27 July, 2016

Breaking Down Barriers: Finding Your Own Communities Abroad

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

So far, Thailand has taught me 3 things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They loved it.

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

My students who I usually play Frisbee with after school

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

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

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

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

22 July, 2016

A Lesson in the Rain

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2016

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

Attempting to fit all of 6th grade in a self

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

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

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

Soccer in the mud with my students

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

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

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

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

Playing in the rain at school

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

The flooded soccer field

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

15 July, 2016

Understanding Home

Kelsey Lee is from Lincoln, Nebraska. She received a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in May 2013 and has since served as an advocate for refugees in her home state. Kelsey is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant at Chiang Saen Wittayakom School in Chiang Rai Province, where she is teaching Mattayom 1- Mattayom 6 (grades 7-12). 

Lincoln, Nebraska is my home. I was born there and lived there with my immediate family up until moving to Thailand last fall. Lincoln has always been a stable place that offers me a safe and comfortable life. It’s no wonder that this midwestern city is a site of refugee resettlement – the cost of living is low, the public school system is solid, and job opportunities are numerous. A good number of these resettled refugees represent various ethnic groups from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Over thirty years ago, these communities began fleeing armed conflict and human rights abuses for camps along the border with Thailand. My privileges, a few of which include an American passport and being a native English-speaker, have allowed me to leave my home by choice. Not only is it a privilege to move willingly and freely about the globe, it feels rather unfair that I’ve moved to a part of the globe displaced people call home, and that I am confident in my ability to return to my own home. A central purpose of a Fulbright grant is to promote mutual understanding across cultures. As I learned over the course of this year, such mutual understanding is a continuous effort.

“Miss, swim in the river if you can.”

Paw Spai Moo was thrilled when I told her I would be going to Thailand in the fall. She knew that I had applied for the Fulbright grant and was anxious to hear news. It was a Thursday after school and I was meeting with her and other high school students for our digital storytelling program. Paw Spai Moo is Karen and was born in Myanmar but grew up in Nu Po refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border. Her peers in the room are also refugees who grew up in camps in Thailand. I had been acting as these students’ mentor for 2 years - running youth programs and assisting them with schoolwork. These students never ceased to act as cultural ambassadors, eagerly sharing all they could with me about Karen, Karenni, or Zomi culture. They invited me to their community celebrations and to church services. They took me to the Karen grocery store and played Karen music for me. It seems impossible to have not taken an interest in their home and I’m sure I wouldn’t be in Thailand now if it weren’t for their teachings. 

 Karen Dance: Karen youth perform a traditional dance at a Lunar New Year event in Lincoln, NE.

After I shared my good news that Thursday afternoon, Paw Spai Moo and the other students wasted no time pulling up pictures on google images, trying to find accurate depictions of the camps they lived in. They told me to swim in the Moei River when I go to Thailand and to play in the rain, because that’s what they used to do. They spoke with a kind of nostalgia that you would only expect from people who’ve lived challenging and eventful lives – indeed their lives already had been.

In the months leading up to my departure, Paw Spai Moo would often say that she wished she could travel to Thailand with me. I started to regret that I couldn’t simply send her or any of my Karen, Karenni, or Zomi students in my place, so they could visit places connected to childhood memories and family members who remained in the country. To reconcile self-doubt I had to remember my intentions. My students had motivated me to pursue this grant so I could understand them better – where they have come from and what circumstances led them to Lincoln, Nebraska. My role in Thailand would be as an English Language instructor, through which I had many opportunities to seek greater understanding of a home other than my own.

Listen and Learn

Far north of the refugee camps where my Lincoln students grew up, about as far north as you can go in Thailand, is the small town of Chiang Saen. In the early morning, young students squish themselves into vans and commute from surrounding villages to attend Chiang Saen Wittayakom School. Often, the villages they reside in lack schools that instruct beyond Matthayom 3 (equivalent to 9th grade). They are on their way to school long before I even get out of my bed and prepare myself to teach them.

In May, I was invited to join the teachers as they conducted home visits with their homeroom students. We followed the routes of those vans after school, driving along rice fields and through mountains. The purpose of these home visits is to gain a sense of what the students’ lives are like at home. What is their financial status? What family members are they living with? What did they do during the summer break? How do they spend their free time? Some of these conversations happened in spacious homes at large wooden dining tables. Other times we would sit with legs crossed on concrete floors. Some students live with their grandparents, some with other extended family members, others with a single parent. 

Home Visit: Sitting with my host teacher, a student, and his father in a village near Chiang Khong.

A week or two after these home visits, I taught Matthayom 1 students about family. These home visits revealed to me that relevant vocabulary must include “grandpa,” “grandma,” “aunt,” and “uncle,” rather than strictly teaching them vocabulary for a nuclear family. Furthermore, my coteacher reminded me that an appropriate context in which to anchor family vocabulary was the home. It was easier for them to answer “what family members do you live with?” rather than the broader question of “how many family members do you have?”

I can’t be a successful teacher in Chiang Saen without understanding who my students are. Like my students in Nebraska, they have been excellent cultural ambassadors. Yesterday afternoon one of my Matthayom 5 students visited me in the office after school. She had just traveled to Chiang Mai and needed to catch up on the lesson she missed. She sat down and pulled out her phone, wanting to show me a video of an Akha dance performance she saw on her trip. She herself is Akha, an indigenous hill tribe, and lives in a Catholic boarding house in Chiang Saen so she can attend school here. While watching the video, she told me about traditional Akha clothing and her family back in the village. The English lesson could wait – to listen and learn from my students is always just as important.

Hitting Home

I knew we were getting closer to Mae Sot, as the narrowed road carved tight corners around the mountains, which the bus had entered so seamlessly and without warning. Mae La, Umphiem Mai, and Nu Po refugee camps are all located in Tak province near Mae Sot. As I looked out the window into the densely covered mountains, I wondered how close we were to any of these camps - how close we were to things Paw Spai Moo had seen in her youth.

  A sign outside an administrative office in zone C of Mae La camp.

I was trave
ling to Mae Sot to begin a 6-week internship with The Labor Law Clinic. Mae Sot is directly across the Moei River from the Karen State in Myanmar, so many ethnic Karen have migrated to the city directly from Myanmar or from a nearby camp. Pieces of their identity have migrated with them, just as cultural traits accompanied refugees entering Nebraska, which offered unexpected familiarity in Mae Sot. As I biked around I saw the Karen flag printed on t-shirts and traditional woven bags looped from shoulder to hip. 

One day I was able to tag along with some University students from Bangkok as they visited Mae La camp – the birthplace of many of my Nebraska students. Mae La is just 10 kilometers from the border and has 3 zones: A, B, and C. We visited zone C where various centers and administrative offices are located. Thailand refers to the refugee camps on their soil as “temporary shelters.” Yet, they have been in the country for over 30 years and continue to host refugees by the thousands (Mae La’s population is over 40,000). As you approach the entrance to zone C from the main road, the sight of densely packed houses constructed of wood and banana leaves, are evidence of this massive population.

In a Mae La office, the university students and I were able to learn about the camp and ask questions. Much of the conversation centered around repatriation, or the return of refugees to their home country. For advocates of refugees, the idea of repatriation is met with extreme hesitancy, as several issues remain unresolved across the border. 

After a couple hours, we drove away from Mae La. I had visited the place many of my students call home – granted only a very small part of it. It was a goal of mine, yet it would be irresponsible to see it as something I check off a list. There is no moment where mutual understanding is completed. Visiting my students’ homes in Chiang Saen helped me better execute one lesson, which had to be followed by many more lessons and interactions. My students in Nebraska are not solely defined by their lives in the camps they grew up in. Those camps are the sites of their childhoods, and certainly hold much of their identities. Still, they’ve experienced much more since then and have many years to continue living. In Nebraska, they wear their woven Karen shirts and go to American high schools and universities. They place stickers of the Karen flag on their car bumpers. They are holding on to their homes, while also making Nebraska their home. So, in October I return to a place both my students and I call home. There, it is my job to listen and observe who they are in that context, remaining aware of what they’ve taught me and what I’ve learned along the border.

05 July, 2016


Alyssa is from Lawrence, Massachusetts and graduated Valedictorian from Saint Michael’s College with a BA in Anthropology/Sociology and Environmental Studies. Prior to Fulbright, she served as an AmeriCorps Fellow at a Boston middle school. She most recently served as a Fulbright ETA at Jorakhe Wittayayon School in Khon Kaen province. She enjoyed bringing laughter and movement to learning through vocabulary games and her students’ favorite, Bingo. Throughout her time in Thailand, Alyssa has been able to connect with her surrounding community, helping the local veterinarian and playing badminton with teachers. She enjoyed participating in two of Thailand’s half-marathons and forming life-long friendships.

Anne Frank once said, “Think of all the beauty still around you and be happy.” For some time, I have struggled with eating disorders and have forgotten to see the beauty in myself and the world around me. However, Thailand showed me what I was missing. When I was accepted to Fulbright, I was nervous about living in a country with an entirely different cuisine and culture surrounding food. When I arrived at my school in Khon Kaen, the teachers greeted and welcomed me with lunch. I accepted a small portion of rice and a boiled egg. When told to eat more numerous times, I grew nervous and repeated what I found to be the most important Thai phrase, “Im Leu” which means “I am Full.” I worried that I would ruin my relationship with my new friends because everything I had learned so far indicated that I had to partake in this food culture to fit in. However, something amazing happened. 

First experience teaching in Bangkok

I stopped and looked around hoping to find something beautiful and I did. I saw badminton rackets, bicycles, and volleyballs. At this moment, I began wondering what the exercise culture of Thailand entailed. What were all of the sports and activities that my new community partook in? My first taste of this culture was badminton. Every day after school, two teachers and I would play for one hour. We set up a scoring system, allowing us to keep track of points and of who had the most wins. Although I consider myself an athlete, I never won. Not once. Therefore, I often took my turn waiting on the bench. While resting, I laughed and learned more Thai words as the teachers shouted challenging remarks back and forth as well as the word for windy when someone made an error. As the badminton birdie flew back and forth between my two, smiling teachers, I myself smiled and felt that I had found my place here. I didn’t have to change who I was; instead, I was able to blend my love of exercise with theirs and allow my true self to shine through. 

Finish line of the 13th Annual Khon Kaen Marathon!

My next endeavor into the exercise culture was running the Khon Kaen International Marathon. Prior to coming to Thailand, I knew that I wanted to partake in the half marathon part of the event. When I arrived, I was excited to learn other English Teaching Assistants also hoped to join. As the weeks passed in January, I would run every day, training bit by bit for the big day! The psychical education teacher at my school had run the marathon in the past and was thrilled when I shared my training plan with him. My host teacher’s husband also planned to run the full marathon and was set to be one of the oldest participants. I enjoyed being able to talk with him about running. I never imagined that running would be as much a part of Thai culture as it is in my life. When the day finally arrived, I remember standing at the starting line and thinking how everything in my life had changed. I moved to Thailand, I trained for my first half marathon, I found my place in a new community, and I was happy. 

Making friends at Elephant Nature Park!

A happiness that continued throughout the whole race despite some foot pain! Spectators cheered as all of us runners passed by. Everyone around me was smiling, cheering, and enjoying being a part of something that transcends differences. Regardless of race, religion, or culture, people can join together for running. And so, I kept running my way through Thailand. Every visit I made to Bangkok, I ran around Lumphini Park. A taxi driver taught me how to express my love of the park in saying, “Chan chop Suan Lum” (I like Lumphini Park). I ran around the largest lake in Khon Kaen every single weekend. I joined the Valentine’s Day race in Chiang Mai which was the first of its kind. I ran around my school every morning with almost seven dogs which elected themselves as my bodyguards, making sure no other stray dogs bothered me. Every step I took brought me a feeling of closeness to a part of Thai culture that I did not know existed. 

My neighbor, Poolita, visiting me at school!

To my excitement, the exercise culture included even more than running. I played volleyball with my students after school for a few days. I also learned of a game titled, takraw, which can be described as kick volleyball. The students would leap and spin in the air as they kicked a bamboo ball back and forth over a net. In the private of my own driveway, I would practice trying to kick the ball while remaining in one place in order to feel comfortable enough to step onto the court and try this new game. However, as the bamboo ball alluded my feet and rolled down my driveway into the trees numerous times, I realized that this was not an easy game. Soon after, I went to a festival where sponsored teams were participating in a takraw competition. I remember admiring the players as they leapt in the air like ninjas. My host father also took an interest in this sport, which allowed us to bond over yet another aspect of the exercise culture. 

Soon after the festival, an event titled Bike for Dad arrived. Two teachers at my school tossed a shirt at me and invited me to join. I was told to be ready in ten minutes. “Okay!” I shouted as I tossed my bike into the back of their pickup truck and headed to the starting line. I felt so relieved in this moment that I was making friends through sports rather than dining. Several people in the nearby village also joined the event. Some rode bicycles while others stood along the side of the roads. Many people greeted me in the traditional Thai way which is to wai. I attempted to return the act with two hands, but soon remembered that I am not that savvy on a bike. As I continued to pedal past onlookers and rice fields and the sun slowly set, I was again very happy. While running allowed me to see the beautiful cities, the bike ride allowed me to explore the pure, undeveloped parts of Thailand.

Bike for Dad

Throughout all of these experiences and more, my fellow teachers and host mother came to understand and appreciate me in the ways that I was different from them. Teachers gifted me with a badminton racket and a volleyball, and if food was the gift it was either corn or bananas. To close, when I think about the phrase “Im leu” now, I think of how true it is. Maybe I am not full because of all the papaya salad and sticky rice, but I AM FULL of love and happiness from my time in Thailand and from the people who have forever impacted my life. Thailand and the community I became a part of, have taught me to believe in myself, see the beauty around me, and that it is okay to say no as long as you say yes to something else.