Written by Samantha Harper (current WorldTeach Thailand volunteer)
When I came to Thailand through WorldTeach, my biggest fear was that I would be lonely. I imagined myself in a village where I would be unable to communicate with the inhabitants. My students would be too young to be my friends, and my co-teachers would likely be too old. I knew (hoped) that the experience would be challenging and fulfilling, but I also supposed that I would make weekend escapes to Bali and Hanoi, and submit to the travel bug whenever the pace of my village was too isolating or slow.
In actuality, I am struck by the irony of the fact that the only real trial I’ve encountered has been having too many social engagements, and too many people amongst whom to spread my time. Two weekends ago, during my school’s English Camp, I realized (as I often do) how absurdly lucky I am to be here; how completely my village of Ban Phaeng has enraptured me; and how, even with the lowest of the low days, I am ultimately happy to have made a home in this warm, generous, sometimes overly-loving place. My ambitious list of Southeast Asian cities and countries to hit has lost priority in light of immersing myself in all that this tiny, unexpectedly lovely town and its inhabitants have to offer.
At the beginning of my WorldTeach journey, I was warned of a “3 month wall” – that dreaded time when culture shock could get the best of you. I took this concept to heart in the past week, allowing myself to sink into the combined feeling of sadness for home and frustration at living in a place where I constantly have to adapt and adjust. In a way, it was a comfort to know that around that time frame, the novelty of a culture wears off and the reality of diurnal life sets in. At the same time, though, anticipating this “wall” implants the idea that the newness of Thailand and subsequent happiness are only temporary. For the newness, this is true; but for the happiness, this is completely false. I love my day-to-day life here. I don’t think hitting this wall means that the excitement of the experience has passed; I think it means I’ve settled into a place that I can now recognize as my home.
A weekend at English Camp pivoted my attention away from my recent homesickness and toward this new outlook. It was, without any trace of exaggeration, pure bliss. As I checked my students into camp on Friday after classes, all of the teachers came up to me individually and said that they could hear me laughing and see me smiling, and were happy that I was once again back to my normal self. I was a little bit nervous for this moment: the previous week, I hadn’t saved face by showing my sadness and frustration, and I was worried that my friends would think I had lost my enthusiasm and my charm once they saw my homesickness oozing out of me. What I realized instead is that they want the best for me. Maybe they see me as their farang noi (“little foreigner”), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see me for who I actually am, too. We’ve spent significant amounts of time together over the past three months, and maybe it’s a little bit unfair to all of us to suggest that they haven’t gotten to know the “real me.” Who knows – maybe the real me is someone different since coming here.
To kick off English Camp, I – offhandedly – mentioned to the teacher next to me that I “needed” some coffee. She instantly stood up, and went to talk to some of the boy students. A few minutes later, they were carrying in a huge water cooler and setting it up. Another set of boys returned with a freshly purchased bag of instant coffee. At my profuse expression of gratitude, I received the typical Thai responses: “Don’t worry about it!” and “Never mind!”
This generosity – which I have become accustomed to – was amplified to me when I saw it bestowed upon my friends. Four fellow WorldTeach volunteers came to work the English Camp, and the teachers showed them hospitality that any host should envy. My friends were brought water and coffee and cake and cookies endlessly throughout the weekend. When one of my friends had a bug bite, the teachers rushed to the office for a temporary fix of anti-itch balm, and a permanent fix of purchasing a new bug spray bottle for her to keep. We stayed in another English teacher’s beautiful home, and were given luxury treatment. The last lunch of the weekend, we were taken to the teachers’ favorite restaurant, and treated to dish upon dish until the teachers were absolutely certain that we were im (“full”).
Aside from the all of the pampering, camp itself was a blast. All of the Intensive English Program students (IEP) attended, who are all of the students that I teach. On Friday and Saturday nights, there were giant group activities such as Life Size Scrabble and a talent show. The students camped in the classrooms all weekend, ready for early morning workouts / dance parties that were followed by different English-related games all day long. Once again – as always – I was dumbfounded by my students’ maturity. They ran the sound systems, handled the photography, made announcements, led the workouts, and helped teachers run activities. On Saturday, the night ended with a dance party, which my students begged me to participate in. Interacting with my students and seeing them for the individual people that they are outside of the classroom will always stay with me as one of the most surprisingly extraordinary experiences of coming here. These kids have deeply charmed me.
Throughout the weekend, the playful nature of my relationship with the teachers was illuminated for me. Kru Wijit and I have a running joke about her “boyfriend,” and when I made a comment to her in line with our bit, the other WorldTeach volunteers commented on how friendly my relationship with the teachers seemed. Pi Ole – who is not an English teacher – came both nights to spend time with those of us who were working. She brought her daughters as well, who call me “Pi Sam” (a term that is both affectionate and respectful) and love to practice their English with me. To have this family with whom I am so comfortable pay me a visit during working hours gave me the feeling that I am fully part of this Ban Phaeng family. It was a wonderful meeting of my two worlds to share the weekend with my American friends, and I felt lucky to forge deeper connections with them as well. Before they left, some of the teachers asked for photos of all of us together – “We want pictures of Sammy and her friends,” they explained.
There are certainly adjustments that I’ve been making here, but I’m going to do away with the thought that receiving too much attention and affection is a “problem.” I am proud to be part of a school that values me so highly, and blessed to feel overly-welcome instead of overly-isolated. The reality is that the teachers here are making adjustments on my behalf, too. After meals, everyone immediately starts picking their teeth. When asked why I don’t do the same, I mentioned that it isn’t as common in America. Since that time, the teachers only pick their teeth when I’m not looking. If I catch them in the act, they quickly say, “Sorry, Sammy!” which we all then laugh about. Another time, I was pretty disturbed by the chicken feet that everyone was eating (I’m not a picky eater, but this food, for whatever reason, really sets off my gag reflex). The teachers proceeded to hide the feet under their noodles, and move to another area of the room when they wanted to dig into the remaining part of their meal. It was really unnecessary, and exceedingly sweet.
I also recently learned that hugging is not a part of Thai culture, a total shock to me given that I am constantly being embraced. Teachers are always wrapping their arms around me, pulling me into their laps, and walking with me held tightly next to them. When they mentioned that it is not typically something they do, I couldn’t hide my disbelief. “We love you, and we know it’s part of your culture,” they explained. “We want you to feel comfortable and cared for here.” This brought tears to my eyes.
My good friend and fellow English teacher, Noiz, explained to me that in Isaan language (the local dialect here, spoken on the border of Thailand and Laos), Ban means “house” and Phaeng means “love.” Our village of Ban Phaeng, he said, is known for doing away with linguistic and cultural barriers, and expressing itself by communicating with love. Lately, teachers have told me that I’m more beautiful now than when I arrived, and have asked me quite regularly if this is because I’ve fallen in love (my mom has a theory that your friends become more beautiful to you as you grow closer with them, which I think is actually the answer here). I always reply that I have fallen in love – with Ban Phaeng and everyone in it. They like that answer. I like that answer, too.