Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One year in and feeling...

Today is the day that marks the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service in Thailand. That’s twelve months in the Land of Smiles. Fifty-two weeks of volunteer work. Three-hundred-sixty-five days surrounded by a foreign language and culture. Eight-thousand-seven-hundred-sixty hours trying to understand my role here. Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes of shifting moods and feelings. Thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand of the most challenging, rewarding, confusing, boring and exciting seconds of my life.

And I suppose that any of what I’ve done and experienced here alone might not be that monumental in terms of my life experience, but taken as a whole, this has probably been the most extraordinary period of my life to date. And I really like that word, “extraordinary.” Because it doesn’t really FEEL extraordinary anymore. I know I’ve talked before about how nothing here really fazes me anymore, but that’s because being here has changed me, not anything about the things around me changing. And I wouldn’t say that any of the changes have been particularly drastic. I’m a little more patient (though I thought I was pretty patient before), a little more “go-with-the-flow,” and I move a bit slower (though I think that has as much to do with adjusting to the weather and traveling with people with shorter legs than any internal change).

I feel incredibly fortunate that my personality seemed to fit into Thai society really well. I may not always know what’s going on, but I’m comfortable and like the people around me, and I feel like I fit in pretty well. I definitely know that isn’t the case for every volunteer, there are many still trying to adjust to “Thai people,” and I’m glad my experience seems easier than theirs.

I think I’ve been hung-over here as many times as I had in the rest of my life, and I’ve sung lots more karaoke than I ever had before. I’ve taken far more cold showers and pooped without sitting down more than ever before, too. I talk to my neighbors more than I ever did in the states, with minimal communication skills to boot.

But that’s all about my year in summation. I bet you want to hear more about my current state after my first year here. And I guess the best way to tell about that is to recap my time at site since returning from Bangkok.

I arrived back in my town before it was light out. I actually had a pretty comfortable trip back and managed to sleep a bit, so I wasn’t too disoriented, but I was still getting off a bus at quarter to six. I wandered around the market for a little while until my co-teacher/father arrived and took me back to the village. I spent a few hours at his house before I headed back to my own, stopping at my market to get some oranges. I got back to my house, and then… I kinda hit a low spot.

For a few weeks before I had left, there was water from a mystery source pooling on my kitchen floor, and my internet had been down for a long time. I had gotten used to both of these things and hadn’t been terribly concerned about either, but having just come home from a pleasant week in a pretty comfortable setting, they were pretty frustrating. I spent a few hours in my house, trying to adjust to being back at home, but the longer I was there, the more frustrated I felt. Finally, I realized that being in my house was the source of my frustration, so I decided to go for a walk.

I started walking with the mindset that I would walk until I felt better. I began walking with no particular direction, hoping to interact with some of my neighbors and feel like a part of the community a bit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really find anyone who wanted to try and have a real conversation, and I ended up looking inward, trying to analyze the source of my frustration. Let’s just say that not being able to find someone to talk to made things worse, as it only made me feel less connected to my community. I began to question many things, but in general it was a, “What am I really doing here?” kind of time. For some time I have been rather dissatisfied with the way I spend my free time. I find that much of it is spent inside my house doing my own thing (playing on the internet or watching a movie or reading or listening to music) or at my co-teacher’s house in the next village. Sure I exchange pleasantries with my neighbors, but how much a part of the community am I really? How much do they know me, and how much do I know them? I had made resolutions to be more engaged in the past, but I had never really effected a real, lasting change in my behavior.

It was about this point when my mood bottomed out. My stomach was in knots, I was short of breath, and on the verge of tears. I stopped for a moment and looked around, found myself on a deserted road with houses on one side and rice fields on the other. I considered going home to sulk, and then remembered my intention to keep walking until I felt better, and I certainly hadn’t achieved that yet. So I took some deep breaths, tried to calm down, faced forward and kept walking. And maybe my mood didn’t lift right away, but I got my feelings under control and was able to think rationally.

I had a lot to think about from the Mid-Service Conference, hearing about everyone else’s successes and difficulties. We had a goal setting session and I declared that I wanted to be more involved with my community, to find a balance in how I spent my free time. A balance between being in my house, my co-teacher’s house and engaging with my community. But I was also faced with a fear that no matter what goal I set for myself, as before with any attempt to change my actions, I would simply regress to my current, dissatisfying ways. And that’s when I had my revelation. It’s never too late. Which maybe doesn’t seem like too great a revelation, but when I really thought about it, about what it really means, and means about my Peace Corps service, and what it could mean in terms of life in general, it really did feel like a revelation. As long as I am here and not packing my bags to go home, I can change (or at least TRY to change) anything. And so I did. I made a mental list of things to accomplish the next day, to talk to my landlord about the mystery puddles in my house and broken internet, to visit the Aw-Baw-Daw (local government office) to discuss my idea of working with adults to practice English I’d been kicking around for a while but had avoided doing because I felt either lazy or shy, and visit my village temple. Then I headed back home.

Before I made it to my door, my neighbor from across the road called me over, and before long I was drinking some local whiskey (moonshine made from sticky rice) and finally having that real conversation I’d been looking for.

The next day, I talked to my landlord, visited the Aw-Baw-Daw, and sat at the temple for half an hour or so. I have gone on a number of walks and had conversations with people I had never really talked to before. I have started trying to learn my students names (something I neglected to do at first since it’s hard for me to remember Thai names and I work with some 200 students, and I had resigned myself to not knowing their names as I was somewhat embarrassed to admit I didn’t know them, though I’m sure they knew I didn’t know), and I am now starting to call a handful of students by name and regularly ask students their names, even if I have already asked before. Eventually people started coming around to fix my plumbing and internet. After a handful of fruitless trips to the Aw-Baw-Daw I have started to practice English with a group of grown-ups. I’ve slept in my own house (as opposed to my co-teacher’s) far more than usual, and I spend less time hiding inside my house. In general I’m feeling much better about myself and my position here.

All that’s left now is to keep it up.

Su su! (That’s like the “fight fight!” cheer at a sporting event)

Saturday, January 16, 2010


(Saturday January 16, 2010, Thai Time)

Right now, I mean NOW now, as I am writing this, I am sitting in the Bangkok bus station, waiting to go back to my site. I have a few hours to wait, and I'm pretty due for a post, so I'm going to write this now and type it up when I get back home.

I've been here in Bangkok for almost a week for our Mid-Service Conference. Yeah, that's right. MID-Service. Like middle. In truth, it still hasn't quite been a year (that anniversary won't come for 12 more days), and I have about a year and three months to go after that, so it's not exactly mid, but it's pretty mid. Pretty wild, huh?

As far as official Peace Corps functions have gone, this one was very relaxed. I got in monday morning for our medical appointments (a flu shot and quick chat with the PC medical staff), then a dental exam at the hospital. And that was an experience.

A volunteer from the pervious group (will be going back to the states soon) warned few of us about a female dentist from last year who is very concerned about gingivitis and works quite painfully. When I entered the exam room, I noted that my doctor was a woman, she told me she was going to check me for gingivitis, then began carving up my gums. Not only did she dig painfully, but she carried on a conversation with her assistant, not always watching what she was doing. More than once, she (presumably accidentally) dug her tool into the meat of my gums and dragged it up onto the surface of my teeth. In spite of the pain (my hands remained tightly clenched in my lap for the duration), I had to fight to resist laughing when she explained that the blood whenever I rinsed was "because of gingivitis."

When she was finished with my cleaning and exam (this was the first time I'd ever had the actual dentist do my cleaning), she told me my teeth looked good, then launched into a long lecture on what gingivitis was and what it could do, breaking out big models of teeth to illustrate. She wrapped up by telling me not to eat raw meat at my site, because people eat with their hands where I live and doing so could put me at risk to contract hepatitis. And that was my trip to my Thai dentist, my only real dissappointment being that they did not take x-rays.

On Tuesday I went to the dermatologist and had a mole on my back removed (he showed me the removed chunk when I asked about it, which was way cool), which turned out to be, um, NOT melanoma, but at risk to become bad, so I'm glad it got taken off.
On Wednesday, all of us moved from wherever we had been staying (it was up to us during the medical time) to a hotel to have our meetings. And that was all the official business for the first three days of MSC. It was nice to have some free time (or a lot of free time) to re-connect and relax with other volunteers.

Our actual meetings, when they began, were quite laid back, with lots of opportunities for us to share and discuss our experiences, successes and frustrations from our sites. In the evenings we all continued to get our big city fun (though in more, smaller groups than in the past which I found interesting), and I nerded up and played some of the most enjoyable Dungeons & Dragons I have ever experienced with seven other volunteers.

On the last night, I went with five other volunteers (a pretty small, comfortable group for us) to have Muu Ga Ta, which is an awesome meal. They bring charcoal braziers to your table, with metal things that go on top shaped like a big cake pan with the middle area bulged up into a big dome. You pour broth (or maybe plain water, I'm not entirely sure) in the trough around the edge, and get raw meat and vegetables and noodles and sauce from a big buffet. You put chunks of fat on top of the bulge to flavor the water, grill meat on the rest of the exposed bulge (or boil it) and boil vegetables and noodles and meatballs and tofu in the water, making an awesome soupy meal that can just go on and on and on and on and is fun to eat and prepare. And there was a fat guy in neon green tights on a stage singing happy birthday every five minutes or so. He also sang "Zombie" by the Cranberries (a song I'd never heard before coming to Thailand), replacing all of the lyrics with the words "Happy Birthday." It was amazing.

Then we went back to the hotel and had a couple beverages in our rooms (and rounding up some more volunteers) before going down to the hotel bar and singing karaoke until they closed and asked us to leave. Definitely my best karaoke experience to date, and I've had some pretty good ones.

Then today we wrapped things up and one thing led to another and I found myself here, in the cafeteria at the Bangkok bus station (well, one of the bus stations), waiting for my bus. And I will say that this has been my most enjoyable time in Bangkok. Usually I'm anxious to leave after just a day or two, but this time I don't NEED to leave. Although, I do look forward to getting back to my home and not spending anymore money in Pangkok. Hah. That's my new joke that I just made up, and it's funny because "pang" means expensive.

Hey. It's six o'clock. Being the bus station at six o'clock is awesome. Every day on TV and radio (everywhere in the country, on every station) they play the national anthem (at eight in the morning, too, but it's evening now). Back home that doesn't mean much, but at the bus station, with a large group of people, everyone stands and all activity stops for the duration of the song. It's relatively quiet, and you can hear the song clearly. Then it ends and everything resumes as if there were no interruption. Awesome. Literally. Like awe-inspiring.

Anyhow, this relaxed, low-pressure Peace Corps week has felt like a mandatory mental health break, and I've enjoyed it. I've had some enjoyable new experiences in Bangkok and found a few more places and things I like. I've had a good time re-connecting with other volunteers.
The new Peace Corps group will be arriving here soon and I will be a senior volunteer. And that's a trip. I remember meeting volunteers from group 120 and being really impressed with their language skills and their ability to navigate life in Thailand, and soon that will be me. Yow.
I suppose I could say more on that topic, but I feel like I have more reflecting to do and I think I'll save that for my one year anniversary post.