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.

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