It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the teachers’ office in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade building. Kids are running in and out of the office, roughhousing with the younger teachers and each other, screaming things I can’t understand, and playing with whatever they can get their hands on; my co-teacher is asleep on the makeshift bed that’s usually used when students are sick or injured; one of the teachers is counting the money that the school made from selling snacks during lunch today; some of the older teachers are huddled around an official-looking booklet that is of course entirely in Thai; and I’m sitting at a table in the middle of the room, just soaking it all in.
There’s never a moment of silence in this building, but I choose to do my work here anyway when I’m not teaching. I love the chaos and the cuteness of the little kids, and I love the sense of community I feel with the other teachers here. I also love that this scene feels normal now. It’s not something I ever experienced as a young student in school, but after teaching here now for exactly one month, it’s familiar and comfortable (although the noise level can still sometimes become overwhelming).
So much about my life here is nothing like the life I’ve temporarily left behind, and I’d be lying if I said I was fully adjusted (or even close to fully adjusted), but I think the most important thing right now is that I have accepted this new life for what it is. Now that I’m through the initial training and transitions, it is a life I will be living for two full years. I often call it a “crazy adventure,” but it is just as much a crazy adventure as it is the day-to-day existence of being a teacher, a neighbor, a friend, and a community member. And it’s still just life, which means it’s confusing, frustrating, messy, fun, exciting, interesting, challenging, sad, upsetting, and happy. The same struggles I faced back in the United States came over with me to Thailand, and I often realize that a lot of the struggles I face here, I would have also been facing if my first job out of college had been stateside.
Many of those struggles, though, are definitely taken up a few notches by the specific nature of this job. Essentially, things that are hard back home are just a bit (or a lot) harder here. For example, I know that learning the names of students is a difficult part of every teacher’s job, but when half of those names are in a different language and the other half are English words that we don’t typically use as names in the U.S., they become a lot harder to learn and remember. Then add to it that when I ask a student their name, I often can’t even understand what they are saying. The other day, I found out that a girl who I thought was named “Missy” actually has a Thai name that sounds more like “Muh-see.” Thanks to a bit of informal charades, I also found out this past week that one of my students who I thought had a Thai name that was something along the lines of “Sa-pai” is actually named “Sprite.” (Yes, he is named after a soda). I have multiple students named “View,” a few named “Cream,” two students named “Guitar,” and a lot named some version of the word “Pray” (I again can’t quite understand what all of the variations are, but I think some are named “Prayer,” some are named “Pray-wa,” and some are just named “Pray.”) I also have students named “Party,” “Garfield,” “Piano,” “Green,” “Fame,” and “Cartoon,” and today I met a young girl whose parents told me her name is “Minion,” named after the characters in Despicable Me. I already care about these kids a lot, and I really want to be able to call them by their names, but I know it’s going to be awhile before I have it all down. In the meantime, it can be frustrating, but I also can’t help but find it an amusing part of my new normal.
Another example is the challenge of renting your first apartment; I know this would come with a lot of challenges back home, but those challenges simply become more difficult here. Bugs are everywhere in Thailand, and there is absolutely no way (that I’ve ever heard of, anyway) to keep all of them out of your house. I currently live with hundreds of teeny tiny ants, mosquitoes that like to congregate in my bathroom, two little gecko-like things that hang out on the window screens in my kitchen, small spiders that go wherever they like, and a pretty big spider that I decided not to kill as long as he/she stays out of my bedroom (I haven’t seen him/her for the past couple of days, though). Back home, I used to be very unsettled by finding a couple ants in our kitchen or any sort of bug in my room. I still get frustrated when ants infiltrate my tightly sealed off food (I have now started double bagging everything of interest to the ants because I learned that they have the ability to chew a hole through certain bags – fun fact: Thai ants appear to love peanut butter much more than Thai people do), but I accept that this is all just normal here. I do the best I can to keep my house clean and presentable and comfortable, but it takes a lot of effort, and I’m a bit worried about what my parents will think of it when they come to visit, since it most definitely is not their normal.
Expressing emotions, retaining energy, eating healthily, social interaction, exercising, and building relationships are all more difficult here. Everything I do, I do in an incredibly hot and humid climate, using and surrounded by a language in which I am nowhere near fluent, and in the context of a culture that was completely unfamiliar to me as of six months ago. Essentially, this new normal is hard. None of this is meant as a complaint, though; it’s just meant as an explanation and a quick look into what the non-adventurous, not exciting parts of my life are like here. People always ask me what this experience is like, and I usually say, “it’s really difficult, but I really love it.” Then I usually go on to talk about the parts that I love, and the fun things I’ve done here, and funny stories about cultural misunderstandings or cute things my kids have done or said. But the difficult part is important, too. It plays such an important part in the growth and learning I’m doing, and it is also a necessary part in my ability to do the work for others and the cultural exchange that I came here to do.
Despite – and because of – all of the challenges, I wouldn’t trade this job for anything else right now. I didn’t exactly realize that I would become a real teacher here. I applied for an education position, but the main purpose in that position – to put it in the most simple terms possible – is to actually be teaching the teachers at my school how to make their classrooms and teaching more student-centered; teaching my students English is a side effect of that goal. (One of the ways I’m teaching my co-teachers is by modeling, and that means I’m spending a lot of time teaching students.) In addition to being an English teacher, I’m now also a ballet teacher, and starting this week, I am also apparently going to be a soccer coach. I have no real qualifications as a ballet teacher or as a soccer coach, but the beauty of this job is that I’m encouraged – and given the flexibility – to support my community and my school in any way that we mutually agree I can be of help. I’m still trying to figure out what all of those ways might be, but for now, I get to provide fun, creative, active outlets for my students outside of school. And at the same time, I get to work on teaching, leading, and relating to kids, and also get some exercise and do a little dancing!
The other day, I was filling out one of the million surveys that it feels like Peace Corps is always sending us, and one of the questions asked what one word I would use to describe my service so far. It took me a little while to come up with it, but once it came to me, I knew it was right: fulfilling. Fulfilling doesn’t mean it’s always happy and joyful and packed with accomplishments, but it represents the purpose I feel I have here, the growth and learning I do every day, and the knowledge that I’m always doing my best.