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.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing experience and beautifully written! In our busy lives we should take more time to give with nothing in return. We can all learn from this post and from the Thai people the power and beauty of true selflessness.