Sitting with It

20170701_144930.jpgA few weeks ago, I was playing in the river with some friends in my community. The “fun” part of the river is where the current is stronger as it flows between two land masses. At this spot, you lift your legs up and let the current whoosh you away to the other side. Playing this way brings out the inner child in me that brings me pure joy. As I became confident, I decided that I wanted to just walk through instead. I did my best to maintain a stance to resist the power of this river. Ultimately, I couldn’t do it. I slipped and scrapped up by leg and foot while I was at it.

Today, I taught about American culture as a way to connect with the 4th of July, home, and my family. Teaching this topic caused a chain reaction of relief inside myself—a “whoosh”. It felt as if I finally picked up my feet and let the current just take me. “Going with the flow” here is a seemingly easy path and I thought that I was doing a good job letting the current of culture, language, connections, and experiences take me. I work hard to be flexible and patient, inquisitive and curious, friendly and kind. But I feel as though this entire three months at site, I have been walking through this current, going in the correct direction, but still resisting its flow—and metaphorically getting scraped up on the way.

I know finding my path, lifting my feet, will not be easy. I know I will continue to be afraid, confused, and exhausted, and just want to stand up and find my ground. And that is okay. I will use these breaks to stand, observe, listen, breathe, but remain still. Because the only way forward is to believe in myself and those who support me to keep my head above water as the stream takes me on this journey.

 

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3 First Days

I have had 16 first days of school (not counting returning from breaks). At least 11 of which were experienced with biting anxiety that began weeks before. What should I wear? Who will be in my classes? What will my teachers be like? What if I got lost? What if I am called on to answer a question I don’t know? Questions like these guided my consciousness up until that first, and usually quite uneventful first day.

This week, I had three first days at three different schools. I taught over 100 children ranging from 7 to 14 years old. Did I have anxiety before these first days? To be honest, no. Does this mean that I was just extra prepared and have learned from years of pointless anxiety? I don’t think so. I did very little preparing and just planned to get to know the school, teachers, and students for these first days. This isn’t normative for my usual perfectionist self who appreciates being prepared with at least a plan A and a plan B. However, this time I figured whatever happened would happen and I would just figure it out. Maybe that’s Thai culture rubbing off on me or maybe some other form of personal growth. I don’t know. And the beauty of it, is that I don’t feel compelled to search for the answer.

My first days focused on introductions–Hello; What is your name?; My name is____; etc. I integrated stretching, exercise, games, and music into the classes. Each class was remarkably different. The degree of involvement of my co-teachers varied. The students were at different levels (with age not being a factor). The vibe in each classroom caused me to tweak my teaching style. Students were either sitting orderly in their chairs at desks or in lines on the floor. Students chaotically moved about the room as I put them in small groups and standing circles. I have never had three first days so remarkably different yet surprisingly similar.

Each morning started with tentative smiles and formal greetings from the students. By each afternoon, I was receiving full grins, enthusiastic high fives, endearing hugs, and too many “I love Pii Bua” to count. By yesterday afternoon (the last school day for me this week–thankfully), I noticed a transformation in myself from these three days.

I was welcomed into this community as soon as I arrived on March 23rd. I have a caring host family, supportive co-workers, and a beautiful environment to call home. However, even with all of these positives, this last month and a half was full of feelings of sadness, doubt, regret, and defeat as a dominant narrative of every experience. Even with the incredible days, my primary setting was low. This feeling thrived in my lack of energy that existed regardless of my sleep schedule. I was exhausted and even though I have many coping strategies at my disposal, all I wanted to do was be alone and do nothing.

With the responsibility of the first three days of my Peace Corps Thailand school experience, I could no longer get away with being alone or doing nothing. Remarkably and unsurprisingly, being around loud, rowdy, and energetic (these adjectives are used in a positive way) pulled my life-force from the cracks of the depression it was it. I laughed and smiled while creatively adapting lesson plans and making up songs with the vocabulary as a teaching tool.

After I finished teaching yesterday afternoon, I spent the better part of an hour getting beat up by 9-12 year olds while playing football. Generally, football is considered to be a male-only sport in Thailand. After the first couple of exhausting minutes running around (I am so out of shape!), I was about ready to call it a day. But just when I was about to give high fives to kids and make my exit, a small group of girls decided to join the game because I was playing. These girls who were standing on the sideline gazing intently jumped into this aggressive “boys only” game and didn’t let the boys push them around. In fact, they were just as upfront and involved.

With this change in the game dynamic, the boys declared it was going to be boys versus girls; however, as the game proceeded, more boys joined the “girl” team until both genders were mixed together and playing a remarkably fun game. As my glasses fogged relentlessly and sweat soaked my clothing, I pushed myself to keep running, shouting, and getting shown up by these children. I was feeling joy as pure as it can be felt. When the school bell announced the end of this incredible day, I was almost knocked down by a huge group hug and was begged to come again today (which I did).

And I have enough energy now. I have creative energy to do artwork and write, inspirational energy to lesson plan and enhance my knowledge, and I have a burning joyful energy that brings a smile on my face as a default and makes me excited for all of the remaining days I will have with these children. Needless to say, I have never been more grateful for three first days of school.

A little bit more personal–Am I fat?

Take your make up off
Let your hair down
Take a breath
Look into the mirror, at yourself
Don’t you like you?
Cause I like you
Try by Colbie Caillat

For as long as I remember, I haven’t liked myself. Many of these feelings when I was younger came from feeling lonely and anxiety. Two of my first memories when I started going to school in Oregon at 7 years old was one of my classmates making fun of me for liking school (nerd!) and another playing on the playground and listening to the girls talk about their “baby fat”. I remember thinking to myself “Am I fat?”

I remember this question going through my head frequently as a child and teenager. I heard it each morning I got dressed or saw myself in the mirror after showering. I remember family members teasing me about not being as skinny as my siblings and me feeling hopeless. So I started to hate myself. I wished I was different (not just more fit and skinny, but with superpowers and strong enough to fight both physical and emotional battles). Even my long-term boyfriend for the last 6 years even started the relationship telling me that I needed to lose weight, exercise more, and would make comments about other girls who were more attractive based on their body types. I talked to him about this and he stopped, but it stuck with me even to this day.

I’ve struggled a lot with my identity to this day. Am I happy with how I look? Am I a nerd? Am I a slut? Do these things matter? I have worked a lot to answer these questions and love the complex human being that I am. This work has taken time, support, and many tears. While doing it, I have learned a lot of coping skills to the point that many are automatic. To be honest, I am lucky and glad I have done all of this work because being in Thailand is hard. This is nothing against Thai people, the culture, and the country, or Peace Corps, but being reminded that I don’t fit a perfect mold on a daily basis wears me down. Culturally, I have been told that commenting on weight or size shows someone cares about you and is noticing these things. I do my best to look at it this way, but I know there is a strong thin ideal here, just like many other places around the world. These comments remind you that you are not in the “ideal” (but who really is?).

I have had parents tell me in front of their kids that they’re not beautiful because they are fat (or dark…but I’m not gonna touch that one now). I have people (as they give me heaps of food that I don’t have the autonomy to turn down) tell me that I’m getting fatter. It’s hard to not say to parents “no s/he’s not fat” and to other members of the community “no, I’m not fat.” Although this might be true, it doesn’t matter whose fat or not. Because fat is not bad and is not attached to beauty. Instead I tell the parents that I think their child is very beautiful. And when my appearance is mention, I just say that I’m getting more beautiful each day.

An additional struggle is my glasses. It took me years of having a prescription to actually wear them. I have never in my life had so many negative comments made toward me wearing my glasses. I have had people ask me to take them off. Some have asked me, “are you sure you really need them?” I have been assured that I would be more beautiful without them. If I heard these comments not even two years ago, I would take them off and never wear them again. But after self-acceptance work I’ve done (and appreciating seeing things), I just smile, nod my head, and continue to wear them.

I don’t see myself changing any cultural norms from just two years in a small rural community. And honestly, I really don’t think it is my place to do so. However, I do know that I can change the rhetoric used when I am with kids. I can comment on their creativity, determination, teamwork, and leadership skills outside of what their physical appearance looks like. I will be available for the awkward kids (who I see a bit of my own awkwardness in) to just hangout awkwardly together. I will do my best to support the youth I interact with because I wouldn’t be where I am today without key people who supported me in the process.

So do I love myself now? I want to say that I’m getting there to be honest. As I learn more about who I am and learn new ways to cope with situations, I love myself a little more. So I want to end this by saying that I am okay. I wanted to share these feelings and thoughts for people to see another side of what I am going through besides all of the fun pictures and stories. I am incredibly grateful for the support I have from current volunteers and family/friends at home. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, I am more than happy to elaborate.

Happy Birthday!

The more you praise and celebrate in your life, the more there is in life to celebrate. –
-Oprah Winfrey

My 22nd birthday was greeted by disruptive dreams of past birthdays (the people, places, events, etc.). Under my mosquito net with the fan blowing, I woke up feeling heartache. I missed my family in the U.S., and I also found myself longing for the person I loved so deeply just a year ago (my ex-boyfriend in case you were wondering). I spent my 21st birthday with all of these people I found myself missing so much. Regardless, I knew I had to get out of bed and get myself to work. I told myself that it is okay to be sad, but to also look forward to the adventures the day might bring–and there were definitely adventures.

As soon as I managed to roll myself out of bed, I called both of my parents to talk to them about current events in their lives and mine. Although we talked for roughly an hour and a half, I just wanted more time, but I was already running late to work. I quickly got my stuff together; however, before I was out of the door, my counterpart was there ready to walk me to work (guess I really was running late, oops!). She greeted me with a smile, “happy birthday”, and a hug.

When we got to the office, I followed my typical routine of settling into my desk to try to find a way to keep myself busy for the next several hours. However, before I knew it, my coworkers started to file into the room singing “Happy Birthday” and holding a birthday cake. Surprised caused tears to form in my eyes that I used as much effort as possible to push back. I thanked them with a huge smile and strong hugs, and started to cut the cake into pieces for everyone to share.

I relaxed into the morning (must have been the cake). To my surprise about a week ago, I found out that my host sister and I share the same birthday, 22 years apart. Who knows, maybe I will find someone 22 years from now who I share a birthday with and the cycle will continue? Not only do we share a birthday, but our Thai nicknames mean the same thing–lotus flower. So I spent the remainder of my morning, drawing a picture for her as a birthday present.20170410_191257

The afternoon of my birthday brought it’s own adventures. It was the final day of the football tournament my tessaban has been hosting for the last week and a half. We watched the final four teams with excitement and humor (there were so many off-sides fouls…). Once the games were over, we proceeded into the final ceremony to recognize the exceptional players. I expected to be done around 6; however, it was already after 7.20170410_165233

Any worry I had about the time was completely washed away when I returned home. My family had a larger speaker system set up, karaoke, and enough food to feed an army (or just a few dozen Thais 🙂 ). We ate, drank, and sang the night away. Even though that morning I missed my family, I felt completely accepted and embraced by this family here in Thailand. I spoke a mixture of Thai, English, and awkward body language the entire night and never felt less awkward about communication (maybe that was the Chang…).

I am so grateful for the people and the opportunity to be here. I am excited for this new year at 22. I look forward to continuing to learn from my experiences (even the heartbreaks) while having moments like this day to look back on. Here’s to another year!

 

Patience: saying goodbye and new beginnings

Said, woman, take it slow
It’ll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience
Said, sugar, make it slow
And we come together fine
All we need is just a little patience

— “Patience” Guns N’ Roses

As I am settling into my new home for the next two years, I can’t help but be thankful for and long for what I miss from pre-service training. Since it is currently “summer break” for Thai students, I get to spend a lot of time sitting at my desk of my Tessaban (local government agency for my community) studying Thai and getting lost in thought. I find myself looking back at primary highlights of training, which occurred at my practicum school and with my host family.

I remember my first days of practicum managing roughly 30 rowdy students with my fellow co-facilitator. Some days it felt like we were sitting in a WWE RAW match and doing our best with limited language to manage the classroom. Other days were so calm and collected that it was a struggle to get the attention of the students. However, even during the hard moments, working with the kids at Wat Sing school fueled my soul and filled my heart.

Our last activity with these youth was a volunteer project. The school helped decide what they wanted/needed and my co-facilitator and I were able to plug in other activities to talk about our primary theme throughout our class and camp: teamwork. To summarize, we had our 30 10-12 year old get on their bicycles and pick up trash down the river. I’m not over exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most organized clean up efforts I have seen. I am impressed and very proud of these kids. Before and after the cleanup we worked on an art project for each classroom–a “tree” created by “leaves” made out of their hands. At the end we asked the students to think about why we asked them to do these activities and how it related to prior activities. For the first time since working with them, three students volunteered to stand up and share their responses.

By the end of that last day, I had to spend a lot of my energy trying not to cry. In such a short period of time, I felt as though I connected deeply with 30 young individuals. We could sing and dance, learn, and complete tasks together. (I even had a special handshake or high five with each one.) I am sure I learned more about myself during those practicum days than the students learned from me, and although I miss them terribly, I know it is just the beginning.IMG_20170310_241831989IMG_20170309_232051152FB_IMG_1487164136881

Another tough goodbye was my host family. It was their first time taking an American stranger into their home. I don’t have the vocabulary to ask, but I’m sure they had their own reservations and anxieties over it. I mean, what if I would have been terrible to live with? Or I smelled really bad? Throughout our time together we navigated through limited verbal communication, but we soon found an ability to communicate nonverbally. And as I learned more Thai, I was able to come home each day and talk about new things which enhanced their excitement and instruction that came back to encourage me to learn more.

From day one at that house in Singburi, I felt like I was part of the family. As I got to know them more and they got to know me, I felt more like myself–not because I could feel the same as before with my family from the States, but because I discovered more about myself. From their concerns about me eating enough, biking too fast, and even being sick to the laughs we shared over mistakes I made or the weird differences we had, I felt like I was home. I honestly couldn’t have asked for anything better to learn how to integrate here in Thailand.IMG_20170313_060643774_TOPIMG_20170317_22165331620170319_10311720170319_08232020170319_08233020170319_082906

So here I am, at site (it’s been a week now!) and still healing the fresh wounds of loss. And even though I know I can see these individuals again, the loss of the home I made has had me longing to find my bearings and make connections here as soon as possible. However, as I sit and reflect I remember that connections take time. I need to be patient with myself and just continue to be myself.

Already, I haven’t given enough credit to my current host family. They woke up to my scream for help in the middle of the night due to a spider in my mosquito net. Yes, a spider….One that I know is not dangerous, but still scared me almost into tears. My host parents systematically helped me go through my entire room to make sure that it was no longer in my bed nor somewhere I might accidentally stumble on it. And even though this is just one small example, every time I see them I feel warm and happy to be part of their lives.

At work, I have several individuals who want me to feel welcomed and involved. I have my counterpart who brings me along to meetings where I can understand maybe 1% of what was said. I have my other coworkers who bring me to lunch and take me out on other errands with them. Everyone has already helped me learn more about the community and the language. I know I have only hit the very tip of the iceberg of what this community will mean to me in my life. And I know I will continue to actively participate in the adventures each new day brings. So far, I have stumbled my way into a volleyball game (seriously, I am terrible at volleyball), and I have said hello (and when the last time I ate was) to everyone I met.

As I start my second week here, I plan to continue to use patience as my primary goal. Especially patience for myself. I know that this comes from wanting to succeed and do my best, but I also know that it is okay (maybe even more important?) to sit back and observe.

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Teacher Bua! Len!

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

–”Let it Go”, Frozen

 

Today I was amazed at what can transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. I woke up to this day with a powerful energy deep within myself while knowing that this would be my first day to go to a Thai school. I admit that I was nervous about silly things like whether or not the kids would like me along with practical things like my Thai linguistic ability.

I became more nervous as my communication with teachers and other important community figures was very limited…and I’ll say it–awkward. But as I started to interact with the children, I found the energy that I started this day with. We were able to play football, volleyball, catch, tag, cat and mouse, and hide and seek. I was able to be a part of this without knowing exactly what they were saying and they allowed me to be a part of it knowing that I was practically clueless.

After I asked for a break today to drink some water under the boiling sun, I was asked to play hide and seek. Of course, this was not clear to me when the question was initially asked. A student named, Kim, used a combination of language and charades to show me what he meant. This student was also the one to explain the other games to me–while reminding me what all of their names were.

I don’t know why, but I was a little surprised to so easily recognize the games that I remember playing as a child. It caused a longing within myself because I missed the fun and the innocence of play. I found this within myself today as I ran, danced, sung and laughed with these children. They may have looked at me for guidance, but they gave me inspiration to truly be myself.

Even at the end of each day where I find myself exhausted, I can always find the energy to play, draw, and talk to the children in my neighborhood. These two children have already helped me with my homework several times. It can take some encouraging for them to realize that I actually do want their help with Thai, but by the end of each day, we are laughing and giving each other high-fives and smiles.

This is why I am here. I am here to find the part of myself that enjoys life. I am here to learn from those who are not often the first to choose to teach. I am here to do whatever I can to connect with and empower the children in my community to be whoever they want to be in life. Let’s see what I can make out of the next two years…

I will find my way–Just the beginning

“I’ll be there someday, I can go the distance
I will find my way if I can be strong
I know every mile would be worth my while
When I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong”

Michael Bolton, Go The Distance

 

Three weeks ago, I felt as though I was walking toward a cliff with anticipation of flight but still fearing the possibility of falling. As I joined Peace Corps Thailand, I didn’t know what I exactly I was getting myself into. I had a vague job description and a gist of what my training schedule would look like. I can definitely say that this is the first experience I have had where I have done the smallest amount of preparation for. However, I believe that there is a life lesson in that because I am taking this one day at time and falling in love with Thailand more with each moment.

Many people have asked me why I chose Peace Corps, why now, and why Thailand. The answers to these questions include key people I’ve met and experiences that I have had in the last 4.5 years. If it weren’t for going to the Dominican Republic with Friends Beyond Borders with my high school and meeting a Peace Corps volunteer, I may have not been as readily accepting of this option after graduating from Oregon State. However, if it were not for a couple key academic advisors that encouraged me to go abroad and the individuals who helped me get there at Oregon State’s study abroad office and IE3 Global internships, I would not have gone to Mexico where I learned how to fall in love with not just people, but their country and culture as well.

A year and a half ago, I knew I needed to find my jive in this world after graduation. I also knew that what I needed to do was to push myself in ways I’ve never been pushed before. I was ready for a long term challenge and commitment that would leave me with incredible highs and lows. I have been told before that I was running from the reality of life back in the states. However, I believe that I’m running toward the person I am meant to be. And I know that I am meant to be here, right now.

To be honest, Thailand did not cross my mind of places to be at first. It certainly was not on the list of places I don’t want to go (which is almost non-existent). But I overlooked Southeast Asia as an option of places to connect, learn, and integrate with. However, I believe that this world works in mysterious ways. Already I have been in awe of each place I go and person I meet. The food is outstanding, the landscapes are gorgeous, and the people are sincere and kind.

I have now been in Thailand for a week and a half. I have already been to the hospital once (stomach infection, needed serious antibiotics and IV fluids), had several days with not enough sleep, more laughter than I’ve had all the prior year, and I’m starting to experience a priceless connection with my host family and the individuals in my Peace Corps cohort.

I will use this blog to share stories and reflections I will have in the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I want to clarify that any views or opinions are my own and not those of Peace Corps. I look forward to this journey ahead with growing anticipation, readiness to learn, and daily preparing myself for a challenge.