31 August, 2016

An Ode to My Students

Elizabeth (Edie) Wilson is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Muang Chaliang School in Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Thailand where she teaches students in Mattayom 1-Mattayom 5 (Grade 7-Grade 11). She graduated from Hamilton College with a concentration in Anthropology and minors in Economics and Government. Prior to coming to Thailand, Edie worked as a Research Assistant at ICF International studying the effectiveness of US education programs. In her free time, Edie can be found running through the rice fields, writing in her journal, attempting to decipher Thai, drinking green tea, or eating yummy Thai food with fellow teachers.


Thailand has given me so much. So much love. So much life. So much food.

I cannot even begin to successfully express my gratitude to Thailand or all the wonderful people who have made it home to me. I will never be able to fully describe all of Thai culture I have learned about this year—from large life-changing experiences to tiny nuances. In this chunk of text, I do hope to express my thankfulness for my greatest teachers (and cheerleaders in my quest to learn Thai), the Muang Chaliang School students.

While teaching at Muang Chaliang School, I’ve noticed the way that students show both reverence and respect for teachers in a way that I haven’t seen in the United States, along with breaking down boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. Students thank teachers after every class. They help get teachers lunch and move desks around the classroom. They braid teachers’ hair and play with the office cat. Teachers visit students’ houses and chat with their parents or grandparents.

The way teachers and student interact in Thailand feels like a family relationship to me. To support this claim I can say, without a doubt, that the students and teachers at Muang Chaliang School have become my family this year. So I let me tell you a little bit about my family.

Posing for a photo during teacher home visits with M2 students. My students live in a variety of different living conditions. Some students live around the corner from school in the village, while other live thirty minutes away among big rice fields like this one.


The first day feels like I am watching a movie of my life take place with little control or knowledge of what will happen next.

Filled with a flight and multiple van rides. Get on, get off, get on, get off. Take a photo. Meet the director. Look around the school.

“Hello!” A student calls. I assume he’s a student since he wears a bright pink uniform shirt and navy blue pants with MCL stamped down the side. He knows me before I know him. I don’t know what the appropriate way to respond is. Do I wave? Do I wai? Do I say hello back? Sawatdee kah? Kah? Hi? Hey? Yo, wassup?

I’m supposed to be the teacher, a leader, and I already am at a loss for words.

“He said hello,” P’Oy, the Fulbright representative who has been designated to go with the Sukhothai ETAs on our first day, looks at me expectedly. I take a deep breath and go for the wave.

“Hi,” I smile. He smiles back. From that moment I become the waving teacher, and my students greet me with a wave and a melodious “Hello” or “Hi” whenever they see me.


I’m scared, but more confused than scared. It’s my second day in Si Satchanalai. I think I’m supposed to observe today, but I keep getting lost looking for the”M1/1” class that I’m supposed to attend. I walk along the long outdoor hallway peering into classroom after classroom. Some students stare back.

“Teacher, can you speak Thai?’ A little girl with a bowl cut bounds up to me.

“Pasa Thai nit noy” At that point, I’m pretty sure those words, along with hello and thank you are the only Thai phrases I have memorized. And that one is actually not even a full phrase.

She throws her head back and lets out a hearty laugh. Not unfriendly. Simply, loud.

I learned that her name is Mew, and she is without a doubt the most enthusiastic student I meet. Every time I see her around school she yells, “TEACHER!!!” and runs up to me. Sometimes, I’ll be writing on the board, and I will look back to see Mew standing on a chair, waving both hands in the air, ready to respond to a question. Then I call on her. She gets so excited that she forgets what she was going to say. I wait for her to remember. She laughs that hearty laugh at herself. A few seconds later, she remembers and shrieks her answer. I learn to laugh at myself full heartedly from Mew.


It’s February, and I miss my sister. I miss her a lot. I miss her kicking me out of bed to watch the sunrise. I miss her dancing around to When Your Best Friend’s All Strung Out. I miss her hugging me. I walk outside to go buy cookies at the school store. Two tiny girls run up to me and wordlessly throw their arms around my waist. I feel so thankful.


“Will one student raise his or her hand to read the questions?” It’s a ritual at the beginning of each class. At first I read the intro questions, but a few weeks ago I passed off the duty to my eager students. There’s a smart, outspoken boy who always volunteers. I see his hand shoot up. I smile. Someone new today. When I don’t call on him, it’s like the parting of the red sea. Everyone turns his or her head to a girl in the back, right corner. “Yeen” “Yeen” “Yeen” they whisper. A girl who has been quiet up to this point stands up and comes to the front. She reads flawlessly. I feel like I’ve missed something as a teacher for not seeing her more clearly sooner.

The next day, after school, Yeen comes to the classroom, three girls looking less than enthusiastic are in tow.

“Teacher, I want to play Crossword.”

I look at the Bananagrams bag resting on the corner of my desk that she is motioning toward.


Two of the other girls join us. One laughs and shakes her head no. She looks at the stack of student work with which I’ve begun decorating the back of the room. Then she goes to the back and begins taping papers for me.

M3 Graduation Day for some of Crossword players. My school celebrates graduation for M3 students 
moving up to M4 and for M6 students leaving school for university or work. 

Yeen often comes to the room after school with a group of girls. She always wants to play “Crossword”. And she’s good the game, often thinking up words I don’t see at first.

Yeen is one of the few students I keep for a second term, and in the new semester our ritual of after school Crossword continues. Sometimes, she brings friends. Other times she shows up in the doorway alone. Many times, she will come when I’m in the middle of grading papers or checking attendance against stacks of nametags.

“Teacher, are you busy?”

“Oh no,” I drop whatever I’m doing because spending time with my students is always of greater importance to me than classroom organization—and more fun.

“I distract you,” Yeen laughs at my eagerness to forget my work.

Playing Crossword with Yeen is also an ongoing Thai lesson for me and English lesson for her. We never play for points against each other—it’s always a joint effort to come up with the most words together. Practically every word I ask her…

“How do you say this in Thai?”

When she doesn’t know the English word, we whip out Google Translate to find our answer.

We share our desire to speak each other’s language, as well as our frustration.

“I don’t speak Thai well. I want to speak Thai well,” I tell Yeen in choppy Thai, exasperated with my own inability.

“Teacher, I want to learn English. I cannot speak English well,” Yeen empathizes in English. Her English definitely outpaces my Thai though.

Through our Crossword interactions, I continue to get to know Yeen. She tells me her favorite class is English, and she wants to be a policewoman. I have no doubt Yeen will keep the people of Thailand safe.

Yeen teaches me about the true friendship that can be formed across age, language, and culture.

Selfie turned Class Portrait

We finish class laughing so hard that a few of us are close to tears. I don’t remember what it’s about, but most likely it was I, trying to translate something into Thai and failing miserably. You see M4/2 has taken it upon themselves to be my 30 plus personal Thai tutors on Friday afternoons. I teach them a new word in English, and then they teach it to me in Thai. I’m learning a lot, but sometimes I mispronounce a word so horribly, that something very inappropriate comes out.

I regain my composure. “Please collect the nametags, and give them to me. Thank you. Good Bye. See you next time.” I complete my standard class closing.

Students bound up to me with stacks of nametags in hand. One girl pulls me aside.

“Teacher, selfie.”

Since the first day, students, teachers, random strangers in the marketplace have asked me to take photos with them. Photos have so much become part of my life that I myself don’t think I go a day without catching a snapshot.

I lean down—all of my students are shorter than me.

“No…sun....” She trails off into quick Thai that I don’t understand, but I allow myself to be turned around, and pushed between more girls. She shakes her head, unsatisfied. Then gathers everyone who hasn’t already left the class and takes us outside. Two girls take my hands and lead me down the stairs as though they are leading a blind puppy. On the way the girls shout to the students who are heading off to their next class in Thai.

“Come quickly!”

The students survey the situation, trying to choose the most appropriate backdrop and settling upon the white wall of Building 1. They recruit two timid looking M1 students, ordering them to take a good photo and not mess up. I find myself in the middle smiling authentically through a series of serious to silly class photos.

M4/2 pose for a spontaneous class photo after an hour filled with English learning.

The class photo shoot makes me feel honored and accepted. M4/2 teaches me that a class can be a family.

Around the Track

The school track is my front yard. I spend a good amount of time running, walking, and staggering around it. In the evening it is often a slow walk that starts out with my ear buds playing Coffee by Sylvan Esso or Ezra Klein’s latest podcast. During every walk without fail, the ear buds come off. I strike up a conversation with a local elementary school teacher, make friends with a baby, or am joined by my friend, Bom, for gossip time. It was on one of these evening walks that I met Frank.

I’m walking along, listening to music, when she bounds up.


“Hello,” I smile.

She starts talking in very fast English, like she already knows me. She doesn’t even start with an introduction. However, I’m sure I haven’t seen her in any of my classes before. I have to check to make sure though.

“What class are you in?”


Okay, I don’t teach her, but by the end of our conversation I know all about her extended family, her hopes to travel, and how she ended up moving here from Bangkok. You see, more than just her amazing bilingual ability, Frank has this way of making you her best friend in a matter of seconds. Her body language, her familiar tone, and her frankness make her an instant companion. She helps me translate. When something bad happens at the school, Frank tells me, without hesitation and without sparing any detail. When she sees me, Frank runs up and pokes me or taps me on the shoulder—a gesture of familiarity that makes me happy.

Frank shows me that being unafraid is the best way to connect with people.


I could continue to write all day about my wonderful students. About Ice and other M2/3 students teaching me Isan dialect and trying to get me to sing the school song. About playing Simon Says the one brutally cold week in Thailand with M4/1. About conversation exercises with M3/6. But I’m afraid your eyes might be getting tired.

I’m worried that leaving Muang Chaliang School will feel like moving out of my hometown to go to college all over again. Brutally emotional. Ranging from excitement for the next chapter to sadness for not seeing the faces I’ve come to know and love every day.

Students gather around the bulletin board posting warm fuzzies-kind English notes-to teachers and peers
 for a Valentine’s Day lesson.

Emotions aside, I will leave with two important lessons from my students. Firstly respect and familiarity are not mutually exclusive. Secondly, a community can form the 
truest of families.

17 August, 2016

Let’s Take A Selfie

Christine Fortner is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Thaikasikorn Songraw in Si Racha, Chonburi, Thailand. She is from Charlottesville, VA and graduated from Elon University a year ago with a degree in Education. Christine loves to travel and explore and has been to 6 continents. In her free time, she enjoys making new friends, running, and exploring the beautiful beaches around Chonburi. After Fulbright, she plans to move to Washington DC and pursue a career that makes a lasting impact on the world of education.

“Sure! I’d love to take a selfie.” These words have come from my mouth hundreds of times over my past ten months in Thailand. Everywhere I go I am noticed. Smile and wave! I feel like a superstar. Selfie is a word every Thai person knows, and a word that has brought me smiles, laughs, and community. Throughout my last year in Thailand, I have found that the phrase “Let’s take a selfie” and social media can be a bridge in language and cultural barriers.

My host teachers and me at Bang Saen Beach
Getting ready for Teacher Day

On my first week of school, I walk home and pass an older man sitting on a bench. He calls out hello and motions for me to come sit down. Totally normal.

“Take selfie? Ok?”

I take a picture with the man and think nothing of it. I sit down and am surprised by the English he knows. He is asking me where I am from and what I am doing here. It is my first week, and I am in no position to pass up any kind of friend. I engage in conversation and sit with him. Saying yes to selfies in Thailand is very important. It is an invitation to be make a friend and opens a door for cultural exchange. Little did I know that this particular selfie would lead to an amazing community right next door.

For the next week, I walk by this old man every day to and from school. We take silly pictures together and I even teach him how to play a card game. He quickly becomes one of my best friends in a place that feels very lonely. He speaks some broken English, but we find ways to communicate. That week I am introduced to his family and asked to teach their children each night. Thailand has taught me many things, and one important thing is to say yes in random situations, even when it feels out of your comfort zones. I agree to teach at their house in the evenings, and it quickly becomes one of my favorite things in my new home. The first time I go out with my neighbors, we take a group photo. That night the picture was posted on Facebook and captioned “my family.” While it was a small thing, the affirmation of seeing myself standing in their family picture meant a lot. From that moment on, I have truly felt like family with them. I eat dinner with them, travel with them, and am invited to every family event. What started with one picture and Facebook post has turned into a lasting community and family. 

My mom being introduced to my Thai family

This year with large cultural and language differences, I have had to redefine the word community. I find community here in so many different ways. Whether it’s the lady I smile at when I buy my daily dose of pineapple, the lady who sells me chicken at night and tells me I’m beautiful right after I went on a run, the man on the bench who brought me into his family, or the teachers at my school, I have found a way to feel like I belong in a place where I am so different
. Social media allows me to talk to people with few words. I can have an entire conversation made of stickers and emojis. No words needed. No language barrier in the way. I can comment on a teacher’s Facebook post and tell them they look beautiful. I can give likes, hearts, and stickers to affirm relationships I have made. It is very small, but it creates connections and allows a little part of the wall to break down.

Teacher Drummy and me are always ready for a selfie.

Making silly faces, funny poses, and looking weird are ways to connect and look beyond physical and cultural differences. It fills the silence and replaces the frustration of not being able to communicate with fond memories. What started with little moments of taking selfies or posting on social media, has turned into higher comfort level and allowed for deeper conversations and understanding about our different cultures. You don’t realize the power of language until you have to be intentional about everything you say. When people see differences, they automatically put up walls. This year I have used the silliness of selfies to break down the walls put up by language. I have used this to start forming connections and make people feel more comfortable around the girl who looks different. Being silly in selfies and social media allows my Thai friends to open up and feel comfortable with me. It shows us that despite our differences, we are the same in so many ways. We all love to laugh. We all love to be goofy. And we all love a good selfie.

Selfie on my way to school

Selfie at Scout Camp
Even my students love a good selfie

11 August, 2016

Narrative: “How was Thailand?”

Meg Ziegler is from Rhode Island and graduated from the University of Vermont last spring. She majored in Secondary Education with an English concentration and minored in Special Education, all of which did little to prepare her for the amazing and challenging experience that is teaching English as a foreign language. Meg is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Ban Phai Pittayakom School in the Khon Kaen province in northeastern Thailand. This year in Thailand has given Meg new friends, a wealth of elephant knowledge, a much higher spice tolerance, and an expanded worldview, something she hopes to bring to future studies in either education policy or education law.

Now that it’s August, the inevitable return to America is right around the corner. The date is set and the flight is booked. It feels like just yesterday I was sitting in orientation, terrified and excited for what the coming months would hold, and now I have those same feelings as I am faced with this year in Thailand coming to an end. Going home means saying goodbye to wonderful new friends and reuniting with old ones. It means dealing with the reverse culture shock of five-dollar bagels and clean tap water and driving on the right side of the road again. It means no more rambutan and far less sweating. And it means being asked over and over and over again, “How was Thailand?”

What a loaded question this is. I am faced with the problem of adequately describing my year in a foreign country in one single answer.

Harvesting rice alongside my students.

I suppose I could answer with a generic “It was good!” or “It was great!” This might suffice for the occasional acquaintance from high school that I run into at the local coffee shop, but for my close friends and family this answer does no justice to the absolute roller coaster this year was. “Good” and “great” do not express how difficult it was just to teach my students the words “good” and “great,” nor how trying to get them to replace “I’m fine!” with a more descriptive answer was a semester-long endeavor. To be honest, answering “How was Thailand?” with, “I’m fine thank you, and you?!” would actually be one of the most hilariously accurate ways to respond, although only my fellow English teachers would understand why this is so hilarious.

“Good” doesn’t do justice to the days and moments that were the opposite of good: the days when I couldn’t get through to my classes or when the homesickness felt like it was suffocating me or when I just couldn’t keep my bowel movements under control. It definitely is not an appropriate way to explain the horror of waking up face to face with a moth the size of my hand and spending all morning trying to shoo it out the 
door, or the annoyance of my daily battle with the ants of Thailand. It doesn’t capture the hilarious frustration of accidentally buying a kilogram of beets instead of a kilogram of sweet potatoes because my broken Thai failed me.

Similarly, it does not depict the moments of pure joy, of joining forces with a band of Thai children for Songkran and spending hours dancing in an alley with them and their families, or the feeling of claustrophobic love that is being attacked with a group hug by a mob of 13-year-old students. It does not adequately paint a picture of the way my students exploded with laughter, cheers, and fan-girl screams as my manliest students strutted down a makeshift runway in my clothes for a lesson on fashion vocabulary. It doesn’t capture the feeling of walking alongside an elephant that keeps using her trunk to try to get in my pockets because she could smell the pineapple I was saving for later. It doesn’t explain how relieved I felt each time I got to hug my ETA friends after months apart and finally get to vent and laugh and talk together, or how truly thankful I am to have a father who flew across the world twice to spend a few days with me.

Celebrating Songkran with Amy, a fellow ETA, and some new friends.

There are too many adjectives to describe Thailand and this year. The food is spicy, the hospitality is plentiful, the heat of the sun is relentless. For every day that was simply “good”, there was a day that was exhausting, amazing, mesmerizing, overwhelming, draining, frustrating, eye-opening, awe-inspiring, hilarious, informative, lonely, and fulfilling. Most days were all of these as once, and I would be ignoring all those feelings by just giving that one simple answer.

Another option is that I could answer with “It was life changing!” “It was transformative!” or “I am a whole new person!” All of these would be very truthful
answers because this experience was absolutely life changing and transformative. Before this year, I had never lived in a foreign country and I had never lived alone, and all of a sudden I was doing both in a small town in northeastern Thailand. I am someone who often relies on the people around me, but this year I had to learn to find strength in myself. In moments of loneliness and homesickness, I was often the only person who could keep myself company. In moments of frustration, I was usually the only person who could find a solution to my problem. When I experienced a victory, I was sometimes the only person I could share my success with, in the moment.

This year opened my eyes to a new culture and a new part of the world. I let go of any negativity during the Loi Krathong festival, sending my floating 
krathong out among thousands of others. I sat in awe as my students wept and bowed their heads to show respect to their teachers after a three-day Buddhist camp. I paraded through the streets of Ban Phai with the entire school. I tried (and often failed) to teach my students English, but we did it with laughter and that is what matters. I learned more from them than I could ever hope to teach.

Lots of laughs during a sports week parade.

I witnessed first hand the complexities of the life of a mahout (an elephant trainer), the struggle of caring for and working closely with elephants while simultaneously trying to earn a living and feed their families, which include one extra, 
very-large mouth. I learned more about these incredible animals than I ever thought possible, and gained an entirely new perspective on elephant conservation from the people who care for them so deeply.

Having a moment with my favorite girl, Boonsri.

I watched Dr. Manat from KKU, a man in his sixties who still works 12 hour days, try to single-handedly move a parked car that had boxed him in so he could drive me the 50 minutes home after we brought my dad to the airport. Dr. Manat opened his arms to my father, also a doctor, giving my dad the opportunity to work at the medical school in Khon Kaen as well as becoming a dear friend to both of us. I spent an entire day of the Thai New Year with a family I had only meant hours before but whom, despite the language barrier, I felt I had known forever. The generosity of all the Thai people I have met this year truly knows no bounds.

I introduced som tum to my diet and thus filled a void in my life that I didn’t even know existed. I ate lunch with P’Mameow and P’Yui 
every day and contentedly chowed down on whatever delicious food they had ordered for me as I tried to follow along with their speedy conversations in Thai. I made friends with – and learned so much from – the teachers and students at Ban Phai Pittayakom School, kind strangers who lent me a helping hand, my favorite food vendors, my landlords, mahouts, elephants, stray dogs, hotel guests at my internship who let me join their family for a day or two, Ultimate Frisbee players from all over the world, and my fellow ETAs who come from parts of America I have never seen.

I saw beauty in all corners of Thailand. There was the take-your-breath-away beauty of Wat Pha Sorn Kaew in Phetchabun, of secluded Freedom Beach in Koh Tao, of standing in Thailand while looking out at the mountains of Laos and the jungle of Myanmar in the Golden Triangle. There was the quieter beauty of side streets in Chiang Mai, and of viewing a chaotic Bangkok rush hour from a rooftop. And then there was the everyday beauty that I learned to love – the welcoming
smile of my favorite fruit lady, the flowers poking up between the sidewalks in Ban Phai, the cows in the field after a rain storm, my students sitting at picnic tables playing guitar and laughing.

Beauty in all corners of Thailand.

I crossed so many things off my bucket list – ride in a hot air balloon, work with elephants, travel to Vietnam, see Angkor Wat, run a half marathon, live in a foreign country.
This past month I dove deeper than I ever have as I fulfilled a lifelong dream of scuba diving, and in October I will climb higher that ever before as I trek to Everest Base Camp. So yes, “life-changing,” “transformational,” “eye-opening” would all be adequate adjectives for describing this year. But, unfortunately, they are also adjectives I can’t really say out loud with a straight face.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream of scuba diving while on a quick trip to Indonesia.

So how do I answer?

I will forever be grateful to Thailand for everything she has shown and taught me. I am a different person for having come here, one who has seen more beauty, experienced more goodness, and learned more about the world in the last months than in all my time before that. This country, the wonderful people who make it what it is, and the experience of living and teaching here for an entire year deserve more than a simple answer.

“How was Thailand?” “Well…do you have a few minutes?” Or maybe, ”Have you read my blog post?”

03 August, 2016

Borderless Friendship Foundation Internship

Polly Woodbury is a #Khmerican born and raised in Tacoma, Washington. She recently graduated from Western Washington University with a double major in Psychology and Communication Studies, and a double minor in Political Science and Diversity in Higher Education. Polly is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Yangtaladwittayakarn School, Kalasin province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. In her free time, Polly enjoys traveling and exploring as much of Southeast Asia as possible, especially in her mother’s homeland of Cambodia. She is passionate about working with the immigrants and displaced communities, especially those suffering from war trauma.  After Fulbright, Polly hopes to live in Cambodia to study the Khmer language and intern at a mental health clinic before applying to graduate programs. 

Nine months into my Fulbright grant and the time I spent interning with Borderless Friendship Foundation (BFF), a nonprofit working to enhance the lives of hill tribe communities in northern Thailand, holds some of my fondest memories of Thailand thus far. My internship went beyond volunteering at an organization, I gained a Thai family, friends, and memories for a lifetime.

TUSEF Fulbright AMCHAM is special as it is the only English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program that requires an internship portion within our grant period. This provides an opportunity for the ETAs to delve deeper into Thai society and culture while finding an internship that satisfies our interests and needs.

Taking a break from working at the Half-Way House worksite on Doi Chiang Dao with Pramote Eua-amnuay, the founder of Borderless Friendship Foundation.

For five weeks, I lived in Chiang Mai with the founder of BFF, Pramote Eua-amnuay and his wife Krongjit, who treated me as a daughter in their home. Most of our hands-on work did not happen in Chiang Mai, however; it occurred on Thailand’s third tallest mountain, Doi Chiang Dao. This mountain, located about 2 hours away from the city center of Chiang Mai and less than 25 miles from the Burmese border, is culturally rich and populated with a number of hill tribes that have origins in Myanmar, Laos, and China.

My schedule was sporadic and I learned to be ready at any momentfor anything. On occasions, I’ve spent up to four days at a time on Doi Chiang Dao, living similar to others on the mountain; cooking over an open fire and sleeping in a bamboo hut with nothing more than a mosquito net and a couple of covers. I learned to befriend the geckos that made their way into my hut, and found comfort in the almost silencing buzz of the locusts. I also worked from home on improving BFF’s social media presence, applying for a Rotary International Global Grant, and creating presentations alongside Mr. Pramote.

Below are some of my highlights working with the Borderless Friendship Foundation.

The Halfway House

By the end of my five-week orientation, two Halfway Houses were built on Chiang Dao; students were selected to occupy what we dubbed “the leadership house” and caretakers will live in the second house. This is one of the completed houses.

Educational resources are limited on Doi Chiang Dao, and students wanting to pursue secondary or higher education often resort to attending school in the city. The city, however, can be difficult to access from the mountain; therefore building a “Halfway House”is crucial for assisting a new generation of hill tribe students as a place to live halfway between their home and school. The Halfway House was my main priority during internship. I also assisted with outreach to potential sponsors for students to live in the Halfway House with the use of presentations and promotional materials complete with student interviews.

As my host dad Pramote would teasingly say, “Pailin (my Thai nickname) you bring the labor, the locals have the skills.” His reasoning being the local hill tribe people use traditional engineering techniques with strings and bamboo, a skill passed down from generation to generation. Almost all the materials used for production were local to the mountain and everyone who helped plan and build the houses—with the exception of me—were Lahu.

By the end of my five-week orientation, two Halfway Houses were built on Chiang Dao; students were selected to occupy what we dubbed “the leadership house” and caretakers will live in the second house.

The Annual Thailand Lahu Baptist Convention

An estimated 8,000+ people from the Lahu hill tribe camped out and attended the 3 day event which concluded on Easter Day. Lahu tribes from China, Myanmar, and Laos were all present. Lahu is one of the largest hill tribe populations within Thailand with a number of subgroups within, all having unique languages and cultural customs respectively. An example being the largest Lahu subgroup, the Black Lahu, whose language is considered the core of all Lahu languages.

Originally, Lahus practiced a polytheistic religion and during the 17th century Buddhism became widespread within the hill tribe. Missionaries (many of whom began their work in Myanmar) later spread to northern Thailand, reaching the Lahu hill tribes. Today the impact of the missionary presence is evident as they developed a Romanized phonetic alphabet for the Lahu language in the early 19th century. I was humbled by my host family’s invitation and eagerness to allow me to attend and witness their event as an outsider.

On the second day of the Lahu Baptist Convention, women of the Lahu hilltribe gathered around a pile of donated clothes and distribute the offerings from their church.

Shehleh Lahu Convention

With two elders of the Shehleh Lahu tribe wearing traditional garments (to the right) and a local woman as we prepare lunch for hundreds of people.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of internship was partaking in the annual Shehleh Lahu hill tribe gathering with members from China and northern Thailand. The convention was a three-day event located in the Mae Hong Son Province (also home of the popular tourist destination, Pai).

My host dad and I were invited to attend the event and spend the night at the mayor’s home.

Throughout the day, I enjoyed learning how to prepare food fresh from the mountain because the act of community style cooking— with all hands on deck and massive cooking equipment— is a valued part of their daily life. Although it was difficult to verbally communicate since I cannot speak Lahu and many cannot speak English or Thai, I felt a human connection through warm smiles and body language.

In the evening, lively entertainment commenced with a mix of traditional customs such as dancing in a large circle, hand-in-hand with the person next to you, to the rhythm of traditional instruments. The convention also incorporated more modern festivities such as comedy skits and dance performances. My host dad and I stayed up late, enjoyed the performances, and chatted with the elders of the tribe while drinking tea from the mountain with flakey coconut crackers.

Rotary International
My host dad, Mr. Pramote, is a member of the Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai District Rotary International Organization. Alongside hosting me at his house, he also took in a Rotary Youth Exchange student from Mexico. I learned about Rotary International as I attended weekly meetings. I also had the opportunity to speak at a meeting about my experience teaching English in Thailand and interning with BFF.

Speaking about my experience teaching English in Thailand and interning with BFF
at a Rotary International meeting.

Final thoughts

In addition to interning with Borderless Friendship Foundation, my time in Chiang Mai was invaluable as I gained a Thai family and made Thai friends that allowed me to practice (and butcher) Thai. I learned more about the Thai language, culture, history, and politics than I could've expected and I fell in love with Chiang Mai as a city. I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned with Borderless Friendship Foundation and apply it to future cross-cultural work.

My lovely host mom teaching me to how to cook pad thai, a popular Thai dish in both Thailand and America, at our house in Chiang Mai.

My Rotary International brother, Atit (Thai nickname meaning the sun), to the left and my Thai host brother, Thak, to the right at my host brother's university prom. Thak completed his BA in English at Payup, a private university in Chiang Mai and hopes to start his own travel business and become a tour guide!

27 July, 2016

Breaking Down Barriers: Finding Your Own Communities Abroad

Danielle Lee is a Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Maerim Wittayakhom School in Chiang Mai Province. She is originally from Los Angeles, California. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California, where she studied Global Health with minors in International Relations and Natural Sciences. She enjoys trying new foods, meeting new people, exploring the beautiful mountains of Chiang Mai, and watching movies. After her Fulbright grant, she hopes to attend medical school to become a doctor and be involved in the international health system. 

So far, Thailand has taught me 3 things:

1. How to eat som tum (papaya salad) without sweating

2. Teachers deserve way more recognition than what they currently receive

3. Sports can be a powerful tool for communication when language fails

Number 3 will resonate with me way more than my tolerance for spicy papaya salad and my tenure as a teacher is another narrative of its own. But for me, number 3 is something that I will always hold a place in my Thai heart. I’ve always played sports. I grew up watching my sisters play soccer games on Saturdays while I sat on the sidelines until I could finally play. I grew up playing basketball and running track and cross-country, but when I found Ultimate Frisbee in college, I fell in love.

At first, it seemed like a silly sport: a piece of flying white plastic and people chasing each other up and down the field screaming words that wouldn’t make sense to an outsider – dump, handler, flick. But I fell in love with the sport because it’s a sport unlike any other. There are no referees to call fouls or violations. The players on the field talk it out, a concept in ultimate called the “Spirit of the Game.” Once you start playing, you’re immediately thrust in a whacky, eccentric, yet incredible and tight-knit community that spreads across continents. In other words, friends for life. 

My team at the Chiang Mai Hat tournament, where people sign up as individuals and are randomly placed in teams for a weekend of play. I got to play on the same team as a fellow Fulbrighter, Meg Ziegler!

In Chiang Mai, I was fortunate to find the Chiang Mai Ultimate group that meets 3 times a week for pick-up games at Chiang Mai University. This is a group of local Thai’s, ex-pats, and travelers just visiting for a few days. I soon found my own community away from home, and I found it through this sport that I love. I’ve met people from all across the world through ultimate: France, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and more. Soon, I’ll be traveling to Malaysia to play with my Singaporean friends who I met at a tournament in Bangkok. The vastness that is the ultimate community continues to amaze me in so many ways: across cultures, borders, and even languages, people can come together under one sport and just play. 

The Chiang Mai Ultimate group recently drove to have a “beach day” where we played ultimate in the sand
and hung out!

During my first week teaching at Maerim Wittayakhom School, I brought out my Frisbee to my class. My students have never seen one before….white, shiny plastic can apparently bring 40-something students to attention. 

They loved it.

I took advantage of this and have never let it go since. Everyone at school knows me as the Frisbee teacher now…jokes on me, I guess.

My students who I usually play Frisbee with after school

Although this valuable weapon is useful in the classroom, it has also helped me grow some close relationships with my students, where they could practice their English, have fun, and also learn a sport that I would love to share. Everyday after school, I would bring my Frisbee out to the fields and just toss with my students. We would talk about life, school, our likes, our dislikes – just a conversation you would speak with a friend. As the weeks wore on, I found interest come in waves, but I saw my students become more and more confident in themselves as English speakers inside the classroom. They weren’t afraid to come up to me and have a conversation, and in return, I learned about their lives, their families, their goals and aspirations. In hindsight, how silly it sounds to credit all this to a silly piece of plastic. 

But it doesn’t just stop at Frisbee. After school, I also run around the track at around 6pm. This is when 30 or so men come out and play some football on the field while I run around. Alongside me, the same people show up to run: the man who works at the hotel next door to school, the 60-something-year-old who always runs exactly 5 laps and then his regimen of sit-ups and push-ups, my friend who is also a teacher at Maerim, and lastly, my 6-year-old friend Ton who lives near school and comes to watch soccer, play with his friends, or ride his bike alongside me while I run. This group of Maerim runners has become a nice sight to see after a long day of teaching because it’s always constant. The same people - with the occasional visitors - has created a community of sorts where we come together for one common purpose: to run. And as a result, we get to know each other. We communicate through Thai, English, Tinglish – whatever can get us through. And at the end of the day we say, “see you tomorrow.” 

Some of the Chiang Mai Ultimate Group that meets at Chiang Mai University every Saturday

Through Frisbee and running, I’ve learned that sports are a truly valuable vehicle for communication, for making connections with people, and for creating communities. I can’t imagine this Fulbright year without the people I’ve met or the memories I’ve created through sports. I was fortunate to find my own communities here, but communities are what you make of it – they can come in many forms. Whatever you enjoy, whatever you love – follow and pursue it, and you will find your place wherever you are because you’ll never know what will happen. I’ve found my home away from home just by following a silly piece of plastic.

22 July, 2016

A Lesson in the Rain

Kayla was born and raised in Southwest Oklahoma. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2014 with a degree in Elementary Education. Kayla is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant at BanKumuang School in Ubon Ratchathani where she teaches 3rd through 9th grade. In her free time, Kayla likes exploring Ubon with her host teacher P’Nuan, and eating all of the Thai food she can. After Fulbright, Kayla hopes to bring a little bit of Thailand back to an elementary classroom in America, and share her experience with her future students.

Wednesday, June 23, 2016

This morning I woke up to the sun shining much too bright, much too early. The days often come and go with the mediocrity and monotony of any other job anywhere in the world. Today I didn’t wake up with plans to change the world; I really didn’t have any plans. These past 9 months I’ve actually learned a lot about letting go of plans, and embracing the sabai sabai, or go with the flow lifestyle. There have been days when I’ve been whisked away by my host teacher after a long day of school, only to return sometime after dinner with several things checked off the to-do-list I didn’t even know I had. Therefore, I keep my daily goal as simple as “have a good day” – whatever that may mean (seriously, it could be anything) and wherever the day may take me. 

Attempting to fit all of 6th grade in a self

Although it is a simple goal it is not as easy to accomplish, as it may seem. I have this agreement with Thailand. We never go to bed angry at each other, but Thailand is much better at keeping that agreement than I am. For every good day there is a crazy, exhausting, “what just happened?!” day, and sometimes at the end of such a day I can’t even decipher the roller coaster of emotions I felt. There are some days I am so ready to give up on Thailand and I want to be mad, I really do, but I never mastered the art of holding a grudge. This day in particular could be classified as a tough and grudge worthy day, but Thailand refused to let me go back on our agreement.

Students trying to keep me warm on a cold day (about 45 ºF)

“Good morning!” I shout to my room of 8th graders. I spot a large, poorly hidden body lying under the floor table, and another group of boys sitting against the wall, their sweat streaking the black wall behind them (insert the smell of 30 sweaty eighth graders here). They are desperately attempting to be invisible as they stare at the ground. I swear I can hear their silent thoughts pass through their heads, and they are not thoughts of English. I hear a few “good mornings”, and I cheerily shout again, "GOOD MORNING STUDENTS!!” The disarray of bodies, much too large to be sitting on the floor, attempt to untangle themselves and look in my direction. Ahhhh, now I kind of have their attention. 

Soccer in the mud with my students

"Good morning teacher, how are you?" echoes the sing-songy phrase that every Thai student in the public school system memorizes in kindergarten. I pause, directing my best teacher look at the student slithering out from under the table, but not before a laugh escapes my mouth. It’s a new laugh that’s developed over the past 9 months. A layered laugh: One layer of frustration, one layer of exasperation, one layer of genuine humor at my life. Here is one of my top students, an eighth grader, on his belly sliding out from under this tiny table. I am exasperated before my lesson even begins. 

My well thought out lesson plan gets off to an enthusiastic start--99 percent of that enthusiasm on my side. Then, slowly but surely, these 14 year olds, sweaty and bored with the performance I’m giving, begin to talk over me, and the chatter of 30 teenagers drown out my voice. My thoughts go something like this: “are they listening to me, no they definitely aren’t listening to me, they can’t understand me, someone, anyone please make eye contact w….” my thoughts are interrupted by a girl in the back screaming because she’s been squirted with a makeshift water bottle water gun. I have to hand it to them - Thai students are very innovative. I confiscate the “water gun” and put it on my desk, only to turn around a few minutes later and notice it is gone. Thai students are also good at teamwork, even if that means working together to get the culprit his water gun back. 

Pausing a takraw game to pose for a photo in the rain

I stop, exhale, and feel the weight of my responsibility as an English teacher. Oftentimes when I’m standing in front of my students this overwhelming feeling creeps in and I feel lost somewhere in the vastness of my own language. There are so many things I want to tell my students, but I know the language barrier is much too big for this conversation. I feel all these words sitting in my chest, then rising to the tip of my tongue desperately wanting to escape, but I know these words will dissipate into the air. So we go back to going over the simple words I’ve chosen for this lesson. The class is rambunctious, and at the end I feel I’ve had enough. The students and I both leave the room with little accomplished. 

Playing in the rain at school

After class I am at a loss for what my next teacher move is. I’m mad at myself because I feel like I have failed my students. I’m mad at my students because I didn’t see any effort. I’m mad at Thailand. Why is it so different than America? Why aren’t things easy? With too many answerless questions I head to the bench in my office to embrace the sabai sabai lifestyle and take a quick midday nap (okay, maybe my life isn’t that hard). As soon as my eyes are closed a rare cool breeze blowing papers off my desk in my office wakes me. Within seconds the rain is pouring down, a sound that cannot be ignored in an open-air school with a metal roof. After months of blistering heat I rejoice at the sight of a storm rolling in. I often joke that I moved to the Oklahoma of Thailand. The sun’s unforgiving rays drain the energy and motivation from students and teachers alike, but this crack of thunder floods my mind with different memories of Oklahoma: of running outside with my siblings pots and pans on our heads, or calling up my cousins at the first sign of a thunderstorm because we knew the red Oklahoma clay would make for great mud to play in. With all the differences, rain still smells the same in Thailand.

The flooded soccer field

I grab my umbrella and walk outside, unsuspecting of what I am about to see. My students, the same ones that found me wildly uninteresting 30 minutes ago are playing sepak takraw (a popular Thai sport) in the rain. It’s pouring, and everyone is getting drenched and laughing. I take my shoes off, tie up my long skirt, and head into the downpour with my umbrella. My students are surprised to see me walking into the rain and stop their game and say hello and then pose for a photo. Now I’m laughing. This time a laugh layered with gratitude, joy, and understanding. I’m laughing at myself and how ridiculously caught up with the differences and little things I can get, and realizing how Thailand and America really are not that different. I am not really that different than my students. Not long ago in a small country school in Oklahoma I was once entertained more by my friends then my teachers, and excited by a thunderstorm. The weight of the pressure I put on myself during today’s lesson is lifted and the rain washes away my frustrations. Sometimes I forget that my presence at Ban Kumuang School is for cross-cultural exchange, not just as an English teacher. I am content with that thought. I’m not here to ‘change the world’ and my students will not become fluent in English. It is my job to play in the rain with my students, braid their hair, give them hugs, high fives, and handshakes, take endless selfies and most importantly to be present.