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.

1 comment:

  1. What wonderful things to take away from your experience! I actually am working for IIE now, and while I don't do anything directly with Fulbright, some of my colleagues do, and I'm so happy to be working for an organization that supports wonderful people like you Emily!

    I'm glad you've had such passionate experiences as an educator and have grown from your experience. It was great to know you studying abroad, even if at the time I wasn't great about showing my appreciation for inspiring people like you. Just stay away from any chicken feet for the remainder of your stay!