28 January, 2015

Sabai Sabai! - Breaking Down the Walls to Appreciation and Acceptance

By Brian Vedder

Brian Vedder is from Niskayuna, New York, and graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Sciences in Secondary English Education. He is currently a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Hang Dong School in the Chiang Mai province. Brian would love to continue his education and teaching post-Fulbright, eventually write a book, become a professor, continue to travel and, all the while, work on pushing himself further and further out of his comfort zone. Brian’s narrative focuses on acknowledging, comprehending and overcoming the divide between the Thai concept of “Sabai Sabai” and his lifelong feelings of anxiety and over-contemplation that came with him as he started this life-changing journey.

My name is Brian Vedder – I am twenty-two years old, come from the often-forgotten land of upstate New York, and graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Secondary English Education. Feel like you know Brian? Probably not. I have two sisters, one younger and one older, and my mother, all three of whom collectively mean the world to me; I enjoy the fast-paced lifestyle of the city, but could never live without tranquil moments of all-encompassing green and pervading sounds of nature; writing and reading are some of my most meaningful outlets and offer me indescribable, self-defining moments of reflection; however, most relevantly, I have struggled with grasping and combating strong feelings of anxiety and my tendency to over-analyze since July 15th, 1992. Growing up, there always seemed to be an underlying set of insecurities and worries that I could never escape – new experiences brought on half-bitten fingernails, stomach aches, obsessive-compulsive habits and impending fears of failure. I knew all of this as I exited the plane on September 26th, 2014, but I had no idea how much it would change in Thailand, even just after a demanding, three-month chunk of time.

Anxiety and stress-reducing habits usually came as a result to my “Type A” personality, always ready to be as productive, as analytic, as equipped as possible. There was a level of control I subconsciously needed to have over situations, be them social, educational, emotional or intellectual, and that made it impossible to thoroughly enjoy, appreciate, relax, embrace or love. These neurotic habits, however, gave me great success in the classroom, a well-deserved reputation at places of employment, fantastic organizational skills, and the image of being well-spoken, of “having it all together.” This was undeniably part of my identity coming to Thailand. I researched the complex language over the summer months, tried to get a sense of what the classroom and education system would look like, and broke down my packing list again and again to prepare for as many unforeseen cultural experiences as possible. On the surface, this probably does not seem like a destructive trait, but arriving to Thailand gave me an entirely new perspective on this “Type A” lifestyle.

“Sabai sabai” is a phrase frequently used in Thailand, inherently meaning that you should be relaxed, that everything will be as it is supposed to be, that the stress and desire to control situations should be left at the door. Small problems will work themselves out and larger problems will be taken care of with the help of others. As to be expected, this motto that many Thai citizens live by did not necessarily jive with the mindset I had adopted as my own over the past twenty-two years. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I was not someone that could often “go with the flow” or change plans on the spin of a dime, and that was not applicable to Thailand. I needed some sort of mental processing, of personal preparation, some time to work through social unease before I could throw myself at an opportunity. I knew as I left the United States that my comfort zone would be eliminated, that my limitations would have to expand, and that I should probably get ready to be intellectually, emotionally, and physically “uncomfortable” if I wanted to be as successful as possible in Thailand. I was right – all of these predictions came true; I did not, however, anticipate the level of struggle and value of the reward that I would encounter so soon after stepping off the plane to the dense, hot air of the Bangkok city life.

The first month in a new land brought with it several changes all at once. You are now meeting, learning and adapting to nineteen other bright, outgoing English Teaching Assistants, assimilating to cultural, environmental and food-related norms, re-conceptualizing your hourly, daily and weekly routines to adapt to a fresh set of personal needs across the board. To be honest, as much as I tried, there was no amount of training I could have done to help myself adapt to the smorgasbord of new experiences at hand. After this first month, you leave the comfort and familiarity of Bangkok to move to your own specific province, filled with its own positives and drawbacks, with your own school, family, friends, amenities and resources. Again, nothing can really prepare you for the twists and turns of this rocky road ahead.

The “sabai sabai” attitude has the most relevance in the month of November, when you are adapting to and discovering everything about your school, your host family, your town and your new life. I came in to the school schedule with a pretty developed plan-of-action, having mini-lessons and a long-term idea in place, but was immediately jostled by days off, shortened classes, impromptu cancelled periods and general lateness for one reason or another. Yes, “Mr. Vedder” was perfectly suited to the student teaching expectations in Burlington, Vermont just six months ago, but he was a fish out of water in his Thai classes come November. Not only was my perception of both short-term and long-term scheduling off-beat, but my thoughts of English proficiency according to grade, age, or culture were thrown out the window. Each class was unique, with its own behavioral and academic challenges, and I could not outline a deep, stimulating project or thorough lesson plan without first having a sense of who I was looking at. “Sabai, sabai,” right? Let’s just say Mr. Vedder was definitely out of his element at this point. Starting from scratch, I had new sources of motivation and meaning-making in the classroom. Student smiles, loud bouts of English vocabulary and conversations, interactive back-and-forth commentary and rambunctious greetings became my daily fuel in the classroom. The self-expectations and self-predictions drifted away, and suddenly I was having more fun in the classroom, growing goofier and more successful as days went by. Teacher Brian from America who over-planned and often lost sight of the use of staying positive and “weird” in the classroom had undergone a transformation. Suddenly, I realized the desire and motivation to come to class did not pertain to how much of my English they understood, or how thought-provoking the lessons were, but how at-ease they felt balancing productivity and entertainment, how happy I was to have a class, how thrilled I was that they were happy to see me. Once I let go of trying to teach an entire language in fifty minutes, of turning their confused faces into ones ready for to travel to the faraway land of America, everything flowed easier and progressed smoother. For someone that came in ready to discuss complex morals and American/Thai cultural differences, starting small and living through the educational “sabai sabai” did wonders for me as I moved through this first month. 

There are several other instances that happen while abroad, when you least expect them, that ultimately demonstrate the “sabai sabai” attitude all on their own. This is when, minutes before, you are instructed to give a speech to all of the parents at a school assembly, or when, at a moment’s notice, you are expected to entertain a full house with your vocal cords and open up a session of karaoke entertainment, or when your teacher asks you to be at an event at 8:30, but does not show up until lunch time, when buses are an hour late, when traffic jams change your plans on the fly, when food poisoning hits or when stores are closed for no obvious reason. This is when you must choose a meal randomly off a menu and throw caution into the wind, when you rely on frantic gesturing and scattered miscommunications until you create some sort of cultural bridge, when you defy physical sweating capacities, when electricity goes out at school all day, when Skype calls fail repeatedly and when you, as the foreigner, are put on display for all to see. 

Most of these situations are applicable to traveling in general, but the respective attitude of “sabai sabai” is one specific to Thailand. I came in to this international adventure ill-prepared for the shifting and shaping of everything all at once, automatically inclined to attempt to control or rationalize or “fix” various conditions when, in reality, the only thing I could do was choose my own response – “pick my own adventure,” if you will. The anxiety of trying to predict certain situations and prepare for everything was how I got myself into trouble, and I disposed of this perspective as soon as possible; so many things are left to chance, so many situations only able to work themselves out, so little pre-thinking I could do to decide what song to sing at karaoke, or how to react to the giggles at sweat stains after sessions of animated pedagogy, or how to process emotional chaos when familiar supports were nowhere to be found. 

There is a level of unexpectedness and spontaneity to Thailand that I was in no way ready for, but, then again, there was no way that the old Brian could have been ready for anything “on the spot.” I used to be someone that asked dozens of questions before deciding whether or not it was worth the risk to jump, that had to decide just how wet I was willing to get before throwing myself into the pool of uncertainty, that had to over-consider life before living it. Life lost its fun for a little while; it became too calculated and controllable and supervised and certain, but, at the time, I had little notion this was happening. Changes started in Thailand within the classroom. I could never be certain students would show up, or what lessons would work, or how to best handle the boys in the back using class time to speak frantic Thai and put each other in furious headlocks. This change continued sporadically as I realized I would never be able to always know where I was going, what I was eating, when I should get off the songtaew, what a teacher would offer as a weekend plan, when I could expect to sing, or play soccer, or sleep in my own bed, or when I would find someone to speak English with again. Thailand became a set of individual situations that I could in no way control, research for, mentally prepare for or understand until they had already happened. 

The fact of the matter is that in order to overcome areas of my life that I had spent so long organizing and pre-planning, I had to have that option removed. I had to be forced to live in the moment, to take bullets as they were shot and smell the roses as they were offered, or I would have found a way to circumvent it. At first, there were parts of me that could not comprehend the concept of “sabai sabai,” and simultaneously encountered feelings of frustration, confusion, and misunderstanding – I was too attached emotionally to previously constructed plans or ideas. I could not have plausibly understood how to be flexible and adaptive after twenty-two years in the United States until placed in circumstances where there was no other choice. This is why I am so unbelievably thankful for Thailand. Inside and outside of the classroom, I experience so much more appreciation and enjoyment in life even just after a few months. The teacher in me adores the smiles in my classroom and the gradual language acquisition equally now. The traveler in me enjoys the pain of too much spice and the satisfaction in successfully communicating my choice of meat and vegetables as much as a juicy cheeseburger from Wendy’s. The overly-reflective, all-too-inquisitive young boy inside of me now values the moments of frantic karaoke, of botched attempts at Thai, of cultural faux pas during the struggle to assimilate and the reconsideration of everything I consider “normal.” In every uncomfortable, tense, uncertain or distraught moment, there lies a nugget at the end that I take away with me as a token to my survival and continued, back-and-forth learning. 

Brian Vedder, the young man from upstate New York (still often forgotten), has not completely changed. He has many of the same values and passions as he did four months ago, he often thinks too much and analyzes events long after they are said and done. He still has problems with his fingernails and wonders for lengthy periods about the future. He has made unprecedented progress, however, in dropping his commitment to plans and expectations, he has learned to feel immense gratitude for the smaller moments, for the smiles, the tastes, the unanticipated conversations and the spontaneous journeys that turn out better than he could have imagined. He is no longer over-focused on himself, but on a culture, a place, a time, and a moment; he still thinks about the what-if’s, but not with so much planning, weight, or commitment to it, and more so as endless intellectual and emotional possibilities. He does not measure his success in how much English he can squeeze into a fifty-minute period, but how much fun he can have beside students as they work through advances, setbacks, and questions together. He has stopped looking at how fast, efficiently, or easily he can attain a goal, and more so at whether the goal even exists, what it represents and the sacrifices he is making right now for that one goal. 

This could be viewed as a travel journey, as one that could happen regardless of the country, but I disagree. The pervading, relaxing concept of “sabai sabai” has left me with more joy and less strife than I gave it credit for in the beginning, and the growth since that acceptance has been off the charts. Having finally figured out how to break down some of the walls around me, I am now feeling the Thai culture more fully, adapting and reacting more flexibly and appropriately than ever before, and I do not think there is any transformation more important to my life as a twenty-two year-old man than this one right here, right now.


  1. I'm glad you have found a new way of thinking and analyzing issues in Thailand with the Thai perspective. Enjoy your stay.

  2. This post is really true here in Thailand. I find this post so interesting and informative. More blast in your stay here in Thailand!! Hope to get to know you in person, soon. Such an amazing person and journey here in Thailand.. Cheers for another semester!!

  3. Anonymous14 June, 2016

    Hi Mr.Vedder!
    This is Anna from Gowana Middle School!
    I hope you are having fun in California!

  4. Hi Mr, Vedder
    THis is Avery and Luccabella
    You probably don't remember us but we do and we hope you're having fun in California. And Anna is sitting with us. Hope you read her comment, too.