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)

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