31 March, 2017

Expectations and Isaan Food

Justin Long was born and raised in Baltimore City. He is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Jorakhe Wittayayon School in Khon Kaen Province, Northeastern of Thailand. Justin studied linguistics at Hamilton College. When he gets back to the United States, he wants to be a caseworker and to go to graduate school to study social science. In his free time, he enjoys running in the fields behind his school and going into town to look around.

Food and cooking are foundational. In a literal sense, they provide the necessary conditions for continued survival, but they also furnish some of the most basic elements upon which societies are based. From the intimate familial relationships built together in the kitchen, in the field and around the table, to its tremendous influence on the organization and logic of entire economic and political systems, it’s hard to overstate the importance of food in our lives. Like most Americans, I grew up eating a lot of processed food with very little concern for where it came from or what exactly I was eating, but that changed when my older brother came home from his sophomore year at college. He had become deeply concerned with food issues while studying environmental science, and had been working on an organic community farm for several months. His newfound passion launched a serious debate in my family about food, ethical responsibility, and mindful consumption, which culminated in his decision to start his own organic farm at my mom’s house in Baltimore City.

In response to my brother’s efforts, I began to read about food issues and cook for myself more often. I had always enjoyed cooking, but the more I learned, the less I was interested in the options available at my college dining hall, and the more I wanted to have control over what I was eating. As I learned to master a few dishes, I began searching for new recipes, and this led me to some basic Thai curries. While those first curries I made were distinctly more American than Thai, the simplicity of the cooking process and the incredibly strong flavors it produced fascinated me. When I realized I might have the opportunity to travel to Thailand, my mind raced with the possibilities of everything I would find that would shatter any idea I had about what Thai food was. During the Fulbright application process, I was told several times to by faculty to tone down my obsession with Thai cuisine. The dishes that I was familiar with, that shaped my entire concept of the food I would be eating of the next year, were exclusively either coconut-based curries or those heavily sautéed in basil and lemongrass. I understood that my view was limited, and as I got closer and closer to September, I got nervous that I might not like the food as much as I was imagining.

All those fears were immediately quelled after my first meal in Bangkok. It was a bowl of green curry: spicy, complex, rich and teaming with Thai eggplants, which were completely novel to me. That first day was overwhelming and challenging, but also heartening, and that first bowl of curry assured me that the food would be even better than I had hoped. Over the next month my infatuation only became more intense. I found that while the foods I had loved in America were even better here, there were hundreds of different dishes that I had never even imagined. When I wasn’t eating, I was thinking about pork dumpling soup with egg noodles, or pineapple fried rice with peanuts, or all of the amazing things I would be eating for the rest of the year.

Som Tam Lao is the most popular dish in the northeast.

Many people told me that food in the northeast was different, but my entire understanding of Thai cuisine was based upon central Thai dishes, and I assumed that there would be a lot of overlap. My first meal after arriving in Khon Kaen proved me emphatically wrong, when I found that the only things on the table in front of me were a dish of stewed octopus and mushrooms and several plates of som tam lao. For an American who had never tasted the salty, fermented flavor of fish sauce before, and who didn’t much care for mushrooms, this was a major cause for concern. For the first two weeks I mostly ate sticky rice with small amounts of som tam and tried to appear gracious. I became worried that I wouldn’t come to like the food and I’d have to fake it for the whole year.

We eat sticky rice at every meal.

As the initial shock of fish sauce wore off, I began to really enjoy many local dishes. They weren’t sweet and bright-colored like the ones I had come to associate with Thai cuisine, in fact many of them were extremely bitter, salty and dark, but there was just as much nuance and complexity, and I came to appreciate these dishes more because I had to work hard to understand and enjoy them. 

Learning more about the other teachers’ farms, the prominent place of agriculture in Khon Kaen, and the highly localized nature of food production here led me to a much greater appreciation of the quality of ingredients, their history, and the region more broadly. When I became more serious about learning the Thai language, I found that one of the best ways to practice and learn new vocabulary was to talk about food. The language barriers that had seemed vast when I first arrived began to shrink a little, and I began to understand more and feel more understood. New dishes provided me with fresh things to point to and attempt to illicit words in Thai. But more importantly, the social conditions that are created when the other teachers stop what they’re doing, eat together and focus their time and energy on one another, have allowed me many dedicated hours of practice and made me feel more a part of the community than anything else. 

There are gai yang stands all over Khon Kaen.

I am leaving today for Chiang Rai to start a 5-week internship on a farm there. Going to a very different region, with its own cuisine, dialect differences and cultural nuances, is a bit daunting but also exhilarating. As I make the transition, I’ll be engaging with food, but this time in a much more purposeful way, and in so doing will come to a much more complete understanding of Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen and Thailand as a whole.

24 March, 2017


Mia Prohaska is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed in Sansai Wittayakom in Chiang Mai. She graduated with a BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) from Pacific University. Mia loves teaching in Thailand as this has been a long time dream. Five years ago Mia was a senior high school student in Chiang Rai, Thailand. She loves exploring the country and is trying to make it to every province in the north. She also has a deep love for Thai kanom (snacks). In her free time, she likes to cook, hike and volunteer. After her grant, she plans to move to Philadelphia and pursue her masters in social work.

When I found out I was selected as a finalist for Fulbright Thailand, I was over the moon. I had wanted this since I was a sophomore in college and first learned about Fulbright. I felt like every paper I wrote, every hour I stayed up late studying, every moment I spent giving back to my community was paid back to me in my acceptance. The first two people I called to tell this exciting news to was my Mom and John (my step dad). John believed I would be accepted for this award, even when I was convinced I wouldn’t be chosen. Thus, he was the first person I wanted to tell this exciting news to. “ I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” he spoke over the phone. I remember those words so clearly because they are the last words he ever spoke to me, it was only a week later he passed away.

After his 
passing, a family friend released an interview he did with John. In that interview, he asked John what quality he admired most in others. John replied “persistence”—People who stay strong in what they believe in, and put in the work needed to achieve their goal. When I heard him say those words I decided that’s who I was going to be in Thailand. A person who lives each and every day with total persistence. I felt like this was my way of continuing his legacy, or bringing him back in a small way.

When I got to Sansai Wittayakom, I was determined to show just how persistent I could be in my goal of becoming a teacher worthy of my scholarship. I took on the maximum hours of teaching, I signed up to volunteer at a local orphanage twice a week, I took on various tutoring projects after school, I said hello to every person I saw, and tried to connect with my community. At first I felt great I had always been a pretty busy person, so I was happy I was able to become so involved so quickly. I worked hard to meet the expectations of everyone around me, and said yes to just about everything. I wanted to be the best teacher Sansai ever had, I wanted to leave a legacy I could be proud of and a legacy John could be proud of.

Then a moment with a friend who came to visit me during Loi Krathong helped me realize something. Though it took until now to process this realization. I live in Chiang Mai, so Loi Krathong is celebrated in two different ways. First, the typical way where you sail lanterns down the river, making merit with the river spirits, and past ancestors. The second way is a tradition unique to the north, where you have paper lanterns that are set free into the night sky. The night of Loi Krathong we were in a crowd of hundreds of people each holding a glowing lantern we would all release in the sky simultaneously. We each held an end of the lantern and decided to make a matching wish (I read online that is what you are supposed to do). I told him about my goal of living with persistence and he agreed that was a good wish. 

Loi Krathong was one of the most magical days of my life.

After a beautiful evening of meditating, and listening to hundreds of monks chanting, the signal went off. We let go of our lanterns and watched them soar into the sky. It’s hard to describe that moment, it was like time stopped. I was caught in what felt like a sea of stars in a world that, for a second, was perfect. I stood there taking it all in the lanterns, the glowing faces next to me, the thousands of wishes that filled the sky. At that moment it wasn't work or a legacy I was pursuing; instead, it was my happiness.

A few months later after one of my tougher days I laid in my bed. As I started counting the little lizards pressed against my window, I began thinking about how present I felt during that moment during Loi Krathong. That was the kind of person I wanted to model to my students, someone persistent to live in the moment and someone who lives with compassion towards themselves.

For so long I was measuring the success of my persistence by the results of my work. Every day I would go home and think to myself “Did I do enough today?” When a class would go poorly from time to time, and I teach 7 classes of 40+ M-1 students. I would think to myself I need to be more persistent towards my lesson planning. When I would have a free evening, I would think to myself, I need to be more persistent towards connecting with my community. I became too critical with myself and started to get overwhelmed when I made mistakes, causing me to make more mistakes. 

I am the luckiest girl in the world to spend a year with such amazing students.

I am now trying to take this motto of persistence and apply it towards my own well-being. Attempting to balance staying persistent in my work and being persistent about my own personal self-care are still something I work on daily as I believe change doesn’t happen overnight. Thailand has always been a teacher for me, though. It is a country that constantly pushes me to be my best self.

The first thing I am working on is being more persistent towards advocating for myself in moments I feel important to do so. This can be a challenge in Thailand’s passive culture and my own passive personality. I am now learning there are ways to advocate for yourself, while respecting cultural boundaries, and part of living here is learning how to do that successfully. Recently, there was a moment in my personal life that for the first time in years instead of just saying “yes,” I actually tried explaining why I felt my point was valid. It was challenging because a huge part of me wanted to just agree with the other person to keep the peace. Even so, I was able to explain my feeling and in the end, I walked away feeling so proud of myself for saying something. If it wasn’t for this year in Thailand I don’t think I would have been able to act on this moment of small courage.

Hanging up Christmas wishes at Sansai Wittayakom.

The next thing I am working to be persistent in is finding beauty in small moments, and remaining in the present moment. It may be something really small like a student getting a phrase right or savoring the warm greetings I hear when I first start the day. I am learning to celebrate those moments and hold on to them as much as I do with the tougher moments.

Santa paid Sansai a visit this year!

I remember one day after successfully making a pan of brownie with my M-1 students, one of my students who really struggles with English came up to me, and in perfectly clear English he said “good job, teacher.” I was so impressed and proud of him as it was such a touching moment. It made me remember just why I wanted to be a teacher in Thailand so badly, and why I am so lucky to have this job. I’m still carrying that happy memory with me using it to remind myself of the little differences teachers can make without even realizing it. 

Made 700 brownies with my M-1 students for open house!

One of the most therapeutic things I’ve found that really helps me submerse myself in the moment and keeps me refreshed during the week is traveling. I have been taking weekends to explore different cities in the north of Thailand. These little weekends of travel are filled so much joy, from rolling hills to ancient temples I feel completely present when I am exploring this magical country.


Tucked away in a Hammock in Pai.

While the journey to get to these cities can be a challenge, I believe staying persistent can help you navigate any confusing bus scenario. Each place I have been to has its own individual charm and something to love. Each city has taught me to see beauty in a slightly different way, and recharges my batteries for the week. Just yesterday I sat on a hill of flowers, drinking tea and feeling complete and total bliss. I couldn’t help but feel extremely grateful for the opportunity Fulbright has given me to see this amazing country, and motivated me to stay persistent in my goal of seeing all that Thailand has to offer.

I am not the perfect teacher as I am still learning how to manage a classroom or make the most engaging lesson plan. Still, I am trying and I recognize that. The way I was defining persistence was all wrong. Persistence isn’t just about working yourself to your limit. Persistence is working to be the best self you can be, which includes loving yourself. I am still struggling to find that perfect balance of hard work and self-love. I do know, however, that I love living in Thailand. I love the way my students’ faces light up when they get something right. I love the meals I share with my fellow English teachers during lunch. I love the way a new adventure and a new city are only a bus ride away. I can find a million things to love about this amazing country that is slowly teaching me to love myself even on the toughest days.

Visiting Sukothai—one of my favorite places in Thailand.

So today I left my house with the mindset that today no matter how the day went I was going to stay persistent to find something to celebrate. So today I celebrated the laughs I shared with my students and teachers whom I feel like family. I celebrated a student's face when he/she won bingo. I celebrated busting a move with some M-1 boys. This is the kind of persistence in life John believed in, and the kind of persistence Thailand is teaching me to live completely in the present.

Sitting in total appreciation as I drink my tea in a garden of wild flowers.

17 March, 2017

The Trouble with Lhong

Kait Hobson is from Philadelphia, PA and is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed in Mae Lao Wittayakom in Chiang Rai, Thailand. She graduated with a B.A. in journalism and English from Syracuse University. When not teaching her mattayom students, Kait enjoys exploring northern Thailand and eating food that is “phet mak,”or very spicy. In her free time, she likes to listen to music, paint and read. After her grant, she plans to move to New York City and pursue another degree.

My first day at Mae Lao Wittayakom began with morning assembly. In limped an ancient dog with a tattered, sun-bleached collar. His fur, which was once maybe golden when he was a puppy, looked coarse, ginger-gray and drooping. His fingernails were long and curling. I could tell, even sitting far away, that he probably smelled terrible. He only had one eyeball and his walk was so unsteady that I thought he might collapse at any moment. He reminded me of one of my favorite books as a kid, The Trouble with Tuck, about a blind dog whose child-owner spends all her time helping. 

As a
kid, I was always hiding somewhere quiet slumped over a book. I loved the way my long blonde hair fanned around the cover, creating a tunnel between the page and I that kept me wandering through a fictional world and oblivious to the real one. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m an only child but growing up I was wildly excited about all the wrong things. I couldn’t understand why Mark Twain’s novels or Cathy and Heathcliff’s star-crossed romance weren’t conversational currency at the lunch table. Playing with other kids became a parental reprimand like ‘clean up your room,’ or ‘take out the trash.’ “Go introduce yourself to her,” my grandma would coax me on the playground; sometimes I would, but mostly I’d wander off out of sight and imagine I was a long lost sibling of The Boxcar Children or that I was teleporting through a tesseract like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. Kids are curious because they play alone for hours, inside their own head, yet they’re simultaneously not lonely.

Me with my host teacher, p'Wai, and P'Pui.

The coming of age trope I read about so often in books happened to me in the third grade when I moved. Switching schools threw me out of the world of fiction, where I was a seeker of quiet places, and into an unsought silence— the kind between a bookworm and 35 classmates who don’t know each other and have nothing in common. In my life outside of 
books, this kind of silence made my ten-year-old-self feel awkward, uncomfortable—lonely, even. Experience had taught me not to wait for other kids to ask me about Emily Bronte so I started asking them questions instead. Their personal histories became interesting to me—their adventures, the minutia we often find in books and remember the most.

I was reconciling the silence by mixing fiction and reality together, learning at 10 what everyone else had probably known since they could talk—that we get together and we tell each other things. Little things. Big things. Anything. People, I decided, were not unlike books. Our stories are just messier because we don’t know what it is, yet, about the beginning that will become important at the end. I switched schools four more times before the ninth grade, and each time I was met with that uncomfortable silence I’d interrupt it with a question. In 
college, I continued to prioritize the loud real-world stories of people over the quiet realm of fiction with a major in journalism.

Me and Sara, another Fulbright ETA, trying new Thai food in Bangkok.

That’s why in Bangkok I was excited to meet the 21 other grantees. I was aware, though unsure about how, their stories would change my own. During that month we interrogated each other and we interrogated Bangkok. When we weren’t talking we filled our day with other noise—malls, street markets, monuments—everything was new but it felt familiar—like a hotter, dustier version of New York City or Philadelphia. 

It was all the noise of Bangkok that left my ears ringing when I arrived in my rural province—Mae Lao. I’m used to the northeastern United States where strangers take no interest in one another. In Mae Lao everyone always seemed to be laughing and staring at me—square in the face, right in the eye and they never stopped smiling. Laughs can seem so threatening when you have no idea where you’re going, what anyone is saying or what you’re doing.

That’s why I kept my gaze down at assembly on the first morning, watching the old dog totter through rows of kids in their worn-white uniform socks. Then I had to teach my first class—forty-two pairs of eyes stared up at me as I introduced myself—unwanted silence all around. I was that 10-year-old new girl who was wildly excited about all the wrong things—but this time was different. I had so many questions to ask them that they couldn’t understand.

In hobbled the one-eyed dog. Great, I thought, this smelly dog is here to watch me embarrass myself. They called out to him, “Lhong! Lhong!” Instead of going toward the student tables the blind and, I’m now quite sure, deaf Lhong sat himself right in front of my whiteboard. I walked back home to my big blue house. The only thing worse than weird disconnection between people is the unsought silence that comes from being with yourself.

The next day I taught first period. I planned a lesson full of diverse 
teaching methods in the hope that they would understand something I said. I was navigating the leftover silence from yesterday by drawing pictures on the board when in limped Lhong. He twisted into an arthritic ball before plopping down right in front of my whiteboard, the only communication tool I had. I nudged him lightly with my foot to move and he looked up in my direction and growled like an old man. The kids erupted into laughter. I laughed, too—that frustrated, defeated laughter of someone who has no idea what she’s doing and can’t believe a blind, deaf dog can even find her classroom this often.

The Chiang Rai ETAs exploring Doi Mae Salong.

The quiet that accompanies miscommunication brought back a lot of insecurity. I learned at 10 that stories were human connection but stories require words and in Thailand I can’t often speak. I have a call with my parents that drops from poor connection, or I can wait two weeks to 
see one of my Fulbright friends but I can’t do what I’m used to with my students. I can’t learn their stories. For me, as a journalist, this is especially hard because we expect people to tell us what we want to know about them eventually, because we’re good listeners or we ask the right questions.

I was lonely. So I decided to submit to a larger, less-focused feeling and began listening for other things.

I noticed the way my students took care of the old, grumpy dog—sharing their meat-sticks with him or building a makeshift pagoda if he was in the sun too long. The way they sat next to him on the floor. If Lhong looked lost the kids ushered him to where he needed to be. They always make sure he’s comfortable and happy. Which, by Thai standards, means feeding him—a lot. I noticed the way the kids arrived to school before sunrise to help clean and how most stayed until 6pm to help teachers. I noticed the butterflies and birds that fluttered through the wide doors of my office. The choir of crickets outside my window.

I noticed my neighbor across the street herd his water buffalo at 7am and 2pm every day, “YAW, YAW” and I laughed as I watched them evade his bamboo stick—their cattle bells tolling down the dirt lane. I’m awed and simultaneously concerned by my youngest kids who unsaddle our eight-inch classroom machete from the windowsill and whittle me carvings from stray pieces of wood just to see me worry about their little fingers and smile at the beautiful things they can create.

Me and my host teachers.

I noticed the way the kids helped me with everything. How they carried my bag. Put condiments on my meal in the cafeteria. Untangled my laptop wire. Walked to my house and took out the trash bins. There’s an affection and compassion for everything—the way they sweep the dust road, weed plants, clean bathrooms, is the same way they braid their teachers’ hair. Yesterday I fell over in a wheely chair during class. “Teacher!” Before I even knew what had happened a group of boys scooped me rightside up with the chair.

I noticed that even though I couldn’t ask questions stories were being told all around me—through the mischievous laughter of M1 students climbing the jackfruit tree outside my house to pick their breakfast. Through my collection of arm and leg scars that manage to impress middle school-aged boys anywhere. Through the kind eyes of late King Bhumibol who my student drew under the prompt, “All I want for Christmas” and entitled, “My Father.”

I’m learning that I can find stories in places other than words—like the way my host teacher puts her hand on my arm if she thinks I’m confused and squeezes my elbow if she thinks I’m upset. Or the subtle way a Thai person’s smile changes when she’s sad, happy, embarrassed, upset or angry. Not speaking fluently and not being able to justify everything I’m doing makes me feel small again, enthralled in other things like playing marbles with my students or getting competitive over a game of Uno.

If someone asked me to explain my time here I’m not sure that I could do it in words because those don’t fill a lot of my day. But I could explain the way the sun in Chiang Rai folds itself into the mountain peak outside my window. Or the way a coworker bringing me kanom can turn a bad day into a good one. The way the director of my school asks me every day what I ate for lunch, if I’ve had breakfast, and if I’m “happy, happy”—an English word they’ve borrowed that I now pronounce in Thai instead of English.

I’m realizing that when you can’t communicate in words you’re tuned out the way you were when you were a kid and saw grown-ups talking, not really understanding. It creates a lot of space to observe things that I wouldn’t otherwise notice if I understood what was happening. I’ve noticed how if you’re alone long enough your house-lizards, roosters, or red ants can seem like a human thing.

I could explain these past six months through Thai-time—an extravagance where yesterday doesn’t flow over and tomorrow doesn’t seep in. How I’ve ordered a cab for nine and it comes at noon. How I’ve made an emergency boat transfer in the Andaman Sea because a Thai man wanted to give his friend on a different ferry a melon.

I think in Bangkok I sought so much talking because I wanted the diversion, or through some fear of being alone; however, what I’ve failed to see since I was 10 is that you can have nothing in common with someone except for silence but there’s a lot to be learned in that place. My students usually have no idea what I’m saying but they know how I make them feel and this has made me more patient, understanding, and good-humored. It’s these things that I will take back to the United States; a place where an accretion of noise has rendered most people misunderstood—what I’ve learned in the absence of so much speaking: how to treat people, how to be inclusive, how to listen, how to share, how to smile.

Me and some of my students!

One morning I asked my coworker what Lhong’s name meant, “He doesn’t belong here but when he’s here he’s home.”

I feel like 
Lhong most of the time. Weird looking, blind, stumbling over Thai or uneven sidewalks, walking into the wrong room at the wrong time but like Lhong, and The Trouble With Tuck, I also have these kids in my life who spend all their time helping me, making sure I feel safe, taken care of, comfortable and certainly well fed. 

I know that I don’t belong here but when I’m here it feels like home.

13 March, 2017

Where I Belong

Lauren Colby is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Pathumpitthayakhom school in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. Originally from Morton, Illinois, Lauren graduated in 2014 from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a major in Global Studies and minor in Teaching English as a Second Language. Outside of school, she enjoys biking around her neighborhood, going on adventures with her Thai friends, and eating as much Thai food as she can get her hands on. After Fulbright, she hopes to return to the U.S. and complete a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

If you’ve lived abroad before, you know just how many emotions go into every little detail you could possibly think about before leaving. You know the feelings of anxiety for the unknown, the nervousness for things that will be different, and the excitement for new experiences. You ask yourself question after question: what will it be like once I get there? What will I do day-to-day? Will people understand me? Will I make friends? How will I make my life enjoyable and fulfilling while I’m there?

Those last two questions are the ones I found myself coming back to over and over again. Before embarking on my Fulbright Thailand journey, I found myself constantly questioning whether or not I would be able to make friends and become a part of the local community.

Integrating with a new community in any country – at home or abroad – is never easy. I knew this first-hand, as my experience with Thailand actually started long before I became a Fulbright English teacher. After graduating high school, I took a gap year and became a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Udonthani, a province in the Northeast about two hours from the capital of Laos. Between living with Thai host families and attending a vocational college, my experience as an exchange student was incredible, but I always felt a bit disconnected from the community. I spent most of my time with other foreign exchange students and with my host families, and didn’t integrate into my school as well as I would have hoped.

In returning to Thailand as a teacher, I worried about finding ways to become a part of the community. During the one-month orientation provided by Fulbright, those questions echoed in my head over and over again: will I make friends? How will I make my life enjoyable? Nothing during orientation seemed to give me answers I needed.

When I first arrived in Ubon Ratchathani, also in the Northeast of Thailand, I initially enjoyed it much more than life in Bangkok. But when I started thinking about what I would do to fill my time and keep myself entertained, staying in Ubon felt like a daunting task. Getting around was more difficult. Finding things to do was more difficult. Communicating was more difficult. Teaching was more difficult!

Despite those things, the people who began to come into my life made it considerably easier to adjust. Kindness and positive energy flowed like a river from everyone I met. First at my apartment building: my landlords were good friends with my host teacher, and she instructed them to treat me as if I were their daughter. Per their instruction, I call my landlords mae and paw, the Thai words for “mom” and “dad.” In the evenings, we sit outside the convenience store connected to the apartment complex, talking about our day and often eating some of Mom’s delicious cooking. Neighbors who frequent the convenience store have gotten to know my face and name, and one neighbor in particular is an amazingly spry 84-year-old man who loves giving me a strong handshake while practicing his English with me: “How do you do? Good luck to you!”

Mom and I outside my apartment.

At my school, I was flooded with acceptance and belonging. On my first day, my host teachers P’Ja and P’Duan introduced me to everyone – the director, the vice director, teachers whose classrooms were near to mine, and of course, the foreign language department. I was by far the youngest of all the English teachers, but the Japanese teacher, P’Fah, was only a few years older than me. P’Fah immediately took me under her wing. Knowing that I would probably be bored if I ate lunch with the English department teachers every day, she brought me to the Thai language arts department, where, little did I know, I would end up spending most of my time hanging out with the seven other teachers that were around my age. Every day before the morning assembly, I drop my bag at the Thai office and go to the assembly with one of my seven friends. Afterwards, we go back to the Thai office and, provided that no one has to teach during period one, we eat breakfast together. At lunchtime, we gather around a long skinny table full of food and often share a giant plate of spicy, tangy som tam (papaya salad). All the while, there’s a constant comical banter as we poke fun at each other, joke around, and laugh a lot. I feel at ease each time I come into the room. It’s such a happy place for me to spend my free time at school.

Enjoying a big lunch with my favourite group of people.

In my classes, connecting with students took some time. Because I was the first Fulbright ETA at my school, and my students had never had a foreign teacher before, they were extremely shy. Connecting with them through speaking English was pretty tough. Most of my students assumed that I didn’t speak Thai, and they didn’t feel confident about their English, so conversations didn’t happen much in the beginning. I decided to make it a little easier on them. Outside of classes, I began speaking more Thai. Suddenly, conversations and questions from my students came easily, and they were curious about so many things. “What’s school like in America?” “Do you have to wear uniforms?” “What do your parents do for a living?” “Where do you live in Ubon?” “Are you ever lonely?” I rotated between answering in Thai and English to give them a chance to practice, and eventually, they began asking me questions like, “What’s your favorite Thai food?” and “Can you speak Isaan?” Isaan is the local dialect of the Northeastern part of Thailand and is extremely similar to Lao. After telling them I don’t speak Isaan, my students began to teach me. One of my favorite memories at school involved sitting on the ground during Scout Camp with my M2 students (8th graders) gathered around me, teaching me Isaan words, and hearing them erupt in laughter after each word I said. Another fond memory was surprising my M5 students (11th graders) with sab ee lee ee lo gra do gra deeah – a hilarious Isaan phrase essentially meaning “the most very delicious thing ever.” They were so surprised I knew the whole phrase that the class did not stop laughing for at least five minutes, and each time I saw students from this class in the hallway in the weeks after, they echoed the phrase again and again, chuckling to themselves. Since then, I’ve discovered that I see my students everywhere – at the mall, at the night market, at the park by my house that I love to run and walk at. When I see them outside of school, I can’t help but smile as I feel a sense of community when I look at those familiar faces.

Last day of class with my M5/2 students.

Something I didn’t expect was the strength of these relationships that I’ve formed. Without my asking, my community has supported me when I’ve needed it the most. My landlords and neighbors were an absolute Godsend after I had my purse snatched from my bicycle by a stranger on a motorbike, and one of my fellow English teachers immediately came to be with me as a translator while the police were investigating. I simply do not think I would have survived the situation had they not been there for me in a moment’s notice. 

A couple months ago, I made friends with Fai and Nune, two Thais who wanted to practice speaking English. We have spent hours together teaching each other bad words in our native languages, giggling the whole time. What I didn’t expect was that on more than one occasion, after telling them I would be having visitors, they kindly, selflessly, and without hesitation took us to see so many beautiful sights in and around Ubon. To have friends like that is a true blessing. Last but not least, after eating lunch with her almost every day, P’Fah has become one of my close friends. Using my stale Thai and P’Fah’s rusty English, we have hilarious conversations – picking on each other constantly and finding ourselves laughing at nothing. Some of my favorite memories involve just going to Tesco (the grocery store) together and being silly, having deep discussions in Thaiglish with the help of Google Translate, and going to another lunch group member’s wedding. When I think of all the people I’m lucky enough to spend my time with, I am so grateful. Why did I ever worry about how I’d manage to make friends in the first place?

Exploring Ubon with my new Thai friends, Fai and Nune.

P'Fah and I

The Lunch Gang at Jum's wedding

In Thailand, taking care of other people is a huge part of the culture. People often take it upon themselves to take care of you and make sure everything is going well. The most common way that someone shows their care for you is the question gin cow rue yang? Or, “Have you eaten yet?” It’s a simple way for them to check in on you – and if you haven’t eaten, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to make sure you do. As an exchange student, this “take care” culture sometimes frustrated me. I wanted my independence and I wanted to be able to do my own thing without having someone constantly asking me where I was going or offering to feed me when I wasn’t hungry. But after experiencing the “take care” culture for another time, I now understand it in a new light. My relationships have all stemmed from the kindness and unconditional love of “take care” in an effort to make me feel like I belong. It’s taught me to accept kindness and accept love, even when it feels like I haven’t done anything to earn it. Despite not knowing me and despite a language barrier, these people have accepted me as one of their own. Now, my initial fears have finally been put to rest. I’m proud to say that my community in Ubon has helped me feel like Thailand is exactly where I belong.

My Thai family and my American family meeting for the first time :)