Making a difference while traveling the world

The World Out There

One of the first things I do every morning when I arrive at the orphanage is take some of the kids “out for a spin”. That’s basically pushing them in their high chair on wheels around the second floor of the orphanage. It’s such a shame there’s no ramp or elevator to take them downstairs to escape the monotony and explore the empty courtyard and playground below.

But one special part of the second floor I’ve realized the children especially enjoy gives them a glimpse into “the world out there.” It’s a fenced-in hallway that overlooks the bustling street below epitomizing Ho Chi Minh City – the buses roaring by, honking their multi-tuned horns every 3 seconds to part the sea of motorbikes.

Hien and his huge grin

One boy in particular, named Hien, loves sitting perched up there. Even with the double fencing, electric wires and trees obstructing his view, he seems to lose himself in all the activity below. He points at the buses and cars while giving me his huge open-mouthed grin I love him for. I wonder what goes through his head. He cries every time I have to tear him away from his perch – his little hand grips the wall as I try to move him.

Hien watching "the world out there"

Today, another volunteer and I carried Hien downstairs so I could push him around in the new stroller we bought for the orphanage. I ran around the courtyard with him, doing donuts with the stroller, till I could hear him laugh. And, of course, I had to bring him to the orphanage’s front gate to give him a ground-level view of the street he’s so mesmerized by. I wish I could’ve escaped with him – just for an hour – so he could live it, instead of just watch it. I can’t help but think about how he – most likely – will never be able to experience that world out there first hand. Only 2 out of the 32 children we work with can talk, and only 5 can walk with some or no assistance. That means most of the these kids will live at the orphanage till they’re about 18, then move onto another center for disabled adults, if they live that long. I just hope and pray they get adopted or get the chance to go to school, beat the odds and find opportunities to live their own lives.

Hoa - one of the oldest girls I work with confined to her bed

The good news is that one of the little boys we work with, the clever one named Tam – a.k.a. “Naughty Boy” – is now going to school, outside of the orphanage, with other children who are more his speed. I also found out that we can sponsor children to attend school at the orphanage, which I plan to do.

For now – as I wrap up my month as a volunteer at the orphanage – I’m leaving behind some resources that I hope will help the kids live more comfortably. This past weekend, Lorraine (the volunteer from Ireland) and I bought the stroller, 2 high chairs on wheels, 2 walkers and 5 padded helmets for the orphans – all with donation money from our friends and families.

New walker

The new stroller

New high chair on wheels

Today, we bought 20 more cylinder-shaped pillows and velcro straps to be delivered next week when I’m already gone. I’m glad to know these donations will make some sort of an impact on these kids long after I’m gone…and, at least, the stroller can help Hien continue to imagine a life outside those walls.

Cultural Exchange

One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Even better – as a volunteer traveling the world, you get to meet and live with other volunteers with whom you share a common bond and become friends.

I’ve been living in one of three volunteer houses Volunteers for Peace Vietnam provides – known as Peace House 3 – for almost 3 weeks now. Since then, I’ve learned that flip flops are called “jandals” in New Zealand, tank tops are known as “singlets” in Australia and “Are you all right?” is how the English ask, “How are you?” When I came to Vietnam, little did I know I’d be learning so much about other western cultures from countries I have yet to visit!

Despite our slight cultural differences, we’re all devoting our time, energy and money here in Ho Chi Minh City for one purpose – to love and care for disabled orphans.

Marie Claire feeding lunch

Marie Claire is from England and is half Vietnamese. So during her 2 months volunteering here, she’s also getting to spend time with family members who live in Ho Chi Minh City and has never even met before!

Alice and Nghia

Alice is a 19-year-old university student from China, who’s never traveled outside of China before this. She and this little boy, named Nghia, have formed quite a bond as she helps him practice walking every day. This is her last week volunteering and she says she doesn’t want to go home yet. I have a feeling this won’t be the last volunteer trip for Alice.

One volunteer from Ireland, named Lorraine, is spending 10 weeks volunteering here – and get this – she doesn’t even like Vietnamese food! She’s willing to live off rice, bread rolls,

Lorraine feeding lunch

smoothies and candy bars for the kids. She just bought the children paints, paint brushes and paper so they can unleash the creativity within them. She also plans to buy more high chair/strollers and clothes for the orphans with the money she raised at home.

Phat, Tam and me

Here I am with two of the more independent kids of the nursery – Phat (the boy in green on the left) and Tam (on the right). Phat usually wears a sort of padded helmet on his head, but isn’t in this picture right before his bedtime. He can speak, but not very clearly, and walks with a bit of a jerk. He can never remember or pronounce my name, so he always comes up to me saying, “My name – my name.” Phat’s the oldest in this part of the orphanage and acts as a little assistant for us volunteers, the nurses and caregivers. He helps us volunteers identify which kid goes in which bed or helps us find the kid that matches the name labeled on the bowl for feeding.

Tam is a monster – but so adorable. He’s known as “naughty boy” around the nursery. Even Phat calls him that. He’s blind in one eye, but other than that, he seems to be a smart and agile kid. He can repeat the English words and phrases we tell him perfectly – no accent. Even when they had two French volunteers a couple of weeks ago, he could mimic their French! Tam loves to be tossed, spun, swung and hung upside down. He takes a lot more energy to play with than the other kids, but we have enough volunteers to pass him around when one of us gets worn out.

Aside from being co-volunteers, we’re also travel buddies. After taking a couple of trips by myself in Thailand, it’s nice to have others to check out the other

The lake in Dalat's city center

parts of Vietnam with. Last weekend, 7 of us girls (4 from England, 1 from New Zealand, Lorraine from Ireland and me) took a tour up to Dalat – part of the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and a 7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. It was a much-needed getaway to lush, green trees, clean air and cooler weather after living amongst the intense heat, sweatiness and crowded streets of Saigon.

View from the top of the Crazy House

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the Hang Nha guesthouse, better known as the Crazy House. Lonely Planet says walking through it makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland – and it’s true! The gnarly tree designs, the funky animal-themed rooms that you can actually stay inand the twisty, maze-like staircases and hallways. The view from up top was gorgeous, too.

Another highlight – after the mostly boring bus tour comprised of flower gardens and parks with cheesy plastic animal figures, Lorraine and I hired two motorcycle tour guides, known as Easy Riders, to take us to Elephant Waterfall – one of the biggest

Easy Rider and me

waterfalls in the area. They took us on a one-hour ride through the beautiful countryside till we reached the thunderous waterfall pounding down on boulders that resemble a herd of elephants bathing in the water. First, the Easy Rider guide showed us the waterfall from up top, but then he took us on a hike – climbing down the slippery and muddy rock paths to get a side view of the waterfall and through a cave where we got sprayed by the mist. There was the adventure I was looking for!

Elephant Waterfall

Five of the girls I went on this Dalat trip with are leaving tomorrow – a bummer, but we say our goodbyes to different volunteers every week and welcome in new ones, as well. And this week, we got two more Americans! They’re both Vietnamese American and can speak the language, which helps a lot. One of them is even from Nor Cal! I know I’ll get to learn more Vietnamese from them (already learned “toi qua” = “I’m hungry” and “no qua” = “I’m full” from one of them) and eat more of the authentic stuff with them – maybe even dog?

It’s been a whirlwind week here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – living in a house full of strangers-turned-friends and travel buddies, working with children with conditions I’ve never encountered before and trying to stay alive while crossing the street in this hectic city!

I’ve been working at the orphanage I was assigned to by Volunteers for Peace Vietnam for 6 days now and I’m still getting the hang of how to care for the kids. I work with children who range from about one to 8-years-old. As many of you can understand, taking care of children is no easy task. I’ve been a babysitter, a camp counselor and, most recently, an English teacher in Thailand – but when the kids can’t talk, don’t understand the language you’re speaking and can barely move on their own, the challenges multiply. Most of the nurses and caregivers at the orphanage don’t speak any English either, so it’s been tough to figure out what they need us to help with.

Every morning, 5 of us volunteers leave our house to catch the bus to the orphanage. The whole place serves about 400 children whose ages range from infant to teens. The group we take care of is made up of more than 30 kids, about one to eight-years-old. It’s hard to tell just how old each kid is, though. One little girl has such thin legs and arms and looks about 2-years-old, but she’s actually 6! Their disabilities range from blindness to cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, hyrdrocephalis (extra fluid buildup in the brain) and birth defects caused by Agent Orange (herbicide used during the Vietnam War). This little boy, named Hao, has hydrocephalis, but when you meet him, you barely notice, since his smile takes up his whole face!

Hao and his big smile

When we arrive to the second floor section where our group of kids is located, we greet them in their stroller/highchairs or in their cribs. I like to say hello with a little song, like Good Morning to You (to the tune of Happy Birthday), Twinkle Twinkle, Row Row Row Your Boat or Itsy Bitsy Spider. I also

Lien

play with their hands and feet to get them moving. This little girl, named Lien, likes it when I stroke her fingers, which she can’t really move. The splints help keep her fingers outstretched.

This little boy (I haven’t figured out his name yet) loves it when I slide my hand across his. I also play a simplified version of paddy-cake with him.

Paddy-cake boy

Play area

If they’re in their chairs, we push them around the 2nd floor hallways to give them a change of scenery – somewhat. From what I’ve seen, they have no ramps or elevators to take the children downstairs to play in the playground or courtyard. We can also play with them on removable mats we lay out on the floor.

At around 10:00am, we feed them their lunch, since they go to bed and wake up so early. For the babies who can’t chew, it’s a green vegetable mush. For the intermediate eaters, it’s a rice porridge with chopped vegetables and bits of meat. And for the advanced eaters, it’s soup with short noodles, vegetables and pieces of meat. Not an extensive menu, but I’m sure it contains the nutrients the kids need. Each of the kids’ bowl is labeled with his/her name – that’s the best way for us to learn their names, since it’s hard to communicate with the caregivers.

I think I’m the slowest feeder of the bunch. So many of the caregivers shovel huge spoonfuls of food into the kids’ mouths – one after another – to the point where the mush is oozing out of their mouths, like lava out of a volcano! It’s painful to watch, especially when the kids are practically choking! That’s why I don’t mind allowing the kids time to chew and swallow. Even then, they often cough, so the food ends up on my face and clothes, or they can’t keep the food in their mouth, so they drool it all out onto their bibs.

After feeding, we wipe up their faces (and anywhere else they got food stuck on them) and put them back in their cribs for changing. We kind of have a diaper change assembly line going on. We volunteers take off the kids’ shorts and cloth diapers and dump them in a bucket. Then a caregiver follows to put a clean cloth diaper on them. Then we put a clean pair of shorts on them. Last week, I found a big piece of poop as big as the head of the little boy who made it. Once I got the diaper off, the boy stuck his foot in the poo, then peed on himself and on the floor!

After the kids settle down for their nap, we leave for a 2-and-a-half-hour break. Almost all businesses in Ho Chi Minh City shut down between 11:30 and 1:30pm for a siesta (Vietnamese-style). So we hop back on the bus to our house, eat lunch and take a break. Many of the other volunteers take a nap, but I haven’t yet, since I’m afraid I’ll wake up too groggy.

We leave the house for the orphanage again at 2:00pm and when we arrive, it’s pretty much the same drill as in the morning. We play with the kids in their cribs or take a few out to play on the mats. By this point, I’ve sung each of my children’s songs a dozen times, so I’ve also added Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours to my repertoire. I figure it’s a happy and upbeat song and they don’t understand the words, anyway. We feed the kids dinner at around 3:15pm (same menu) – most of them stay in their cribs for the meal, but I try to take the kid I’m feeding out to their high chair so they can eat upright. Then it’s clean up and diaper changing all over again before they go to bed. We head home at around 4:30pm.

There’ve been a few moments this past week when I’ve gotten a little choked up while playing with or holding one of these kids. To think how sweet and beautiful they are – but unwanted and abandoned by their parents – just breaks my heart. I remember reporting on a story about a daycare center in San Diego that helps nurture disabled children. I interviewed parents and teachers who talked about how these children are such blessings, no matter their disabilities and the extra care they need. I’m beginning to understand what they mean now. In the 6 days I’ve known them, these children have touched my heart, like no other children I’ve met before. Most can’t say please or thank you, but I’m happy to give them the love and affection they deserve and so desperately need – poop, pee, drool and all.

Ho Chi Minh City = Motorbike Central

Xin chao from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam! Xin chao means hello – one of 3 Vietnamese phrases I’ve learned so far. I just got to my volunteer house this morning after two hours of sleep in Bangkok. And what a contrast to my last accommodations! Instead of staying with just one local woman in a small farm village in Thailand, I live with a dozen other volunteers amongst all the chaos, crowds and cuisines of Saigon.

Our house includes 2 other Americans (1 from Chicago, 1 from Pennsylvania), 3 from Australia, 2 from China, 2 from France, 1 from New Zealand, 1 from Ireland and 1 from England. Quite the United Nations of Volunteers under one roof! I just learned the term “mossies” – a.k.a. mosquitos – from the Australians. Looks like I’ll be soaking in many other cultures, besides Vietnamese.

Our living room in Peace House 2 in Ho Chi Minh City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I sleep on a bunk bed with 3 other girls in the room. We each have a fan at the foot of our beds and no air conditioning.

My top bunk

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 of us girls share 1 bathroom (we’ll see how that goes…so far, so good). We have wifi, so I hope to share my stories with you all more often. We have a kitchen where a cook makes breakfast, lunch and

Yummmmmm...

dinner, but I’ll be partaking in the street food pho sho (sorry, couldn’t help myself). I hear the smaller the chairs are at a street vendor or restaurant, the better and cheaper the food. Haven’t found any dog yet, but I did have my first authentic Vietnamese iced coffee today!

 

I’m looking forward to starting my volunteer activities tomorrow. I signed up for this volunteer trip through an organization, called International Volunteer Headquarters, but then they place us with a local group, called Volunteers for Peace Vietnam (VPV). I’ll be caring for disabled children at an orphanage and a hospital, switching off day to day. From what the VPV staff has told us, some people in Vietnam consider a disability a punishment for past crimes by the family or represents bad luck for anyone connected to them. So the families may abandon or neglect the child – or take the child to a disabled center as a last resort. We volunteers provide them the love and attention they so desperately need.

Tomorrow morning’s our orientation where we’ll learn more about our duties, then in the afternoon we have a Vietnamese language lesson. I need to learn how to say, “I don’t understand,” or “I’m not Vietnamese. I’m from America,” since some Vietnamese people are already talking to me assuming I understand them – just like in Thailand. On Saturday, we get to take a tour of the city, Sunday’s a free day, then Monday we start work with the kids!

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.

My view while having breakfast on Chaweng Beach on Koh Samui

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.

Adorned with flowers, twine (representing well wishes for my travels) and much love from the students and teachers

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 started crying saying goodbye to one of my favorite students, Moat

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

Nong and 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).

My goodbye hot pot dinner

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

Shiao and Dream - the Scrabble winners

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.

Pi Su and me

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.

Ziplining through the jungle

My monk friend, Supot, and me

My elephant, Korosu, and me

View from the dive boat off Koh Tao

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!

“Mai bpen rai”

It’s been a week and a half at my homestay in Salanongkhon and I’ve learned to take on the Thai way of thinking. Mai bpen rai – or no problem, no big deal – is what Thai people live by. So mai bpen rai when it comes to the bugs and the bites. It’s me against the mosquitos and they way outnumber me, like the Lilliputians outnumbered Gulliver. Mai bpen rai when it comes to the heat and humidity. I got an extra fan for my room and have just accepted that I’ll be sweaty and dirty. That’s why Thai people bathe twice a day. With this way of thinking, I think I’ll be a happier person, even when I leave Thailand.

This past week, we’ve had more people around the house than my first few days here. When I arrived, I thought it was just going to be Pi Su (my host teacher) and me. But Pi Su’s husband – Pi Sem – and his mother – Ya (grandma) – live full time in Salanongkhon, which I hadn’t realized, since they were in Korat when I first got here. So I’ve had more of that family atmosphere I was hoping for.

At night after dinner, Pi Su likes to watch a drama on TV about a princess and her slave who switch places, so the princess can find her brother who left the palace several years ago (of course, the princess’s family can’t tell the two apart :P). While she’s pretending to be a slave, a prince falls in love with her, but the slave pretending to be the princess is in love with the prince. Typical soap opera love triangle. It’s a pretty silly and overly dramatic show with scenes in slow motion and all, but I’ve found myself getting into it, too, especially since Pi Su and I can discuss it, like teenagers watching Beverly Hills 90210.

Earlier this week, Pi Su gave me a journal from past volunteers who’ve documented the lessons they taught each class and a brief summary of their experience in Salanongkhon – a useful reference. For now, I’ve generally been sticking to learning each other’s names, spelling them and a simple lesson with the alphabet or colors.

 

 

 

 

 

In the journal, I read how one volunteer started an after-school tutoring program. I started one, too, this past Tuesday, so the students who want to learn more English can get more personal attention from me. It’s extra work, but I’d much rather stay at school helping them than sit in my hot room bored, waiting for the bugs to get me.

After-school tutoring program

My two main after-school students are a boy, named Pi, and a girl, named Moaht – so cute and eager to learn. Other students have been stopping by on different days. One of them – a chubby, smiley boy, named Fem. Just looking at him makes me smile. This past week, I’ve helped them recognize letters and colors with the foam learning toys I bought at home, thanks to the donations I received from friends and family. I also taught them the words and meanings of today, tomorrow, yesterday and the days of the week. They’re pretty competitive, so it’s fun – and effective – to put them up against each other. I reward them with chewy fruit snacks I bought from Costco before I left on my trip. After about 50 minutes or so, we play with the jump ropes I bought for the kids last weekend in Korat – thanks, again, to the donation money. The kids always ask to play with the jump ropes – only it sounds like “junk rose”, so I keep correcting them, in hopes it’ll sink in one day.
The students always want to play games – like any kid – so I try to incorporate them into the lesson. One they’ve liked so far is BINGO. I ask them to draw out four lines across and four lines down, then fill the squares with random letters. Sounds easy enough to explain, right? It’s not. The most common phrase of every school day between me and the students (going both ways) – “mai khao jai” – which means “don’t understand.” Without knowing how to explain how the letters need to be random and different from anyone else’s, some of them write the letters in alphabetical order or just copy each other. I ended up borrowing someone’s English-Thai dictionary and asking a student to help translate. After everyone is finally done drawing their BINGO pages, I say a letter, they find it on their page, then color it in. Surprisingly, many of the students don’t know their letters, especially out of order. When I say “H”, most of them think “X”, or when I say “R”, many think “I”. Something I’ll need to work on with them. After they get it and start getting 4 or 5 letters in a row, they get excited and don’t want to stop playing!

So after a week and a half I’m getting a grasp on the students’ skill levels and how I can teach them more effectively. I’m hoping these next two weeks I have left at the school will make a lasting impact on them. My mom, and a women’s group she’s a member of, have decided to adopt Salanongkhon School to donate books and supplies. I was so moved to hear they wanted to do that. The first package is already on its way. At least I know that after I leave, I’ll still be able to help the students – even from the other side of the world.

Wiw jumping rope

Oom and Oy - 2 of the cutest kindergarten girls

Teaching the students how to say “Nice to meet you!”

BUGS!

Sawatdee Ka from Korat, Thailand! I’m now in northeastern rural Thailand where I feel so grateful to have internet access! I’m at my host family’s weekend home in a city, called Korat, which is about an hour and a half train ride from where I live and teach in Salanongkhon, a village of dirt roads, no traffic lights – or even stop signs – and where everyone knows each other. I wake up to roosters crowing outside my window every morning and walk past a small herd of cows every day. This is the country life in Thailand. But it is so beautiful and green and close-knit, which I love.

I look back fondly on my first evening there. I walked around the neighborhood with my host – a woman, named Suwaluck – and we’d stop to talk to the neighbors so she could introduce me. I really felt a sense of warmth in their community – with all the neighbors visiting each other, all the kids working together on their projects or riding around on their bikes and motorcycles. I stopped to take pictures of the lake and the rice fields that are practically in my backyard for this next month. It’s nice to slow down in life once in awhile.

But I have to admit – when I first arrived on Wednesday, it was pretty tough to imagine how I could live here for the next month. I have my own room with a separate entrance to the house, but the accommodations are meager. I have a twin size bed, an armoire sort of cabinet for my clothes, a bench and a table. But there’s no shower – I have to fill up a plastic garbage can with water and use a “water bowl” to pour water on myself. The bathroom sink doesn’t like to work in the morning, so far. There are these ants that dart around the counter top faster than any ants I’ve ever seen. There’s no air conditioning and just one fan in the humid 85+ degree weather. The screenless windows allow the bugs to come and go freely when the windows are open, but even if they’re closed, they have many other ways to get in. Thus, the mosquito net over my bed. I consider it my safety net to protect me from all the bugs who want to eat me alive. So far, I have 8 mosquito bites…and counting. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t swell up to make me look like I have weird growths on my body.

My host’s name is Suwaluck – I call her Pi Su for short. Pi is the term used out of respect for someone who is older than you and is more than just an acquaintance. She’s very nice and takes good care of me. My Volunthai coordinators told me she had her family living with her, but her husband, her 18-year-old daughter, 15-year-old niece and mother-in-law spend most of their time at their house in Korat. So it’s been just the two of us these last few days. Pi Su is the English teacher at the school, so her English is the best in town, although it is still pretty choppy, so I have to speak slowly and simply with her and explain words often. She enjoys talking about American culture with me and broadening her English vocabulary. The other day when a ladybug landed on her, I taught her the word “superstition”. I explained when a ladybug lands on you, you can put it on your finger, make a wish and if it flies away, your wish will come true. She liked that one.

I thought I might be able to lose weight here, considering how hot it is and how Thais don’t eat as much as Americans, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. Thai people generally eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner (although Pi Su doesn’t make any for breakfast). Plus, she’s only been cooking for the two of us, so I feel pressured to help her finish the food! Oh well, at least it’s all really delicious, or “Arroy!” in Thai. The last two breakfasts I’ve had pineapple (super sweet and fresh!) and yogurt, plus “dessert”. Two days ago, it was sliced pumpkin in a sort of soup/sauce and yesterday it was a sort of coconut jello with salty coconut shavings on the inside (arroy!). We eat lunch at school, which Pi Su makes in the morning and brings to share with the other female teachers. So far I’ve had fried rice, cucumbers, a spicy ground pork dish, a spinach dish and more I didn’t recognize. But yesterday I also ate bugs for lunch. YES, I ATE BUGS! One of the teachers made me eat them…well, she didn’t force them down my throat, but strongly suggested I eat them. She peeled off the wings of a black one that looked like a cockroach, but she said it’s from the water, and put it on my plate, saying “Arroy!” It looked totally gross, but hey – it’s part of the cultural experience I’m looking for, right? I mixed it with as much rice and other food as possible, but I could still discern the crunchy bug taste. I had to eat 3 of those and another bigger one that resembled a small crab leg to me. That one wasn’t as bad – maybe because it didn’t look as much like a bug.

All this is worth it because of the kids. That’s why I’m here! They are so cute and welcoming and full of energy that I’m exhausted by noon and school doesn’t end till 3:30! The students treat me like a celebrity. Some kids even pretended to be paparazzi at one point yesterday, taking photos with their invisible cameras. Any time they see me, they run to me to grab my hands, my arms, squeeze my waist – any way they can be near me. It’s really sweet. The older kids usually wave and say, “Hello”, “Shake hands!” or “Play game.” Or they just stare until I smile and wave, then they smile and wave back. Overall, a very warm welcome, to say the least.

When I first arrived Wednesday and Pi Su would introduce me, all the teachers and students would tell her how I don’t look farang, or like a foreigner, and that I look Thai. I could almost sense some disappointment, especially from the director, that I wasn’t a white, blue-eyed blonde. My friend, Henry, in Bangkok – who’s also a teacher – warned me about that. I try to explain to them (with Pi Su’s help, of course) that I am from America, my family is from China and that America is made up of people from all different backgrounds and from different parts of the world. I may have been reading into their initial reaction, but either way, they’re happy I’m here.

The children’s English is very limited. Many of them say, “Hello, my name is!” when they see me, just to say something in English without really understanding what those words mean. It can be really frustrating to try to explain something that seems so easy, like “My name is Jessica. What is your name?” But I guess it just takes repetition and patience, especially when I only know a few Thai phrases. I tried to teach one class of 12-year-olds how to play Simon Says – or “Jess Says” – and it seemed like some of them got the concept, but most didn’t catch on, so we moved on.

Salanongkhon School has 200 students and 10 different grade levels. I’m scheduled to teach every grade, but kindergarten. My students range from 6-15 years old, so it’s going to be challenging to gauge their skill levels and teach them effectively. Yesterday was my first day teaching, since most of Wednesday and Thursday were set aside for a ceremony to show appreciation for teachers. The ceremony was fun and interesting to watch. Each class made a sort of trophy of flowers to present to the teachers. Each student also had their own little bouquet wrapped in a banana leaf to offer each teacher, while bowing to them on their knees. I got to sit amongst the teachers for a little while, too. If only teachers in the U.S. were given such respect.

 

 

 

 

 

During my classes yesterday, I had the children make name tags out of index cards I brought from home. That way they could practice writing their names in English and I could learn their names. They all have nicknames – like Tip and Aefor girls and Bam and Do for boys – since they’re full names would be way too long and difficult for me to remember. The older kids didn’t have much of a problem writing their names, but I realized the younger ones didn’t even know how to write their names in English. So I sounded out each student’s names for them. They had fun with the project and I can recognize more of them by name now.

This country lifestyle with the children is a far cry from where I was just 5 days ago – in the hustle and bustle of the traffic-infested, lady boy-accepting urban jungle of Bangkok. I stayed with some new friends of mine – Cindy (who’s my family friend’s cousin), her boyfriend Henry and their 2 cats. I had never even met them before, but they welcomed me and showed me around like family. They brought me to all their favorite Thai restaurants, took me to the beautiful temples, braved the chaos of the weekend market with me and even took me out to a club. I can’t thank them enough.

Since I first got to Thailand, I’ve had nothing but Thai food for meals. And I don’t mind it one bit. Most of the food I had in Bangkok is the same as the food at Thai restaurants at home – like pad thai, pad see ew, green curry, praram curry, tom kha soup – but like at home, each restaurant’s dishes taste differently. Most of the food is more flavorful – and more spicy – here in Thailand than the Thai food I’ve had in the states, but I have to say, the Thai food I’ve had in San Francisco is pretty close.

Something new I’ve never seen before was this snack that looks like a taco, called khanom buang. The shell is made out of rice flour and it can be  filled with shredded coconut, coconut cream and strips of fried egg. Soooo arroy!

All this writing about food is making me hungry…time for a snack! I’ll be sure to continue sharing my adventures in food, teaching and living the Thai country life with you the next time I have access to the internet!