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.