Yeng Her is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thaikasikorn Songkraw School in Chonburi, Thailand, where he taught English to Prathom 4 to Matthayom 3 students (4th to 9th grade). Yeng is from Providence, Rhode Island and recently graduated from Brandeis University with a B.A. in Studio Art and minor in Elementary Education. Yeng can be found enjoying the company of his students outside of the classroom while creating a contemporaneous environment to exchange culture. When he is not conversing with his students, he enjoys photographing the beauty of Thailand, listening to the tune of music, strolling down his community, and exploring the delicious food that Thailand has to offer. After serving as the three-month Temporary Program Coordinator, Yeng will return to the United States to pursue his master’s degree in international education in hopes of coming back to Thailand to further develop the Thai education system and curriculum.
Every weekend my father headed to the field and met up with our cousins to play soccer. Every day he had to dig for gold (picking his burgers), even in public. Every hour he told me to clean up after my older siblings’ messes, and every second he reminded me that I needed to be less selfish and more family orientated. Every time I never understood what he did and why he demanded these requests from me. As a young boy, I sat in the backyard outside of my parent’s rented apartment and watched the wind blew through the sea of flowers. With each rush of the wind, there were no flower petals scorching through the air, except for one. Dandelions—their puffy seeds were the only one flying with the wind and freeing themselves to explore another area. Each time I was outside, my Dad came and observed me and said, “That’s you, plain, simple, and no vibrant colors, yet the only one who’ll fly with the wind.” Proceeding to throw his gold away next to me. I didn’t fully understand what he meant and why such an analogy. Honestly, I was upset because he called me plain and simple. However, being here in Thailand, I can now, more than ever, comprehend what my father said.
Born in Phanat NiKhom, Chonburi, Thailand and raised in the United States, as a Hmong-American, I was always conflicted with the ideology of individualism and collectivism. Obviously, my father did and said things that I grew up frowning upon because I saw it as obscene. There was always a conflict, within me, between what ideology to follow or implement in situations. At any moment, when these moral conflicts erupt, I think back to the dandelions’ fluffy seeds and wish how I can fly away to another place. A place that can give the answers and sight to begin to empathize and sympathize with my culture, and my father. That place, I believe, will soon become Thailand.
|The Mekong River that My Parents cross to ensure a future for their family.|
I landed in Bangkok, Thailand, eager to learn about the culture that had heavily impacted my family. Little did I know that everything would become apparent and clear to why my family’s (my father’s) values reflect more with collectivism and why certain gestures or actions are done. The beaming heat struck me while standing by the BTS, casually waiting as I jerked my face to see if the train was coming, right then I saw this man “digging for his own gold.” I initially brushed it off thinking maybe he thought no one saw him. Then, as I entered the BTS I saw another man “digging for gold,” too. A rush of emotions overcame me as it reminded me of my father and how disgusted I was with him doing this in pubic. Tears dripped down my cheeks and I quickly pulled back to recoup. All I could think of was how foolish I was to never ask my father questions, but instead judged him right from the start. This action was merely a common and less serious matter than what I or western culture viewed it as. I wiped the tears away as I stripped away the prejudice I had, realizing the growth I needed and the enrichment Thailand had and would provide for me.
After a month of orientation, it was finally time to depart Bangkok and head to my province, Chonburi. I thought to myself this is where I will build my own home and new family for the coming year. My Host Teachers have become my Thai siblings and like any other Thais, food is an important aspect of building relationship. Every weekday at 11:30, the high tones of Pi Pi said “Bpai gin kao mai?” (You want to go eat?) and obviously we all headed to the canteen to eat. After the fulfilling meal, we gossiped about our lives; while the pile of dishes was staring back at us demanding to be washed. Time passed and I finally realized the keen eyes of my pi pi that hovered over me as I stared back with no clue of what was expected of me. Just like my father, I was reminded that as the youngest person, in a group setting, it is respectful to clean up after your elders or anyone older than you. The light bulb just lit up in my head, I smiled and giggled because I grew up with the same values hammered into my brain. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t apply such values here in Thailand since I was familiar and practiced it back home. Again, this conflict of ideology confused me and this time I already flew like the dandelion’s puffy seeds to another place. That night I decided to truly use this chance, in Thailand, to educate myself experientially about collectivism while sharing the ideals of individualism with my Pi Pi. This, I hoped, would give me the tools to fully empathize with my father and the Thai culture.
|My Pi Pi and I all glammed up as Thai Folk Lore characters.|
The weekend came and my Pi Pi and I went to school to work on school documents or lesson plans. On a Saturday, the school field was full of people from the community, even my students were there playing soccer or just hanging out. I asked my students “sa nuk mai?” (is it fun?) and they replied with an enthusiastic “YES!” Saying that was a chance for them to see and interact with their friends and family. Observing this environment, I began to reminisce about my father and how he would play football (soccer) on a Saturday with our cousins. I gazed into the distance and I became overjoyed. The laughs, smile, and interactions of the Thais helped me realize what it means to be family orientated. It’s all about being together and sharing the moment as a family—Being present and building a closer relationship with each other so that everyone empowers one another to be the best version of themselves. Recognizing this, I grew to appreciate the moments that my family had together, be it good or bad moments. Through them all, we became stronger and fearless of the world together.
|My students “stretching” before football.|
An August day with a breeze that melted you to the core, and the sun was hidden by the gloomy clouds. My Thai students stampeded up the stairs and asked me, “chop dokmai arai?” (What flower do you like?). I pondered and was going to reply with roses, but as a gush of wind passed by; I closed my eyes and saw dandelions’ soft seeds flutter everywhere around me. I opened my eyes and said “Dandelions.” My students stared at me with blank and confused faces. I forgot here in Thailand there are no dandelions. With the power of internet, I showed them and they were fascinated by the shape of them. My students loved how the petals turn into seeds that create a circular ruffle affect and the simplicity of the flower. Like the usual questions that I get from my Thai students, they asked “Tammai?” (Why?). I didn’t or couldn’t reply because some part of me struggled to produce a reason why, another part of me did not comprehend why. I answered with a simple, “suay na,” (beautiful). My Thai students made me wish I had asked my father more questions about Hmong culture and about the gestures and actions he had done, and the origins of it all. All it took was a simple why.
Mind (student’s nick name) said that I was there (Mo. 3/1) favorite flower, then proceeded to hug me.
Learning how Thailand’s culture impacted my father’s life hurt because every second is a reminder that he is no longer here, yet every time fond memories of him emerge too. I draw out the positivity from each incident and manifest it to find closure, in which I believe is bringing us closer as father and son. Having to leave the United States right after my father passed away, while my family was in a state of grief was a difficult decision. Thus, I came to Thailand not only searching for answers from the Thai culture, but also a family. Lucky for me they found me. As soon as I came to my province, a Thai family, who owns a nursery next to my apartment, adopted me into their family. Kun Mae (mother) owns and runs the nursery and with her daughter Pi Kang. Each day as I walked passed the nursery, Pi Kang chanted out loud, “Nong Yeng, gin khao rue yang?” (Did you eat yet?).I replied, “gin aa-gaad leeo.” (I ate air already). We both burst into laughter as she transitioned into her serious face and scolded me for not eating breakfast. After, the loving Pi Kang surprised me, each time, with different breakfast snacks to fill me up before school began. The hospitality that this family, particularly Kun Mae and Pi Kang, showed me only furthered my appreciation and gratitude to live life with a family orientated perspective. These beautiful, passionate, and caring women allowed me to learn and share the happiness of their family, without asking any favors from me. This has empowered me to love even more and share my love to those who need it.
My Thai Family and I enjoying each other’s company presently.
With a blink of an eye, one school semester has already passed and now I can say that I assimilated pretty well to the Thai culture (collectivism). I have learned many Thai phrases and automatically use them in my own sentences. My family would express confusion when I use “na” or “jaa” at the end of my sentences. By now I am confident that I have a better appreciation and comprehension of Thai culture and its impact in the Hmong culture as well. Moreover, I recognized the importance and values of a teacher profession and how highly respected it is, compared to those in The United States. As a foreign American teacher, specifically a Fulbright grantee, this comes with privileges in itself. Nevertheless, teaching English in a culture that isn’t exposed to the diversity of America, where the people perceive America through the portrayal of Hollywood, will bring your ability as a non-white foreign teacher to questions. Solely because of my ethnicity I can be seen as less competent, intelligent, and capable than my White counterparts. The dreadful repeated questions of: “are you really from America?” “You didn’t learn English first?” “Which parent is White?”, strain the body and soul of one’s stability. As much as Thailand continues to help me understand my family and Hmong culture, I am committed to do the same for my students, Pi Pi, and community. To combat the pedestalization of White Americans, which stems from the systematic poor representation of media (and more), and in order to generate constant growth of Thais’ view of America through every interaction I have with them, I try to use every opportunity to educate and exchange culture and its values to certify that everyone becomes confident, comfortable, and empower to be themselves, without equating to white western standards. Thus, creating lesson plans involving visuals of different ethnicity, cultures, etc. to giving daily compliments to everyone is all to ensure my Thai students, and Pi Pi that although we are all different, we are all individual humans and that’s what makes everyone beautiful.
|My students waiing in the upmost respectful way to me on Wai Kru Day.|
These interactions and experiences of the problematic glorification of White western standards in Thailand caused an epiphany within me. Removed from America and placed in a remote area of Thailand, I now fully grasp and first handedly see the detrimental effect that social media has on representation of America. How depiction of white western beauty standards, colorism, and under-representation within ethnicities contribute to an injurious culture exchange. As a result, I have seen negative perceptions toward certain physical qualities of individuals because it does not underline with what social media have subliminally affirm as standard and appropriate. Apprehending this allowed me to reason and rationalized the cultural practices of Thai, such as: skin whitening (surgery or cream), avoiding the sun (using umbrella during sunny days), elevating White foreigners (constant compliments and pictures), using color contacts (to exhibit a foreigner perception), and daily comments on skin color (comparing or remarks). That being said, I cannot give an excuse to the undertone message that these cultural practices are generating. Hence, I learn to conduct myself with confidence and appreciation of my own physicality, mentality, spirituality hoping to emulate the same energy and insight to everyone.
The more I learn about Thailand the more I reciprocate the learning about America. I finally was reassured and realized the small validity I have made when my Pi said, “Yeng bai wieng mai, (go jogging/running?) so you can get a tan and look beautiful.” The vocabulary used brought joy to me because instead of using dark or black my Pi used tan. Most importantly, my pi exclaimed that a tan skin color is beautiful, something I never expected to hear in Thailand anytime soon, exemplifying that they not only recognized, but also slowly diverging from the white-centric beauty standards. Coming into my community with questions and comments like, “Did you get plastic surgery on your nose?” “What product did you use to get white skin?” “I want to have a nose like you.” and “I want the same confidence as you.” I am so exhilarated to see the growth my students and Pi Pi have gained. I have witnessed my students, who were shy, timid, and partial, bloomed into the growing outspoken, curious, and open-minded individuals now. Throughout the year, I saw the confidence in my Pi Pi flourished where we all were not afraid to be our true selves—no filters. Pi Jeffrey (my host teacher) started as a man who barely used social media, nor took photos/selfies and has now became the man with the confidence to accept himself, and showcase it to the world. Now, I hear the high-pitched voice of him saying, “Selfie, selfie, selfie,” and right after he will post them up on Facebook. From a barely updated newsfeed to everyday statues, Pi Jeffery inspires me to continue to be myself in order to allow others to be their real selves. Although, as a whole, the result won’t be prominent, I am still hopeful that the exposure to a ‘holistic’ American culture will slowly transcend and become applicable to the greater Thailand.
Borisat Thaikasikorn Songraw celebrating Buddhist Lent Day. With Director Paul, Host Teachers and Students.
|My Matthayom 1/2 students being their crazy self.|
My time here at Thaikasikorn Songkraw sadly came to an end. I reflected on the amount of knowledge I’ve gained about Thai culture and how important it has helped me empathize and sympathize with my father and family ideology. I am now confident in myself to be comfortable to make decisions reflecting an individualistic, collectivist or both approaches, to balance the two ideologies and implement them accordingly. From my Thai family and students, I was given the chance to educate and exercise the ideals of collectivism. More than ever, I can cultivate my family morals and still be a radiating individual human. I am truly forever thankful to Thailand and the people who have impacted my journey here. I will carry with me the knowledge and values taught to me and employ them to those I love and care about. No matter what the barriers I might face in the future, I know I can overcome those and reach any individuals with the passion shown to me. Like a dandelion that floats wherever the winds blow and sprouts a new life wherever its seed touches, I hope I have implanted knowledge, confidence, and love to those I have encountered, learned from, and cared for in Thailand.
ขอบคุณมากครับ (Khob Khun Mak Na Krub/Thank you very much) ประเทศไทย (Pra Thea Thai/Thailand)! This is not a goodbye, but only a see you again!