I have so many people in my life that ask how my adventures in Thailand are thus far. Is it fun? Are you doing exciting things? Is is the time of your life? Yes, yes, and yes. However, these wonderful experiences are woven with struggles and various challenges. I have always felt that there was a presence in my life that looks after me closely. Whether you want to think of it as a God, a spirit, a loved one who has passed away, whatever you call it, someone is surely looking after me. As soon as a hardship arises, almost immediately afterward a moment happens that restores my faith and good spirits. With time and patience, any wrong is righted.
For example, we all know that one of the big hurdles for volunteers to overcome is the language barrier. As volunteers, we go through phases of language learning. In the beginning, we are obviously beginners and people expect that we cannot speak a lick of Thai. Thai people and Peace Corps staff are forgiving of our lack of knowledge. However, soon afterwards, our brains flood with thousands of new vocabulary words and sentence structures. Some volunteers pick it up quickly, some need a little more time. Whichever group one fits into, next comes the dreaded phase of language learning which is proficiency expectation. This is where Thai people and Peace Corps staff expect that we will pick up a generous portion of the language and successfully incorporate it into our daily lives. The good thing, for me, is that I have been successful at the initial phase of language learning. The bad thing is that my skills are often limited to whatever subject we learned in Thai class that day. Therefor, I can learn a lesson on how to describe my activities for the day, go home, bust out my new language skills, and converse with the family. But then, the family gets so excited about our new knowledge that they nearly forget you have very limited speaking and listening abilities, and they go off in a Thai tangent with these foreign words that you have never heard in your life. Typically, my eyes get huge at this moment, I smile with neck muscles I forgot existed, and my teeth bear a striking resemblance to frigid apprehension. I start laughing and shaking my head, followed quickly by “mai kow jai” (I don’t understand). This will happen for the rest of my language learning experiences, but do not fret, I welcome these moments in the end. They always lead to a mini teaching lesson on new vocabulary, or at the very least, good laugh.
Well, one of my struggles is my scattered understanding of Thai-language speakers. One moment, I can speak perfectly with a Thai native and the next I am in conversing with a person and you would think I have never heard Thai in my life. The classic case example of this is my very own Thai mother. I live in the same house with her, I have started (err, tried to) more conversations with her than most people in the village, but no matter how hard I try, we cannot seem to understand one another. She speaks to me, every time, in Thai like I have spoken the language for years. When I politely ask her to speak more slowly she will repeat the sentence at the exact same speed, only louder. Sometimes I feel like our conversations will end in frustration because neither one of us can understand each other. The only part of the conversation I will catch is when she mutters “Caiw mai kow jai” (She doesn’t understand). I started to worry that our lack of understand was getting in the way of us building our relationship together, an incredibly important aspect of Peace Corps volunteers. I worried that May Moo-ee might have seen me as an impedance, or that she felt we would never understand one another, or worse that she had no desire to form a relationship with me. This, coupled with language learning struggles at school had me slightly panicked. My Thai family is one of my saving graces here in Thailand and I want to make sure I am making the most of it.
Now remember, I told you that surely someone must be looking out for me. This week was an emotional struggle for me in the training process. But a very wise friend of mine, Alex, always reminds me that God will never give you more than you can handle. Thankfully, my weekend could not have ended more perfectly. I was packing up my belongings in the living room and getting ready for bed. May Moo-ee and Paaw are going for a vacation next weekend to Chiang Mai. Tonight, May was trying on outfits in the living room and looking in the mirror to see if she liked it enough to pack for vacation. Paaw patiently sat with her and gave his modest advice. Bear in mind that May is 65 years old and Paaw is 69 (young spirits I would say). I felt honored, in a sense when May stopped me on my way to my room to ask me if I liked her shirt.
Next, Paaw explains that she is trying on clothes to see which outfits she would like to pack. She tries a hip, black shirt with purple cats on it, my personal favorite. I smile and tell her that it is beautiful and that I like it because it has cats. It goes in the pack pile. Next, she strips down to her bra, and slips into a new, red shirt. She holds her arms out in the air, smiles, and says, “yai” (too big). I agree but tell her that red is definitely her color. I quickly run to my room and grab one of my fashion belts. I return, she lifts her arms up and I tie the belt around her waist. I smile and she twirls slowly several times in front of the mirror, stopping briefly at each new angle. She is a petite woman, like most Thai women, with a stunning new haircut I must add. She admires her figure in the mirror, almost having forgotten that such a figure existed. I tell her that the belt will go on vacation with her. However, she laughs and points to the hair on her head. May Moo-ee gently unbuckles the belt and hands it back to me. I notice that she points to the gray hairs on her head and implies that she is too old to wear figure fitting clothes. I reassure her, “mai chai, mai chai,” to let her know that it is not true. Paaw says that she thinks she is an old woman now. I flash her a huge smile and tell her that she is beautiful and remind her that red is her color. The shirt goes in the pack pile. I wai my Thai parents and head off to bed. Surely someone is looking out for me.