11 January, 2018

A Beautiful Beginning


Breanne McNitt is a 2017-18 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at Chiang Saen Wittayakom School where she teaches Mattayom students. Bre is originally from St. Joseph, Michigan and graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A.E. in Secondary Math Education and a minor in Parks and Protected Area Management. When she is not laughing and learning with students, you can find Bre exploring Northern Thailand landscapes with her camera around her neck, riding her bike into the middle of rice fields, or listening to podcasts on an eighties-style green bus.








I boarded the plane to Thailand filled with energy. Not the energy you get from being nervous, surprisingly I wasn’t nervous, but the energy you get from embarking on a long awaited adventure. After over a year filled with essay writing and lots of waiting, my dream of being a Fulbright ETA in Thailand was finally beginning. It was not an easy road to get here. The application process forced me to stick to who I was and believe in myself despite the noise from outsiders. So when I received the email notifying me of my acceptance to be a 2017-18 Fulbright ETA in Thailand, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Working towards a big dream and having it pan out just as hoped is a surreal feeling.

During my 24-hour travel day to reach my new home, I just kept thinking about all that was in store for me. I was about to be thrown into a culture I had never experienced before and be surrounded by a language I did not speak at all. But as mentioned, I wasn’t nervous; I was excited for the challenge. A challenge that I knew was going to shape the rest of my life, and allow me to form incredible connections with others despite a language barrier. 

And now I find myself three months into this experience, and loving every moment.

My new home, Chiang Saen, is a beautiful, serene town. The “c-shaped” wall around the town connects to the MeKong River and holds in the town’s peacefulness. Trees grow in the cracks of the brick wall, and ruins are scattered around Chiang Sean. From the banks of the river, one can watch the sunrise over Laos in the morning, and at night enjoy a meal from one of the vendors (low tables are set up to eat off of as you sit on the ground).


Sunrise from the banks of the MeKong River, looking from Chiang Saen across the river to Laos


The atmosphere of Chiang Saen’s structure is only enhanced by the people who inhabit it. I have received nothing but smiles and helping hands since my arrival three months ago. On every bike ride to the market, the locals around me send warm smiles my way, and the occasional “Hello” is shouted in my direction as I peddle by. Little kids point at me and shout “farang,” (the Thai word for a westerner) to which I respond with “Hi” accompanied by a wave. I feel like a celebrity, but one who only receives positive attention. And although the attention is optimistic, being constantly noticed has been quite the adjustment for me--usually I try to avoid being the center of attention. 

Markets seem to be the heart of Chiang Saen. The Thursday Night, Saturday Night, and Sunday Morning Markets bring together a majority of the town. The food stalls are endless and the clothing and other knickknacks are abundant. Luckily, my minimal Thai language abilities allow me to navigate my way through the markets--a good skill to have when my diet now mainly consists of as many different tropical fruits as I can stuff myself with. The conversations are a bit confusing though, because as I am trying to practice my Thai the locals see me and want to practice their English. But we both get enjoyment out of this, so the exchange continues in its choppy rhythm. 

But for me, the true gem in this wall-surrounded town, is Chiang Saen Wittayakom School. Maybe I’m biased because in addition to teaching there I also live on the school’s campus—come visit and I think you’ll agree though. My two-story house is way too big for one person, but I am so grateful to have it as my beautiful home for the next year. A home I share with many different insects and reptiles. At first the Tokay geckos, snails, frogs, and scorpion were all very startling to me, but I’ve come to embrace them (well not the scorpion, I brushed him out of my living room the night I found him and he hasn’t returned yet). These unintentional pets add a little bit more life to my otherwise still, silent house. And they haven’t found their way to the second floor so I don’t need to worry about being crawled on while I sleep.

***


During the school week, I make the two-minute walking commute to my office. The students are all arriving at this time too, so as I pass them I’m greeted with “Good Morning, Teacher.” and “Hello, Teacher.” These warm welcomes knock the morning tiredness right out of me, and get me excited for another day. My office is a desk in a large room that the Language Department has claimed. I share this space with the other ten foreign language teachers--all of whom have showed me nothing but warmth since my arrival. The school has both Chinese and English language classes, and besides me and the two Chinese student teachers, everyone else in the department (and the school as a whole) is Thai. From my office it is also a very short commute to any of the classrooms I teach in. I switch between 4 different rooms, and they are on the same level as my office or just up one flight of stairs, but all in the same building. 


With students in my Matthayom 4/1 class on the first day together. This class only has 9 students in it, and is a nice mid-week break from the usual classes of 30+ students


My students range from matthayom one to matthayom six, which is equivalent to seventh through twelfth grade in the states. With just over four hundred students split up into the sixteen class that I teach each week, I get to interact with close to half of the students at the school. This is very rewarding, but also a challenge trying to cover topics when I only see them once a week. However, this lack of time has motivated me to make the most out of every class. And with no curriculum laid out for me, I get to pick and choose what I want to cover with my students. This is a fun, creative challenge for me. Every class has their own personality and generally has around thirty students, but I get a break from this chaos with my one class mid week that only has nine students in it (pictured above minus the one boy who wasn’t there that day).

The school day ends at 4:30pm, and I walk back home. Evenings are filled with a bike ride to the market, yoga, reading, ukulele, Netflix, and planning future adventures. 



Sunrise at Phu Chi Fa


***
Landscapes in Northern Thailand are like nothing I’ve experience before. So I am spending my weekends attempting to be a public transportation weekend warrior in order to interact with as many off these lush mountainsides and roaring waterfalls as I can. And luckily, Thailand has a lot of public transportation options; it’s just rarely posted online. But after asking around and a few failed attempts, the system starts to make sense. Northern Thailand is a special place. Many people come to Thailand envisioning the beaches of the south, and never see the magic (and cooler temperatures) that graces the north. My weekends have been spent falling in love with these landscapes of my new home. In Phu Chi Fa, I got to see one of the most breath-taking sunrises of my life as the sky filled with color and low fog covered the valley below. In Mae Salong, I explored hill tribe villages and tea fields that create life in the overgrown, green mountainsides. In the area surrounding my town, I’ve ridden my bike past the sky reflecting in the calm waters of Chiang Saen Lake and found myself a little lost in endless expanses of rice fields.

No matter where I find myself on the weekends, it is reassuring to know at the end of them I get to return to a town that I feel at home in--a town full of so many kind people who will go out of their way to help me. Like the unfortunate time I returned to Chiang Saen after a long day of travel, only to discover my bike was no longer where I’d locked it. I was flustered and shocked to discover someone had stolen my bike while I was away. After walking home, I messaged my host teachers and Alex quickly responded to tell me we’d go to the police station in a few minutes. In the US, police rarely blink and eye when you tell them your bike has been stolen. Often times you either have to fend for yourself or just give up and buy a new bike. With this preexisting assumption, I just figured my bike was gone for good and no one could do much to help. But Thailand is much different--at least a small town in Thailand is. We got to the police station and they were very engaged in all the details and I felt more at ease instantly. Alex helped translate everything I needed to tell the police, and the following day we met up with them at the “scene of the crime” to give more details. The police investigators noted the street cameras and said they’d check those and give us a call once they got more information. Even if my bike isn’t found, this at first horrible situation has turned into a very eye opening one. From Alex helping me through the initial frustration, to the police giving the search their best effort, to P’Tommy who is now letting me borrow his bike, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to be living in Chiang Saen.



Workers at the rice fields in Chiang Mai that we saw as we were wandering around the bamboo bridges


Weekdays are spent engaging with the beauty of locals and their lifestyle, and weekends are spent absorbing the beauty of the landscapes that cover Thailand. Life here is simple and beautiful, and I love every step of this journey as I discover my place in my new home.