It has been some time since writing to those in the internet world. The past month has been jam-packed with activities and travels. At the end of February I went on a site visit to the place I will be working and living for two years. It is a unique little town far different from my earlier residence in Singburi Province. Even though I am in the neighboring province, they feel like night and day. One of the resource volunteers from the previous group made a joke that every place in Thailand is exactly the same. However, I am finding that untrue, in a good way. Maybe I am just recognizing the subtle nuances between one town and the other, but regardless, I am loving the change. I posted some pictures of the small mountains that surround my site under the pictures, and as soon as I get a better feel for the town I will dutifully report. After all, I just moved in yesterday.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a going away party with my family and close friends. We sung karaoke and ate enough Thai food to fill a Wat. I knew that it was the last night I would have to spend with my host family. Everything about the end of pre-service training is bittersweet. There are so many goodbyes that even the rugged hard-asses cannot help but shed a tear. I was able to contain myself, most of the time. Our fellow ajaans have taught us so much about Thai language and culture in such a short amount of time. I remember my mid-term progress review like it was just yesterday.
I remember when one of the language instructors ushered me into a private room, just as all the other volunteers did. I was enthusiastic but nervous. And with what came next I suppose I had every reason to be nervous. Our interviews with the PC staff occurred in twenty minutes slots, but mine exceeded in the range of 40 to 45. Around the half-way mark I burst into tears and hit a low point. What the ajaan has told me was that I was exhibiting cultural behavior that would be unaccepted in Thai society should I not change my course of action. I was in shock somewhat. Then denial. Then anger and of course general sadness. The difficulty I was having was under the cultural practice of greng-jai. Greng-jai is an inherent part of Thai culture and a difficult one, to say the least. The practice assumes the roles of superior and inferior persons. An inferior person, whether by age, class, status, or gender must adhere to strict guidelines of agreement and acceptance of their superior. For example, if your Thai language instructor is teaching with a method that is not conducive to the group personality, it would be against greng-jai to bring up this situation with the instructor. Because the instructor holds a higher position than the student, one mustn’t question the authority. And surely one must not display non-communicative signs of disagreement. I.e. body language. Something such as crossing your arms, remaining quiet, frowning or even the simple act of not smiling is a non greng-jai practice. Insert Julia, semi-feminist American with liberal ideals on freedom and liberty. Ergo, problem.
This news broke my spirits and my ego. After the initial shock, then subsequent anger, I had a long period of recognition. The PC staff member was right, and I knew it. The problem she addressed is one that I have struggled with my whole life. Right before I left America I was able to develop coping strategies that were successful for me but Thailand is a game change because of the cultural differences. For instance, in America, the psychiatric foundation works on the principle that to grow, one must bring their emotions and feelings to light so that one can deal with them. We are encouraged to admit these negative feelings so that they may be purged or coped with. On the most basic level, you continually hear, “don’t bottle up your emotions.” Shift to Thailand and the perceived notion is that society encourages people to “bottle their emotions” and take everything with a smile. EVERYTHING. There is a joke (albeit a very real scenario) that when Thais are angry, they smile, when they are sad, they smile, when they are upset, they smile, and when they are happy, of course they smile. The smiles are all the same. One of the most surprising stories I heard is that at funerals you will typically see smiles and laughter. Not because the citizens aren’t sad, but because they are sad, so they smile. If I were riding my bike down the road and had a bike accident, a nearby Thai might laugh hysterically then run over to help. It is the Thai way. Every emotional scenario comes greeted with a smile in hopes that it will appease any other simmering emotions and spread happiness. But heck, don’t take my word on it. I am making cultural observations after only being here for one month. I have much to learn and as the Peace Corps trained us in the beginning, this experience is just the tip of the iceberg.
Point of the story is that my Mid-term progress review was with a woman named Suchawadee, a stern woman with a crass personality and very direct attitude. Sugar-coating things is not her nature. One would think that after my harsh review I would retreat from her presence and shy away from her opinions. However, I experienced the reverse. I have a high amount of respect for this particular Thai woman and thank her for her frankness. Maybe not eloquently, or softly, but she was able to put into words a problem I have struggled with since I was young. One that will continue at the forefront of my challenges in Peace Corps Thailand. When it came to goodbyes, as I hugged her tightly and she returned the sentiment back, I burst into tears. Her honesty and advice propelled 52 successful volunteers into service. As a matter of fact, Suchawadee, Chadchaya, Supaporn, Rawi and all the other dedicated staff members led a group of 52 trainees into the swearing-in ceremony on March 19th. Not a single person decided to go back home to America. I think that says a lot about the courage of Group 124 PC Thailand and even more about the hearts of the trainers who successfully pushed us along the way.