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.

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