Kru Cut

My greatest success and what I would consider myself most proud of thus far during my Peace Corps service is my relationship with my counterpart, Kru Cut. I think what’s most difficult about getting to site is how seemingly unnatural the whole introduction process is: “Here is your host family, you will live with them for an unknown duration ranging from one to 24 months. These are your two counterparts, with whom you will work for the next two years.” It all feels slightly uncomfortable, somewhat forced, and at times just plain awkward.

When I first met Kru Cut exactly one year ago, he was shy, clearly a little nervous, and reluctant to speak English with me. At times it felt like I had to put in a lot more effort than him in order to maintain a good relationship, especially when it came to our role as co-teachers. I felt like I had to meet him more than halfway, not only as a friend but also as a counterpart; I was speaking more Thai than he was English, I was planning nearly all of our lessons, and I just wanted him to meet me in the middle. Did I ever vocalize these concerns to him at the time? Of course not. I was afraid that our relationship would remain solely professional and, truth be told, I was really lacking in the friend department at the time, so I knew something had to change. Thankfully, change it did.

Student Friendly Schools, a conference in September focusing on “promoting a positive learning environment in the school,”  was a turning point for my relationship with Kru Cut. I felt like we could, for once, talk about some difficult topics (such as gender-based violence, corporal punishment, and how to manage misbehaving students, to name a few) without feeling any pressure or judgment. I realized that we had more in common than I thought when it came to our morals and beliefs, and we both wanted to have the same classroom culture: somewhere safe, warm, engaging, and fun for our students. A refuge from the often-monotonous, strict, and rule-ridden classes taught by other teachers. I can’t put my finger on one exact moment where I felt like our relationship had transcended professional bounds and turned into a real friendship, but from that point forward I felt like I had a confidant. I no longer felt like I was the only person advocating for myself and what was best for me. I had an ally, a true friend.

Fast forward six months later, we’re currently wrapping up our final week of our second semester teaching together, and our relationship is better than ever. Kru Cut is my closest friend at my site and we spend the majority of most days together. When we’re not teaching together, you can find us heading into the nearby town to grab dinner, traveling around beautiful Northern Thailand, and, of course, playing RoV together. Our close friendship outside of the classroom has significantly improved our co-teaching. Lately our classes have seemed to require less effort on both of our ends, I would say due to the fact that we trust each other and realize that co-teaching is often a give-and-take endeavor. Our relationship, both as friends and as counterparts, did not develop overnight, and has been an intensive labor of love, requiring deep efforts on both our parts to understand one another.

As I wrap up month 15 in Thailand and start to think about what I will miss most about my time here when it eventually comes to an end, Kru Cut is at the top of that list.

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change

391 days.

It’s been 391 days since I said goodbye to the people I loved, packed my life into 2 suitcases, flew to San Francisco, and began my Peace Corps journey. If you’d asked me a year ago, I probably would have figured that, by this point, I’d have a good grasp on my role as a volunteer, a teacher, and a foreigner in my little village.

Well…

The more time I spend with Thai people and the more I attempt to learn about Thai culture, the less I seem to understand.

The more effort I put into teaching and lesson planning, the less I seem to get done and the more disappointed and disheartened I become.

I’ll be honest, I came into Peace Corps with a bit of a savior complex. I imagined showing up to a little village and bringing them western technology and ideologies. I wanted to save the world, I wanted to educate, to empower, to influence change.

Change. A word that comes up a lot when I think about my role as a volunteer. Before I tackle change, a quick disclaimer: I love Thailand. I love the people, the culture. And the food… oh I love the food. But my love for Thailand isn’t blind, nor is it unconditional. There are things that I wish I could change.

I wish I could convince my students to wear their helmets when they ride their motorbikes into school, or that the other teachers at my school took me seriously when I proposed a helmet-enforcement program.

I wish that the teachers would be more understanding when a student comes to school with hair that’s a bit too long rather than taking scissors and cutting patches of hair out, shaming the student and forcing them to get a haircut later that day.

I’m tired of people refusing to believe that I’m American, or referencing 9/11 or Osama Bin Laden (I wish I was kidding) when I bring up my Iraqi-American heritage.

The highly hierarchical structure of Thai society makes it pretty hard to get things done or to be taken seriously as a 24 year-old. I wish people were judged based on merit, and not age or social status.

Well, it’s taken about a year for me to get over myself and realize that maybe, just maybe, instead of changing everything around me – the culture, the people, the education system – I might be better off changing myself. Accepting it all.

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actual footage of me accepting it all

Here’s the thing. I don’t need to necessarily be happy about things like corporal punishment, or the not-so-efficient Thai education system, or colorism in Thailand. But I also don’t need to burden myself with these problems. There’s only one of me, and I really needed to check myself and accept the fact that I just can’t change certain aspects of Thai culture that are this deeply engrained. Alone, I am incapable of that.

Well, I’ve been putting more and more effort into just accepting things for what they are and going with the flow. It’s easier to see where I fit in within Thai culture when I choose to be more flexible and understanding of the imperfections in the world that I live in. It’s more realistic to change myself and to be more malleable than it is to expect my entire community to change and adapt around me.

I imagined joining the Peace Corps and influencing a lot of change within my community. I envisioned holding hands with Thai counterparts and students, singing Kumbaya (or whatever the Thai equivalent of that would be) as we changed the world, together. I imagined, at the very least, being met halfway.

The reality is often putting in 90% of the effort and hoping to be met with that last 10%. Hoping to be taken seriously, but expecting not to be.

An important lesson I’ve learned is not being ashamed to lower my expectations in certain aspects of my work as a volunteer. Having more realistic goals makes it easier to feel like my job is worthwhile.

The reason I’m sharing all of this isn’t to paint a picture of disappointment, or to make it seem like the past 13 months I’ve spent in Thailand have all led up to this sad realization that I’m not getting anything done. I just often find myself guilty of sharing the things that I love about Thailand (the mountains, the beaches, the elephants, my students, etc.) without painting the fuller picture.

The reality is much more complicated than what my Instagram pictures or blog posts can convey. When you love something, it’s important to embrace and talk about the good and the bad. It’s important to recognize where you can influence change, and where it’s just not worth the effort.

The more I let go and allow myself to accept what goes on around me, the happier I am.

 

success, redefined

“Be successful. Be the best at what you do.”

This was very much my mindset growing up. Throughout the latter half of my life, the things I did and decisions I made were intended on getting me closer to my idea of success. How I perceive success is constantly changing (hopefully for the better), but that original mantra – being the best at what I do – still applies.

In high school, success meant being better than those around me. Making it to the top, any way necessary. Why? Because of the pressure-cooker culture in Northern Virginia, where kids are raised and told that everyone needs to get good grades, attend an elite university, get good grades (again), get a good job, etc., etc., etc… I was raised in a society where students were pitted against each other, their personalities, characteristics, and interests shaved away and replaced by numbers – GPA, SAT scores. At that time in my life, success required being better than others because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t get into a good college. And to 17 year old Yous, that would have felt like the end of the world. That would be failure.

Well, I did go to a good college. A “Public Ivy.” Once again, my definition of success changed. I learned to embrace parts of my personality and identity that I had tried to dampen in high school. I met friends who encouraged me to think differently, to see the world through different lenses. Even though I was pre-med and knew I had to do well in my classes and get good grades, with aspirations of eventually becoming an MD, I didn’t feel like I had to do better than others in order to succeed. I learned to view success as bettering myself. Comparison with others was no longer my main metric for success; instead, success came from within myself. I looked at where I was on a given day and thought about where I came from and where my life was a week, a month, or a year beforehand. Adapting my definition of success to be more introspective was really crucial to me at a time where I was learning to cope with grief, coming to terms with different parts of my identity, and navigating the tumultuous lifestyle of being a college student. It grounded me and taught me that I am more than just the sum of my GPA, extracurriculars, and social life.

Fast forward to month 11 of my Peace Corps service. My idea of success is once again taking a new form. I’m very rarely comparing myself to others because there’s no one with whom I can even fairly compare myself. No two sites are the same, so every volunteer is on their own in terms of the challenges they face and the successes or failures they experience. Sometimes I compare myself to friends at home who are doing amazing things like getting into medical school or starting great careers while I’m over here trying to stave off malaria (so far so good) and diarrhea (not so much…), but still not very frequently, and rarely do I use these comparisons to measure my success. Personal growth and introspection are still some of my main metrics for success, and I rely heavily on journaling daily and my blog (sorry for the 3 month hiatus!!!) as primary sources of my experiences – the good and the bad – for regular self-reflection in order to maintain a balanced and grounded perspective.

The point that I’ve been (very painstakingly) trying to get to is this: for me, for now, success is relationships. It’s redefining what the word “friend” means in order to include a broader audience, including (but not limited to): my host grandma, the lady that sells vegetables in the morning, my students, my 2 cats, a dog at school named Sushi, any dog at all, and pretty much anyone who will talk to me.  It’s sitting around with those aforementioned people (and animals) and earning their trust, learning about their personal interests, and assimilating yourself into their lives. It’s meeting the people in my community half-way. Sometimes, it’s meeting them 90% of the way and hoping they make a little bit of effort.

In the United States, success is generally based on productivity or efficiency, and often times relationships are left on the back burner. It’s taken nearly a year for me to become accustomed to life in rural Thailand where relationships are prioritized and where productivity and efficiency aren’t nearly as important. It’s taught me the importance of investing time and energy in others. It’s helped me learn patience in more ways than one – patience when my lesson plan is simply not sticking with my students, patience when it seems like everything is moving at an incredibly glacial pace and I just want to get something done. It’s been a much-needed life lesson on learning to trust the process and go with the flow.

My job is… confusing, complicated, challenging, bizarre, and hard to define, but it’s also incredibly rewarding, exciting, and just plain fun. Success is only hard to come by if I choose to limit my definition of what success means to me.

the importance (or lack thereof) of shared experiences

Something that’s been on my mind a lot during the past few months is the loneliness that I’ve felt as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve written about it before, and here we are again. As PCVs, we feel alone because we live in new homes far, far from our home homes, because we have to use a foreign language every day, because we can’t get anywhere without asking for a ride, and because we’re just so different than those around us in so many ways.

Recently, I’ve been trying to get to the root of this loneliness that I feel, in an attempt to overcome it. I realized that, along with many other problems (past and present) in my life, the feeling of loneliness comes from feeling misunderstood. It comes from feeling like “nobody gets me” (cue angsty middle school music) and like I’m going through it all alone. And, to be fair, I am misunderstood in many ways. For starters, my role as a volunteer is often unclear both to myself and to the students, other teachers, and villagers in my community. My physical appearance is a constant topic of conversation: “Kru Yut, why is your hair curly? Why do you have so much hair? Why are you so tall? WHY is your nose so big!?”

As well as I can speak Thai, I still often find myself struggling to voice my feelings about many things. Even if I’m capable of expressing myself in Thai, the delicate, complex, often-contradictory nature of Thai culture usually encourages me to internalize these feelings. I feel like people at home don’t understand the work that I’m doing or the problems I face and, thanks to my overwhelmingly positive posts on social media, assume that all I do is eat Pad Thai and bpai tiao (travel). Other volunteers live in totally different communities with varying levels of development and amenities and even we don’t completely understand what one another is going through at any given moment. I’m the only Middle Eastern PCV in Thailand, and it seems like we’re a rare breed of PCVs in general. I just feel like people don’t get me sometimes.

A common theme arose. A lot of this loneliness comes from feeling like my experience is an individual one. As humans, we frequently want other people to be doing the same things we’re doing, or at least understanding what or why we do what we do. There’s power in shared experiences. Take, for example, watching a funny movie. Chances are, you’re more likely to laugh out loud in a movie theater than in your bed at home. Something about being with other people, doing the same thing at the same time, heightens the experience.

So, after all of this tragically morose soul-searching, I came to the realization that it doesn’t fucking matter. None of it.

You could argue that sharing experiences with others is an innate part of the human condition, essential for survival. Sure enough, isolation can lead to relative insanity (Wilson, anyone?).  As humans we will also come across challenges that are characteristically unique. For me, and for now, that individual challenge is my Peace Corps service.

I think it’s important to realize the value of these challenges. I could just as easily have stayed at home in America, well within my comfort zone, eating Chik-Fil-A and sushi whenever I please. But where’s the fun in that?

Thai basil chicken and loneliness

Today we will be learning how to cook the world-famous dish Pad Krapow Gai or Thai Basil Chicken. And how to combat loneliness. You will need:

  • 3-4 tbsp oil
  • 5 Thai bird’s eye chilis, thinly sliced
  • 3 shallots, thinly sliced (red onion works)
  • 5 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 8-12 oz chicken breast, diced  (thigh meat or ground chicken is fine)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup water or your choice of stock
  • 1 bunch Thai holy basil
  • 1 egg

You will also need:

  • the courage to force yourself outside
  • some new hobbies
  • a sense of humor
  • a journal
  • patience
  • more patience
  • friends
  • the ability to live in and enjoy the present
  1. Turn burner on to the highest setting and add oil. Once warm, add chilis, shallots, and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes (or until brown).
  2. Leave your bedroom. Go outside. Go on a walk, a run, a bike-ride, or just sit outside your house. Feel the sun on your face. Play with the kids. Talk to your neighbors. You will feel better. You will think, “if only I had come outside earlier.”
  3. Add the diced chicken and cook for about 2 minutes, or until brown.
  4. Have you tried knitting? Water colors? Jazzercise? Keep yourself busy. For me, kombucha does the trick. Brew a new batch every 2 weeks, try out new flavor combinations. Some will be amazing. Some will be awful. Such is life.
  5. Add the soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar (if desired, raw honey can be substituted for sugar) and stir-fry for 1 minute.
  6. Laugh. Laugh at yourself. If When you do something stupid, laugh it off. Don’t be embarrassed. Laugh at others. Laugh with others. Don’t take yourself too seriously (or anything for that matter). Smile more. Make jokes. Happiness is only real when shared, and what better way than through laughter?
  7. Deglaze your pan with your liquid. Stir occasionally.
  8. Do you have a journal? If you answered yes, great – move on to step 9. If not, go out and buy one. Write in it frequently. Write about your thoughts. Talk about the highs, the lows. Confide in your journal. Write down random things (like this recipe). Draw pictures. Read posts from the past to see how you were feeling days, months, or years ago. Repeat.
  9. Add the holy basil. Breathe it in. Doesn’t that smell amazing? Stir-fry until wilted.
  10. Be patient. With yourself. With others. Believe me, I understand that certain things that people say can get on your nerves, can make you feel othered.
    1. Why do you have so much body hair?”
    2. “Why is your nose so big?”
    3. “Can I have your sperm so I can make foreign babies?” (Yes, actually).
    4. “Why is your skin dark? That isn’t attractive.”
    5. “Why are you single?”
  11. Be more patient. Sure, comments on your appearance or your personal life may bother you on a whole, but one individual comment does not warrant an angry, upset reaction. Take a deep breath. Don’t let questions like those get to you (refer to step 6).  Use those opportunities as teachable moments to show that we are more alike than we are different.
  12. Serve over rice.
  13. Friends. Reach out to old ones. Make new ones. You are only as lonely as you allow yourself to believe.
  14. Fry 1 egg and place atop your lovely creation.
  15. I would end this by saying “Live in the present,” but that isn’t quite the message I want to get across. Enjoy living in the present. Happiness if fleeting, joy is not. Joy is a choice, a lifestyle. Pain is inevitable – suffering is optional.

 

thoughts on the second week of school

I started teaching last Monday and the past week and a half have flown by now that I’m starting to settle into a routine. I’m becoming more comfortable with “Thai time,” which includes (but is not limited to): unannounced teacher meetings lasting several hours, spontaneous trips to nearby provinces, and constantly changing schedules. The students are slowly warming up to the strange tall Brown man who won’t stop speaking English at them. I’ve also picked up a few phrases in the local Tai Yai language which the students and villagers get a kick out of. The only strange things to happen to me were one Thai woman commenting Yaak gin farang on my counterpart’s picture of us (translating to “I want to eat the foreigner”), and a teacher at my school saying she wanted to have my children. Overall, a pretty normal week in Thailand.

With over a full week under my belt at my school, I’m finally getting a hang of the whole teaching thing. It’s definitely a work in progress, and I learn with each day’s successes and mistakes.

The overarching realization I’ve made is that my biggest obstacle has been and will continue to be my own self-doubts. I have an unbelievable amount of support coming from Peace Corps staff, other volunteers, and of course the teachers and Paw aw (principal) at my school. They all want to see me succeed. The only thing holding me back is the occasional self-doubt, the lingering voice in the back of my head asking, What skills do you have that make you capable of being a teacher? Do you know what you’re doing? How can you expect to teach with somebody who has been teaching for 10+ years?  What do you have to offer?

There are some more obvious answers to these questions. I’m a native English speaker who can (hopefully) accurately teach pronunciation and grammar. I can connect my community to all of the resources available to a Peace Corps Volunteer, such as grant funding and youth camps. I’m here to share American culture, and to embrace Thai culture with an open mind and heart.

That last question is the most frequent and most pressing one.

What do you have to offer?

The past week has showed me that, above all else, I can offer my students love. I can provide my students with a loving, nurturing environment. I can be a steady source of support and affirmation. In a community where so many of the children are raised by their grandparents while their parents are in Chiang Mai or Bangkok working to provide for their family, where attendance at school is down 25% during harvest seasons, and where corporal punishment is still alive and well in the schools, I can be a consistent source of love and support and a steady, positive role model.

If you were to watch me teach, it would be easy to spot the technical errors that might not be present in a more experienced teacher. It may not flow perfectly or appear effortless, but what you would notice is that I’m giving it everything I’ve got. I can say with surety that by the end of the hour, my students will feel more loved and supported than they would if I wasn’t their teacher.

I can’t promise that all of my students will be fluent English speakers by the end of my 2 years, but I can guarantee that they will feel more comfortable, confident, and loved inside the classroom. If nothing else, is that not reason enough to keep at it?

summer break has come to an end

Me reading up on U.S. politics like

It’s been more than a few weeks since I’ve updated my blog (and regrettably without a valid excuse, either). The past 6 weeks have been bpit term or summer break for Thai students and teachers. The majority of teachers at my school live on campus during the school year and return to their homes in neighboring provinces for the bpit term, including Kru Chai and Kru Cut – my co-teachers who I will be teaching English with.

On one hand, the downtime has been really nice. It’s been an opportunity to relax after PST and to take my time integrating at my site. I’ve had the time to get to know my host sisters and host grandparents, and while I do technically live with a host family, I have my own house, so the summer break has helped me establish living on my own as well. I didn’t feel rushed to figure out where to buy things like eggs, vegetables, water, or other commodities for my home. I would have felt a lot of stress and pressure to move in and get everything organized had I arrived to site at the start of the school year instead.

On the flip side, summer break starting the day I arrived to site was a bit of a challenge. My village isn’t very accessible and there isn’t any public transportation into or out of my community, so I have to rely on the goodwill of others to drive me around if I need to go to the bank, post office, supermarket, or if I just want to go out to the bigger towns nearby. During the school year this shouldn’t be an issue since there will be two dozen teachers going in and out of the village at any given time, but during bpit term I didn’t have many options for getting around.

Khao Soi Gai – Northern Thai Coconut Curry soup with Chicken and Noodles

I’m definitely the kind of person who thrives when I’m busy studying or working. The past 6 weeks were tough in that sense because I really didn’t have anything to do besides hang out in my community. Granted, integration is one of the essential parts of a successful Peace Corps service, and I think my presence in my community alone was great for my integration. Since April and May are the hottest months of the year, some days it was too hot to do anything, but most days I went on runs or walks around my village just to get myself out of the house a bit and make my presence more known.

I truthfully didn’t expect the acclimation to my site to be as much of a challenge as it proved to be. Though PST was very difficult, it was at least intellectually stimulating and engaging, and I was kept busy to the point where I never felt like I had any free time and wasn’t afforded the opportunity to feel bored. Moving to my site was a different kind of challenge. I wasn’t in Sing Buri anymore, and I wasn’t surrounded by 60+ other volunteers anymore, either. I was on my own. Based on my experience during training I knew that this was going to be an adventure filled with obstacles, but this time around I was tackling those obstacles alone.

That’s not to say that people like my host family, neighbors, and teachers haven’t been supportive… there are just some struggles that you deal with on your own. For example, as exhausting as learning and speaking Thai was during PST, I was still speaking mostly English during training sessions. Here at my site I can go a few days without speaking English. Communicating in Thai all day is honestly exhausting, and it’s even more complicated since my village is mostly Tai Yai people who speak Tai Yai as well as central Thai.

I had to learn how to entertain myself and keep myself busy when it’s over 100 degrees out and there’s not much to do. This resulted in some weird hobbies, including:

  • Reading 2 books
  • Watching all of Breaking Bad
  • Watching the entire Star Wars Saga (in machete order)
  • Practicing reading and writing Thai
  • Brewing Kombucha
  • Watercoloring (I painted a sloth…)
  • Yoga (mostly just me laying on a yoga mat sweating)

…just to name a few.

This past weekend, I was in Koh Mak vacationing with many of the other volunteers. Towards the end of the trip I realized that I was getting homesick. I was on a gorgeous island with my closest Peace Corps friends, but I was ready to be back in my little village tucked away in the mountains of Chiang Mai. The school term starts next week, and then the real work begins.

Wat Rong Seua Dten – Dancing Tiger Temple
Inside the temple
The stunning ceiling of the temple