27 April, 2016

Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here

Michele McDonald was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently graduated from the University of Dayton with a B.S. in Adolescent to Young Adult Social Studies Education and minors in German and History. Michele is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Rachprachanukroh 8 School in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
In her free time, Michele loves to explore Thailand 
and eat as much delicious Thai food as she can. 
She also enjoys exercise and practises several martial arts, including Muay Thai and Kung Fu. In the future, Michele hopes to work as a journalist in order to continue to travel and learn more about the world. She also plans to continue her journey as a lifelong martial artist.

To say I love martial arts is an understatement; it is an addiction. I have been practicing martial arts for almost six years now, earning a first degree black belt in Shaolin Do Kung Fu, and also more recently beginning my journey in the world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. Naturally, Muay Thai was one of my primary reasons for applying to teach English in Thailand. I wanted the opportunity to live and train in a culture where a martial art is the national sport. While teaching, I have had little to no time to train and immerse myself in Muay Thai as I would like. Luckily, our Fulbright in Thailand grants us a unique opportunity to pursue an internship of our own personal or professional choosing for five weeks during our school’s summer vacation. I obviously wanted to do something with Muay Thai and, after a referral from a previous Fulbright researcher, I ended up in the province of Buriram, which is located in Isaan (the name of northeast Thailand) working at Wor. Watthana, a nonprofit Muay Thai gym.

Muay Thai, or more affectionately known as “The Art of Eight Limbs,” is similar to Western Kickboxing; however, it allows the use of knees and elbows (hence the eight limbs), and also utilizes a clinch, which is more or less standing grappling. Just like baseball, basketball, or football is to America, Muay Thai is to Thailand; turn on the TV on a weekend afternoon or evening and you can find Muay Thai fights easily. While Bangkok is considered the Mecca of Muay Thai, with the giant Lumpinee Stadium and dozens of famous gyms and fighters, a majority of these fighters come from Isaan, the poorest and most undeveloped area of Thailand. This trend is very similar to American boxing; much like the young Mike Tyson’s and Bernard Hopkins’ growing up in the projects, these future Muay Thai fighters have little to nothing. The grittiness and durability that can only develop from living in extreme poverty easily translates into the world of Muay Thai. For many of these children, Muay Thai is a way to escape the cycle of poverty and also a means to provide for their families.

Pictures of the gym

Wor. Watthana was started in January of 2015 by Boom and Frances Watthanaya. Boom was born in Thailand and the gym itself is actually located in front of the house he grew up in. Frances is Canadian, but came to Thailand to train in Muay Thai, which consequently was how the couple met. Although they had been living in Canada with their young daughter for several years, they moved back to Thailand a few years ago in order to take care of Boom’s father. They had no intentions of starting a gym, and when I asked Frances about it, she describes it almost as an “accident.” When her and her husband started training at her father-in-law’s house, kids just started showing up and working out with them. Thus, Wor. Watthana was born. It started out with them and the kids training in the dirt, but through monthly sponsors and donations, they now have a boxing ring, heavy bags, kickboxing gear, and a roof over their heads. I have some pictures of the facility below. From a Western perspective, the gym looks very meager, but this Muay Thai gym actually has substantially more equipment than an average gym in Isaan.

My initial goal for my internship (other than train Muay Thai) was to teach English to fighters at the gym, as well as other members of the community who were interested. Learning English is crucial for Muay Thai fighters because it opens up international opportunities as a trainer in countries all over the world. These fighters do not need to be these amazing, undefeated champions to work abroad (although that definitely helps!); they just need to know English so they can properly teach. Although I did spend the bulk of my time tutoring fighters at the gym and also volunteering at a local school, my internship evolved into something more complex. As a martial arts enthusiast, I knew a lot about Muay Thai and Thai culture from a Western perspective; however, I knew little to nothing about the Muay Thai world in Thailand, which is exceedingly more intricate than one would think, especially when coupled with the corruption of the surrounding community. As I was training and interacting with Boom, Frances, and the rest of the fighters at the gym, I was being exposed to a darker side of Thailand that was leaving me very disillusioned and frustrated with not only my original perception of the country, but also my purpose over here as a whole. Why was I here? Am I actually making a difference? Am I actually helping these kids learn English? These questions were buzzing in my head for weeks until I finally decided to redirect the goal of my internship to researching the positive impacts of Muay Thai on an impoverished community.

The three female fighters at the gym, Min, Namning, and Eap, after sparring.

With the help of Boom and Frances, I conducted a series of interviews with the kids at the gym (ranging from ages 9 to 14), as well as members of their families, to see how Wor. Watthana and Muay Thai in general has had a positive impact on their lives. These children and their families have nothing; they are in some of the lowest forms of poverty I have ever seen and, when you tack on the low-quality education and problems within the village itself, there is no escape. Muay Thai, however, lets these children break the cycle of poverty that they have unwillingly been sucked into. Fighting gives these kids the opportunity to succeed, dream, and provide a better life for themselves and their families. I would like to make it clear that I am not trying to paint Thailand in a negative light; that being said, there are problems and issues that need to be acknowledged. These are things that I have witnessed and was told in my interviews. This is the reality these people live in on a daily basis, and Wor. Watthana Muay Thai gym has provided a hope for a better life.

One of the first questions I asked the fighters and their families was to describe their living conditions, as well as the problems that they encounter on a daily basis. The fighters were pretty much in consensus with one major problem: gang fights. There are no extracurricular activities whatsoever for these kids in the village, so many older kids form gangs purely for something to do. In the words of Frances, boredom is deadly. They drink, do drugs, and start fights. It is important to note that these are not fights like we would see in schools in the U.S., where they just throw some punches and then break it up. These gangs stab, stomp, and try to hurt with the intention of killing. There have been numerous times where adolescents have been beaten to death or to the point of mental retardation. The worst part is that these fights are a common occurrence, According to Dee, an aunt to one of the top fighters at the gym, things like this happen on almost a daily basis and the local government makes absolutely no attempts to stop it. In her opinion, they do not care. They do not care if people die. They do not care about the villagers. They do not care about improving the quality of life for these people whatsoever. I can personally attest to this through my own observations also. There is a complete lack of basic infrastructure, with dirt roads or roads only half paved and full of potholes, which make for dangerous driving and many motorcycle accidents. There is also garbage everywhere; it is one of the most polluted environments I have ever seen.

Another enormous economic and social issue in Isaan is exodus of both parents to find work in Bangkok. Because Isaan is so poor and it is very difficult to find work that will provide a substantial wage, one or even both parents will migrate to Bangkok in order to pick up menial labor and send back wages to their families. In a recent article by the Bangkok Post (link listed at the end of the article), this leaves villages with almost no working adults. Children are living with grandparents and because there is an absence of either one or both parental figures, these children are suffering from malnourishment and development/behavior issues. The grandparents don’t have the energy to properly care for young children or provide them with proper food and care. Children have less success in school because they do not have a parent to teach them how to read or write and have problems developing social and emotional skills. This situation is very common for the fighters at the gym. Many of them do not have a parental figure in their life and, if they do have a parent in the village, most likely they are an alcoholic.

You also see situations where the child is completely abandoned by their parents. Bpaet, one of the top prospects at Wor. Watthana, is this child. He does not remember his mother and his father migrated for work when he was young, forcing Bpaet to move in with his aunt, Dee. He only visited maybe once or twice a year and sent back money now and then. Once his father remarried, he cut off all contact with Bpaet and stopped sending money. He only very recently tried to reconnect with Bpaet, but this is only because Bpaet is now twelve years old and considered “old enough to work.” This is a horrible story, but unfortunately a common one for children in this area of Thailand.

So what drew these kids to Muay Thai? For many of them, including Bpaet, it was just something to do after school since there are no extracurricular activities. When they are at the gym, they are away from all the negativity that surrounds them in the village: violence, drugs, and alcohol. Wor. Watthana is a safe space for them to exercise and to be part of a positive community. Another reason is self-defense. The girls, Min and Namning, said they wanted to learn how to protect themselves if they were attacked. To Min, there was also the appeal of participating in a cultural sport. As the national sport of Thailand, it was important to her to preserve the sport as the country evolves and transforms through outside influences. The final, and probably the most obvious reason for fighting, is money. According to Frances, Muay Thai fighters will earn a minimum of 300 baht (about 9-10 USD) for one fight (win or lose), which is equal to one days’ wages working menial labor in Bangkok. Ten minutes in a ring versus hours of exhausting and tedious work; I think the choice is clear. All of the kids and their families have benefited from the additional income they earn through the fights they take. They can provide food and clothes for themselves and their families. And with the more fights they have and the more skilled they become, they can earn considerably larger purses and opportunities to fight at the big shows, like in Bangkok.

My final question was about Wor. Watthana itself: how has the gym had a positive impact on the fighters and the community? While interviewing Boom, the owner/trainer of the gym, he said the main goals for the gym was to keep kids away from alcohol, drugs, and all the other negativity in the village. The gym itself was to be a safe space and community center to give the kids something to do after school or in the summer. It can be for people who love Muay Thai and want to fight, or people looking to stay fit and healthy; it is open to fighters and non-fighters alike. Most importantly, according to Boom, the gym and Muay Thai gives these kids a chance to dream. It presents them with an opportunity to be successful and escape poverty. Even if they struggle in school or do not have the connections for government jobs, learning Muay Thai at Wor. Watthana allows them to pursue future careers as Muay Thai trainers abroad. They can learn English through Boom and Frances, as well as from the other foreigners who visit the gym (like myself), which opens even more doors for employment. Overall, the gym and its owners, Boom and Frances, are here for the kids; they are not trying to profit off of them and their successes in the ring. They want these kids to succeed not only just in Muay Thai, but in life as well.

With these goals in mind and based on the other interviews I conducted, I would say Wor. Watthana has been very successful with the positive impact it has had on the kids and the community. Every single fighter told me the main benefit of the gym was that it kept them away from drugs, alcohol, and gang violence. Bpaet was very adamant to point out that this is the only place in the entire village that makes an attempt to do this; there are no government or school programs designed to keep kids out of these detrimental activities. Gael, the mother of two fighters at the gym, also noted that Wor. Watthana provides the community with a sense of pride and accomplishment that previously was not there. The villagers are proud knowing that there is a successful Muay Thai gym in the area where their children can learn a cultural sport and earn an income from it. Even though the local government and school do not support the gym or the kids that pursue it, the village has greatly benefitted from its presence.

As I reflect on the past five weeks of working at Wor. Watthana and teaching English to the fighters, my main takeaway is that this gym absolutely NEEDS to be here. The effect it has had on the kids and their families is immeasurable. Not only do they have a way of earning money, but the discipline, confidence, and pride they take in themselves and their training is evident. The kids do not have to worry about gangs, drugs, or alcohol; they have martial art that they can now dedicate themselves to and make a career in, if they choose to do so. Uncle Don, one of the key supporters and assistant trainers at the gym, made a significant comment at the end of his interview. “Muay Thai is a way for people with nothing to make money and improve their lives. You can train hard and go far in this sport. It is an escape.” The kids at Wor. Watthana are truly taking advantage of this. They started from the bottom with nothing; now they are here with everything to gain.

Group photo of the trainers and fighters at Wor Watthana

Wor. Watthana is a nonprofit Muay Thai gym in Nakhon Ratchasima province. It is important to note that they are 100% Western funded through individual and corporate sponsors because they take little to no money from their fighters. They need donations and funding to remain an active gym in this village. If you are interested in making a donation or know someone who would be interested in making a donation, please go to http://www.worwatthana.com/ for more information. I can promise you this is a worthy cause!


19 April, 2016

Surviving Popular Music in Thailand

Paul Bierman is 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM Thailand ETA, currently teaching at Mae Chan Wittayakom, in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Born in Iowa and raised in Alaska, Paul graduated from Swarthmore College in May 2015 with a B.A. in Sociology & Anthropology, and a minor in Interpretation Theory. Until he can read books in Thai, Paul contents himself with reading books about Thailand.

I have known some people in the U.S. that do not like music, but I haven’t met any such people in Thailand. Often when people talk about social life in Thailand they talk about the ubiquity and importance of food, but they neglect to mention that with enough food and enough people, music is sure to follow. While living in Thailand, I have seen music performed in many places, at my school, at bars, at weddings, at markets, on double decker buses. I have listened to it while with students in my classroom, while sitting alone at cafes, while on trips in cars. As with many “Thai” things I’ve experienced with the U.S. at the back of my mind, “Thai” taste in music sits in an uncanny valley, almost like its counterpart in the U.S., but just different enough that you don’t forget that you’re in Thailand.

I first arrived at Mae Chan Wittayakom School at the end of October, where I would live and teach for the next year. I did not realize at the time that I would soon participate in one of my truly memorable experiences, even before teaching. My first day, I was invited by student teachers in my department from nearby Mae Fah Luang University to join in a dance number for teachers’ Sports Day, two days away. I hesitated at first, but my eagerness to participate at my school won out. I practiced with them for the first time that afternoon, learning choreography from a YouTube video of university students performing to a Thai rap song. I practiced with the student teachers again the following afternoon, and again the morning of the performance. In between I practiced the dance by myself at home because I was determined not to make an ass out of myself.

Maybe like you at this point in my narrative, I had no idea what Sports Day was. Sports Day is a common Thai school event and competition, normally involving students rather than teachers. Like its name suggests, sports are played, from “chair ball” to volleyball, but the “sports” also include making somtam and putting on music and dance performances. Though some might argue that the sports are the key component of the day, in my opinion, the performances are a lot more interesting. On our teacher’s sports day, the sports were mostly finished by 11am and we were already moving onto the main event: an enormous lunch (seven courses total) and then the performance competition. Every school came with full musical routines: singers, dancers, music, costumes. (That said, the student teachers and I held our own. I even received a rose for my performance.)

Me in the middle of my solo

The teachers from my school performed a popular Thai classic. In front sang the teacher already introduced to me as “the best singer in the school” while the rest of the teachers danced and performed behind her.

As for the other schools, I don’t remember what all they performed. One school performed to a song with an ocean theme, and performed in swim shorts and Hawaiian shirts. Another performed their own cover of a viral YouTube video. I don’t remember which school actually won for best performance, which doesn’t really matter.

I was completely shown up by my students on their Sports Day a few weeks later.
These are pictures of only a couple of the performances from that day

What mattered to me at the time, and still does, is how radically different this event was compared to school staff events in the U.S. For one, it was actually an opportunity for community to happen. Growing up, my dad worked for our local school district, and the only time that teachers or other school staff got to interact with each other in an official capacity was when they had to do some form of “professional development.” Something like Sports Day wouldn’t have happened because it didn’t have “a point” (as if encouraging community between schools isn’t enough of a point). I also can’t imagine teachers in the U.S. agreeing to prepare for elaborate performances like the ones that the Thai teachers performed. In the U.S. I think that the most one could hope for would be teachers singing at a karaoke event.

Speaking of karaoke, karaoke is often the go to entertainment for a party. Are you having a housewarming party? Ask one of the school’s technicians if you can borrow the school’s karaoke machine. (Yes, my school owns a karaoke machine, and they get their money’s worth out of it too.) Once, I went on a fieldtrip with students from my school to Chiang Mai, over four hours away. We left at four in the morning, and took enormous double decker buses, often used for long distance travel in Thailand. After a full day in Chiang Mai, guess what we did the entire drive back that evening? Karaoke, in the dark, with a laser show, because there isn’t a single double decker bus in all of Thailand not fully equipped for a non-stop karaoke dance party. I think I refused to sing on that trip, but following demands from students, I danced with them. By the time we got back, I was flying high, but utterly exhausted.

Not everyone was dancing all the time.

I have been asked to sing a number of songs during karaoke, including some that might seem odd: “Zombie” by the Cranberries and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” From talking to other ETAs and other foreigners in Thailand, the consensus is that these two songs are karaoke staples. But why? I asked another American once about why he thought “Zombie” was such a popular karaoke song, and he said, “probably because it doesn’t take much English to sing well.” After trying to sing that song myself, I’m not convinced that he’s correct. What about “Take Me Home, Country Roads?” Could it be a legacy of the American military bases that spanned Thailand during the Vietnam War era? Or maybe the song simply appeals because it has the love for the countryside that can be found in many Thai songs, even today? I cannot say for sure, and I don’t know that I ever could.

Even if I don’t think there is an indisputable answer to the appeal of these songs, I have tried to make sense of them for my own sake. I have certainly been exposed to many musical tastes. One of the consequences of being an ETA is that I don’t really have a good way of transporting myself around. I don’t have a car, and I’m forbidden from using a motorcycle to get around out of safety concerns. I do have a bicycle, which I can use to go to the market, but beyond that, I am dependent upon the modes of transportation offered by others. Almost all of the Thai cars I have ridden in have a USB port for inserting a flash drive and playing a personal music mix. Riding in the fronts and backs of cars I’ve heard everything from U.S. country music, to Isaan love ballads, to disco music (e.g. Boney M’s “Rasputin”) to rock to pop (Thai, American, and otherwise). It seems that like me, the teachers and friends kind enough to take me places prefer songs with vocals to songs without: I don’t think I’ve heard any “classical” music (even with vocals) or any electronic dance music. I am willing to suggest that non-Thai music listened to in Thailand tends to have vocals rather than not: not exactly a revelation, but something anyway. I certainly never expected to hear “Rasputin” in Thailand, but when on a trip with one of my host teachers and I asked if she could play the song again, she told me that it’s one of her favorites.

For the most part, songs like “Rasputin” or “Zombie” remain unaltered aside from existing in their new cultural context. As a consequence of their new context, songs like these lose some meanings while gaining new ones. My 14 year old students in love with Justin Bieber may not understand the entendre behind Justin Bieber singing “oh baby, you should go and love yourself” in his song “Love Yourself,” but they listen to the song nonetheless. Yet, surprising or not that my students would like Justin Bieber, more obscure artists capture their attention just as much. One of these “obscure” artists is the Norwegian pop duo M2M. Though the duo released only two albums and dissolved in 2002, many of the girls in my classes were captured by their singles “Pretty Boy” and “The Day You Went Away” as if they had come out in the last six months. Atypical for pop music (at least in the U.S.), these two lovelorn ballads latched onto life in Thailand and became songs for a new generation. It might be inappropriate to suggest that all these songs I’ve discussed have something in common, but I think there is an aesthetic shared by them that we might think of as “Thai.”

When I first came to Thailand, I could not stand listening to “slow” music. Before I ever majored in anthropology and sociology, I studied computer science, and blasting pop music in my ears was how I got through long hours of programming. Out of all the things that I got from studying computer science, a compulsive need for dance-pop music while I work is one of the things that has stuck with me the most. (I even listened to some of my favorites while writing much of this narrative.) But, either out of a genuine attempt to embrace new things, or simply being surrounded by them, I can now honestly admit to seeing the appeal of a song like “Pretty Boy.”

Songs, as art and as cultural artefacts, gain and lose meanings as they move through time and space. This process becomes even more obvious once those songs have been changed to suit the needs of a new audience. Outside of music this typically happens through translation, taking something and reconstructing it in another language. With music, one of the ways “translation” happens is through live covers.

Cover bands are popular at Thai bars, and not in the way that they typically appear in the U.S., with one cover band covering the catalogue of one artist or a select few of them. Cover performers in Thailand perform wide catalogues and also accept requests. While most of the time these bands attempt to emulate the feel of the group they are currently performing, it is not as if they try to imitate the members of the groups themselves. There is also latitude in these performances: while singers can mostly perform in perfect English depending on the song, a song can be subtly altered, its tempo changed, or its rough edges buffed out.

Sometimes, though, songs do get radically changed to suit “Thai” tastes and appear as background music at cafes. Cafes are everywhere in Thailand, appearing nearly as often as 7/11s (which are almost everywhere). In some places, cafes even dominate. My own school has three cafes almost directly across the road while the nearest 7/11 sits 2 km / 1 mi away (surrounded by even more cafes). It is a very strange experience to realize that the gentle, breezy, background music of a cafe is actually someone singing Rihanna’s “S&M” to a different arrangement. For whatever reason, rooftop bars seem to call for this same form of music. Just a few weeks ago I sat at a rooftop bar in Bangkok while being constantly distracted by the background music, which consisted solely of a woman singing slowed down, gentle versions of Lady Gaga’s greatest hits.

Attaching “Thai” to culture is unavoidable when living in Thailand. Similarly unavoidable is the debates over what Thai culture is and isn’t, and who it does or doesn’t belong to. A key way that this debate is often framed is in terms of Thai-ness (kwaam bpen Thai ความเป็นไทย). One of the aspects of Thai-ness that seems to be agreed upon by conservative Thais as well as academics is that “Thais have long been, and still are, adroitly strategic and selective in their adoption and use of Western forms” (Michael Herzfeld on page 178 of “The Ambiguous Allure of the West,” an anthology published in 2010). It is not the case that “Western music” has drowned out an indigenous Thai music industry. The two exist side by side. Outside of their original contexts, Western, English, American, songs are listened to, sung during karaoke, imitated for bar-goers or transformed into light-as-air versions of themselves to be consumed alongside espresso and desserts.

Of course, this adeptness is not limited only to music, but to other pursuits as well, cultural and otherwise. King Rama VI, (King Vajiravudh) famously translated works of William Shakespeare into Thai. These few lines from Merchant of Venice (in their Thai form) have become so canonical, I am told that most Thais aren’t aware that they are translations. Maybe they offer another explanation of the Thai love of music, a love that has slowly worked on me.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1, Page 5

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

08 April, 2016

A Walk in Every Country

Jacob Pinter grew up in Fayetteville, Ark., and graduated from the University of Arkansas with a B.A. in broadcast journalism. He is a 2015-16 Fulbright Thailand ETA at Watbotsuksa School in Phitsanulok province. Jacob was previously a production assistant at NPR’s Morning Edition. According to his scouting report, Jacob misses open jump shots and doesn’t move his feet on defense.

There were three highlights in my prep school basketball career:

· Scoring a personal high of seven points in a meaningless eighth-grade game.

· Shooting and almost (but not) making a game-winning shot.

· Flattening an opponent with a shoulder to his sternum that my coach loved, but the referees didn’t.

After egregious traveling violations, my coach liked to yell across the gym, “That’s a walk in evvvvvery country, Pinter!”

He was right – that’s why my playing days limped to a merciful end after junior high – but he didn’t know he was foreshadowing a triumphant return to the basketball court years later and halfway around the world.

Team Jumper: inept at basketball, undefeated at Photoshop.

There’s a section of the Fulbright application that asks about your plans for community engagement. They leave it dangling at the end, and by this point I’d already hit my space limit jabbering about my undying love for Pad Thai, and oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be just such a true thrill to represent the great U.S. of A. on the world stage?, and so on.

But it’s there, this community question, and as I wrote my essays it hammered home the important, sobering point that my ignorance of daily life in Thailand had depth, breadth, and angles that were simply never going to show themselves to me before the grant. So that straightforward question raised an even bigger one: what is Thai social life?

(The short answer, by the way, is “food.” The long answer is, “lots of food.”)

I knew for me sports would be somewhere in the mix. In an early application draft, I wrote a flowery BS paragraph about how excited I was to learn sepak takraw, a football/volleyball hybrid that’s darn near impossible for anybody that didn’t grow up playing it.

Takraw or no, a year after all this applying and existential worrying, I landed in Thailand with now a practical need to find social connections across a language and cultural divide that on good days was barely a divide at all – I imagine it like the flimsy, waist-high, nylon straps airports use to herd people through security – and on bad days veered more toward an orange-jumpsuit-and-no-hope-of-parole type of isolation.

Then I met Pi Pong. Pong is a shop teacher at my school and the kind of old-school sports nut that plays everything at a pretty high level. His love, though, is basketball.

Small-town social life and where ETAs fit into it can be tricky to navigate, but we’re often treated like a blend of guest of honor, foreign emissary, and helpless child. Our support network wants us to be happy, so it closely monitors our likes and dislikes, goes out of its way to make us comfortable, and always double-checks to make sure we’re having fun (sanuk).

Not basketball, but a few more fast friends. I met most of these people in the morning; we were best friends by lunch and the next day (pictured) were “all on the same team” with matching t-shirts.

On top of that, lots of Thai people have a fierce desire to be friends with farang (Westerners) for the same guest/emissary/child reasons. ETAs can endear themselves to total strangers by finding any type of common ground, especially showing interest in Thai culture. Eating somtam, speaking Thai nit noi, and smiling a lot are near-immediate keys to making friends.

My first invitation to play basketball with Phi Pong came a breath after our first helloes (er, sawasdee krabs). First we played just with students, then in pickup games with other adults in my town.

As soon as the first game, basketball didn’t open doors so much as kick them down and tear the hinges off. The first people I played with were M6 (high school senior) students at my school; after basketball, they seemed more willing to joke around when I saw them hanging out before school. Then, when I played with other people in town, I’d run into basketball friends at the market or at the park. They always remembered my name and said hello.

Most importantly, my relationship with Pi Pong deepened. He said hello to me every day and sat with me at morning assembly. He took me to lunch to eat guay tiao rua, Thai boat noodles, an old-school traditional Thai dish. Phi Pong showed me pictures of fish he caught at the dam and sunsets when he was camping. And when I gave him a postcard of a basketball game from my hometown university – the University of Arkansas Razorbacks – he asked me the next day about the “wild boar” mascot.

After a few months of sporadic pickup games, I joined “the basketball team.” I didn’t know what that meant or entailed; Phi Pong used one of my English teachers as a translator to ask me if I wanted to join the basketball team. I said okay.

The players on our team, Team Jumper, all live in my town, and I had played with several of them before. We were practicing, I found out later, for a tournament in the city. Every evening we scrimmaged and ran drills. One day we picked first-string and second-string squads, and the next day we busted out brand-new, official-looking purple jerseys.

The most important part of gameday is the photo shoot.

Team Jumper was ready.

Unfortunately the other teams were ready too, and we lost all four of our games by 20 points or more. We were there for sanuksies and didn’t get worked up about it.

So let’s ignore what happened during the games and look instead, this time, at the off-court highlight reel. A couple of different groups of young people in the stands asked to take selfies and followed me on Instagram. I hung out with another teacher at my school who moonlights at his parents’ restaurant down the street from our tournament. Once when I stood up to go to the bathroom the PA announcer stopped his play-by-play to announce, “The farang is going to the bathroom! Go straight, farang, go straight!”

And after our last game (another shellacking) I drank milkshakes and sang karaoke with the rest of Team Jumper: with my friends.

A year and a half ago, I tried awfully hard to convince Fulbright and myself I could engage socially in Thailand. But I forgot “social engagement” means, “just make friends, doofus.”

In the first six months of this ETA year, adjustments and surprises – the weather, the food, how to use the bathroom, and so many more – have jostled my sense of who I am and what I'm doing. The warmth of Thai strangers and new friends has consistently cushioned against the discomfort all those other swirling things can cause.

They don't care if you sing off-key karaoke, and they don't care if you're bad at basketball: Thai folks just want to be your friend.