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.


  1. Gorgeously written and insightful. You rock, Jacob Pinter!

  2. Stewart P.08 April, 2016

    Great read, Jacob. Glad to see you're making hay over there. Will be looking forward to the chance to reconnect with you if/when you're back stateside!