21 June, 2017

Infinite Tiny Sweet Moments

Caitlin Kennedy is from Gaithersburg, Maryland and is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed in Yangtalad Wittayakarn School in Kalasin, Thailand, where she teaches English to Mattayom 4-6 students (10th-12th grade). She graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in African Studies from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2013. In her free time, Caitlin likes to go rock climbing with her Thai friends in Khon Kaen, sing wildly off-tune songs in the shower under her bubble gum pink stairs, jog around the school’s football field while teachers on the sideline shout, “running, running,” and go on hiking adventures throughout the mountains of Southeast Asia. At the end of her Fulbright grant, she hopes to find a new opportunity in another part of Thailand working with an NGO to improve education for migrants and refugees. 

I was elated when I found out that I would be living alone in rural Thailand, teaching English. I had yearned for this type of cultural challenge, but I was scared of the loneliness and solitude that would inevitably come with a year of confusion, misunderstanding, and such an abrupt change of pace in life. When life is slow, the time and moments that consume it can feel empty. However, this string of seemingly empty moments that has woven its way through my last 8 months here has turned out to carry so much meaning, depth, and feeling. I fear that if I tried to explain the meaning of or knowledge gained from moments such as these, I wouldn’t be doing the moments or feelings that they have evoked adequate praise for their pure existence. I hope that through this narrative, you may possibly be able to feel for yourselves a bit of what I had the pleasure of experiencing first hand. 


I’m wearing all black. Everyone around me is wearing all black too; except for the teenagers, who seem to be wearing a mix of bright colors. These must be the students. Each class is wearing an assigned, brightly colored polo. They have black ribbons pinned to their shoulders. As I walk behind the crowd, attempting to be discreet, heads turn and stare as if this wave of movement was pre-choreographed. I’m sweating. Is it from the blazing heat of the October sun? Or is it my nerves and insecurity of having so many eyes glued to my face, my hair, my clothes, and my entire being? I see a familiar face and take a deep breath as I anxiously make my way towards him. A feeling of relief washes over me. As I am about to say something, music starts booming through the loud speakers and everyone turns to the stage. Standing straight and proud, they sing along to the National Anthem. People who were rushing in have stopped abruptly for this moment of worship, making their tardiness obvious and noted. When the music stops, the kind, familiar face turns to me, “Good morning! Welcome to Yangtalad! Have you eaten yet?” In this moment I don’t yet realize the significance of this greeting. Eventually, I will come to understand that “Gin khao ruyang? (Have you eaten rice yet?)” can almost be equated to “How’s it going?” in America, highlighting the importance of food and rice in Thai culture. My anxiety evaporates with the beads of sweat that have built up along the edges of my forehead. I feel welcome. I reply, “Yes, thank you. I ate already.” The kind voice says, “Okay, come gin kanom (eat snacks).” And just like that, this confounding scene that had given me anxiety only moments before, becomes the backdrop of my new home.


I am walking to room 423. Inside my backpack I have my laptop, HDMI chord, paper and colored pencils to make name tags, and the attendance sheet (written in Thai of course). I realize how hot and humid it is as I feel the back of my shirt clinging to the sweat lining my spine. Today marks the start of the second semester of the school year for Thai students, but this is the first day of school for me. I feel like a 2nd grader all over again; my backpack stuffed full of supplies and a nervous, yet excited feeling residing on the tip of my tongue. Thoughts are buzzing through my mind. Will it always be this hot? How does the Korean teacher’s hair stay so silky and her make-up so pristine? Did I put on deodorant? Is my skirt long enough? Will the students like me? How much English can they speak? I make my way up the stairs and pass a group of students who turn to me and wai (bringing their hands together as if in prayer and bending slightly forward as a form of greeting), as I hear a chorus of “Hello, teacher!” Oh no, what do I do back? I think they taught us this during orientation… Do I wai? Do I wave? If I wai, do I bring my hands to chest height, chin height, or up to my forehead? I remember there was some important distinction between the different heights. Do teachers even wai to students at all? I panic and settle for an awkward, double-handed, yet enthusiastic wave coupled with a nervous smile. The students all giggle and say, “Teacher, so beautiful!” before continuing on their way. Little do I know, the phrase, “teacher beautiful today” is almost as common as “have you eaten yet?” My confidence is really going to take a hit when I move back to the US and don’t get told I am beautiful at least three times a day! 

I finally get to my classroom and peek inside: no students yet. I walk in and unload the contents of my backpack before walking back to the door to check if any students are standing outside. I pace for a few minutes and then decide to write my name on the whiteboard. Class was supposed to start ten minutes ago and still no sign of any students. I sit down by the fan and start flipping through the “About Me” PowerPoint I prepared. I have not yet discovered the sad truth that the projector doesn’t even work with my computer. T-minus 10 minutes until I will have to improvise! The minutes continue to tick by. I start to wonder if I am in the right classroom. Suddenly, a student with a red polo pops his head around the corner from the doorway and says, “Teacher, may I come in please?” “Yes! Hello!” I stutter as I stand up. The student takes off his shoes at the doorway, leaving them outside and enters the classroom, followed by the rest of this Mattayom 6 (12th grade) class. They are all chatting, looking at me, and giggling as they find their seats. I feel a mix of nerves and excitement coursing through me. I really want them to like me. With a veil of confidence, I walk to the front of the classroom and am about to introduce myself when that same student who walked in first stands up and says, “All stand up please.” I don’t know what is happening. The class falls silent and comes to stand as an army. Together, they chime, “Good morning, teacher.” They pause for a moment, their faces somewhat expressionless as they continue, “How are you today?” I reply, “I’m good, thank you! How are you?” Like a well-oiled machine, they answer, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” There is an awkward silence. They are all still standing and staring at me, not even realizing that they just asked me the same question twice. This is clearly rehearsed, but what am I supposed to do next? I try, “You can sit down…” Everyone takes a seat while echoing, “thank you, teacher.” Okay, so that’s how it goes, I note to myself. “Hello, everyone! My name is teacher Caitlin!” I blurt out with a bit too much enthusiasm. They all stare blankly. I wonder if they are bored or confused. Some students are whispering to each other. Finally, one student courageously asks, “Teacher Kade?” Oh boy, this is going to be tough.

One of my 11th grade classes (now 12th grade class) at the end of last semester.

It’s a typical afternoon. Midterms are just around the corner and with them, winter is coming. Outside, the sun is shining radiantly against the bright greenery surrounding the school buildings. I check the weather app on my phone, realizing that this crisp winter weather is actually 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The only sign of anything resembling the coming of the winter season that I am familiar with is the dry piles of dead leaves that students have swept into perfectly manicured piles. I’m sure these piles of leaves will be burnt soon, leaving the yards, gardens, and pathways throughout the school campus looking as clean and precise as the student’s neatly tucked uniforms. 

I’m sitting in the foreign language office, staring out the window and daydreaming about clearing piles of snow, cutting down a Christmas tree, and drinking hot chocolate on a truly cold winter’s day when I hear a melodious echo coming from the door, singing, “Hello… it’s me…” I join in, “I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet…” and we sing together in a gloriously off-tune rendition of Adele’s “Hello.” It’s one of my M6 (12th grade) students named, Sean. His friends, Anucha and Nut are in tow, not far behind. On many afternoons, these three students come to chat with the foreign language teachers and their entrance is often preceded by a dramatic opening of the door, followed by Sean singing Adele. It never gets old. This office was clearly their home long before it became mine. Sean struts over to my desk. “Teacher Cait! How many cups of coffee today?” he asks. “Only two today,” I reply. “Drink more coffee!” he laughs, always finding the amount of coffee I drink to be both hilarious and alarming at the same time. We sit together, joking about Katy Perry’s crazy new hair-do and playing Uno, which they have become addicted to despite the disapproving looks from other teachers who associate any card games with illegal gambling. Taylor Swift is dancing at her concert streaming on YouTube from a cell phone on the floor. We sing along to “22” as Anucha worships Taylor’s beauty and style. “Uno!” someone shouts. The room is filled with laughter and cheer. Maybe this does feel like the start of the holiday season after all, I think to myself.

             Celebrating Christmas morning with fellow Fulbright ETAs outside of my little pink house after a super slumber party.

Making "Gingerbread Houses" with my 11th grade students before Christmas.


I’m so excited! My sister, Annarose, is coming today! I have been counting down the days until she would visit. She has been studying abroad at Chiang Mai University and now that the semester has ended, she will come spend ten whole days with me before flying home for Christmas! Her flight arrives early in Khon Kaen, a city that is about an hour from my school. It’s 5:40 am and the sun has not yet stretched her warm, glowing fingertips over the sleepy town of Yangtalad. Nonetheless, I’m wide awake in eager anticipation. I walk out the front door of my bubble gum pink house in the woods behind my school. As I make my way down the dirt road that winds its way to the highway in front of school, I listen to the cicadas humming. I keep a careful lookout for snakes and giant centipedes that may be hiding in the brush lining the uneven road. Dogs that belong to neighboring teachers perk their heads up as I pass by. Most give me a nod of recognition before snuggling back into their cozy morning slumber, but one jumps up and starts barking as it leaps up to greet me… or chase me. I exit the school gate and cautiously run across the unforgiving traffic that is the epitome of Thai highways. A few minutes later, I see the first van heading my way and wave it down. The driver rolls the window down and I ask, “Bpai Khon Kaen, mai kha? (Going to Khon Kaen?)” He nods and I hop in. The other passengers stare at me in bewilderment, probably surprised to see a young, white girl in this part of Thailand. I can’t blame them; I too have caught myself staring whenever I see a young, western-looking person anywhere within a one hour drive of Yangtalad. On bad days, the staring gets to me, but today I am too excited to feel an ounce of irritation. As we make our way through the rice fields, I see the farmers working hard as the sun makes herself known for the day. A family of water buffalo is swimming playfully in the deep edges of the rice fields. We arrive at Khon Kaen bus station and I am met by my Thai friends, Wan and Bon, with whom I often go rock climbing.

Rock climbing on Tonsai beach in Southern Thailand.

I am always shocked by the kindness and generosity I am met with here. They drove out at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to take me to the airport to meet my sister and all get breakfast together. When I see Annarose walking out of the arrivals gate, I almost cry. I feel an odd tingle of energy that starts deep in the pit of my stomach and makes its way up my spine and into my throat, where it feels somewhere between a desire to gasp for air and a sigh of relief. Wow, it feels good to have a piece of home! Until this moment, I didn’t realize how desperately I needed this. I can’t stop hugging her, poking her, playing with her hair, and annoying her in all ways possible as older sisters are wont to do. She cringes at the annoyance as I giggle and provoke her more, but she takes it in stride because deep down, I know she craved this sisterly “comfort” as a gentle reminder of home as well.

Taking a selfie with students and foreign teachers before heading to the market.
Left to right: Jan Jaew (Chinese teacher), Chompoo (Korean teacher), Duang Dao (Chinese teacher), Sean (12th grader), Not (10th grader), Nut (12th grader), Anucha (12th grader), and me (front and center, taking the selfie)


Peddling my rickety bicycle with two mostly flat tires down the dirt road behind my school makes me question why I agreed to ride 20 minutes down the highway when I can barely make it 100 meters down a road with no traffic. I put air in the tires often, but somehow they always end up flat by the end of the week. According to my research from Google, I am guessing the cause is somewhere in the realm of “hole in tire.” I must get that fixed at some point, I think to myself. I round the corner and see Chompoo (the Korean teacher), Duang Dao (a Chinese teacher), and Jan Jaew (another Chinese teacher) alongside a few of my Mattayom 6 (12th grade) students standing with their bicycles by the school gate. We look like a group of kids from a Stephen Spielberg movie about to take on some mysterious adventure in the rural town of Yangtalad. I make it to the gate, ready to continue on our way to the Friday night market in “downtown” Yangtalad, but of course have to hop off to take a group selfie first. Before I moved to Thailand, I thought selfies were a bit embarrassing or unnecessary. After a few months here, I think I have fully embraced the selfie culture, rarely going a day without taking or being in a selfie with some students, teachers, or even random strangers. The selfie has somehow tiptoed its way into my daily routine, and I can’t say that I hate it anymore. 

We ride down the side of the highway, single file with me in the back like a group of kids from The Goonies or Stranger Things. Smoky air fills my lungs as I dodge the chaotic cars, zooming motorbikes, and intimidating street dogs. People stare at us as we whizz by. We are an odd site to see in this town: a group of Thai teenagers riding bicycles followed by… the farang (that’s me). At the market, we spread out in search of the perfect feast. Sean, Chompoo, and I stick together, snaking through the crowds, our eyes dancing from colorful seas of fruits and vegetables to sizzling pots of fried chicken and further still to the sugary trays full of mysterious treats. The omnipresence of sugar and spice floats through the air, making our taste buds yearn for what is soon to come. I can’t help but feel excited whenever I come to the market; so much energy, so much vibrancy, and of course, so much food! 

I see many of my students here with friends and family buying kanom (snacks), or dinner, or both. As they pass me, they become shy. It must feel weird to see the foreign teacher outside of school, I think. They smile and wave, “Hello, teacher,” then giggle as they are on their way. When we meet the rest of the group, we realize that we truly do have a feast ahead of us. We compare our newfound treasures of Pad Thai, Som Tam (Papaya Salad), mini bananas, fried chicken, some sort of jelly looking dessert, spring rolls, grilled fish, and of course sticky rice. Our mouths are watering in excitement and anticipation as we stuff our delicious delicacies into our bicycle baskets. Mae Mam, the former head of our English department has invited us to bring dinner to her house for a celebration! Alas, the semester has come to an end, and these students will soon be graduating and moving on to further their studies at University. Mae Mam is like a Thai mother to me (that Thai word for “mother” directly translating to Mae), always offering support, guidance, and kindness with every action she takes. I can tell that these students feel the same way. We all hop back onto our bicycles, making our way back towards school with hungry bellies, excited for our Friday night dinner together. I look ahead at this single file line of bicycles, and while I cannot see their faces, I can feel the presence of their smiles. These students have become my people. As we peddle into the dark, the air continues to leak from my tires. I peddle harder to keep up with everyone and realize that a grin has begun to spread across my face. In this instant, on this Friday night alongside a bunch of Thai teenagers and fellow foreign teachers from China and Korea, I realize a tiny sweet moment of joy.

Me with some of my graduating seniors after the final day of a series of weekly English camps that were fully organized and facilitated by my student, Anucha.
Left to right: Not (10th grader), Anucha (12th grader), Pachara (12th grader), me, Sean (12th grader), and Nut (12th grader). 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous22 June, 2017

    Hello. I really enjoyed your blog about your teaching and adventures in Thailand and SouthEast Asia. I feel like I traveled back in time and that I borrowed a bicycle from one of the kids in Stephen Spielberg's "ET" and joined you, your Thai students, and your fellow Fulbright Teachers on your journey to the market place and then back to your bubble gum "Pink House." Caitlin, you are " teacher beautiful today and always."
    Love Always,