11 May, 2015

Running Across Thailand

Chris Marshall is from Highland Park, New Jersey and graduated from Earlham College with a bachelor's degree in History with a focus on Colonial America. He is currently a 2014-2015 Fulrbight English Teaching Assistang at Warin Chamrabh Lab School in the Ubon Ratchathani province. Next year Chris plans to apply to graduate schools and teaching programs with the goal of becoming a special education teacher. In addition       Chris will be taking a 6 month hiking trek travelling from Mexico to Canada across the Pacific coast of the United States.


At the beginning of this year, if you told me that running was going to be an activity that I look forward to every day, I probably would have called you crazy or questioned whether you really knew me. I’ve never particularly enjoyed running, especially running for long distances or for a prolonged period of time. Before, during and after a run I constantly ask myself why I thought it was a good idea in the first place. It was just something to do as a way to exercise or stay in shape for the different sports that I happen to be playing at the time. I’ve never seen it as a way to familiarize myself with a new environment or to take it as a time to be with myself or my own thoughts. However, since I’ve been here in Thailand it has become much more than just a way to exercise.

When I first arrived in my province, I felt completely lost and strange in this entirely new place all by myself. Being in Bangkok was so much different than being in Ubon (Ubon Ratchathani). At least when I was in Bangkok all the ETA’s had each other to be with and support. However, upon arriving in Ubon, I finally had the realization that we really were on our own and had to rely on ourselves. What really compounded this feeling was simply not knowing the area that I was living in. What helped me deal with this unfamiliarity was taking a run through my new community. Just simply running around the streets in my community helped me get used to my new surroundings. Instead of sitting in my apartment, watching movies or T.V. shows, basically doing nothing. I was out, discovering restaurants, shops and scenic places by the Moon River. Places that allowed to really get to know my new community and new location. In fact, the places that I discovered during my first few days in Ubon, are places I continued to go to go throughout my first semester.

The view from the moon river where I stop on my run.

Running also had the added benefit of allowing me to introduce myself to people living around me. I will never forget one of the first times I went running in Warin Chamrabh, as I ran through the various neighborhoods around me shopkeepers, people sitting outside and even children would wave to me as I ran by and shouted “farang!” ”farang!” People would try to give me food, water, and even alcohol as I ran by, it was truly as though the people around me were welcoming me into their community. After that run I stood on the bank of the Moon River and for one of the first times since I had left the U.S. I really felt as though I had found my home. Now, when I go running people know me as the “farang runner” I have shops that I stop at to buy water and speak the limited amount of Thai that I can speak and have the shop owners speak the limited amount of English they can speak. Some of the kids have even started running with me when I run by their houses. Running allowed me to familiarize myself with my community and help me feel “home” in Ubon. 

Meeting the director of Valerie's school and exploring Ubon.

This familiarization with the people in my community really exposed me to Thai culture. The first thing I really noticed was the kindness and friendliness of the Thai people. Like I said in the previous paragraph, during my first jogs, people would wave hello to me and try to give me food or drinks. This is something that does not happen in the U.S. In New Jersey, nobody says hello to a complete stranger, much less offer them food or drinks. In fact, if you probably did something like that to a runner, they would definitely give you a weird look and have some hesitation before accepting any gifts or waving back. What also astounded me, and I would soon discover that this is a part of Thai culture, is how welcoming the people are. As I ran through my community the fact that people would see me and say hello and smile at me as I ran by, didn’t make me feel as though I was a foreigner in a new place. Rather, I felt as though I was being accepted into the community and being told not in words, but in actions, “welcome to Warin Chamrabh”

Running for me has also become the one time during the day where it is specifically time for “me”. Teaching by itself can become an exhausting activity even when you’re in a place you’ve grown up all your life or are familiar with. Add onto the fact that we are teaching in a place that is almost on the exact opposite side of the planet, we don’t speak the same language, we are on our own for the most part and the cultures are very different. Because of all this it can get incredibly stressful at times throughout all the year. One of the things that was stressed during our orientation was the importance of maintaining your mental health. Running has become such an important tool in me being able to do that. One of the ways that was recommended to us to help us stay healthy mentally was exercising. Just a simple workout can get rid of a lot stress or built up tension. Just simply putting on my headphones and giving myself time during the day to think of nothing and take a step back from everything that is going on during my day allows me to reduce a lot of stress and tension I have. Without running or some form of exercise staying mentally healthy would be very difficult to do. 

Sports Day Parade in Warin Chamrap.

Like I said at the beginning of this narrative, I never saw running as more than just a way to stay in shape. However, in Thailand I have discovered that running is simply more than just an exercise. Running has allowed me to feel welcomed and familiarize myself with my new community as well as the people in it. It has become an important way for me to stay mentally healthy, which allows me to be better for my students and help them improve their English. Lastly, it has helped me discover and experience positive aspects of Thai culture.

02 May, 2015

Ultimate Frisbee

Kendra McKechnie is from Middletown,
NJ, and graduated from Marist College with a bachelor’s degree in secondary French education and her New York State Teaching Certification. She is currently a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Sansai Wittayakom in the Chiang Mai province. Next year Kendra will further her studies in international education management with the goal of advising and supporting university students who wish to pursue an education abroad. She will continue to study new languages 
and                                                                                             seek out new experiences in foreign                                                                                                cultures

The Ultimate Experience

It’s silly that a round piece of plastic can bring me so much comfort. I picked up Ultimate Frisbee in high school and joined my school’s team in college, and Ultimate became one of my fiercest passions. The sport provided an instant family when I was away from home. Each time I go abroad, it’s a tool to connect with others that speaks all languages.

Ultimate is an exceptionally unique sport. It’s the rare sport that regularly plays men and women on the field at the same time. There are no referees; the integrity of the game means that disputes on the field must be settled between the two players involved. To maintain a seamless flow to the game, there are set guidelines to follow when a foul call is contested or uncontested. Above all, Ultimate players hold “spirit of the game” to be the soul of the sport. Keeping good spirit is more important than winning the point. Quite a different attitude than “win at all costs” which is the typical mantra for most sports from the time we lace up our soccer cleats or swing our first baseball bat. The sport is growing rapidly in both number of players and recognition as a team sport: there are teams at almost every university in the United States, international tournaments, and professional teams. Those who play quickly understand how the sport builds a strong character which values good sportsmanship, honesty, flexibility, and of course encourages players to enjoy the game and have a good time.

My team at Chiang Mai’s Hat Tournament.

Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I located the Chiang Mai University Ultimate group that meets three nights a week to play pick-up games. They are a wonderful mix of characters: locals, foreigners who live in Chiang Mai, and travelers passing through from all different countries. What impressed me the first day I played with them was how a mix of languages and cultures could come together on a field for a pick-up game and flow flawlessly. There is no division between locals and foreigners: everyone is willing to attempt communication in whatever language possible. At the heart of it all it’s just a game, and that is the commonality that allows us to comingle. Not only do we know the language of the sport, but we each also reflect the values that Ultimate specifically requires.

I feel a great sense of community in this group on Saturday evenings when I can get to the city. They are always welcoming and curious about my experience in Thailand. I have never left a game without a sincere encouragement to come back next week. This sense of belonging in a place that was once totally foreign to me is what makes my life in Chiang Mai feel validated: Ultimate is not a piece of home, it’s a piece of me.

Early on I brought out my Frisbees after teaching class at my school to the great curiosity of both teachers and students. It was a completely unfamiliar object. They all looked at me with interest, but also apprehension about something so unusual. I managed to encourage a few students and student teachers to participate. Much to my pleasure, the next day some students were asking to throw the Frisbee with me again. It’s a challenge to get my students out of their comfort zone both in and out of the classroom, but I have hope that as the year continues I can encourage them to try new things and join me after school to throw the Frisbee around. I’ve even received an offer of help from one of my Chiang Mai teammates to assist me in teaching my students the game.

A group of students on the line ready to play Ultimate at English Camp.

One of the most rewarding days of my first semester happened somewhat by accident. One of my teammates posted to our group asking for volunteers to work at an English Camp at his university just outside of the city. English Camps are very common in Thailand as a way to promote English language learning and foster enjoyment of the language as it is often lost in the classroom. Not having previously had the chance to participate in a camp, I jumped at the opportunity.

What I didn’t know until I was asked on stage to receive a gift as a “thank you” for my attendance was that I was the designated leader of the Ultimate rotation and in charge of the activity. Challenge accepted.

The experience was very similar to relying on my limited knowledge of Thai to attempt to teach English as a second language to my students. My classroom is typically a game of charades that never ends, but at this English camp we shared a common language in sport. We focused on a few specific words relevant to the game, and then gave the kids a Frisbee. Nothing has looked more foreign in their hands. But after just ten minutes of throwing this piece of plastic around a circle they were more comfortable shouting “Catch!” and “Good throw!” which are particularly difficult words coming from Thai, and they no longer dodged out of the way when it was thrown to them. A clear sign of success was seeing these kids to run up and down a field in the hot sun chasing what they referred to in Thai as a “plate,” all the while with a giant smile on their face.

After coaching a marathon of nine groups, with a short break for lunch, I fielded questions from students about where they can continue to play. I don’t think any moment in Thailand has made me happier than knowing Ultimate is now part of these kids’ lives.

More recently, my team at Chiang Mai University hosted a hat tournament at a local school. They solidified the timing to lead into Songkran, the Thai New Year, which is commercially celebrated as a city-wide water fight. A hat tournament allows players to enter individually and will arrange teams to have an across-the-board selection of experienced players to new recruits. Hat tournaments aren’t unheard of in the United States; however, in South East Asia they dominate the playing options as most groups wouldn’t reasonably put up an entire team to send to the many tournaments that take place throughout the year. Because of this, those who participate form amazing bonds with other players all over South East Asia. Hat tournaments ask you to cooperate and build chemistry with strangers within the confines of a weekend which makes for unique reunions seeing your former teammates from Malaysia at a tourney in Vietnam.

A post-game spirit circle between the pink and green team.

The games were phenomenal and I cherished the opportunity to play competitively for a day. However, Ultimate is about much more than getting points on the board. On the sidelines other players are eager to know your story. The coordinators set up Frisbee games like KanJam or lay-out practice on a slip-and-slide. There were dance competitions and spirit games which always seem to follow the sport. Something I have not commonly seen in American Ultimate was post-game spirit circles where the teams alternate from person to person in order to mingle, and each team’s captain makes a positive comment about how the other team played. I can’t imagine something like this in other sports when the losing team and winning team stand arms around each other to genuinely complement each other’s game. This is what makes Ultimate so special.

Adding to this exceptional experience, my host teacher made it a point to attend two of the games to see me play and better understand the sport. She knows that I go to the city on weekends just to play and often, thoughtfully offers a ride when she plans a trip to the city. She has asked numerous questions about the game in the past, as it is not familiar to most Thai people. I was very grateful for her support at the field and a chance to share a meaningful part of myself with her.

A full hot meal for the tournament lunch.

No Thai event, even an Ultimate tournament, would be complete without one thing: food. You could never go hungry in Thailand. State-side, tournament lunches are nonexistent; you’re provided a garbage bag full of bananas, bagels, pickles, fruit snacks, and peanut butter which is your team’s stash to share for the day. In Thailand, you are provided a full hot meal. An ultimate tournament is a catered event complete with coconut ice cream and mango sticky rice for dessert. We all break for an hour lunch—maybe fifteen minutes actually eating then everyone falls into a nice food coma until it’s time to warm up again. Perhaps not the best game plan mid-tournament, but I can’t turn down food like that.

There are few things that get me as excited and passionate as Ultimate. I’m always eager to learn new skills, a new language, try new foods, and adopt new habits into my life while living abroad. Nevertheless, participating in a sport that has been part of my life for five years now makes this year feel like a continuation of my life, not just a passing experience. I have a family. Ultimate makes an instant community in a foreign city. The field and the faces change but the game never does. Seeing how Ultimate has reached even Chiang Mai speaks to how impressive of a sport it is. Morever, the most unique thing about this sport is how Ultimate culture supersedes all of our own. Languages and nationalities are transparent on the field. All you have to do is play.