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Six Weeks in Thailand
Brianna Lackwood
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Last summer, when I was 17, I got the opportunity to visit Khon Kaen, Thailand, and stay with a host family for six weeks. The trip was arranged by an intercultural exchange program.

When we landed, I lugged my suitcase to the exchange program’s Thai coordinators, where we waited to be picked up from the airport. There were two other exchange students, one from New Jersey and another from Italy. Being an introvert, I kept quiet while those girls chatted.

I worried that my host family wouldn’t recognize me with my new hairstyle; it was different from the picture they had of me. I fidgeted with my hands. I hoped I looked friendly. It hit me; I was in a new culture with new people, a new language.

When my host family arrived, they recognized me. I gave an awkward smile and wave. My younger host sister, whose nickname is Donut, presented me with a Thai shawl and flowers. My older host sister, Nan, handed me a sign that said “Welcome to Thailand Brianna.” Though nerves were bubbling within me, I couldn’t stop smiling. My host mom, a short, tan woman, took my hand and said, “My daughter.”

Six Dogs and a Mouse

My family, the Boonsermtaes, called me Meena after my birth month, March. Thai parents like to give their kids nicknames, for things like flowers, or concepts like freedom. Or it can stem from their actual name.

On my first day, Donut and my host mom treated me to dinner at an outdoor restaurant. When I told my host mom that I liked fish, she cooked different fish dishes for me throughout my stay with them.

The family lived in a one-story home surrounded by small gardens, where they grew starfruit and lettuce. They had two kitchens, one for cooking and the other for washing dishes. My room was near the second kitchen. It was my older host sister’s; she gave me the room and stayed with my host mom. There were shelves filled with books, and a vanity in the back of the room that I liked to sit at.

They had six dogs, a hamster, a guinea pig, and a mouse. Yes, a pet mouse. Back home the only pets I’d ever had were fish, and their lives were short. I can’t imagine anyone having a pet mouse in New York.

Language Barrier

My biggest challenge was learning a new language. I knew how to introduce myself, say where I came from, and, “It is nice to meet you.” But after a couple of days, I knew that wasn’t enough.

My older host sister gave me Thai lessons, but I still struggled in the beginning. I smiled and nodded a lot when I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed that I knew so little.

One afternoon, I was in my room when my host mom called me.

“Mamma hong nam,” she said, rushing away from cooking. She pointed towards the kitchen, telling me what she wanted me to do while she was in the bathroom. I didn’t understand what she had asked, and started washing the dishes. When I finished I went back to my room, only to be called out a few moments later.

“Meena,” she said in between her laughs. “No.”

When she showed me what she was cooking and how it had burned I too laughed, after I apologized. What she’d said was she wanted me to keep an eye on the food.

Adrenaline Rush

Immersing myself in a new culture and trying new things required me to step out of my comfort zone. In New York, I had moments of bravery, but they were often prompted by someone else urging me on.

But in Thailand I felt more courageous. I think I took more chances because I had more freedom; I wasn’t as supervised. One night I was at a concert with my new Thai friends. There was a food and clothing market called “Walking Street” nearby that we wanted to go to, but we could only get there and make it back in time to see my friends’ favorite band if we drove.

When my friend suggested I get on the back of her moped, I freaked out; I was afraid of getting in trouble with my Thai mom. I wasn’t sure if it was safe even though my friend has her license. But my friends were amped about going to “Walking Street.”

I put on a helmet and got on the back of her moped, a ton of nerves running through me. It was worth it. The market was beautiful with its bright fairy lights. I loved the strange street food. I can still remember the adrenaline rush I felt during the drive.

image by YC-Art Dept

Bow to the Teacher

About a week into my stay I started school, which for Thai students begins in May. My host mom got me the school uniform: a long pleated skirt, a blue ribbon for my hair, dress shoes, and a purple shirt. The starched shirt identified me as Meena Boonsermtae.

The school in Thailand is like a mini college campuse. There are about seven buildings; the campus is as wide as two long city blocks. The school started at 1st grade and went up to 12th grade. Each grade is divided into seven groups, each with about 50 students. So the entire school had about as many students as my big public high school in New York.

Students from each group travel together from class to class. It’s easy to form bonds that way. It was also easier for me to make friends.

Although we’re taught to respect adults in New York, in Thailand they take it to a whole new level. You are expected to bow whenever crossing paths with an elder. Teachers also bowed when greeting one another. I bowed to my host parents as well. Thai kids even show respect to other kids who are just one year older whom they don’t know well.

I followed my classmates when they lined their shoes up outside of the classroom and proceeded to enter the room in their socks. I loved the school’s canteen, where hot meals like noodle dishes and soups were prepared from scratch every day. It was much tastier than New York City school food.

A New Identity

Being called Meena for six weeks made me feel like I’d taken on a different identity. I liked that. I felt braver and bolder. After my first week of school, I had to introduce myself in front of the student body and staff. I was nervous. Though I clung to my shyness, I felt motivated.

I was introduced in Thai and approached the podium.

“Sah wah dee kah,” I said, which means hello.

I introduced myself by both my English and Thai name. When I said I was from New York, everyone said “ooh” and “aah.” I went on to state my age and thank the students and the faculty for allowing me to have this experience. My shaking hands revealed my nervousness.

After that, I was asked to give presentations about myself and New York City. Speaking in front of a large group was something I had trouble with back home. It was easier to do in Thailand because I felt special there, unlike in New York.

Kings and Temples

It took me a while to get used to the daily broadcasts of the national anthem each evening. Also, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, which means there is a king who leads the country. The love that Thai people have for their king and the royal family seems absolute. In America people can be critical of our elected leaders, but I didn’t hear anything like that in Thailand.

I was exposed to so much that was new. The primary religion in Thailand is Buddhism and one morning we visited a Buddhist temple. I was dressed in a traditional Thai skirt and white shirt. While I was kneeling during prayer, I looked around as people prayed and repeated the words of one of the monks in the front. After that, I followed my host mom and sisters outside, where we watched a dance performance.

Twice, at school, I visited a temple with my class. At home, we said prayers and gave offerings to monks. The night before we would prepare bua loy, a dessert that consists of boiled rice balls, coconut milk, and a fried egg. The next morning, around 5 a.m., we waited outside as the monks walked through our neighborhood. When they neared our home, my host sister and I dropped the desserts into their baskets. My “real” family doesn’t practice religion, so this was an unfamiliar experience for me.

At the end of the six weeks, I was somewhat comfortable with the language and the new environment. Though a part of me was excited to return home, I was also sad to leave.

Being away, where so much was different and unfamiliar, changed me. I had always been a timid person, but because I was in a new place I had no choice but to be more outgoing.

And now that I am home, I have become bold and I express myself more often. For instance, in English class one day, we were talking about gentrification, whether it was harmful or helpful. I spoke up and said, “You’re displacing people both physically and symbolically, because they have no connection to their home anymore.” Before I would have been too timid to voice my opinion or I would have said it just to a friend afterward. I like that now I am more forthright.

This trip helped me discover that despite my natural inclination to be shy, I am capable of doing courageous things.

Brianna went to Thailand through the American Field Service, an intercultural exchange program for youth granting them the opportunity to study abroad in over 50 countries. Learn more at afsusa.org or call 800-AFS-INFO.

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(NYC-2017-05-12)

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