11 August, 2016

Narrative: “How was Thailand?”

Meg Ziegler is from Rhode Island and graduated from the University of Vermont last spring. She majored in Secondary Education with an English concentration and minored in Special Education, all of which did little to prepare her for the amazing and challenging experience that is teaching English as a foreign language. Meg is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Ban Phai Pittayakom School in the Khon Kaen province in northeastern Thailand. This year in Thailand has given Meg new friends, a wealth of elephant knowledge, a much higher spice tolerance, and an expanded worldview, something she hopes to bring to future studies in either education policy or education law.

Now that it’s August, the inevitable return to America is right around the corner. The date is set and the flight is booked. It feels like just yesterday I was sitting in orientation, terrified and excited for what the coming months would hold, and now I have those same feelings as I am faced with this year in Thailand coming to an end. Going home means saying goodbye to wonderful new friends and reuniting with old ones. It means dealing with the reverse culture shock of five-dollar bagels and clean tap water and driving on the right side of the road again. It means no more rambutan and far less sweating. And it means being asked over and over and over again, “How was Thailand?”

What a loaded question this is. I am faced with the problem of adequately describing my year in a foreign country in one single answer.

Harvesting rice alongside my students.

I suppose I could answer with a generic “It was good!” or “It was great!” This might suffice for the occasional acquaintance from high school that I run into at the local coffee shop, but for my close friends and family this answer does no justice to the absolute roller coaster this year was. “Good” and “great” do not express how difficult it was just to teach my students the words “good” and “great,” nor how trying to get them to replace “I’m fine!” with a more descriptive answer was a semester-long endeavor. To be honest, answering “How was Thailand?” with, “I’m fine thank you, and you?!” would actually be one of the most hilariously accurate ways to respond, although only my fellow English teachers would understand why this is so hilarious.

“Good” doesn’t do justice to the days and moments that were the opposite of good: the days when I couldn’t get through to my classes or when the homesickness felt like it was suffocating me or when I just couldn’t keep my bowel movements under control. It definitely is not an appropriate way to explain the horror of waking up face to face with a moth the size of my hand and spending all morning trying to shoo it out the 
door, or the annoyance of my daily battle with the ants of Thailand. It doesn’t capture the hilarious frustration of accidentally buying a kilogram of beets instead of a kilogram of sweet potatoes because my broken Thai failed me.

Similarly, it does not depict the moments of pure joy, of joining forces with a band of Thai children for Songkran and spending hours dancing in an alley with them and their families, or the feeling of claustrophobic love that is being attacked with a group hug by a mob of 13-year-old students. It does not adequately paint a picture of the way my students exploded with laughter, cheers, and fan-girl screams as my manliest students strutted down a makeshift runway in my clothes for a lesson on fashion vocabulary. It doesn’t capture the feeling of walking alongside an elephant that keeps using her trunk to try to get in my pockets because she could smell the pineapple I was saving for later. It doesn’t explain how relieved I felt each time I got to hug my ETA friends after months apart and finally get to vent and laugh and talk together, or how truly thankful I am to have a father who flew across the world twice to spend a few days with me.

Celebrating Songkran with Amy, a fellow ETA, and some new friends.

There are too many adjectives to describe Thailand and this year. The food is spicy, the hospitality is plentiful, the heat of the sun is relentless. For every day that was simply “good”, there was a day that was exhausting, amazing, mesmerizing, overwhelming, draining, frustrating, eye-opening, awe-inspiring, hilarious, informative, lonely, and fulfilling. Most days were all of these as once, and I would be ignoring all those feelings by just giving that one simple answer.

Another option is that I could answer with “It was life changing!” “It was transformative!” or “I am a whole new person!” All of these would be very truthful
answers because this experience was absolutely life changing and transformative. Before this year, I had never lived in a foreign country and I had never lived alone, and all of a sudden I was doing both in a small town in northeastern Thailand. I am someone who often relies on the people around me, but this year I had to learn to find strength in myself. In moments of loneliness and homesickness, I was often the only person who could keep myself company. In moments of frustration, I was usually the only person who could find a solution to my problem. When I experienced a victory, I was sometimes the only person I could share my success with, in the moment.

This year opened my eyes to a new culture and a new part of the world. I let go of any negativity during the Loi Krathong festival, sending my floating 
krathong out among thousands of others. I sat in awe as my students wept and bowed their heads to show respect to their teachers after a three-day Buddhist camp. I paraded through the streets of Ban Phai with the entire school. I tried (and often failed) to teach my students English, but we did it with laughter and that is what matters. I learned more from them than I could ever hope to teach.

Lots of laughs during a sports week parade.

I witnessed first hand the complexities of the life of a mahout (an elephant trainer), the struggle of caring for and working closely with elephants while simultaneously trying to earn a living and feed their families, which include one extra, 
very-large mouth. I learned more about these incredible animals than I ever thought possible, and gained an entirely new perspective on elephant conservation from the people who care for them so deeply.

Having a moment with my favorite girl, Boonsri.

I watched Dr. Manat from KKU, a man in his sixties who still works 12 hour days, try to single-handedly move a parked car that had boxed him in so he could drive me the 50 minutes home after we brought my dad to the airport. Dr. Manat opened his arms to my father, also a doctor, giving my dad the opportunity to work at the medical school in Khon Kaen as well as becoming a dear friend to both of us. I spent an entire day of the Thai New Year with a family I had only meant hours before but whom, despite the language barrier, I felt I had known forever. The generosity of all the Thai people I have met this year truly knows no bounds.

I introduced som tum to my diet and thus filled a void in my life that I didn’t even know existed. I ate lunch with P’Mameow and P’Yui 
every day and contentedly chowed down on whatever delicious food they had ordered for me as I tried to follow along with their speedy conversations in Thai. I made friends with – and learned so much from – the teachers and students at Ban Phai Pittayakom School, kind strangers who lent me a helping hand, my favorite food vendors, my landlords, mahouts, elephants, stray dogs, hotel guests at my internship who let me join their family for a day or two, Ultimate Frisbee players from all over the world, and my fellow ETAs who come from parts of America I have never seen.

I saw beauty in all corners of Thailand. There was the take-your-breath-away beauty of Wat Pha Sorn Kaew in Phetchabun, of secluded Freedom Beach in Koh Tao, of standing in Thailand while looking out at the mountains of Laos and the jungle of Myanmar in the Golden Triangle. There was the quieter beauty of side streets in Chiang Mai, and of viewing a chaotic Bangkok rush hour from a rooftop. And then there was the everyday beauty that I learned to love – the welcoming
smile of my favorite fruit lady, the flowers poking up between the sidewalks in Ban Phai, the cows in the field after a rain storm, my students sitting at picnic tables playing guitar and laughing.

Beauty in all corners of Thailand.

I crossed so many things off my bucket list – ride in a hot air balloon, work with elephants, travel to Vietnam, see Angkor Wat, run a half marathon, live in a foreign country.
This past month I dove deeper than I ever have as I fulfilled a lifelong dream of scuba diving, and in October I will climb higher that ever before as I trek to Everest Base Camp. So yes, “life-changing,” “transformational,” “eye-opening” would all be adequate adjectives for describing this year. But, unfortunately, they are also adjectives I can’t really say out loud with a straight face.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream of scuba diving while on a quick trip to Indonesia.

So how do I answer?

I will forever be grateful to Thailand for everything she has shown and taught me. I am a different person for having come here, one who has seen more beauty, experienced more goodness, and learned more about the world in the last months than in all my time before that. This country, the wonderful people who make it what it is, and the experience of living and teaching here for an entire year deserve more than a simple answer.

“How was Thailand?” “Well…do you have a few minutes?” Or maybe, ”Have you read my blog post?”

No comments:

Post a Comment