02 April, 2015

How to “Change the World” from a Bus Station

Krista Mangiardi was raised in the farmlands of Pittsfield, MA. She is a recent graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA from which she received a BA in Liberal Arts and a certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages (TESOL). Her Division III thesis concentrated on Journalism, Cultural Studies, and Literature. She is currently teaching English in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. After she finishes her Fulbright grant, she will continue trying to change the world whether it be from her hometown or from a yet-to-be discovered island. 

"Finally, the Program aims, through these means, to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship." – Senator J. William Fulbright [From the Forward of The Fulbright Program: A History] 

Change the world

Well, this is a confusing, intimating, and challenging phrase if there ever was one. I have never changed the world, but I am guessing that doing so requires a direct line to the President of the United States, fluency in Russian and Mandarin, and funding from a celebrity like Angelina Jolie. I do not have any of these things. I have never changed a law or saved a life. I have not changed the world. I have, however, changed, impacted, and left infinitesimal marks on a microscopic slice of the world. Mostly, I have accomplished this during my time with Fulbright in Thailand.

Before I departed for Thailand in September of 2014 I spent my summer in my hometown of Pittsfield, MA where I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to accomplish in Thailand. I had graduated from Hampshire College where themes of social justice were constantly integrated into my education. I had just returned from a 3-month stint teaching English in Bolivia where I became hooked on the international life. With these experiences in my background and with a Thai textbook in hand, I dreamed up scenarios and projects that would eventually alter the courses of lives and schools for the better. I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to realize all of my ideas – but I had plans.

Teaching English in Thailand for a year, however, is hard. It is wonderful and frustrating and life-changing and amazing. It is an emotional roller-coaster and is something that I would do again and again. The more I learn, the more I enjoy my role here. Some parts become easier and some parts become more difficult. I love what I am doing in Thailand– but I am not achieving the plans I made last summer.

Steve Jobs said that “the crazy ones” can change the world. Nelson Mandela believed that education is the most powerful tool for the job. Rumi wrote that it is wiser to change oneself than world. All I know is that I want to do something positive. I am probably at least a little crazy to do the work I choose I to do, I certainly see the power in education, and I have changed quite a bit lately. My time in Thailand has taught me that my positive actions might not be moving glaciers (or in Thailand’s case…islands), but they do exist. I am not changing the world right now, the world is huge. Instead, here, the moments of change are small but important.

I often travel back to my apartment from an adventure in my host city on a songthaew. A songthaew is a little red truck that one can flag down on the street, hop in the back, and ride to wherever for about thirty cents. I take the songthaew to the bus station and then walk ten minutes back to my apartment. One day, when I arrive at the bus station, I decide to buy something for dinner from the station vendors to take back with me. As I start to wander through the stalls, some vendors ask me if I would like to buy from them. I respond with a short “no thank you” in Thai and continue looking. The vendors, however, are shocked at my three words of Thai. They look so pleased, even though I said I didn’t want to buy their food. We engage in a broken conversation in which I explain the basics of what I am doing in Thailand. They get so excited. They start to point to their food and ask me if I could teach them how to say the names of their wares in English. They carefully practice repeating the words back to me. Grilled pork, grilled pork, grilled pork. They give me a hug good-bye. Two weeks later, I pass through. I get another hug as they proudly point and pronounce: grilled pork.

Even the act of buying meals in Thailand provides opportunities for small, meaningful interactions.

Sometimes, I ride my bicycle a few minutes down the road to Sabaidee Coffee. The only café on my road, it is also the only place I can be assured wifi and air conditioning. I often bike or walk there for an iced Thai milk tea and little bit of conversation with the kind owner, always greeting me with a smile. Sometimes her little nieces and nephews are around. They run around, hide from me, and occasionally come out and bravely declare in English, “hello!” One afternoon, after I get my fill of stable internet, I start to ride my bicycle back to my apartment. I only get about 5 feet away from the café and my bike chain clatters to the road. Next door to the café, however, a new little convenience store is opening. Two men are outside building shelves. I hardly have time to realize what happened to my bike before they wave me over, tools already out and ready. They don’t speak English, but they greet me with the ever-ready Thai smile. They offer me a seat and proceed to spend 15 minutes not only fixing my bike, but making every adjustment possible to make it better. Through a combination of gestures and my little Thai I explain who I am and where I am from. They finish my bike, hand it over, and proudly declare what is probably the only English they know: “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Thailand.”

At Big C, a popular Thai department store, the salad bar lady recognizes me even though I only visit every few weeks. I hand her my bag of salad to weigh and she puts on a sticker with the price based on the kilograms. Then, she smiles, and sneaks more veggies into my bag – especially the heavy ones.

A tuk tuk driver in Bangkok spots me, the lone foreigner in a non-tourist area and starts to follow me as I walk down the sidewalk. “Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk!” he yells. He tries to convince me to pay an absurd price to ride in the back of the three-wheeled contraption at an ungodly pace. “Mai ao ka!” I say back, no thanks. “Oh! Speak Thai very good!” he says back in English and finally drives on. This happens at least once a day.

As I explore my host city, Ubon Ratchathani, and the rest of Thailand, I collect more and more of these stories. The Thai people are incredibly kind and welcoming. They teach me about the country, the culture, and the language. They teach me about generosity. Along the way, I teach a few words of English. I give them a chance to see and interact with someone from far away. I try to show that Americans can take an interest in their language and their food and themselves. We each walk away from a very short interaction with a slightly new interpretation of each other and each country. This is powerful. This is how we create peace. These interactions may not be immediately changing the world, but if we have enough of them, maybe one day they will.

I approach my work in school with this in mind. Yes, I teach English. Hopefully, I motivate students to learn the language and give them a bit more confidence to use it with foreigners, and with strangers. Maybe after I leave, a few will go on to study English or use it in their future careers or travels. The real impactful interactions at school, however, are more than language. They are no different than my interactions with street vendors. They simply provide two-way access and understanding about Thailand and America.

The Thai teachers and training teachers at my school help me celebrate my birthday.
They teach me about Thailand, and I teach them about America. 

For example, the hardest part about my job is teaching my youngest students. In my case, my 11 and 12 year old students are in the biggest classes, have the lowest levels of English, and are often difficult to manage. I sometimes feel like the students do not remember what I teach them or do not care to learn. Then, some small interaction will happen. It will prove me wrong. The last day of the semester that I taught my most difficult class, I got a lot of hugs. I got asked to be in a lot of selfies. Then, an entourage of 10 students followed me all the way across our large campus back to my office. They would point to something if they knew the word in English and scream the word, “flower!” and then laugh hysterically. They tried to talk to me. They tried to learn about my favorite Thai foods and places and whether or not I would be teaching them next semester. I could see them really searching for the English words. Then, they would resort to gestures. They would speak Thai slowly and with simple words. My students may not remember the prepositions of place I tried to teach them, but they absolutely learned how to interact with a foreigner. They learned cross-cultural communication. 

My students attend an event for girl and boy scouts. They often teach me just as much,
if not more, than I teach them.

Before the end of the year, I will return back to America from Thailand. I will try to change the world from other places, and in different ways. My students will most likely still be in Ubon, and maybe they will be trying to change the world too. Scholars and poets and philosophers and scientists will continue to debate the nature of change and impact. Maybe I will keep trying to get that direct line to the President in between studying Arabic letters. Maybe someday I will change a law. Here, though, it isn’t important that I didn’t change the world or Thailand or America. I had some pretty cool thought-provoking interactions that I will take with me. Hopefully some of the people I crossed paths with will take those moments with them too. Then, if we each keep having more of these cross-cultural moments, eventually they may add up to a change in world – all starting at a bus station.

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