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.

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