Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the world in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from every Peace Corps country. This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Thailand.
Christine – Age 27
Where are you from?
I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan, but most recently lived in Portland, Oregon and that is home in my heart.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Thailand in the Teacher Collaboration and Community Service project. The goal of this program, which was a redesign of the previous education project in Thailand and started with my group [intake] here, is to build the capacity of primary English teachers in Thailand, to increase English abilities among the students, and to build the relationship between the school and community through community service projects. We were assigned to work with the English teachers at one primary school or extended primary school. An extended primary school is grades 1-9, which is the level of compulsory education in Thailand. They are usually found in the most rural areas that don’t have a secondary school nearby so that the kids in the area can complete their legally required schooling.
For most volunteers in this project, a typical, ideal day includes going to school and spending the day in the classroom with a co-teacher teaching English based on a lesson you planned together. For me, I spend my days at the school specifically writing the lesson plans for my co-teacher to use in the classroom, an agreed upon arrangement we came to after I saw during the first semester how strong her in classroom skills were with the students, and me feeling like I was trying to run through snow, and both of us realizing that she just didn’t have time to sit down and lesson plan with me. My goal was to have a year’s set of lesson plans that each built on each other for grades 1-6 that she could just have at the end of my service. I will also give them to director of English programming for my school district to give to other teachers in the district.
That brings me to another aspect of the project. We often participate as facilitators and trainers for teacher trainings with our local education offices. We also do student camps, which in terms of increasing knowledge seem rather futile, but in terms of increasing motivation and desire to learn English are pretty effective.
Then, of course, there are the secondary projects that we do as we see need for them. I’ve created a theater group that has gone to the Thai Youth Theatre Festival for two years now. This theater camp was started by PCVs and British volunteers about 12 years ago. At camp student groups come and perform a short play in English and learn about theater skills. Right now I’m also working on a World Map mural at my school and my students are really stoked about it!
[Editor’s note: if you’re a PCV and want to learn more about how to do the World Map Project in your own site, click here.]
What is your house like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I usually describe my house as being a garage. My building has a row of 8 units, each with two big rolling doors as the front door. Then it’s a big, kind of long room, but there is an upstairs with a nice open balcony and the bedroom. In the back on the first floor is the bathroom and a door out back to a small enclosed area. However, the cement walls don’t quite meet the corrugated metal ceiling, there’s a couple inch gap that allows lots of bugs and dirt and dust and ash in from when the nearby sugar cane is burned in preparation for harvest.
I have a mattress on the ground under a mosquito net, a couch and chair set, an armoire-like dresser, a bookshelf, a table, a counter-like pantry, a refrigerator, a microwave, a rice cooker and a burner with a propane tank. My house has running water, electricity and I bought a washing machine (it’s more like a big basin with an electric agitator that I have to fill and drain manually, and then a giant salad spinner to spin out the water when I’m done washing) with some of my settling-in allowance. The electricity goes out when it storms and sometimes the water stops during the hot season, but never for more than a day. I don’t have a shower head or hot water (cold bucket baths at my house), a flushing toilet (squat toilet, for the win!) or air conditioning. (I know a lot of other volunteers out there are probably saying, “Duh, no air conditioning,” but some volunteers in Thailand do have it.) My mom recently brought to my attention that my grandma was curious about how utilities work, so I figured I would include that information as well. I get an electricity bill each month, but sometimes it’s zero baht [Thai currency]. I’m not sure how it works really. I have a water meter outside of my unit and when I go pay my rent, I tell my landlady how much it’s changed. After several months of it only changing by one (which costs 5 baht or the equivalent of 16 cents, to which she would tell me, “I don’t want it.”), she stopped asking.
My community is pretty sprawling and my house is not in any of the main villages. I spend almost all of my working time at the school, so it’s been challenging to establish my presence here. Plus, almost all of the Thais my age don’t live in the villages; they’ve moved to Bangkok or another larger city to work and come back for the major holidays. The grandmas and kids in my village are great, but it’s lonely sometimes being the only young adult.
For eating, this is actually pretty tricky for my area of Thailand. I’m a vegetarian, have been for 14 years (though I haven’t fought the fish sauce fight here, it would be way too exhausting). So when I’m eating with Thais, I mostly end up eating rice, fried eggs and stir-fried vegetables. When we go out, I like to eat a kind of noodle soup, pad see ew, papaya salad (without the shrimp or crab or fermented fish sauce), fried morning glory [a vegetable], fried rice, stir-fried basil with tofu, fried pumpkin with garlic and all of the fruits. There are so many different fruits here; it’s incredible. Also, Thais are always eating. All throughout the day. There are always snacks available and if you go somewhere on a trip, you should bring back a snack from that region to share with everyone. In fact, just today, it was maybe an hour and a half after lunch and all of a sudden, all the teachers were in the office eating papaya salad together. I don’t know where it came from, or what the students were doing, but it was definitely snack time for the teachers. So, much here centers around food and eating; the most common greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” and regardless of your answer, you’ll be offered some kind of food.
What are the Thai people like?
My neighbor to the right of me works at the local government office. He’s single and lives here during the week and goes back to his family on the weekends. In the last 6 months, he’s started selling clothes and shoes on the market days. He rented a second unit to store the racks of clothes and stuff and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he opens it up to sell to the people who are heading to the market that happens about 200 meters further down the road.
To my left, there is a young couple, who will be having a baby soon. They, I think, work with family members or contacts in other parts of the country that are better for growing fruit as they sell the fruit at the local markets. They frequently go back to the villages to visit their families on weekends. The other units have had a rotation of tenets that come for a planting season or harvesting season and then leave. Just last month someone moved into the far end unit and installed some coin operated washing machines out front, so I think they’ll be sticking around for a while. I haven’t had a chance to meet them yet because our schedules have never synced up. My landlady lives across the street and her family farms in the area. During rice harvest time, there will be tarps of drying rice laid out all over the property. Right now it’s time to harvest sugar cane, so there are frequently huge trucks (they run on basically a riding lawn mower’s engine) outside waiting for the next field to harvest. She also has a sometimes restaurant.
We all live relatively modest lives, though I know I travel the country much more than they do. Most Thais don’t leave their villages unless there is a better economic opportunity elsewhere, or if they are a civil servant and have been assigned somewhere else. They are very family oriented, with most families living on compounds of houses. Traditionally, the man would move onto his wife’s family’s property and build a house for them there.
I live in the poorest region of Thailand, the northeast, but in all of my travels I think that the people here are the best. Not many tourists or travelers come to this part of Thailand, and so when they do see me, they are genuinely interested in meeting me, talking to me, and helping me. They are so proud of Thailand and their region and want to show it off to me, and when I bust out the minimal dialect I know (usually I just say “I can’t speak Isaan!” in the Isaan dialect, which always gets a laugh), I have instantly made a new friend. That’s not to say that Thais in other parts of the country aren’t nice; Thais are genuinely some of the nicest and most generous people I’ve had the opportunity to know. Going to the bus station I will often have someone ask me where I’m going so they can help me find the right bus within a couple of minutes. It comes to the concept of naam jai, which literally means “water heart,” but generally means the generosity of giving with no expectation of return and only to make the other person feel good. There is a societal expectation to be giving, but it’s done with such a willingness that it’s as if the expectation isn’t there. The people that I am close with in my community, my neighbors, the ladies at the stores I frequent, all have shown me naam jai at some point, and it’s really humbling.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
There are a couple things that I think fall into the category of most rewarding. First, I’ve been in contact with a number of people who came to vacation in Thailand and got to hang out with a couple of them here, explaining to them about Thailand and Thai culture. Being able to share that deeper part of my country of service with people who may have only gotten a surface, tourist experience really gets to the heart of Peace Corps service for me. There certainly are countries that, just by the nature of a volunteer being there, opens up their network’s eyes to its existence, but for Thailand it’s a place that realistically people go to vacation and want to know more about and want to be culturally respectful and aware. I’ve been able to help people do that. I’ve had a couple of people tell me, “I never would have known that or gone there if you hadn’t told me!” I like to joke that I’m an advanced-low expert on Thailand (to crib from the Language Proficiency Interview scores).
Also, I’ve been an organizing member of the Thai Youth Theatre Project. Each year, a committee of six volunteers organizes the Thai Youth Theatre Festival, where PCVs and teachers who worked with PCVs can bring a student group to perform a short play entirely in English. The students also get to learn about various theater skills, like singing, dancing, mask making, sword fighting, costuming and shadow puppetry (to name but a few). All of these students come from rural schools and usually don’t get an opportunity to travel outside of their province and participate in a camp like this. Our camp isn’t a competition, but really just a way to make learning English appealing and fun. I brought a group of students both years of my service.
Last year, it was a lot of cajoling on my part, but they ended up having a blast. So, when I asked if they wanted to go this year, the students prepared everything completely on their own! They only needed my help in securing transportation and making sure the test dates didn’t conflict. Seeing the effects of that first year on my students this second time around has made me so proud of them. Not only that, but seeing the transformation of all the students at the festival, watching them come out of their shell and make friends with other students from different regions and just have fun while speaking English (something that is absolutely terrifying for most Thais, even ones who studied English at university) is incredible.
We have a Facebook page! If you want to check out pictures and videos from the festival, click here.
Finally, the relationship I have with my co-teacher has been extremely rewarding. The first time we spoke, I called her on the phone during PST to try and figure out the logistics for our 4-day site visit. At first she didn’t pick up, and at that time I was surrounded by all the Thai staff who were available to help with language and communication barriers. She ended up calling me back at lunch, with none of the staff around, and as I stumbled through my Thai, she told me to just speak English. There still ended up being some miscommunication, and I ended up in tears, just frustrated and feeling completely lost. I recently sat down with her and did an interview for a video with her and she told me about how when we first met, she was worried because I seemed shy and not happy (I was terrified and had no clue what was going on) because she likes to talk to people and laugh and have fun. Now, she says she’s so glad to have had me as her volunteer, that the trips we’ve gone on and all of our conversations mean a lot to her – and they mean a lot to me too. I wouldn’t have made it through this without her.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
Greatest challenges here has certainly been the culture. I was raised by some incredibly strong female role models and have been extremely outspoken and headstrong throughout my life. Thai culture is extremely even-keeled:
Don’t rock the boat.
Respect the hierarchy.
There’s a (often convoluted and bureaucratic) way of doing things.
Don’t show any emotions other than a smile.
Adapting to all of that was hard enough. Then throw into the mix that I’m typically the youngest woman in the room. Now, I’m expected to be subservient to everyone else. Spooning out rice, setting the table, clearing the table, doing the dishes, serving water and coffee and snacks to guests at the school (even if I’m supposed to be teaching or working), greet everyone first, defer to everyone else in the room, accept that some male teachers are going to ogle me and don’t say or do anything about it. That was really hard for me to adjust to and accept as expected behavior. I’ve honestly only really started embracing that role in the past few months, and it’s completely boosted my relationship with the other teachers at my school.
I think the hardest fact about that for me was that no one in my community told me that is what they wanted and expected from me. I’m finishing my service at the end of March, and I went almost the whole time without really knowing exactly how much me not conforming to gender roles was an issue. There’s no denying that Thailand has a lot of the physical amenities and creature comforts that are generally considered lacking for most Peace Corps countries. But the mental gymnastics that volunteers have to do here, the invisible strain on volunteers, sometimes makes me wish I was walking 5 km to get water everyday instead, at least as long as I knew what people were really thinking. The introduction of technology and physical amenities to a developing area is relatively easy. Changing the mindset around those objects and the culture around how education and government and everything else takes a lot longer. So, when you see what appears on the surface to be a modern society, and then you go to school where the youngest teacher has to do all the paperwork on top of teaching a full course load while the oldest teacher teaches P.E. (which means he sits around and drinks and smokes), it makes it hard to comprehend and reconcile in your mind.
Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I tried really hard to come into Peace Corps with no expectations. After accepting my invitation and committing to going, I read a lot of things that were critical of Peace Corps. That really opened my mind up to the idea that Peace Corps is much more of a cultural exchange program than a development program. I’m not sure what I expected Peace Corps to be coming in to by service. But, whatever those expectations were, I’d say that Peace Corps completely trampled them. I don’t think there’s any expectation that could live up to the realities of immersing yourself in a completely different culture for two years. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Why did you join Peace Corps? Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
I joined Peace Corps because I wanted to gain experience in living a life that I would have had no possibility of living otherwise. I wanted to prove to myself that I can go in blind somewhere and build a network and relationships by meeting people on a human level. I wanted to tell the stories of this way of life and this worldview to other people. I think I’ve sometimes lost sight of that reason through my service, but, looking back I think that was a motivation to do whatever it was that I did over the last two years.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
For the U.S. government, the idealistic part of me says absolutely. I can’t think of anything else that the government could do for the same cost efficiency that builds as much empathy and cultural understanding of U.S. citizens as the Peace Corps. The cynical part of me also says it’s worthwhile, but wonders why such a program needs to exist for such things to occur and exist in the first place. But yes, I think Peace Corps is absolutely worthwhile for the government to have as a program if we are going to be a true player, and not just a rule maker, for a globalized world.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Don’t expect anything. Don’t expect to be a change agent. Don’t expect tangible results. Don’t expect a Peace Corps poster to be your life. I believe that the absolute core of being a Peace Corps member is meeting people on a human level. Ask more questions than you answer. Listen more than you speak. And know that you are going to receive more than you will ever give. That all sounds so big and lofty, but that’s because it’s hard to sum it all up, really.
If you want more practical advice, this is what I have for you: it’s not if, but when; never trust a fart; if you don’t want others to know about something, don’t do it; there’s no wrong way to be a PCV; don’t ask what you’re eating; if it’s tasty enjoy it; you should probably say ‘yes’; and however long you thought it would take, at least double that.
A few more words on the best way to be a PCV: there’s no wrong way to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Some people choose to stay in their community the whole time and only leave for Peace Corps trainings. Other people choose to travel every other weekend and see a lot of the country. Some people have counterparts who are really motivated to do projects. Other people have counterparts that take more cajoling to get involved. Other people figure out that focusing too much on First Goal work in their community will lead to a sense of inadequacy and frustration, and instead focus solely on Second and Third Goal. Some people take a strict sustainability approach. Other people see the value in providing something to their community for the time they are there and not worrying about sustainability so much. None of these are wrong.
Sure, there is a party line that Peace Corps training is going to give you, but ultimately your service is what you make it, and that is the right way for you to be a PCV in your community. I chose to travel as much as I could in Thailand, interpreting this whole country as being a part of my community. I focused sincerely on sustainability. I focused pretty heavily on Third Goal. My report may not have the numbers that other volunteers in my cohort have, but in conversations with them, they wish they had had the opportunity to learn as much about Thailand and Thai culture that I did. You will get what you want from your service, and you cannot compare that to what other people get from theirs.
[Editor’s note: AMEN!]
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Right now, I’m in COS-trip planning mode. I’m going to Nepal for six weeks, Cameroon to visit a friend who is also a PCV, and then Egypt to visit my cousin. Currently working on submitting applications for journalism fellowships and peeking around those job postings, which I’ll start really applying for once I’m back in the States. As a back-up, I’m looking at some farm apprenticeships near where my parents live in Michigan.
Thank you Christine! Want to read more about Peace Corps service in Thailand? Check out Christine’s AMAZING blog (she has such great videos and photos!) by clicking here.
Psst…want to represent your country of service with an interview? I’m still looking for lots of countries! Contact me!