I’m now sitting at Black Canyon Coffee Shop on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand as I squeeze in a couple of days of R&R between my volunteer trips in Thailand and Vietnam – the lazy, tourist-packed beach lifestyle a stark contrast to my daily routine at the rural village school for the past few weeks.
I feel caught between the locals and the tourists here – like I don’t know which group I fit in with, especially after living here for a month. The tourists are almost all European who probably think I’m Thai – one drunk guy even gave me a 20 baht bill because he thought I was “a pretty Thai girl” (his friend apologized profusely and I returned the money). I’ve been talking to a few of the employees at the resorts and restaurants – most of them are from Myanmar who’ve escaped to Thailand because they have no jobs in their home country.
I can’t believe my homestay and teaching assignment in Thailand are already over! I feel like I barely scratched the surface with the kids! I really hope – someway or another – I was able to make a difference for those children. Maybe some of them now know the difference between sh, th and ch sounds because of me. Maybe some of them now know how to say “I’m hot!” in response to “How are you?” because of me. Maybe they now know how to do high 5s and fist pounds because of me. Or maybe they now know Chinese people also live in America after meeting me! Whatever the impact, I hope it’s positive and that they remember me.
On Friday, my last day at the school, the teachers and students surprised me with a goodbye ceremony – thanks to my homestay “mom”, Pi Su. I sat at a small table in front of all the students. One by one, they came up to bid me farewell, offer me flowers or a note (a couple of them folded their note into an origami crane) and tie a piece of white twine around my wrist. The twine is an offering of good luck and safety for an upcoming journey. Half my left forearm was wrapped in these well wishes from the students and teachers! A few of the students told me “I love you,” or “I miss you,” or “I hope to see you again.” And, of course, the softy that I am, I cried saying goodbye to my favorites.
I will mostly miss the students I spent more time with, tutoring and playing with them after school. The one I think I’ll miss the most is a 10-year-old girl, named Nong. She didn’t stand out to me in the beginning, but when she started to come to after school tutoring, I realized how smart and down to earth she was. She has a sense of maturity that most of the other kids don’t have. She’s not all about getting stickers as a reward for doing work (like most of the other kids), she doesn’t jump in front of the camera when I’m taking pictures or video and she seems to understand more complicated English and helps explain to the other kids. She’s always friendly and says “Hello, Jess,” “How are you?” and “See you again,” without being too clingy, like some of the others.
On my last night in Salanongkhon, about 20 kids walked around the neighborhood with Pi Su and me as a kind of “goodbye tour.” I got to meet some of the kids’ families and see their homes – one of which was Nong’s. Pi Su told me that she belongs to one of the many poor families in the village. Her father has passed away and her mother is sick, having to go to the doctor regularly and take medication. Her mom
doesn’t work, so Nong, her mom and her little brother rely on the money her older sister sends them sporadically. Sometimes it’s as little as 1,000 baht per month or 2 – that’s a little over $30 US to feed the 3 of them, pay for Nong’s mom’s transportation to and from the doctor, her medication and whatever supplies or uniforms the kids need for school. At this rate, Nong won’t be able to afford going to high school after she graduates from Salanongkhon School. Pi Su says high school can easily cost 3,000 baht ($100 US) per semester, so many kids from Salanongkhon go to work at farms or factories instead of high school. I hope that won’t be the case for Nong. I’m going to see what I can do to help her family.
When we got home that night, six girls from the older classes were waiting there to cook dinner for us! Two of the older boys were also there waiting to play Scrabble with me! The girls prepared the vegetables, pork and glass noodles for a hot pot dinner, while one of the boys made a super spicy som tum (papaya salad).
After dinner, I played Scrabble against the boys to help them practice for their tournament against students from other schools. I have to admit – they kicked my butt, but at
the same time, they played by different rules and used words out of a book of “usable Scrabble words” – words I never even knew existed, like “bellings” and“queened”. Either way, it was fun and I hope they win their tournament!
I look back on those 3-and-a-half weeks in Salanongkhon fondly, although it was tough and lonely at times. I found myself having a lot more inner dialogue than usual, since I had no one to have a full English conversation with all day. I’d like to go back and visit at some point, especially since I’ve found such a good friend in Pi Su. I will miss her for her patience, selflessness and eagerness to learn about my culture, as well as share her own. I really admire her for how hard she works. She never stops – whether it’s working late hours at school; taking care of me, her husband, her mother-in-law, her daughter and the 3 other girls who live in her house in Korat; cooking and gardening! When I tell her I appreciate what she does for me, she just says, “It’s Thai culture.” I cried the most saying goodbye to her.
Part of what made her so likable was her flexibility and understanding when I wanted to take off to see other parts of Thailand. Two weekends ago, she let me have Friday and Monday off to have a long weekend in Chiang Mai. That was an amazing weekend full of culture and adventures! That’s a perk of voluntourism – traveling the world to help others, while exploring the surrounding regions. In those 4 days, I went white water rafting down the Mae Taeng River; stayed overnight in the jungle with a family who spoke absolutely no English; ziplining with a crazy guide who calls himself Mr. Crash; fed, bathed, checked the poop of and rode an elephant named Korosu for the day; explored the temples of Chiang Mai and even made friends with a 22-year-old monk, named Supot Wongsa.
This past weekend, I went scuba diving off the island of Koh Tao – “tao” means turtle, but I didn’t see any, unfortunately. I did see huge schools of barracuda, dancing and banded harlequin shrimp, bat fish, a big grouper, trevally fish and trigger fish. Sorry, no underwater photos this time.
I’m headed back to Bangkok tomorrow for a quick stopover before saying “Sawadee Ka” to Thailand and taking off to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Thursday for my next volunteer venture caring for disabled children. This is through an organization, called International Volunteer Headquarters, and I’ll be living in a dorm with other volunteers this time, instead of a homestay. Stay tuned for my new adventures from Vietnam!