28 March, 2016

On the lessons Thailand has taught me: Complexity in culture and the absoluteness of humanity

Emily Parker is the current Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA teaching and living in Sansai, Chiang Mai. A Vermont native, Emily graduated from Tulane University in May of 2015 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health and International Development. At Sansai Wittayakom, she teaches high school students, leads the English Club for younger middle schoolers, and tries to learn from the many languages that chorus the Foreign Language Department. Emily likes exploring nearby Chiang Mai city, meeting locals and travelers alike, and keeping with the consistent challenge of staying vegetarian while in country. She is also passionate about migrant rights, maternal and child health, and equitable access to health care. After Fulbirght, she hopes to acquire further field experience in the realms of health and development before attending graduate school.

To begin the story of my love affair with Thailand, we first have to go back 5 years.

Thanks to an incredible woman from my local community of Vermont who, for nearly a decade, spearheaded a unique cultural immersion trip for high schoolers to the northeastern region of Thailand, I had the opportunity to fall in love with this country at 17. Linda, the dedicated leader behind Montpelier to Thailand, had a counterpart and dear friend in Ubon, Ratchathani, whose high school students also participated in yearly trips to our small state in New England. It was because of these two women’s efforts to weave a relationship across continents and cultures that I had the opportunity to live for a short time in a small rice farming village along the Mekong, as well as help my parents host Thai students at our home in Vermont. I still remember the call of my very first Thai host mother during those evenings spent in Ban Pachan, Ubon Ratchathani, as she practiced pronouncing my and my friend’s name from downstairs as we situated ourselves underneath the drapery of our mosquito net. “Jo - SEE. Em - i - LEE”, she repeated. Thai language is tonal, and is sometimes referred to as a sing-song language, for the constant undulating tones can make a Thai speaker sound as if they were perhaps singing instead.

I also remember the story my parents have shared with me many times of when their two Thai host sons cooked a Thai dinner for the four of them, which happened to be the very first time Tong and Fong had cooked Thai food, ever. My parents still love reminiscing on the story years later, and hold fondly the times they shared and lessons they learned with the Thai students who visited Vermont. These experiences exposed to me the beauty of cross cultural exchange in such a local, genuine way; and indeed it has been my exchanges with Thailand and Thai people from the very start that have taught me that it is through sharing ourselves with others that we may expand our worldviews, during the same while learning to be critical of how our homelands and native tongues influence our engagement with the world.

Landscape scene found around Northern Thailand; the sun sets just down the road from my home in Sansai.

Farmland across from my internship location in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son.

When I was in university focusing on Public Health and International Development and found a program to spend four months in Khon Kaen, Thailand studying global health, I did all that I could to ensure my return. The program was a unique experiential education design, which offered a lot for intensive cultural immersion. I had a Thai roommate who became a great friend, Thai language class for four hours a day for the first 6-8 weeks in country and extensively afterwards as well, a university student language tutor, and regular weekend homestays in villages around Khon Kaen province. All of these circumstances provided a lot of opportunity to practice the language and experience Thai culture. Friends and strangers alike never failed to be encouraging of my endeavors to learn Thai, always taking every opportunity to teach me new vocabulary, explain some peculiarity of Thai culture, and even invite me into intimate spaces of worship (temples) and family (homes). The constant support I was met with by Thai people to understand and be able to communicate within their own culture was a large part of the reason I applied to return to teach English with Fulbright. In the five months that I spent in Thailand in 2013, I found linguistic, spiritual, academic, and professional inspiration, all because the local community around me so consistently welcomed me into their world.

This Time Around

Returning to Thailand, this time with the primary title of teacher instead of student (although I certainly occupy both roles here), has been a challenging, inspiring, complex, and unique experience. Just as my prior two times in this country, the generosity of Thai people continues to astound me. My transition to amphur (district) Sansai, jangwat (province) Chiang Mai was made easy thanks to the teachers, students, and community members of Sansai Wittayakom. For the first few weeks at school, my host teacher Kru Toi made sure life was comfortable for me in countless ways -- surprising me with new furniture, groceries for days, and even a handmade Lana (Northern Thai culture) prasin (traditional Lana skirt); coming over 3 or 4 times a week to cook dinner with me, despite her many, many other obligations; lending a helping hand with my continued language practice and always making sure I was included in conversation in the office. The foreign language department, which consists of English, Japanese, and Chinese language teachers, as well as student teachers from multiple different universities across Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, was and remains a constant chorus of language, culture, food and laughter. And in October I gained a housemate and dear friend who traveled from her university in Chengdu, China to teach Chinese as a foreign language for a semester at Sansai as well. Any of the fears I had of losing community amidst my move to Thailand were quickly proven to be of little worry. There are countless challenges to living and working abroad, alone; sometimes difficulties present themselves sporadically over a few weeks, sometimes the whole lot of them decide to rear their ugly head within the course of just one day. But as times before, my host community and the nature of Thai culture has made it on the whole very difficult to doubt my role here.

My brother (who is also teaching English in Ubon this year) and I appearing as giants
with my host teacher, Kru Toi.

Enjoying dinner with the student teachers outside of school.

How it All Applies in the Classroom

Being a student of Thai culture and language has probably been the single most important influence in finding my voice and personality as a teacher of foreign language. Prior to Fulbright, I had some experience mentoring, tutoring, and working as an English language partner, but I had never taught in a classroom setting before, and I had certainly never had the task of educating (and maybe more importantly, entertaining) the likes of forty non-native English speaking sixteen year olds, with the use of only a whiteboard and markers. And while you probably couldn’t pay me to go back to the first few weeks of finding my footing, what has progressed since has been a joy to be party to. And that is almost entirely due to my students.

On the last day of our small M6 elective, a rarity among my usual 40 students classes.

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure that teaching a foreign language to high schoolers is my calling. I’ve been reminded of -- and taught many new things about -- being in high school since re-entering the scene last Fall. I’ve become pretty convinced that no matter the country, culture or language you’re surrounded by, there are some universal similarities of being an adolescent in school. Like how sometimes teenagers just don’t want to invest their energy on the often repetitive tasks school demands of them; how listening to authority and being respectful of elders (expectations particularly acute in Thai society) can take a toll on students’ willingness to engage; how social pressures and family demands are also happening outside the classroom walls, wearing on the hearts and minds of still developing young people every day that they are also expected to show up to school ready to learn. And in addition, as a teacher from another native language and culture, there are the complex social dynamics among my high school students and within my classes, which affect how they learn and engage with each other on any given day, that are simply beyond my cultural competence to understand as their teacher and mentor. No matter how challenging teaching a foreign language has proven itself to be, I’m certain now that the struggle my students face - that of finding the motivation to learn a foreign language within the confines of a classroom - is much, much more difficult.

And even still, I’ve come to really cherish being a teacher at Sansai Wittayakom. Because despite all of the pushes and pulls in my students’ lives, and our profound distance from each other in upbringing and language, they still show up. And they do their best, in varying degrees, to pay attention, to participate, to learn and to grow in our shared classrooms. And despite the challenges of learning a language through 40-minute class segments a few times a week (which I know damn well never worked for my pursuit of the French language), they inquire, they try, and they sometimes even encourage their classmates to do more. Some people say teaching is a thankless job, and on some days (read: a lot of days) it can certainly feel so. But truthfully I think the praise just happens in the in between, that if you’re not paying attention to you might miss -- like the subtle changes in the group of girls who sit in the back of your Freshman elective class, who now look you in the eye and smile back when you ask them a question, or the Seniors you’ve had luck of teaching as a small group who are suddenly coming to you for personal advice. It’s these progressions, and the profound moments that reveal them, that make my job here so fulfilling. And when I allow these moments to mean more than those that are filled with the fear and self-critique that accompany an attempt at teaching language and culture, my relationships with my students grow. And that, I think, is ultimately my role here.

Celebrating with M6 students on their high school graduation day

…And Outside The Classroom

Throughout my own time in Thailand, now 5 months each living in two different regions of the country, 10 cumulative months at learning the central language, and 5 years, since my first arrival here, of processing how Thai culture has influenced my life, one of the most important things I have learned about an attempt to understand culture (whether it be our own or another’s), is that there is simply so much complexity in the subject matter. This truth, which proves itself constantly when you are a foreigner in another’s culture, comes disguised in a myriad of acts. It is there within the nuance required to communicate fluently, the colloquial speech, the wit and humor, the speed in production and comprehension which flood the conversations of native speakers, leaving foreign language learners decidedly on the outside; it is in the exactions of correct cultural etiquette, in dress, body language, and conduct across a variety of circles, which take time, attention to detail, and privilege to be able to replicate and be accepted in doing so; and it is there, in the heavy and persistent demand to remain open, vulnerable, and willing to communicate across these many barriers. This lesson, one I have been fortunate to learn through a relationship with Thai culture as well as been challenged to present to my students, is constantly validating itself, and indeed to greater depths -- rather than less -- the longer I spend in Thailand. Teaching with Fulbright, which offers a uniquely local year to live, work, and learn in depth with one or two communities across Thailand, has allowed the opportunity for my year’s work to revolve precisely around this concept.

Participating (and struggling) in Sansai's celebration of harvesting season; creating an accidental artistic interpretation, Thai-American Gothic.

And as I sit, along the Salawin River in Mae Hong Son, where I am currently living for an internship that would take an entirely separate blog post to describe, it would be a failure of this reflection not to state the exceptional privilege I have to be learning all of this in the environment in which I am. Because while the nuance of cultures and languages are beautiful to reflect on in how they intertwine to create a vastly complex world population, more often and on a grander scale the differences between us are preyed upon, used throughout history as means of division and oppression. As the world faces the worst migration crisis of our time, and millions of its citizens flee governments and armies determined to kill them, only to arrive in foreign lands that also refuse to recognize their humanity as I write this; as I’ve just returned from a two day trip to a 50,000 person, 3 kilometer by 6 kilometer ‘temporary’ shelter on the Thai-Burmese border, established over 30 years ago to house minorities from Burma fleeing civil war and ethnic cleansing; as I work alongside Karen people for this next month, who have been fighting for the last 15 years to provide addiction treatment and prevention education for their people still housed in the very camps they were born into, or spent their adolescence in, or just got out of two years ago only to still be denied by Thailand permanent citizenship; I sit paying my dinner with a stipend provided in joint venture by both the US and Thai governments. So, while it certainly is important to recognize the many differences across people and cultures separate from one another, we must also devote awareness to how this focus causes suffering, perpetuating the oppressions of marginalized people and upholding the roles of the powerful. And so, as one of a small population with the privilege of being a foreigner, not only hosted but welcomed with open arms, into another’s culture, and then asked to reflect on what that experience has meant: I believe that the most important pursuit in this context must ultimately be one of recognizing our shared humanity with people both similar and different from us, and the responsibility we have to one another to demand a world which reflects this.

Thankfully, there are people and organizations, big and small, working to serve this purpose, Fulbright being just one among them. Another that I mentioned here: the DARE Network, a grassroots community-based organization run almost entirely by Karen people, the largest ethnic minority from Burma, provides culturally appropriate addiction treatment and prevention education to tens of thousands of refugees along the Thai-Burma border. For over 15 years, DARE has built their on-the-ground capacity, designed an internally sustainable organization, and treated over 3,000 people in intensive 3-month detox programs; they reach thousands more each year in their comprehensive prevention work. As repatriation processes for refugees are expected to happen within the next few years, DARE is currently expanding into Karen State, creating a new central office and treatment center with their own hands, to support the movement of people re-entering their homelands after over 30 years of exile. To read more about DARE and support the work that they do, visit www.darenetwork.com.

21 March, 2016

Farming for Food and Culture in Isaan

Thomas Amburn is a native Kentuckian from Louisville, Kentucky. He graduated from Transylvania University with a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry and minors in biology and Asian studies. Thomas is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Kamalasai, Kalasin in Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. In his free time, Thomas likes to run, eat sweets, spend time with people in Kamalasai, and is up for anything. In the future, Thomas wants to pursue a career in medical sciences either as a physician and/or researcher. 

“Thomas is chaw-na!” Chaw-na in Thai means “farmer” which my landlady is now calling me. I grew up in Kentucky where there are many farms. Cows, pigs, chickens, corn, tobacco, soy, and of course horses are all normalcies for me. As you drive through Kentucky, horse farms are scattered everywhere, and there are multitudes of fields devoted to crops. Naturally, it’s beautiful, but most Kentuckians do not think much of it. It is just normal and an aspect of our culture. Even though I did not live on a farm, my family does have horses, and we often try to grow a few vegetables and fruits for ourselves such as tomatoes, cantaloupes, corn, beans, and cucumbers. It is safe to say that Kentucky is an agricultural society.

When I applied for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, I thought agriculture could be my window to relating to Thai culture, and therefore expressed my interests in being in rural Thailand. Well, welcome to Kamalasai, Kalasin located in the North East region of Thailand which is called Isaan. On October 28, 2015, as I was looking out the window of the airplane coming into Khon Khaen airport, all I could see was green and outlines of farms. I got what I asked for. This is a land of farms.

Driving through Kalasin, the roads are lined with farms – primarily rice farms. Green fields full of tall rice. But these farms certainly are not stagnant. They are always changing. Late in the year, the rice turns a yellowish color, meaning it is time for harvest. You can either eat white rice, sticky rice, and sometimes black rice. White rice is what we consider “normal” rice which is also common in the USA. Sticky rice, as the names implies, is very sticky, and you must grab it my hand and mold it into a ball. Black rice is also sticky, but it is purple-black in color and rather sweet. Often it is served as a dessert. After the harvest, the fields are burned leaving a brown, destitute field. If you are driving at night, you often can see fires throughout the fields burning the leftover rice plants. A little ominous to be honest. Now in this time of the year, the fields are growing again with new, young rice plants which have a brilliant green color.

Rice fields in the process of harvesting.

Rice is not the only thing growing in Isaan, though certainly it is predominant. Unlike Kentucky I have not seen any horses, but I certainly have seen many cows, buffaloes, and chickens. Not only do I see them, I hear them too. Around my house, the roosters seem to crow all through the night into the morning. When I first moved to Kamalasai, there was no way for me to ignore them. Now I only notice them when I skype family and friends, and they tell me they can hear the roosters in the background. I think, “Oh yea, I forgot about those.” Every farm has at least one pond full of fish to be caught and eaten. Even here at Kamalasai School, there is a pond which I only learned recently is a crab pond.

When walking through the night market here in Kamalasai, there is no question – Kamalasai is situated in a farming region. Fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices are plentiful and all fresh. Even better, they are cheap too. This all means that if you are invited to an Isaan style dinner, it will be delicious and relatively healthy. Walking through the market, you can hear the chatter of people speaking the local language Isaan (almost the same as Lao), the occasional chopping of meat, and people advertising their products to people walking by. For me, I hear “Farang! Farang!” from eager vendors hoping they can convince me to buy their goods. Farang means foreigner.

There are the fruit stands with the array of colors that the fruits come in – reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and many more. Then there are the stands that are completely green from the vegetables being sold there. I also never knew there were so many types of mushrooms to choose from. Then I smell the fish, reminding me of my days fishing in Kentucky. I have seen catfish being sold in the market that are nearly a meter and a half long (about five feet)! There are vendors selling fried insects which are a delicious snack. Then you see some stands more grotesque than others such as the pork vendor selling every part of the pig or the fresh beef vendor. Or the stand selling farm rats – farm rat is considered a delicious dish. I must agree. They are clean unlike city rats. Last and definitely not least is the kanom (dessert) vendors selling cakes, pastries, and sweets. Though not necessarily fresh off the farm, I like sweets a lot so I must mention it.

I am fully aware of the agriculture surrounding my new home in Thailand, but it is time for me to get my hands dirty. In my first month in Kamalasai School, I made a new friend who is a chemistry teacher, Itiporn Burikhan (Tone), who invited me to go to a farm to harvest rice. I want to experience Kamalasai, so I get dressed with my long sleeve shirt and jeans. Isaan is rarely cold, and on this day, it was far from cold. Rice farmers must keep their bodies covered from the sun which tends to be rather harsh. After driving through many winding roads meandering through the plethora of farms, we finally arrive. I am given a farmers hat and a sickle, and we’re off! In order to get to the rice fields, we must walk along raised paths that also serve as dividers between rice fields. Grab the rice, cut, stack, and repeat. Again. And again. I am gradually appreciating the Thai affinity of patience more and more. After fifteen minutes, we stop to go eat. I would be lying if I said we worked hard. Tone prepares octopus in the nearby barn as I “help” (I only stirred the boiling water). Then it was time for sabaai.

Walking out to the rice fields.

What is sabaai? It is the Thai word and culture of “easy going, relax, take it easy”. It is a normalcy here, not something isolated to holidays or vacations. Easy come, easy go. Even though I grew up in an agricultural society, I would not say I am perfectly acclimated to an “easy come, easy go” lifestyle. I want to be busy. There must be something I should be doing. Time to set goals and complete them! Thailand is teaching me that there is so much more to living than this “go, go, go!” mentality, and I try to learn. I have also learned that sabaai can mean anything. Most commonly, sabaai includes eating and relaxing, such as laying in a hammock, but it also can include coffee shops, reading, riding a bike, running (at least for me), and basically anything that makes you feel a little more easygoing. On the day I learned how to harvest rice, sabaai time turned into taking the fishing boat out on the shallow pond. Be careful though, maneuvering through the vegetation can prove to be rather difficult, and you may end up lost like I did.

Hammocks in the barn for sabaai
Sabaai includes fishing boats with my friend, Tone.

But my days of farming weren’t finished. My house is rented by a very lovely lady named Ajarn Sirinat Balla (Ajarn means a teacher) whom I call “Mae Khung”. Mae in Thai means mother and that is certainly how she has treated me. She invited to a party at her house with her family one Sunday, and much like many people in Kamalasai, they own a farm. As I described previously, the farm has ponds, chickens, and rice fields. But not only that though. I appreciate Thai homes for the fact that they are truly a fresh food supermarket. Much of the plants around the house yield a fruit or vegetable, such as the many papaya, rose apple, coconut, and banana trees.

When I arrived at her home, she prepares for me swim shorts, a farmer’s waist sash, and a farmer’s hat. Today, I will be a fisherman. At first I am just walking along the banks for the ponds watching the farmers catch the fish with nets. Then, it is my turn. First try, I wrap up the net, lay it over my shoulder, and sling. Not bad for a first try, but no fish. Ok one more time. Wrap up the net, lay it over my shoulder, and clunk! I just threw the net, and it sank to the bottom of the pond. Good thing I can swim. After two tries, they decide maybe I should just cook food instead.

The real fisherman is teaching me how to fish with a net.

My Thai mom teaches me how to cook Isaan style on the farm. First is the grilled fish. The fish are certainly fresh, considering the farmers just caught them a few minutes ago. You first wrap the fish in banana leaf after putting some seasoning on the fish. Then grill it over a Lao stove. In the USA we “clean” the fish, which basically is removing any parts you don’t want to eat. Here though, the fish goes as is – no cleaning. Then we prepare a fish soup. Again, all of the fish goes in with vegetables and spices. Finally I must prepare som dtam which is an extremely popular dish here in Isaan. Som dtam anywhere, anytime. First, I shred a fresh papaya. Once finished, I grind the shreds with many peppers (spicy!), tomatoes, green beans, soy sauce, garlic, peanuts, and other spices I am not sure what they are. Som dtam is always spicy, and sometimes too spicy for me. Therefore, I made my own without peppers, which to Thai people having no peppers means no flavor. After the food is prepared, we eat. Eating is certainly a big aspect of the sabaai culture.

Cooking and eating with my Thai family.

Ajarn Sirinat Balla (Mae Khung) wearing traditional Isaan-style clothing.

In rural Thailand, agriculture cannot be ignored, and you cannot separate it from the community and culture. It is integral. It is not just their life force, it is their lifestyle. Even in much of Thai pop culture and especially Isaan pop culture, many music videos of famous Thai singers will be on a farm. For many young people, it is a place to practice their photographing or even modeling skills. The farm is a place to enjoy other people’s company and to socialize. Undoubtedly it serves many purposes. For me, it is a place to run. I often go to the nearby lotus farm and run laps on the roughly four kilometer dirt road loop. The farm is for food, but its value goes far beyond just culinary purposes – it is a culture.

I would like to thank Ajarn Sirinat Balla and her generous family, Ajarn Kusuma Senanak, and Itiporn Burikhan for inviting, giving information, and helping me understand and appreciate agriculture in Kamalasai. Writing this narrative would not be possible without you all.

14 March, 2016

R.E.S.P.E.C.T and Finding Out What it Means to Me

Carolyn Wallace is the current Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA teaching and living in Mae Moh, Lampang, Thailand. Carrie graduated from the George Washington University in the spring of 2015 with a degree in Human Services and Social Justice. When not teaching, eating, or hanging out with students and teachers, Carrie enjoys exploring and taking pictures of her beautiful new home. After Fulbright, Carrie hopes to work with non-profits who provide a quality education to sex trafficking victims and survivors.

When I decided to study in Thailand for my semester abroad, I did so with the hopes of making friends with elephants, avoiding another brutal D.C. winter, developing a tolerance for spicy food, and travelling throughout the diverse country. After spending six months exploring the splendors of Southeast Asia, what I cherished most about my experience was not what had originally led me to the other side of the world. What I found myself missing most when I returned home was the respect that is integral to the Thai way of life.

Maybe this role of respect in Thai culture remained with me so strongly because it was such a departure from my past. Being from the Northeast, I am used to a fast-paced and competitive environment that leaves little room for respect. Or maybe this role of respect remained with me because of the environment I returned home to. Being the most politically active school in the country, respect is often tossed out the window at GW. While I loved the aggressive classroom debates and campus protests, I found myself missing the respectfulness of Chiang Mai.

Either way, when it came to making my post-graduation plans, it was this respectful way of living that drew me back to Thailand. My time studying at Chiang Mai University left me feeling like I had just dipped my toes in the water, and now I was ready to submerge myself fully in Thai culture. For me, Fulbright was the best opportunity to do so. I knew that by living in a rural village, I would be able to pick up a thing or to from the locals on living a respect filled life. One thing I really love about Fulbright is that although we teach English, we are also encouraged to be students learning all things Thai.

My lessons in respect began as soon as I arrived in Mae Moh. My first official day at Mae Moh Wittaya School, I gave a short speech to the school during our morning assembly. Afterwards, I awkwardly waved and turn around to return to my seat. One of my host teachers, Kru Jang, stopped me and told me to wait a minute. Standing in front of the crowd of 750 students, I saw them rise one by one from their clusters, each with a gift. Students came forward, forming a line in front of me, holding flowers, drawings, potted plants, snacks, and small boats made out of banana leaves called kratongs.

Receiving welcome gifts from my students

I couldn’t believe the outpouring of generosity from my students. These students had yet to meet me or learn from me, but they already respected me as their new teacher. After the receiving line was finished, I sat down and looked at all the gifts I had received. The only thing that ran through my mind was “This would never happen in the U.S.” (Disclaimer: Maybe in some places it would, but in my experiences, it would never.)

After morning assembly finished, I again looked at my gifts with astonishment. How was I going to carry all of this? One of my host teachers, Kru Yao, saw this look in my eyes and called over some students. Quickly in Thai, she instructed them to bring the gifts to my home behind the school. Overcome with gratitude, I continually thanked the small team of girls who were taking time out of their day to help me. Kru Yao patted my back and told me “Mai pen rai (Don’t worry) You are their teacher. They are happy to help you.”

The very kind team of students that helped transport my gifts home.

Believe it or not, this respect carried over into my classroom as well. Nervous doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I first found out I would be teaching high school students. Previous experiences lead me to believe that high school students aren’t the most respectful students. I believe hormones plays a big role in that phenomenon. I began having these daydream-nightmares of myself cowering in front of a room of 100 students, all throwing paper airplanes and rotten tomatoes at me.

Luckily, Thailand is very different from the United States, and my classes greeted me everyday with a friendly smile and sat down ready to learn. Not a single rotten tomato has been thrown at me… yet.

Throughout my first semester, I have been amazed at the respect the students demonstrate. Without asking, students will empty out the trash, sweep the floor, or clean the whiteboard. Often times I will bring in some Tupperware with fruit for the students. One of them always slips out of class and washes and dries the Tupperware after they finish the snacks. Students will notice me struggling with technology and come up and solve the issue for me without any hesitation. I often see students helping out other teachers as well, always happy to lend a helping hand.

When walking the hallways, students stop to politely “wai” and greet me with “hello teacher!”. When I see students outside of school, they greet me just as warmly. I have been able to meet many of my student’s families at the local market or at my favorite coffee shop in town. When I spending time with my host teacher, Kru Yao, we are often stopped by her old students who want to say hello and find out what she is up to. Some of these students were in her class 20 years ago, and I can tell by the look in their eyes that they have even more respect for Kru Yao now than they did when they were students.

This respect at school is not a one-way street. On several occasions, I have seen teachers happily go out of their way to make their student’s days better. For Christmas, each teacher donated a gift to be auctioned off to the students. On the last day before our New Year break, homeroom teachers organized special lunchtime meals for their students. One room made somtam (spicy papaya salad), while another teacher brought in 5 hotpots and allowed students to cook their own food on their desks! When I attended a field trip, I was astonished at how much teachers respected the students. Four busloads of 14-year-old students were allowed to roam Chiang Rai freely with no chaperones or assigned groups. Teachers treated students as adults, and our students responded to that respect by acting as adults.

Students posing in front of the White Temple on our field trip to Chiang Rai

I believe a lot of this respect comes from the overall aura of collectivism present in Asia. Collectivism means that people are more focused on the overall good of the group, not the individual. Studies have shown that while most of the world operates under collectivism, the United States leans more towards individualism. Working for the good of the group allows people to get rid of their selfish desires and do what creates the most good for the most people. In many cases, collectivism allows space for respect in everyday life. At Mae Moh Wittaya, I have often witnessed student and teachers putting aside their own desires to help out someone else.

A teacher laughs as he helps a graduating senior pin a flower on his shirt.

Mae Moh Wittaya School is one big family. Students talk about their teachers lovingly and with admiration, and visa versa. Everyone looks out for each other and works together to make our school a happier place. Respect plays a big role in my school’s community, and coming from the U.S., it is easy for me to see the effect it has on our community as well. Thanks to the opportunity Fulbright has provided me, I have been able to learn the positive effect of respect not only in student teacher relationships, but also on a community. Without a doubt, I will return to the United States a more respectful person.

07 March, 2016

Communicating Without Words

Crystal Kumtong is a Thai-Taiwanese-Chinese-American from Los Angeles, California.She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a B.A. in Psychology and minors in Applied Developmental Psychology and Education. Crystal is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant in Lampang, northern Thailand. She teaches kindergarten, a special abilities class, and grades 4 through 9, and promotes English learning through songs and silly tongue twisters. Crystal is passionate about promoting access to high-quality education to all students and wishes to work in early childhood education policy and reform. Outside the classroom, Crystal enjoys biking around her province and stumbling upon beautiful Buddhist temples, eating                                                                                          delicious food, and sleeping.

Having grown up speaking Thai with my parents, I was still nervous to come to Thailand and live here for a year. In America, the only people I spoke Thai to were my parents, but even then, I would often switch to English. I was ashamed of my American- Thai accent and would never willingly speak Thai to non-family members. I was afraid I would be judged and struggle to communicate with my limited Thai vocabulary. Despite my fears, I was very excited to come to my parents’ country and do the thing I love most: working with students.

My family

The past two summers, I studied abroad in Taiwan and
South Korea. I was in Taiwan for 2 ½ months to study Mandarin and I enjoyed the wonderful street food and milk tea boba. I learned how to (somewhat) haggle with street vendors 请可以便宜一点 (qǐng kěyǐ piányí yīdiǎn), and I nailed how to order a cup of milk tea boba with extra ice 一杯珍珠奶茶,多冰 (yībēi zhēnzhū nǎichá, duō bīng). I did not understand what was going on most of the time, but I was able to order my food and boba by pointing, gesturing, and using the limited Chinese I learned.

Enjoying milk tea boba in Taiwan

In South Korea, the only phrase I knew was how to say “I’m an American.”, 저는미국사람이니다 (chul-nun migook sarang imnida). I said that phrase loudly and proudly, and as an explanation and apologies for my poor Korean language skills. I did not progress much beyond “hello” 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo) and “thank you” 감사합니다 (ka sam nida). I struggled to speak Korean, but from my time in Taiwan, I knew that communicating was much more than speaking the language. I got around by gesturing, pointing, and trying really hard to get my point across through my body language and facial expressions, mainly of “please help this poor foreigner. I’m lost and confused”.

A temple in Korea

I knew that I wouldn’t have to struggle as much in Thailand, because I already knew the basics of Thai language. However, I was placed in Lampang in northern Thailand. In Lampang, people speak the northern language, or Lanna language ภาษาเหนือ/ภาษาเมือง (prasa nueu/ prasa mueng). Many words are similar, but it is a different language altogether. Classes are taught in “central” Thai, but it is not uncommon for teachers and students to speak and joke with each other in Lanna, the dialect they are most comfortable with.

Through my time abroad, I learned that communication encompasses more than just language. Yes, language is a huge part of being able to talk to someone and is a gateway to understanding new cultures, but there is more to it. Having been to three countries where I struggled to speak another language, I learned that the magic of communication happens when there are no words at all.

From my observations in Thailand, I learned that communication is …

A smile

Communication is when I visit the kind woman who sells tea and coffee in front of the school and she greets me with a genuine smile.

It is when the 2nd grade students sees me at the end of the hallway, yells out “TEACHER!” and tackles me down with a hug and then proceeds to carry my bag and pull me into their classroom.

Body language

It is when I am greeted every morning with a hug from the anuban (kindergarten) students, a high five from the prathom (elementary) school students, or sometimes even the middle finger. I do not know where these kids learned that from.

It is when a student shows you they are absolutely bored or displeased by your lesson when they sit with their arms crossed and eyebrows pinched together for the entire duration of you singing an English song. It’s a tough crowd.

Facial expressions

I teach a class of students with Special Abilities, and one of the students does not speak. At all. However, he is the most expressive and I do not have a hard time figuring out what he wants with just one expression.

He will touch my bag and look at me and I know he wants the stickers I periodically give out at the end of every lesson.

He will stand by my side, ready to pass out the papers or materials I have prepared for the class.

He does not always understand what the crazy lady in front of the class is gesturing and waving on about, but he will copy down everything I write on the board in his notebook. Everything.

One day, he showed me a live praying mantis and I nearly died inside. I asked him, “What are you doing with that praying mantis?” He smiled at me as his response. I told him to put the praying mantis down and let it back into the wild. Still smiling at me, he pocketed the creature inside his pant pocket and zipped it up. I somewhat hysterically exclaimed, “It’s going to die in there! Let it out!” He just smiled at me and let me know that the praying mantis was going to live in his pants for the rest of the class.

A kind gesture of gift giving

Being surprised with an orange here, a banana there, or a folded swan from a student. I have been so blessed with the kind thoughts and gestures from this community.

Sharing food

Every meal is shared family style and every lunch, the teachers sit together in the cafeteria. The teachers often bring extra food from home to share with each other. There is one teacher I do not really talk to, and she does not really talk to me. However, every time I sit down for lunch, she will hand me the plate of shared food to make sure I get some. She does not say anything or even look at me; she just hands me the plate and continues eating.

I know that there is no pressure to act, to speak, or to do anything with her. She simply acknowledges I am there, makes sure I am fed and then we go about our own lives. I am grateful for these quiet interactions where I am allowed to just be me.

Sharing time

The best gift anyone can give is time. It is those evenings where my neighbor(s) and I cook dinner and eat with other in front of the TV, speaking in a mix of Thai, Lanna, English, and Chinese.

Sharing food in Thailand with my Thai neighbors and Chinese teachers

It is when my ETA friend came to visit me and we just sat in comfortable silence, happy in knowing that we are there for each other.


Laughing with the students, teachers, and friends. Laughing at the way you mispronounced a Thai word in front of the whole class, but it’s okay because both the teacher and students are learning.

Teaching the 2nd grade students how to play the cup song from the movie Pitch Perfect.

I was nervous to come to Thailand, but now I know that I do not have anything to worry about. People are kind and there are more ways to communicate with someone than just language. If you are willing to make the effort to go out of your comfort zone, you will find that communicating with someone who speaks a different language and has a different culture than you will be no problem at all. In the end, we are more similar with someone else than we are different.

01 March, 2016

Cultural Understanding: Verbal and Non-verbal

Dung Nguyen (aka Nu Dee) is from Atlanta, Georgia. Her Alma Mater is Wake Forest University where she earned a BA in Politics and International Affairs and a minor in Sociology. Dung Nguyen is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Ubon Ratchathani province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. In her free time, Dung likes to explore hipster coffee shops in Ubon, looking for delicious coffee beans and pastries. After her Fulbright fellowship, Dung plans to explore more of Southeast Asia. Once she gets back to the U.S., she will pursue a Master’s degree in public policy.

Teachaa, Teachaa, Poot Pasa Thai!” (Teacher, Teacher, Speak Thai!)

My Thai 7th graders screamed, “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa Thai!” from behind the classroom as I tried to explain an activity in English. Sitting on their wooden chairs and edging their bodies against the wooden desks toward me, my 7th graders expressed in unison with a rather confused look on their faces, “Mai kao jai Teachaaa” (I don’t understand, teacher). As flustered as they were, I tried to use body movements, hand gestures, and repetition of simple verbs to show them what I wanted them to do. After a few demonstrations, they finally understood the tasks assigned to them, which was to write 5 sentences using the vocabulary that they have learned and then act it out with their partner. This was my first week on the job as a Fulbright English Teacher Assistant (ETA), and it was the first time in which I felt inadequate and overwhelmed as an ETA. “How can I teach my students if I don’t speak their native language?,” I thought to myself. But with time and knowing the personalities of my classes, “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa  Thai!” and “Mai kao jai Teachaa” became two of my favorite Thai phrases. Instead of internalizing these Thai phrases as an indication of my bad lessons or teaching abilities, I now use these occurrences of “Mai kao jai” as opportunities for both my students and me to have moments of cultural exchange and understanding.

Dung is teaching her 7th graders about holidays in November--Thanksgiving,
which is celebrated in the United States and Loy Kratong, which is celebrated in Thailand.

I notice that sometimes students say “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa Thai!” and “Mai kao jai Teachaaa” because the content is overwhelming. To simplify the instructions and bridge our language differences, I tell my students, “I teach you one word, and you teach me one.” It’s only fair that I go through the same struggles that they do when it comes to acquiring a new language. So, with each lesson that I teach my students, they would say the vocabulary words in Thai and then repeat it again in English. There are definitely moments of laughter as I mispronounce words and make a fool of myself. For instance, I said two Isaan words, “Bak Nat. Bak Si Da” (pineapple and guava) during a fruit lesson and my students got super excited and interested as they screamed “Ohhhhh Teachhaaaa dee mahk!! (Teacher, good job!)”. Because I was being silly and showed an interest in learning about their culture and language, it made my students comfortable and interested in the lesson as well. In this process of language exchange, it motivates and encourages my students to speak English and not be afraid of making mistakes. Now, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa” becomes 

Dung is pictured being goofy with her 12th graders. 
“Teachaa, again please?” because they want me to repeat the instructions or vocabulary words. Or perhaps, they just want to see how ridiculous I am as I repeat the words both in English and Thai and act it out. But regardless of their true intentions, I made them interested and that was a victory for me. So, sure, I’ll speak Thai and Isaan. But, I always say with a smile, “Okay, now it is your turn. Speak English students (Phoot brasa ung-grit nak rearian)!” 

Beyond the Classroom 

Other triumphant moments that I have with my students are when students go to my office hours or invite me to coffee shops to practice their English. 
They would say with a smile yet confused look on their faces, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa. Explain please.” when we stumble upon phrases that they don’t understand. For example, one of my 12th graders, Preaw would come to my office hours and invite me to coffee
Dung is tutoring one of her students during office hours. 
shops to talk about similarities and differences between Thai and American culture, our family, our thoughts about Ubon Ratchathani, future plans, and etc. In between stories, we would laugh at awkward English phrases that she says or my Thai mispronunciations. Through these interactions and relationships that I have developed my students, they now no longer have faces of confusion but faces of curiosity. I show them that learning English does not only give them an edge and advantage in this global world, but it also allows them to create these meaningful relationships with others who are different from them.

Talking Bodies

It’s these human interactions and relationships that I have developed with my students over time that exemplify the power of attitude and a smile. Knowing English in our globalized world is an important asset, but smiling is also very advantageous. A smile is welcoming, inviting, and warm, and it is here in Thailand that I’ve seen the most smiles. Thailand, known as the land of smiles, rings true to its reputation. I notice that my students say “Phoot brasa Thai, Teachaaa” with a smile. They say, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa” with a smile. To break the barrier between my students and me, I also use my smile in and outside the classroom to show them that I am not some scary, foreign creature. I teach with a smile and greet them in the morning with a smile. I show them that my smile is like theirs. My laughter is like theirs. Although we might not speak the same language, we both have bodies that do speak the same language. 

A Smile is A Smile
What’s in a smile? But specifically, what’s in a Thai smile? The simple and short answer to this question is that a Thai smile could mean many things, but it could also mean nothing. I now know that a Thai smile could mean ‘Yes teacher, I understand the lesson’ or ‘no teacher, I do not understand the lesson’ or ‘I am bored out of my mind, but I will smile to keep you happy’. 

Dung went camping with her 8th graders,
hiking on a trail together.
A Thai smile could mean nothing in the sense that my students are genuinely happy that particular day and want to smile to portray their jolly vibe. I used to think that Thai smiles are confusing and difficult to decipher, but when I pay attention to the creases of their eyes as my students smile and their body postures, it is not hard decode their true meanings. A smile is a smile, and it reveals all types of messages!

Fusion of Body and Spoken Language

My Fulbright ETA experience has taught me many things about myself and Thailand. But, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the power of a smile—the power of merging spoken language and body language into communication. Our body language, specifically, our smiles speaks to one another, telling each other that it’s okay to be silly and laugh. It acts as a comforter, supporter and catalysts for human interactions. Our smiles and facial expressions sometimes do not require spoken words to tell one another how we feel or think. The fusion of body and spoken language in communication is powerful when closely examined! So readers, when you travel to a country with a limited knowledge of their language, smile and embrace the adventures and awakenings that awaits you!