My New Normal

IMG_6717

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).

IMG_6710
Teachers’ office shenanigans

IMG_6697

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.

img_6718.png
Teacher Appreciation Day!

 

 

 

IMG_6716
This little one was assigned to give me flowers during the ceremony.

 

 

img_6719.png
The first day that the students were allowed to swim in the new school pool. It was raining, but that didn’t ruin their fun!
img_6711.png
Dinner at my place with my goofy (and totally awesome) co-teachers

 

img_6715.png
Got to celebrate my birthday in Bangkok with PCV friends…

 

IMG_6714
…and they got me an ice cream cake!!

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

I’m a PCV Now

(sung to the tune of, “I’m a big kid now”)

IMG_5580.PNG
Right after I swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!

It’s been a long time since my last blog post, and a lot has happened between then and now! I’ve made it through to the start of my third full week at site (site!! the place where I’ll be living for the next two years), and I’m heading into this week with a bit of trepidation, a lot of uncertainty, and as much optimism as I can muster.

After months upon months of having very little information about what my life in Thailand will look like, I can finally answer the number one question I’ve been asked by friends and family (and that I’ve been dying of curiosity to know, myself): “Where will you be living for the next two years?”

Well! I will be living in the southern region of Thailand, in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, in a little district called Phipun. Much to my mom’s dismay, you can’t find much about my district online if you Google it, as it is pretty remote and doesn’t attract many tourists. What I’ve seen so far, though, is that Phipun is rich in natural beauty, Thai culture, and incredibly kind people. The main livelihood here (and in a lot of the south) is working on rubber tree plantations, so I’ve basically traded in flat, sprawling rice fields for overwhelming greenery and trees everywhere you look, intermixed with mountains and an overall hilly landscape. I really do miss the rice fields, but I can’t complain because my current surroundings are absolutely breathtaking.

IMG_5602.PNG
So. Many. Rubber Trees.
IMG_5582.PNG
A small street right off the main road
IMG_5586.PNG
A reservoir that is located about a fifteen minute bike ride from my host family’s house
IMG_5600.PNG
Tried to capture the view from the car (needless to say, it’s even more breathtaking in person).

In fact, when I think about how I’m doing here at site, the first thing that always comes to my mind is that I don’t have any major complaints. Every day is a rollercoaster of emotions, and managing those emotions while constantly trying to meet new people, build relationships, and integrate into my community (which is basically my job for the month of April) is most definitely hard. But I knew this was going to be hard. I actually want it to be hard; if it was easy, then I wouldn’t be getting as much out of the experience as I am now. So I really can’t complain. And at the end of every day, I really am grateful that I have the luxury to take two years off from the “normal” progression of my life to go on this crazy adventure of self-growth, exploration, and learning.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. To cover as many of those happenings as I can, here are some of my thoughts on the end of training, swearing in, moving to site, and where I am now:

1) Peace Corps makes the process of giving us our site placements as slow and anxiety-producing and excruciating as is humanly possible. First of all, we didn’t find out where we had been placed until our last week of training, exactly 9 days before we left our training communities and headed towards our new homes. When that fateful day finally came, we had to sit in training sessions and be told all about the different sites for hours before we were told which of the 67 sites we would be going to. And then, to top it all off, when we finally entered the room where we thought we were going to see a map of all of our faces located in our different sites, we instead were faced with a huge, blank outline of Thailand pasted on the floor and had to wait as each of us were individually called to go stand where our site was on the map. Throughout this whole process, Peace Corps has done a lot to get us prepared for two years of uncertainty and last-minute plans (and changes of plans) and all of the anxiety that comes with it, and the process of finding out our site placements sure was the “perfect” way to top it all off! 🙂

2) After all of the anxiety leading up to site placement day, I realized that there was no outcome that was going to feel 100% great. At the end of the day, we would be parting ways with the people who had been our strongest supporters over the past 10 grueling weeks, and as I think was the case for most of the volunteers in my group, I ended up an easy weekend trip away from some of my close friends, and a twenty-ish-hour car/bus/train ride away from some of my other close friends. I’m still trying to process what that means in terms of how frequently or infrequently I’ll get to see my friends here, and I most definitely still feel a lot of sadness over being so far from people who I’ve come to care so much about, but it has also made me even more grateful for modern technology and the ways in which it allows us to stay so connected to people on the opposite side of a country (or the world).

IMG_5581.PNG
Making a stop on our road trip to site (with my friend Ben (the only other PCV living in my province) and our counterparts)

3) One of the most significant things that I did over the past few weeks was to finish my training and swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Leading up to our swearing-in day, I thought of it as a formality, and actually didn’t give it much thought at all. I consider each day here to be an accomplishment, and I thought that transitioning from a trainee to a volunteer would just feel like another small step in my series of mini-accomplishments. Come the actual swearing-in ceremony, though, I realized that making it to that point meant a lot to me. So much of Peace Corps are those mini victories, but by swearing in as an official volunteer, I achieved a huge, tangible victory that was the sum of so much hard work, of pushing myself past where I thought I could go on a daily basis, of getting back up and moving forward every time I felt defeated, and of embracing challenge after challenge after challenge. I don’t spend a lot of time being especially proud of myself; life moves so fast that as soon as we finish one thing, we’re almost always halfway through the next. But there are a few big moments in my life where I have felt very proud of myself, and about which I still feel proud when I think back on them, and swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer is now most definitely up there on my list of proud moments.

IMG_5579.PNG
Post-swearing in vibes 🙂

4) I miss Don Chedi (our training district). I miss the people, I miss my routine there, and I miss the place. I knew I would miss Don Chedi once I got to site, but I certainly didn’t realize I would miss it as much as I do. I think there’s something really special about the way that community graciously accommodated the 70 foreigners who just suddenly showed up one day. At first, we knew almost nothing about them, and they knew almost nothing about us, but I always felt that the community members wanted to understand us as much as we wanted to understand them. At the very least, so many community members went to such great lengths to have conversations with us back when our Thai language skills were so, so, so limited. I also never heard a single person complain about the volunteers essentially taking over the seating area at the market every day for lunch. And almost all of our host parents wanted us to call them “Mom” and “Dad” from the first time we met them, to make sure we really felt like a part of their families. There’s no doubt that I miss my host family most of all, and one of my most emotional moments at site so far was video chatting with them and seeing how invested they still were in how I was doing and how excited they were to come visit. I am trying to trust in the process that eventually I will feel as much or more affinity for my current community as I feel for Don Chedi right now, but that doesn’t make the missing go away.

IMG_5591.PNG
My host mom from Don Chedi sent me this picture of my favorite kind of sandwich the other day, saying she made it for me.

5) I have awesome co-teachers. One of the things I am most grateful for about my site is how kind and welcoming all of the teachers at my school have been to me thus far. The older teachers are generally very maternal, and the younger teachers (including my two English teacher counterparts who I will actually be co-teaching with) have been fun, silly, and helpful tour guides for me over the past few weeks, showing me around the district and the province, and even driving a far distance just so we could get some really good ice cream J I am already starting to feel like we are becoming friends, and I can definitely see myself forming life-long friendships with them over the next two years.

IMG_5589.PNG
Out to dinner with some of my co-teachers

6) Thanks to my almost-daily walks around the main road in my community (which definitely cause lots of strange looks and inquisitive stares – and occasionally an offer to give me a ride – since walking for fun isn’t something most Thai people seem to do) I’ve discovered a few favorite spots in my community already. Most exciting of all is that there is a man who sells pizza at a little restaurant attached to his house, and it has REAL CHEESE!!!! Apparently, he used to be a chef at an Italian restaurant in Bangkok, but he moved back home a little while ago to take care of his elderly father. The pizza is amazing (and relatively cheap!) and it takes all of my self-restraint to not go there for lunch every day. I also happened upon a stand that says “snow ice” on it, sometime in my first week here. The sign had pictures of these elaborate-looking bingsu desserts with lots of different toppings, but it turns out that the woman who owns the stand doesn’t actually have the majority of those toppings at her stand (this seems to be a rather common occurrence here, and I am learning to approach food stands with very few expectations). However, I’ve found that bananas, strawberry sauce (with some real strawberries in it), and lots of chocolate sauce on top of the bingsu (“snow ice”) makes for a pretty darn good, refreshing ice cream-ish treat! I have found a ton of different coffee shops along the main road, but since I don’t know much about the difference between “good” coffee and “bad” coffee, I’ve chosen my favorite one based on ambiance alone. The shop essentially makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a local coffee shop in a small town in the U.S; it has air conditioning, wifi, comfy couches and chairs, and quaint decorations. You can find me there whenever I magically get a couple hours off from responsibilities in the middle of the day (aka the hottest part of the day, when the air conditioning becomes extra key).

IMG_5585.PNG
Pizza!!!! (And my oh-so-lovely Kindle)
IMG_5583.PNG
One of my “snow ice” creations

7) So after all of that reflecting and explaining and rambling, here I am. I am living in the middle of nowhere in a country across the world from my home, speaking a language I’ve only spent ten weeks learning, about to do a job (teaching) in which I have no degree or certification or prior experience. You could call me crazy, and I certainly wouldn’t argue, but somehow I still feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I can’t quite put words to it, but I guess I just can’t imagine any other place or life situation I’d rather be in right now. I feel ready for the challenge and excited for what comes next. So here’s to the roller-coaster of the next two years, and all of the adventures and successes and failures and learning that will come with it! If you’ve made it all the way to this point in this blog post, thanks for sticking with me, and I’ll try to write again soon!

IMG_5303.JPG

“Good Morning, Teacher!”

IMG_4393
“Teacher Julia” with my energetic 3rd graders 🙂

For the past two weeks, I have walked into a room full of smiling students almost every day to hear the collective chant: “Good morning, teacher!” To which I am supposed to respond “Good morning, class! How are you today?” The students then say, “I am fine, thank you. And you?” And I am supposed to then say, “I am fine, thank you.” If I stray at all from this script (i.e. by saying “I am great!” instead of “I am fine”), then I am faced with a multitude of blank stares as the students try to figure out what they are supposed to do next. Needless to say, when it comes to English, rural Thai students are generally absolute champs at repetition and call and response, but many of them have almost no practical English skills.

I am both excited and sad to say that this past Wednesday, I finished my teacher practicum, where I was responsible for teaching English to two classes of Thai students – a class of 23 3rd graders and a class of 35 4th graders. I made lesson plans, materials, tried to get my students to pay attention and stop hitting each other, and was observed by Peace Corps Staff every day. In this short amount of time, I learned a lot about classroom management and the importance of differentiation, I realized that teaching my students to think for themselves was just as – or more – difficult and important than teaching them English, and I came to learn about and love every single one of them (even the ones who made classroom management ten times harder than it would have been otherwise:) I will admit though, that I failed to learn all of my students’ names, and I now have great respect for all of my teachers throughout the years who knew my name after the first week of school!

IMG_4197.JPG
The students at my practicum school during their daily morning assembly

Practicum was exhausting and stressful and fun and educational and crazy and time-consuming, but in the end, it was really, really rewarding. The last day of practicum was Valentine’s Day, and I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a Valentine’s Day where I felt as loved and appreciated (or where I received as many Valentines) as I did on this one! This meant a lot to me, as one of the things I’ve been most worried about lately is how I am going to feel celebrating the holidays away from my home and loved ones. So I am happy to report that I have now successfully made it through one major holiday without shedding any tears! (But feel free to check back in on this after Thanksgiving and Christmas;) My favorite part about finishing my practicum on Valentine’s Day, though, is that I got to get a glimpse into how my students perceived this “farang” (Thai word for foreigner) who had been teaching them for the past couple of weeks. Thanks to the translation skills of my ajaan (Thai language teacher), here are a few of my favorite things that my students wrote to me in their Valentines:

“Thank you for teaching us, especially when I know you have to bike so much every day and then figure out things for us to do.” (Happy to see that my students appreciate the crazy amount of biking I do every day!)

“I am sorry we are very naughty.” (Ah, if only being sorry translated into being a little less “naughty”!)

and

“I wish Teacher Julia could teach us forever, but we don’t want to force your heart to stay, since you are very far from your family.” (Yes, one of my 4th graders actually used the expression, “force your heart to stay,” and I wanted to go give her a hug right then and there:)

And to top it all off, I got to finish the day covered in stickers!

IMG_4398

It has been three weeks since my last blog post, and in addition to practicum, a lot has happened during this time. I think the biggest change is that to some extent, I have begun to settle into a routine here, and I have also started to become very attached to the people and places in my life right now. In about four weeks, however, I will be sent off, by myself, to a different rural village in Thailand, potentially very far away. I will leave behind this community, the students I taught here, the market where I eat lunch most days and where you can almost always find some Peace Corps volunteers hanging out after training and on the weekends, the Peace Corps Thailand training staff, the most delicious coconut ice cream stand, my Peace Corps friends, the dog that chases after me (and always seems to come inches from biting my toes off) whenever I decide to take the scenic route home, my language group (aka the three awesome volunteers I’ve spent the most time with since I got here), our amazing ajaan (who has taught us most of what we know about the Thai language and culture, while also being our biggest cheerleader the entire time), and my incredibly kind and generous host family (who have made me feel like a real family member, made sure the kitchen is always stocked with apples and nutella, followed me on my bike for so many mornings – well after I knew my way around town – to make sure I got to my destination safely without getting hit by a car or getting hit on the head by a falling coconut, poured copious amounts of hand-cleansing gel on me whenever anyone in the family was the slightest bit sick, let me sleep in on Sunday mornings (the only day of the week I don’t have Peace Corps training starting at 8am), and showed me the utmost patience and acceptance as I made accidental cultural blunders and struggled to communicate with them using lots of non-verbal gestures and the little bit of Thai language I knew during my first few weeks here).

So, although this training has been absolutely grueling, I’m trying to savor the time I do have left with these people and places before I head off to begin the bulk of my Peace Corps adventure somewhere else. And while two years seems like a long time to be away from home, I feel very grateful that the next set of places and people I become attached to, I won’t have to leave so quickly.

Because my brain is fried and my body is sweaty and I’m tired of writing about myself and all I want to do is lie down on the floor directly under my bedroom fan (and because they say a picture is worth a thousand words), here are some pictures from my past three weeks in Thailand:

IMG_4214
My language group and our incredible ajaan (wearing the red shirt) on community mapping day, where we spent the morning biking around to all of our houses to meet each other’s host families

 

IMG_4285
Julia + some friends! (Dressed up in traditional Thai clothing)

IMG_4287

P.S. I found a friend who likes ice cream and sugar just as much as I do!!

 

IMG_4299

My host sister brought this home from the market for me last week and said (in Thai), “Look Julia! I got you a salad so you don’t get fat!” This “salad” consisted of barley, corn, beans, a few grape tomatoes, some apple slices, and a ton of “dressing” that I’m pretty sure was just mayonnaise and condensed milk. The way Thai people talk about bodies is very different – and much more straightforward – than the way we talk about physical appearance in the U.S…and clearly their perception of healthy food is different from ours as well!

 

IMG_4327IMG_4341

My host sisters took me to an ancient Wat (Buddhist Temple) over the weekend. Afterwards, we fed some huuuge koi fish and then ate dinner out at a pizza restaurant!!

IMG_4340IMG_4356

 

IMG_4300

The way Thai people usually express the idea “to eat a meal” is by saying, “gin kao,” which directly translates to, “to eat rice.” Needless to say, we eat a lot of rice here! We eat rice for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, for a snack, and even sometimes as dessert (in the form of sticky rice). Above is a picture of the garbage can in my family’s kitchen that is filled with dry rice! I guess if anyone drops their phone in water, it won’t be a problem over here!

 

IMG_4446

This past week, my host family took me to an amazing festival in a neighboring province, Lopburi. The festival was magical, and between the lights, masses of people, and tons of people dressed in beautiful Thai traditional clothing, it felt like I had entered Thailand’s version of Disney World! It was such a cool experience, and even though we didn’t get back to our house until around 2am (and I had to bike to training that started as per usual at 8am the next morning), the experience was definitely worthwhile.

IMG_4465

 

IMG_4522
My extended host family and me. Can you spot the farang? 🙂
IMG_4514.JPG
From right to left: My host mom, me, my host sister-in-law (who I usually refer to as my host sister), my host sister-in-law’s two aunts, and my host sister-in-law’s mom. (My host sister-in-law and her family are from the province where this festival took place)

IMG_4487 2

I Live on a Shrimp Farm

IMG_4139 (Trying on some Thai traditional dress with my host sister and host mom)

It’s true, I do live on a shrimp farm now, and I’ll be living here for the next two months. I’ve never been a fan of fish or seafood (including shrimp), but I am slowly in the process of changing that. I eat a lot of shrimp now – sometimes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and I’m actually starting to really like it.

In the past three weeks, I’ve changed a lot more than just my taste for shrimp. I’ve adjusted. I’ve integrated. I’ve learned. I’ve done a lot of sweating. And it’s exhausting. But it turns out that after 22 years of life, my habits, likes, dislikes, perceived capabilities, fears, annoyances, and beliefs are not set in stone at all. So with each new challenge, I’ve done whatever was necessary to adjust and get through it: squat potty – check, biking on busy roads where motorcyclists and car drivers don’t follow the traffic rules – check; trying to order something mild and ending up with something extremely spicy but eating it anyway – check; waking up at 6am or earlier every day – check; taking care of my basic needs while navigating a huge language barrier – check.

I don’t quite know how to summarize my experience in the Peace Corps so far. It’s only been three weeks, but it feels like it’s been months. I could write a whole blog post about each individual day, but I don’t have time for that, and you probably don’t have time to read all of that. Overall, though, I love it. Each day I make it through feels like a huge accomplishment. I feel good about what I’m working towards. The other trainees are all amazing human beings, and I know I could sit down with any of the 70 of them and have a valuable, fascinating conversation for hours on end (I’ve even already done this with some of them!)

But it is also no doubt the hardest thing I have done in my life. I thought it would be, but now I’m certain. These three weeks have been grueling, and I don’t want to give anyone the idea that I’m living this idealistic fairy tale life where I always feel optimistic and joyful. It’s hard work. But one of the mantras that the Peace Corps staff love reminding us of, is: “You can do hard things.” And I’m slowly finding out how true this statement really is.

Moving on from the (maybe overly) reflective section of this blog post, here’s what has been going on in my life lately:

Group 130 (my group of volunteers) met up in LA, got a half day of orientation, and then flew to Thailand. Notes – compression socks are great when you’re flying for a total of about 20 hours; rolling bags are better than carry-on-your-shoulder bags; the South Korean airline we flew on is awesome; there was a Halloween flavored ice cream and two Christmas flavors at the Baskin Robbins in the Seoul airport (this was during the first week of January); and apparently we are all adult enough to make this two-day trip without any chaperones. (Also, for those wondering, I have only spent about one hour in Bangkok so far, at the airport, but I will be going there as a part of my training at the end of March.)

Group 130 then spent 10 days in a lovely, air-conditioned hotel in the main city of Suphanburi Province, where we received a crash course in Thai culture, Thai language, safety, Peace Corps policies, and getting to know each other and the staff. Notes – I signed up to go somewhere hot, but ended up sitting in training session after training session in a freezing hotel conference room for over a week (this is just about my only complaint about the hotel and those ten days, but man, it was cold); does every Peace Corps country have staff as great as ours? (because our Thai teachers (ajaans) are so good at what they do, all of the staff members are so friendly and funny and knowledgeable and approachable, and they all taught us so much in such a short amount of time); it’s possible to develop strong friendships in just 10 days; street food will not make you sick and is actually some of the best food I’ve eaten here so far; don’t take for granted how nice it is to have so many places within walking distance; and my fellow trainees are reallllyyy good at karaoke.

IMG_4035(First day adventures in Suphanburi with some of the other volunteers)

  IMG_3821.JPGIMG_3890

(View from my hotel room (left) vs. view from my current bedroom (right) – the sun really does seem redder in Thailand!)

 

Group 130 then moved in with our host families in a rural district of Suphanburi Province. This is where we have been living, training, biking, and sweating for the past week and a half (and will continue to do so for the next two months). This section deserves a bit more than just “notes,” so below are some details and a few of the things I’ve experienced during this part of my training so far:

My host family consists of a mom, dad, the oldest brother, and his wife. On the weekends, the middle brother and younger sister come back home from where they are studying (at an undergraduate school and graduate school) in Bangkok. We also have three dogs, three birds (one who can apparently speak Thai, although I have yet to hear him do so), a rooster who likes to just stand in the corner of the garage all day for some reason I don’t know, and somewhere between 10 and 18 cats (every time I ask exactly how many, I get a slightly different answer, but I think it’s about 14 or 15). Needless to say, this is a very different experience from when I lived with a host family in a small apartment in the capital city of Jordan.

IMG_4084
(The family’s youngest member, “Cheetah,” hiding in the garage)
IMG_4095
(The family’s first cat, “Tiger,” lounging on the Spirit House in the backyard)

My host family does not actually farm shrimp anymore; another part of the family that lives in a house on the opposite side of the plot of water (I’m not quite sure of the correct technical terms to talk about shrimp farms) does the farming. Instead, my family owns and operates a hand-cleansing gel factory on the property. They have a staff of workers who sometimes hang around in the house or eat with us, and they distribute worldwide. It took me a few days to learn about the existence of the factory; my first days here I kept seeing strangers around the house and thought that my family didn’t think I cleaned my hands enough! Now, I have my own bottle of hand-cleansing gel (jasmine scented because the Thai nickname my family gave me is “Malik,” which means jasmine in English), and any time other volunteers come over, my host sister-in-law gives them a tour of the factory and they go home with their own little bottles of hand-cleansing gel (one friend even went home with a huge bottle of it!) It’s really cool to see a small (seemingly very successful) family business run by women (my host mom and host sister-in-law), and sometimes I get to test-smell the new scents they are mixing up for a client!

My host family is also incredibly kind, patient, and generous towards me. I have learned that part of Thai culture is immense hospitality and generosity (to an extent that in America, we might find excessive). This can be wonderful, but also frustrating when you’re on the receiving end of it and don’t know how to reciprocate or even just express how grateful you are. Saying “thank you” over and over and over again doesn’t feel adequate, but the plus side is that this has given me even more motivation to learn the language quickly. Navigating host family life with such little Thai language ability is definitely the biggest challenge I have faced here so far. It results in lots of long, awkward silences and miscommunications and a lot of frustration on both sides, but I know that facing this challenge is an important part of my training, and will hopefully prepare me for a lot of the challenges I will inevitably face at site. Also, somehow I’ve still managed to connect with them and am starting to feel like part of the family, using the little Thai I do know and a lot of non-verbal communication.

IMG_3934.JPG
(The Don Chedi Festival Show (celebrating Thailand’s independence from Myanmar), which my host family took me to)

My days consist of biking, language training, biking, technical training, biking, and lots of eating. I am learning to embrace the sweaty life, and biking to training, changing from my biking clothes into professional work clothes while dripping in sweat, then changing out of them and back into my dirty biking clothes, biking somewhere else for a different part of training, and then changing back into my professional work clothes, and then one last time changing into my biking clothes and biking back home, is becoming my new normal. On a positive note, it’s acceptable here to take multiple showers a day, and I am definitely taking advantage of that! It’s an exhausting schedule, though, and I know I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have a whole group of people doing it with me and supporting each other the whole way through.

In conclusion (because I know this is bordering on too lengthy – sorry!), I am a much tougher person than I was three weeks ago, and I am going to have to get a lot tougher to make it through the next two years. I miss my friends and family back home, but thankfully I’m also so extremely busy that I don’t have too much time to think about that. I do think about you all though, and I’m always willing to try to make time for a quick skype or facetime call! Just let me know! I’m sending my love all the way from Thailand, and I hope to be able to write another update in a couple weeks from now!

 

IMG_3870.JPG
(The string bracelets tied around my hand by our host families during the ceremony welcoming us into the community)

 

Time to Start the Countdown

13906626_10209214488952137_2389432824404608825_n
The picture that perfectly sums up my life right now.

In exactly one month from today, I will arrive in Thailand to begin my 27 month adventure with the Peace Corps as an education volunteer. I’ve repeated that line over and over in my head to try to get it to really sink in, but it still doesn’t feel real.

At the request of friends and family (namely my mom:), I am starting this blog to let people know what I’m up to and to keep a record of my experiences. Most importantly, though, I’m writing this blog in an attempt to share as much as I can about what I learn from the Thai people – about their experiences and culture – with other Americans. I didn’t know this before I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer, but the Peace Corps is actually just as much about facilitating a cultural exchange as it is about helping people around the world. So during the next few years (while I’m serving, but also once I finish my service) I will be doing my best to bring the United States to Thailand, and to bring Thailand back to the United States.

My journey with the Peace Corps began this past April as I finished up my senior year at Middlebury and started to seriously consider applying to serve as a volunteer. I started my application in May, sent it in at the beginning of June, found out I got accepted at the end of July, had three days to accept my invitation (which I did…needless to say, those three days were filled with a series of existential crises), received my medical clearance at the end of September (it took me three whole months, and I consider myself to be pretty healthy!!), received my legal clearance at the end of October (Halloween, to be precise), and now I’m here: one month away from the scariest and most exciting endeavor of my life so far.

The next month will be filled with packing, celebrating the holidays, doing a bunch of random things I need to get done before I leave, trying to learn at least a few Thai words and expressions, and saying my last goodbyes to the people I love (yes, it’s a see you later, not a goodbye, but it’s a see you way way way later). If I’m a little bit spacey or a bad responder to texts and such over the next few weeks, I apologize in advance. There are already a million thoughts running through my head, and a low level of constant anxiety set in a couple of weeks ago. I can only imagine what the next four weeks will bring mentally and emotionally, but I do know that mixed in with whatever I’m feeling will also be a ton of excitement.

I won’t deny that I still ask myself on a regular basis if I’m making the right choice. I know I will be missing out on a lot over the next two years, and I will probably miss my friends and family much more than I ever have before. Not to mention, I’m running headfirst into a life of extreme heat, squat potties, an entirely new language and culture, scorpions and other creepy crawlies (eek!!), and a whole lot of uncertainty. But I always go back to the reason I convinced myself to accept my invitation four months ago: I know that I’ll regret it if I don’t try it, and I know that even if it’s harder than I’m anticipating, I’ll never regret having the experience once I finish it.

Three years ago, I was terrified at the prospect of spending four months studying abroad in Jordan; it turned out to be one of the most amazing and valuable – if not the most amazing and valuable – semesters I spent as a Middlebury student. When I came back home, it occurred to me that I would have missed out on so much if I had given in to my fears and spent the semester on campus instead. In trying to learn from my almost-mistake, I’ve decided to take another leap into an even crazier adventure and listen to the wise words of Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” So Thailand, here I come. Peace Corps, here I come. Homesickness, uncertainty, adventure, new friends, here I come. In this moment, I really feel like I’m living a beautiful life (or a beau-Thai-ful life), and I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity I have been given. I realize how lucky and privileged I am to get to spend the next chapter of my life in this way, and I plan to make the most of it and to use this opportunity to bring as much beauty into other peoples’ lives as I can, while full-heartedly accepting the beauty they bring into mine.

Thank you to all of the friends and family who have supported me in this decision and who have helped me get to this point. I will miss you all madly, and please keep me updated on your lives as I try to keep you updated on mine!

**Also shoutout to the Peace Corps volunteers over in Thailand right now who have provided such good advice to those of us heading over next and have so patiently answered all of our questions. My packing list would be a whole lot different (in a bad, unprepared way) if it weren’t for all of you!