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.

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