It’s More Than Smiles That Are Universal

Pre-service training is a very intense and rigorous process. I want to tell you that the whole process is smiles and positive energy but I would be lying out of my teeth if I told you that. It has only been two weeks in Thailand and the ups and downs feel akin to another female time of the month we would all just rather avoid. But if I could only  convey to you how up the ups are you would understand why it is all worth it. I remember a poster from grade school that stated “Smiles are universal” and it had several pictures of people across the world. Some people showed their teeth, others wore dimples, freckles, and gap teeth proudly. The rest of the world seemed so far away and abstract back then. I wondered what sort of people traveled the world. Little did I know that I would be one of them. The Peace Corps lands me here in Thailand. Also coined the land of smiles.

We all began this journey by landing at the airport around midnight and making the trek back to the hotel at 3 a.m. Then we had to turn around, awake at 7:30 a.m. and perked up for training by 9 a.m. Mind you, this is after a twenty-one hour flight to Bangkok and a two-hour drive to Singburi, Thailand. There wasn’t a volunteer in the building who didn’t fall asleep at least once during lectures that day. Excitement buzzed around the air mixed in with intermittent exhaustion. None of us knew what to feel, so it became a jumbled ball of excitement, nervousness, confusion, etc. You name it, we felt it. The lack of time was a sign to come for the nine week training period ahead.

A typical schedule for me is six days of focused training. Sunday is family day. The topics range from cultural lessons, Peace Corps policies, health matters, and of course, language. I go to “school,” essentially, six days a week. It feels close enough to high school to be labeled as such. Four days a week I have four hours of language training starting at 8 a.m, followed by a lunch, then I bike few kilometers over to the Tessabon Hub for four more hours of technical training. My technical training is in the field of teaching English as a foreign language.  The other days are a mixture of lectures from 8-5 p.m.

Did I mention that my village Wat begins playing music at 5 a.m, followed by a gentle rap on the door from Paaw (My Thai Father) around 6 a.m. for breakfast? It happens. Some days it just makes me smile, others, I begrudgingly swing my legs out of bed and stumble into the kitchen. Often times, I peek with only one eye open when the bright light hurts my eyes. The family is almost in full motion at this point. My May (Thai mother), has already cooked enough breakfast for the eight people living under her roof as well as the Monks that we feed every morning. More on that later.

I am rather open with my family so I find no qualms in letting my messiness hang out in the early hours of the day. So when I stumble into the kitchen, still half asleep, my Paaw, May and Thai sister all greet me with a smile and a chuckle. I feel five years old again. My brain hasn’t even turned on yet and they are happy greeting me and striking up a conversation in Thai. Let me remind you that I have only heard Thai for the first time a week and a half ago. Trust me, you get the hang of it pretty quickly when everyone is speaking it around you.

After the first few mornings, Paaw took notice that I always drink a cup of hot tea with breakfast so he sets out a tea-cup and saucer with a spoon for me every morning. I often forget and traipse over to the corner cabinet but he says,  “Julia, Julia. Nee. Nee.”  He points at the cup already laid out for me. Even though a 3-in-1 coffee mix is all the rage here in Thailand, they have taken notice to my eating habits. Today, Paaw walked over to a grocery bag and pulled out a box of green tea. He went out of his way to buy me a box of tea, despite it not being prevalent. I smiled. Gracious doesn’t come close to what I felt. I felt like family. I FEEL like family.

For my first week of school my Paaw and I rode side-by-side to the Tessabon. He strolled along in his old-fashioned bike, equipped with a basket and cushy backseat for prospective riders. When we approached busy intersections he would quickly pull ahead of me and hold his arm out in front of me, much like the way a mother does to a child riding in the car. The imaginary safety belt, in a sense. The host family wasn’t required to drive with us anymore, but Paaw, no Paaw insisted we ride together. Just in case something were going to happen to me.

My Paaw in the Fields

My Paaw in the Fields

While I was in training lessons one day, he called the Peace Corps staff to see if I wanted him to come pick me up and ride with me on the way home. They assured him that I would be safe and he kindly replied that he wanted me to ride with another volunteer if possible, and not to forget to stop at the busy intersection. I smiled.

My Paaw is much like my Grandfather. Both of these men are teaching me a great deal about life. Paaw Prathum has just begun and my Grandpa has been molding me and shaping me as a successful, young woman since I was a little girl. Every time I smile at Paaw and he smiles at me, I see nothing but kindness in his eyes. I remember when I hugged my grandfather goodbye at the airport. I looked into his eyes and he smiled at me. His eyes were soft and kind. He was so proud to see his baby granddaughter go off and do something so courageous. Admirable. All that he had taught me to be. Grandpa is 84 this year and he led the family herd out to the airport terminal when I left America. As a matter of fact, he was several steps ahead of all of us. Trucking away at life at a faster, steadier pace than most of us. My Thai Paaw is 70 this year. He is a respected, retired school teacher and one of the most patient men I have met thus far. During dinner his four-year old granddaughter sits on his lap and eats with him. He smiles softly and spoons rice into her mouth. I have much to learn from him.

Today was one of the days where it was a struggle to pull myself out of bed at 5:40 in the morning. Paaw wanted me to go with him to the Wat to make merit to the monks, a weekly ritual. After the Wat and now rushed for time to make it to school, I began my 4 Km bike ride a little early just to get out of the house. I was upset at myself for being frustrated but knew it was understandable because of volunteers’ tight schedules.


Sugar Cane Fields in Singburi, Thailand

By the time I made it back home I couldn’t help but perk up again when greeted so warmly by my family. Tonight, after dinner, Pi Ning, my Thai sister, took me to the oy fields (sugar cane) to see where Paaw and Bpuu go to chop down the crops.

Afterward, I returned home and took shower number two of the day, a common practice in Thailand because of the heat. After I got out of the shower I looked down at my leg and noticed a small patch of raised, itchy bumps on the back of my leg. Much like poison Ivy, Sumac, etc. Thailand is a breeding ground for all sorts of things. I was standing there in my brightly colored pasin (a decorated cloth women use to cover most their bodies when changing or traveling to the shower) and panicked slightly. I am lucky enough to have few spider bites or mosquito bites in my time here, but this was something foreign to me. Paaw walked by my door and I called him name. He came over and I pointed at my leg. He asked what was wrong and went to get his glasses. As he did that he told me to go over to May Moo-ee (my Thai mother). I sat on the floor in my towel and May inspected my leg. She went “ahhhh, ohhhh. Uuu huh. Mmm.” and dabbed on a cream to my irritation. Then she started to dab the cream on to every part of my leg that resembled a bug bite. Next, she went on to the other leg and Paaw walked over.

Next, Pi-Ning came by and asked what was wrong and they all talked about how I must have gotten it in the sugar cane fields. May Moo-ee dabbed on an herbal camphor ointment to calm the itch. She gingerly tended to my rash as I sat there scantily clad. Clearly, being riap-roy was not a concern at that time. When she finished, I wai-ed, thanked her and flashed a huge smile. When she smiled back I realized, it is more than just smiles that are universal, it is love.

My new Thai family. My life and love has just doubled in size.

My new Thai family. My life and love has just doubled in size.

Cultural Terminology

Wat – The Thai word for Buddhist Temple

Make merit – Called tamboon in Thai. Weekly, on the phases of the moon, Thais go to the temple to offer food and sit in morning chanting/meditation.

Tessabon – A Thai government office, the one in Singburi province graciously allowed our training site to convene here.

Pasin –  a large, brightly colored piece of fabric that comes down to ones knees. It is used to travel to an from the shower, usually with a towel draped over your shoulders to keep from baring an inappropriate amount of skin (see riap-roy)

Riap-roy – This is one can think of as prim, proper and dressed appropriately at all times in the company of others. Riap-roy things involved clothing yourself from collarbone to the knees, ducking below the heads of elders when you walk by, wai-ing elders upon greeting, and so forth. It is a formal and always appropriate and expected way to politely interact with people. It helps keeps the Thai order the country strives for.

Wai – A Thai (though more broadly Asian) gesture one makes with their hands when you place both palms together, bow your head, and touch your nose to the tips of your fingers. This gesture is done when greeting someone, saying goodbye, excusing yourself from a group, and giving thanks.

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3 responses to “It’s More Than Smiles That Are Universal

  1. That’s why we do what we do 🙂 People often forget how much love each individual is capable, despite their differences in beliefs or appearance. I am so happy to know you are safe and have such a wonderful family looking after you.

    I am always so impressed with your writing. Each time I read something of yours I feel like I am reading a piece of your writing for the first time. I know how good of a writer you are and I’ve ready many of pieces of all different styles. Yet, each time, I am blown away just as the first. You have a beautiful style that makes the reader feel connected to you and inspired with each word they read. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for your continued love and support. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have today without so many of those who love me behind me the whole way. You can only go up from here.

  2. Pingback: Songkran: A Thai New Year Festival | Light Enough to Travel·

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