her life and she loves it. When I arrive in the car sulking that it’s the beginning of another work week, her positive vibes chase my Monday blues away. In fact, I’ve found that positive energy is contagious and over the past eight months I’ve not only embraced the beginning of the week, but I look forward to chatting about the weekend on the morning car ride. 

Warie and Pi Nuan give their interpretation of the 'tree pose' while on the way back
from a camping trip in a national park.

We order fruit at the same stand everyday. I order in some sort of Thai that was broken at first and has steadily improved. She tells me the names of all of the different items displayed and their classifiers. We laugh when the sentence becomes too long, which for me is more than four words and she tells me it’s okay, never mind. She reminds me that past ETA’s picked up Thai faster than I have, but gives a loving smile and assures me that I do other things really well, like remember my key. One morning we decide to order papaya and she tells me to ask for ‘mapapaya ka
.’ That’s easy I think, marveling at the fact that papaya is the similar in English and Spanish as it is in Thai. I repeat my request twice sending Pi Nuan into a fit of laughter that leaves her breathless and crying. As we drive away the tears continue to roll down her cheeks and she can’t explain my mistake because she can’t seem to catch her breath. She recovers only to become hysterical again. I giggle too, and find that surprisingly I don’t feel self conscious or ashamed because it’s not a teacher who is laughing at me, or my host teacher, but a friend. It turns out that Pi Nuan had crossed wires in her brain and told me papaya in English instead of the Thai translation. We laughed the rest of the car ride and at lunch as she retold the story to the other teachers. 

Having a traditional and special family dinner at Pi Nuan's house.

We jet from school to parks where we can go for walks or do aerobics while people watching, we go for dinner in new and older, but favorite, places and we spend the weekends eating (Thais love food!), exploring the area and experiencing important aspects of culture like Thai massages and night markets. With each passing day I become more convinced that Pi Nuan is either the energizer bunny or a super hero in disguise. She does it all and enjoys it. In fact, in eight months I’ve only seen her look physically tired once in a blue moon and hot this most recent month. I must admit that I’m internally grateful to see that Thai’s also sweat!

When I think of what I’ve learned about Thai culture and myself this past year, it all links back to my relationship with this host teacher that I was so anxious to have. For me, she’s my window into Thai family life, my personal translator, my bilingual tour guide and my friend. She’s opened doors that might have remained closed because of my lack of language, adopted me into her home and family, laughed at my mishaps, encouraged my successes, and done it all out of the kindness of her heart. She’s welcomed my friends and family playing hostess on many occasions, treated me with respect and honesty, hugged me and given me the space she knows foreigners like to have. Through her actions I’ve learned about the role of a strong independent woman in present day Thailand. I’ve learned when and where to wai (the small bow of greeting) and how to act in different social situations. I’ve learned language and food, attempting to copy her pronunciations and always hoping that she eats first so that I can copy her. I’ve come to admire her patience and optimism (two characteristics that I have found in most Thai people), vowing to carry those traits with me as I move forward in life. I’ve learned that situations are not always what you expect. I expected to move to rural Thailand and spend a year fending for myself. What I got instead? An authentic Thai experience, a miracle worker and a lifelong friendship.