17 February, 2017

(To) Me Before Thailand

Jenna Mason was born and raised in Wilton, Connecticut, and graduated from Elon University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education (K-12) and Middle 

Grades Social Studies, and a minor in Latin American Studies. She is a 2016-2017 
Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at the Thung Saliam Chanupatham School in Thung Saliam, Sukhothai, Thailand, where she teaches Mathayom level English. 

When she is not spending time with the students and teachers in her community, Jenna enjoys reading, exploring on her bicycle, traveling, and listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. Upon returning to the United States, she hopes to draw on her experiences in Thailand while pursuing a career in education policy or education law. 

Dear September 2016 Jenna,

Right now, you’re preparing for your Fulbright ETA year in Thailand. You received your placement to Thung Saliam, and immediately learned the valuable lesson that for this year, google will no longer be a consistently reliable solution to your problems. So far, all you have been able to determine about your school is from a blurry image of Thai students in yellow shirts outside a school. You don’t know yet how old the students are, how many you’ll teach, how much English they speak, or if they’ll like you. You don’t know yet that that blur of yellow will teach you more about yourself in four months than you have learned in the past 23 years.

The blur of yellow now has faces! M6-1

You’re packing a suitcase full of bright-colored short sleeved shirts and knee length skirts, because you do not know yet that at the end of your first month here, the King of Thailand will pass away, leaving the country in mourning. You will not wear a single one of the colorful items you packed, as the government will mandate that all government employees wear only black and white for one full year out of respect to his majesty. You have read enough to know how important the King is to the Thai people, but you don’t understand the depth of that love. You don’t know yet that you too will mourn this King for your teachers and friends; that the members of your community’s love and admiration for the King is so unprecedented and awe-inspiring that you will try in vain to draw a parallel of this love to your own life or to the United States. You will realize that the closest parallel you can draw is to the love you share with your own biological father and will marvel at the seeming impossibility that any one person could emanate that sort of singular love to an entire country of people. You will wish your own country had that kind of unifying source of love.

Students paying respect to the king at English camp in Sukhothai City

The month-long orientation in Bangkok, which you’ve given little-to-no thought, will go by in a flash. You have been so focused on honing your ability to get through this year alone, that you never imagine going through it with others. Your 21 Fulbright peers will be your support system, cheerleaders, and inspiration. When you travel with them on long weekends, you’ll have to remind yourself that you haven’t actually known them for years. You’ll be confused when you find yourself feeling homesick for them.

You’re nervous because you are the first ETA placed in Thung Saliam. You are jealous of your Fulbright peers, who each have a predecessor who is able to answer school and town-specific questions. You are grateful for Elaine, Edie, and Christine, who patiently support you and answer your countless questions, even though they were placed in other areas of the country.

You are only in touch with the fears and implications of being the first American in your town, not the possibilities. You wish there were someone before who had paved the way, could answer your questions, and more than that, you wish there were someone to tell you that even through the challenges you may face, you’ll be happy, safe, and comfortable. You don’t know that even if you did have a predecessor, no one would be able to tell you those things. But I can: you will constantly adjust your sense of normalcy and happiness, but it will happen so organically that it will not be until you are reflecting four months in that you will realize it has happened.

Your one great fear-- being the first American in your town-- will be challenging in all the ways you imagine, but full of unique opportunities you never expected. You will have the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of shaping the way people here come to understand your home country. During the first week of class, you will ask your students what they think of when they hear “America.” Some of the responses will include “Justin Bieber,” “white skin,” “long noses,” and “hamburgers.” You will ask the same question on the last week of the first semester, and while the students will still say “Justin Bieber” and “Lady Gaga,” they will also say things like “diversity,” “voting,” “Obama,” and “you, teacher!”

You’re recovering from having your tonsils removed, and are wondering how you will live 10,000 miles away from your parents. You have only exchanged one e-mail with your host teacher Prissana, and have no way of knowing she’ll become your parent in Thailand. You will be constantly in awe of her boundless generosity. Through her, you will acquire not only a Thai mother, but a sister in her daughter and nephews in her six and three-year-old grandchildren. You will be welcomed without hesitation into the intimacies of her family life and you will admire in her the same selflessness you see in your own mom. Being “Aunt Jen” will be your favorite of the many new identities you will acquire this year.

Celebrating the holidays with my Thai nephews at Sukhothai Historical Park

The cultural immersion seems far more daunting than the teaching; after all, you studied education and you are already a licensed teacher. However, you will come to rely more heavily on your theater background than your teaching experience as you stand in front of classes of 42 students and struggle to make your directions coherent. At one point, you will notice that your students pronounce the word “heart” as the word “hurt.” While trying to teach students to distinguish the difference between the r-controlled vowel sounds in the words, you will pantomime the gesture of stabbing saying “you HURT” and then circle your heart repeating “my HEART” to distinguish the sounds. On an exit ticket asking what they learned in class, a student will write “Romeo and Juliet.”

You’re afraid you won’t like the food and that you’ll be too isolated to access things you can eat. But, you will love the food; even when it’s so spicy that it brings tears to your eyes. You will feel a strange sense of pride when your noodle lady tells you she’s started making your noodles “normal spicy” instead of “a little spicy” (to clarify, normal spicy is feel-it-in-your-chest-spicy).

You’re scared that no one will understand when you say you’re allergic to nuts and that you’ll be constantly fearful of what you can and cannot eat. In actuality, when students (frequently) offer you food to try, you will hear them first discuss in Thai whether it has nuts. You will have never told them about your allergies, but your community will care so deeply for your safety that everyone will know.

You’re worried about how you will get around when living alone. When you mention offhand that you’d like to buy a bicycle in order to better navigate the town, Teacher Ting will be inclined to take her bicycle to be painted, fixed, and delivered to you for your use within 48 hours. You’ll think of this kindness every time you ride it.

You aren’t too worried about being lonely or making friends because while you don’t realize you’re doing it, you’re thinking of authentic friendships as an unlikely luxury, not an inevitability. During your first weekend here, you will hear a large group of your neighbors outside your house. You will be too nervous to leave your room. You’ll be confused by how uncharacteristically shy you are being; you won’t know that they invited everyone there to meet you. Those strangers that made you so nervous will be your friends. You will eat and drink and laugh together and be invited to meet their families. You will look back after four months and realize that at some point, you went from sitting mostly silently while people spoke Thai around you to having real conversations about each others’ lives.

My neighbors Teacher Boop and Teacher M repping my hometown! 

You think that Elon taught you to be more cognizant of your own privilege, so you will be surprised by how often you need to check that privilege. People will regularly comment on your skin, appearance, and personal items. One day, you and your friend Zhao will go to a Thai restaurant for dinner, and the two of you will ask in Thai what they serve. You will tell the women you cannot read the Thai menu, but can understand what they say. You will be told that if you cannot read the menu in Thai, and write your order in Thai, you cannot eat there. This will be shocking, but you will realize that this is the first and only time in your entire life something was prohibited to you based on the extent of your knowledge or ethnicity. You will be humbled by this feeling and you will think of the many American citizens who face this feeling in their own country.

You’re worried you will either be stretched too thin, or not know what to do to fill your time. Strangely, both of these extremes will happen. You will leave for a fieldtrip at 1 am on a Friday and not return for 38 hours, operating only on cat naps on the bus. You will take overnight buses, followed by van rides and after 14 hours still not be where you need to go. Some days, you will be so physically and mentally exhausted that even listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the thousandth time will seem daunting. Somehow, concurrently, you will read 46 books by February. You’ll find joy in both of these extremes.

After four months, you’ll wake up pull your black dress past your knees, hop on your bicycle, and ride into school, as you do every day. The paths will be lined with students playing with volleyballs, sweeping leaves, and practicing instruments. You’ll be waiting for the day that it feels as though the novelty of your presence has worn off. Yet, without fail, as you weave through the students, you’re greeted with countless cries of “good morning, teacher!” and shrieks and giggles when you respond. It will be a Friday, so you will hear choruses of “TGIF!!” and will be thrilled that of all the things you’ve taught your students, that acronym stuck. You’ll realize that this excitement and love comes not from the novelty of your being here as an American teacher, but from the inclusive nature of the community those around you have built. You will feel honored that you get to be a part of it.

I won’t tell you not to worry; that would be counterproductive. You will miss your dog and your family and friends. You will miss Netflix and you will miss sarcasm. You will have to remind yourself that at one point, you could speak English eloquently. It will be so hot and humid that you will remember being in Arizona in July and will actually wish it was only that hot. Your fears are valid and it is because of them that you will be all the more appreciative for the expected and unexpected joys of living in Thailand.

So, sabai sabaiAnd don’t take the extra jar of peanut butter out of your bag.


Jenna: your perfectly happy, safe, and comfortable, future self.

February 2017

More than happy, safe, and comfortable

08 February, 2017

Scrubs and Soymilk: Lessons in Generosity

Marie McCoy-Thompson is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Kamalasai School in Kalasin Province. She is from Pleasanton, California. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Narrative Studies and minors in French and Marketing. Outside of school, Marie enjoys cooking with the fresh ingredients from the local market in her neighborhood, jogging through the rice fields that surround her town, and working on her podcast about her Fulbright experience. After Fulbright, she hopes to work in public radio, podcasting, or in the non-profit sector to tell meaningful stories.

The beginning of my Fulbright year was wrought with anxiousness. Even though I have lived in other countries before and have experience navigating new cultures, I was nervous. I knew the transition from my busy-to-the-point-of-stressful schedule in college to a slower pace of life in a provincial town in Thailand would require adjustment. Above all, I was worried about loneliness.

I knew my life in Thailand would not have the same friendship-building structures to which I was accustomed, such as student clubs, co-ed housing, or regular events with friends my age. Instead, I expected that I would go to school during the day and then return in the evenings to my little house where I would be living alone. I imagined the language barrier would hinder any attempts I’d make at forming genuine friendships. As a social person who needs regular connection with others to thrive, this seemed daunting.

Yet with something like Fulbright, it is usually better to not have any expectations, because the only thing that can surely be expected is that the unexpected will happen. And the very first day in my little house in my tiny town in my small province, the unexpected walked right up to my door.

“Hello! Sawat dee kha, hello!” A voice rang out from the walkway up to my house, and I jumped up. I did not know a soul here. Who could be visiting me?

I opened the screen door to my house with a big smile, remembering advice from Fulbright that the best way to initially connect cross-culturally was simply to smile as much as possible, and walked outside to greet my visitor.

Before me stood a small Thai woman a bit older than my mom’s age. She embraced me with all the excitement and love of anyone who’s known me for years and told me I should call her Mom Kung. She excitedly explained that she was my landlord, and said I would be her “daughter-in-law.” I chose to read that as not quite her adopted daughter but something close to family, instead of wondering how she was going to set me up with her son.

I’m sure she handed me some sort of gifts at that initial meeting, but I can’t remember exactly what, because in the ensuing weeks she has given me so much that it’s difficult to keep track. She comes to my house often and brings me watermelon, tangerines, corn, and rice, and she’s given me a traditional Thai skirt and other presents. More than any of these items, she has given me the most valuable gifts any newcomer could hope to receive: acceptance, support, and love. 

Me with my Thai landlord, who I soon began to call “my Thai mom”: Mae (mom) Kung

That first afternoon after introducing herself, she asked me if I was free the next day. I said yes, remembering that Fulbright had encouraged us to say yes to everything (at least at first) to take advantage of any and all opportunities to immerse ourselves in our new homes. But they had also given us a heads up that we might be subject to "thaijacking": a term of endearment to describe the times we might be whisked away to accompany a new Thai friend on an errand without understanding what we’d agreed to, and perhaps find ourselves on much more involved journey than anticipated.

So I asked, “What time?” “8 AM!” she replied happily. While that’s nowhere near the crack of dawn, I had been up since 4 that day for the flight from Bangkok to my new town, and after setting up a Thai bank account and attempting to start unpacking, I needed some rest. I ventured, “Maybe a little later?” She acquiesced with the same big smile, “Okay, 9 AM!”

The next day at 8:45 AM, I heard that same voice calling out my name from the driveway, and soon I was in the passenger seat of my landlord’s car. My meek questions about where we were headed were hampered by my complete lack of Thai vocabulary, so I contented myself with just being along for the journey. We arrived at our destination and parked, and as we walked up to the building I noticed some ambulances parked outside. As we entered the main doors, people in scrubs were briskly walking around with clipboards and a woman in a nurse’s uniform sat at a front desk. My landlord had taken me to a… hospital?

Walking through what I assumed was the waiting room, my landlord began calling out to people to introduce me to them. She seemed to know the receptionists, nurses, and even some of the patients waiting for appointments. After acquainting me with some people in scrubs, she told me I could come hang out here in my “free time.” At the hospital. I smiled and nodded.

Next thing I knew, my landlord handed me a set of scrubs and told me to go into a small dressing room to change. What was going on? I couldn’t help laughing as I stepped into the mint colored loose cotton pants and shirt. What did I get myself into?

Me with my Thai landlord, who I soon began to call “my Thai mom”: Mae (mom) Kung

A little confused but happy to be here (the general theme of my Fulbright experience).

In the next room, I walked in to see my landlord wearing the same scrubs lying down on a mattress cushion where a kneeling woman was rubbing her leg. I finally understood. The morning’s confusion cleared. We were there to get Thai massages. When my landlord noticed me in the room she handed me her phone and asked me to take a photo of her. She gave a thumbs up to the camera, and her huge grin made me smile too.

My landlord ready for her massage at the hospital.

That morning was one of many times I did not know what was going on around me but knew to trust the people I was with to take care of me, and it was one of many examples of my Thai landlord doing something to make me feel welcome. She is only one of many people in my community who have gone far out of their way to make me feel at home here.

My host teacher—the teacher at my school who coordinates with Fulbright to act as my primary resource—is another shining example of this. I have learned so much about dedication and leadership from working with her at school, and about generosity and selflessness from her kindness as a friend.

I could list countless examples of when she has taken time out of her incredibly busy schedule to help me with whatever I need, from driving me half an hour to the nearest superstore to buy cereal and paper towels to inviting the other foreign teachers and me to her house to learn how to cook northeastern Thai dishes.

One time I told her I was going on a weekend trip and she offered to drive me to the bus station. I thought she meant the local station in our town, but when I got in her car she drove me all the way to the more central station a few towns away and gave me explicit directions on how to take the next bus to my destination. There have been multiple Saturdays when she has forgone the limited free time she has to herself to take other foreign teachers and me on tours of our province to visit temples, museums, and the best roadside restaurants.

My host teacher and I at a temple in a nearby province.

The other teachers at my school have been equally giving of their time and energy in reaching out to me. My students greet me at school every day with welcoming smiles and cheerful calls of, “Hello teacher!” And my next-door neighbors, who are my landlord’s relatives, have made me feel like one of their own.

Feeling like a welcome member of my community keeps me energized in the classroom. 

One day I came home from school with my arms laden with produce from the local market to realize I couldn’t find my keys. When I’m stressed, I tend to lose things, and my house keys are often the first victim. That particular day was a notably upsetting one because my country had just elected a new president, and my mind had been preoccupied with trying to process what that would mean for the future.

Yet instead of panicking or succumbing to frustration about my missing keys, I felt calm, safe, and confident in the knowledge that it would all work out because I had people I could ask for help.

I called my host teacher, who said she would check her car for my keys, and walked next door to my landlord’s sister’s house, where my landlord often tutored young girls after school. My landlord wasn’t there, but when her sister understood my predicament, she immediately invited me to sit down at the table outside and have some warm soymilk and fried Thai sweets. She called my landlord for me, who said she would be there in a few minutes with the spare keys.

As I sipped the sweet soymilk and shared laughter and conversation with my landlord’s sister, I was at peace, despite the tumultuous day. The fact that I knew I could rely on the people around me when I needed something was deeply comforting. A warm feeling spread over me that had already become familiar after just a few weeks of living in my town: a feeling of sincere and deep gratitude for the people in my community.

When my parents came to visit, my neighbors welcomed them with scarves, smiles, and sweets.

The kindness with which I have been treated from the first day as a newcomer and outsider has led me to reflect on all of the people who come to the United States from other countries. I wonder how many of them are treated with the same unquestioning acceptance as I have been.

One of my personal goals for the year has been to be mindful about practicing generosity. I am thankful to have outstanding daily examples from the people who surround me here. I’m learning so much from them about what it means to give without expectation of reciprocity. Out of all the unexpected and appreciated lessons from my time here so far, one I am taking to heart is that giving for the sake of giving is a beautiful thing.