Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Meditation on the Rainy Season

~It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times~

For the last couple of years, I have been obsessed with the literary merit of the four elements. The easiest for me to comprehend was always water, a motif that represents not only sadness and gloom but also rebirth and purification, a symbol that truly portrays the beauty of the human condition, the inability of anything to be entirely good or evil, dark or light, etc. And since I really believe that art mimics life, which in turn mimics art, I thought that I would take a gander at attempting to look at the first third of my exchange through the various torrential downpours that graced life here in Yasothon and during my travels in this time.

I love rain, and I can recall how it lifted my spirits during my first bleak month here in Thailand. I was going through extreme culture shock and I closed myself off from the world, which led me to be as unhappy at school as I was at home. Nonetheless, as soon as water started to pour down from the heavens at school, I would immediately step outside into the covered corridor and observe as everything around me was given new life. For some, rain is a punishment, but for me, it is a gift and also a harbinger of what is to come.

Fittingly, the dark Sunday afternoon that sealed my fate to change families was also met by rain. I remember clearly having a tense conversation with my host mother in her white four-door car under the tall, pitched tin roof of a parking garage before we went to buy food for the night. When we exited the car, the rain had picked up its pace and was filling the streets more and more with every second we wasted trying to determine what route we were going to take in order to get to the supermarket. I can acutely recall the sound of the storm pounding down on the top of the parking—I had the peculiar sensation that the rain was screaming at me, its sound amplified thousands of times by the thin corrugated metal rooftop on which it was quickly hammering down upon. Later that night, we came to the mutual conclusion that I should change families.

When my advisor and coordinator picked me up to take me to my new hosts, I was once again greeted by the familiar windshield wipers and sound of water splashing under the tires of Ajaan Niwat’s car while nineties pop music played in the background. At that moment, even through the horrendous backstreet boys’ song that made its way to my brain through the reluctance of my eardrums, I felt like I was finally being cleansed. Cleansed of all of my mistakes for the previous month, and given a chance to start over completely new. I hugged my old host mother goodbye, and said hello to a new life.

Since then, there has been rain on several more occasions, each bringing with it a sense of purpose and a reason that I always try to uncover. One week, there were several truly prolific thunder and lightning storms during the middle of the night, and the first night, a loud clap of thunder forced me to sit upright in bed and look around at my dark surroundings. The flashes of lightning were diffused through the window shades, and I eagerly got up to look outside. Rain dove to the ground at a skewed angle because of the wind, and the boughs of trees blew every which way. Lightning was coming from not one, but several different clouds over Yasothon, and I thought back to our initial flight to Bangkok, in which we circled around about fifteen times in order to avoid an intense thunderstorm brewing just below and in front of the airplane. The thunder made the house tremble, and I wondered what it would be like to be out there right now, with what honestly seemed like the apocalypse taking its toll on the outside world. When I was younger, a scene like this would have utterly terrified me, but the strongest emotion that I felt this time was sheer fascination at the destruction and creation that the rain was catalyzing. Two nights later, I again bolted awake when a shock of thunder shook the entire house, but the storm itself was less interesting. I’ve never really been religious, but the storms those nights made me even question what I believe in.

The funny thing about storms like that is that they contain both water and fire. There is something so special about rain and lightning coexisting at the same time. It creates an odd mental image to think of fire in the midst of rain, but maybe it is just another one of the miraculous occurrences of this life.

In October, the rainy season died down in the Northeast of Thailand, but we had the luck to have a long school vacation during this time, and we, the Yasothon exchange students paired with several others from around the country, headed off to Chiang Mai in the North to a meditation for ten days. I don’t know if it was the meditation, or just the way that the rain glistened on the tin rooftops of the temple dormitories, but I have never felt so present during a rainstorm than the rainstorms of Wat Rampoeng. In the midst of walking meditation, it started to rain. Luckily, I was under a covered area, and I slowly approached the railing of the second story. Rained rushed off the roof and plummeted down to the ground below, and I could not prevent myself from breaking the repetitive lifting-putting pattern and letting my hand reach out to touch the sparkling drops. At that moment, I really felt alive.

Fast forward three weeks, and I was off to a YES Abroad community service project in the (very) South of Thailand. Now, at this point the Isaan had returned to cloudless skies, and for the past week at home, I was fairly depressed without my daily dose of the water cycle, and a trip to the South sounded perfect. When we finally arrived on the minuscule island off of the bordering province to Malaysia (Satun), all of us were struck with the idea that this may well be heaven on Earth. No amount of words will do the landscape of mountains, rocks, sand, and sun any justice, suffice it to say that it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In the South, there is no “winter” season, or so I have heard—the rainy season continues until the end of October and even into November. This proved to be very accurate, as our time on Koh Lipe was met with several torrential downpours.

Being on Island Lipe was like being born again in several ways. During the most reverent of the storms, in my opinion, I went fully clothed (maxi-dress and all) into the 90-degree ocean while the rain was still pounding down on the choppy waters. Above the mountain on the island next to us, several clouds had convened at the perfect angle to form a halo of lightning just over the summit. This metaphorical baptism in the bath waters of the tropics was a bit of an awakening for me, as was my entire month of semi-independence and freedom.

As of now, the rain has stopped. Occasionally I am awoken at night by the pitter patter of rain on the windowsill or a loud clap of thunder, the nightly visits verified as real in the morning when I find that my school shoes are soaked entirely through, and I have to wear flip-flops to my classes. But for the most part, life goes on. These four months (almost five) have been life changing, spectacular, morose, awe inducing, and transformational, and I think that most every person in Thailand with me would agree. Now it is December first, officially “winter,” and I will just have to wait and see how the rest of my time here in Thailand will continue to mold me into a new person.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Monthly Report Numero 3

Last Friday, in the midst of international tragedies involving western and Muslim nations, I sat on the ground of the house of one of the few Muslim families in Yasothon, sipping coffee nonchalantly, eating peanut-buttered bread, and having an experience that I will remember for a lifetime.

I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing American teacher from New York at my old host school. She has been in Thailand for about two years, and she really opened up my eyes to the beauty of Thai culture from the very beginning. Being able to talk to a person who can understand both the Thai and American perspective was honestly an amazing opportunity for me to learn, and for the first month that I was in Thailand, I frequented the English room at Yasothon Pittayasan School and talked to her about various aspects of Thailand that would go unnoticed to an untrained eye.

During that time, she also mentioned that there are a few people who I might want to meet in Yasothon. Although there are only about forty thousand people here, the city is host to several foreigners and interesting characters, including a ladyboy troupe, a Thai-American who runs an English school (And incidentally doesn't speak Thai), two Mormon missionaries, four exchange students, and at least one Australian ex-pat with a Thai wife who spends half of his time in Australia and half of his time here. So, surprisingly, Yasothon is a fairly diverse place (Within the province of Yasothon there are also two Peace Corps volunteers, one of whom I had the great chance to meet!).

Among some of the other people Teacher Malee recommended that I meet, she also mentioned that Yasothon had a small Christian and Muslim demographic as well, although most people practice Buddhism. When she said that her Muslim friends loved foreigners and would be thrilled to meet me, I gladly accepted the opportunity.

Initially, I planned on going to a Ramadan celebration with them, however, I was swept off to a bordering province on that day by the teacher volleyball team, and thus missed the event. I was a little disappointed, and in a few weeks, I had already changed host families, and the prospects of anything happening grew smaller, until I got a call from Teacher Malee last Thursday, saying that the offer was still standing to meet them.

We arrived at their home at about seven, and were warmly greeted by Mohammed at the door. Dressed in all white clothing, he urged us to come in. The house was beautiful-- the design was much different than Thai style, and I later learned that Mohammed studied architecture in school.We took a seat on the floor in the living room, and he brought us out coffee (Made with milk! This is very uncommon in Thailand), and introduced us to his wife, Fatima. I introduced myself and they told me about how their daughter studied abroad in Buffalo, New York, several years before.

They both struck me as wonderfully sincere, and I had the strange sensation that I was not in Thailand anymore. Of course, they didn't look very Thai, for the first Muslim who came to Yasothon was Pakistani, according to Teacher Malee, but it was more a cultural impression that I was feeling. I first stayed with a Thai family, and now I am with a Chinese one, and the culture from one family to the next changed a lot, but both seem "very Thai" to me. Of course Mohammed and Fatima spoke perfect Thai and had lived there for their whole lives, but something seemed different, and it was a good different.

As we carried on conversing with each other and eating our American snack, I realized how lucky I was to be able to see this flourishing subculture within my small town. The experience majorly underlined the fact that even in a place like Yasothon, I have the opportunity to learn about so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, even if, for the most part, everybody looks similar to me.

Buddhism teaches that you should respect all other religions and races, and I see that every day in Thailand. There is a Mormon Church on my street, a teacher from my old school who had monthly prayer sessions with the small Christian demographic there, spirit houses on every stretch of road, and three girls at my school who wear a hijab every day. I can only wish that one day the United States will be able to coexist like this. It doesn't matter whether you are the majority or the minority-- every belief deserves respect. Teacher Malee relayed to me on Friday a quote that Fatima had told her: "The world is God's garden, and it would be an ugly garden if all the flowers looked the same." Here, I am seeing rainbows.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Brief Update

This week has been great. This time, I have decided to stray from the philosophical and just point out the obvious in my life, because it may not be so obvious to you.
In the last week I have:
-Started and finished reading the book "Slam" by Nick Hornby (Really not that much of an accomplishment in terms of reading speed... It's written very simply. Ha ha.), I enjoyed it.
-Eaten Som Tum with my classmates from school and the other three exchange students in Yasothon. Woohoo!
-Had coffee with the American teacher who works at my old host school (Realizing now that I never stated that I switched host families... oups. I switched host families. There. It was a month and a half ago, and I now attend Yasothon Pittayakom School. We have a website.) and her really good friends, who happen to be Muslim-- more about this later. Simply put, amazing experience.
-Achieved no scholastic feats. What's new?
-Did have a Thai dance class, and an (out-of-focus) video to prove it! One day I will upload photos to Facebook, one day.
-Host sister's birthday is tomorrow! Hooray! I drew her something and got her a little gifty. I hope she will like it. I told her that I wanted her to wake me up at four to go give offerings to the monks, but at this point in time that doesn't sound like such a sweet dealio... Don't judge me, just because I am in Thailand, doesn't mean I don't need my beauty sleep! ;)
-Will go to Amnat Charoen (Province to the South-East of Yasothon) to renew my visa tomorrow. Let's hope that there are no problems!!

Lately, I have been quickly jotting down sociological observations, and I would like to blog about a lot of things this year, including stuff about: Boy-Girl relationships, food culture, indirect communication, and respect. But those will have to wait until a little bit later.

At the moment I am watching Soul Train video clips on Youtube, and feeling some weird sort of nostalgia for a period of time in which I did not live. Perhaps they're rememories (Beloved reference). Obviously, this is a better and much more constructive use of my time than journaling about really profound and semi-controversial aspects of Thai culture. Obviously.

Things are chugging along quite nicely, though, and I hope to get back to you soon with another post. It will be really soon-- my monthly report will make a good entry, and it is due on the 15th of September.
Thai Time.


Okay, I know keeping the philosophical on the D.L., but I couldn't help but notice today that I have an odd Thai vocabulary-- I know the word for tomorrow, but not yesterday, and for after, but not before. Might that say something about my personality? Haha.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Probably Should Have Said

I have been fairly absent from the blogosphere for the past couple of months. I have found inspiration in hundreds of things that I find every day here in Thailand, yet I have not had the motivation to write it out on paper. I have an inkling as to why this is, but it will be difficult for me to form a coherent blog post out of it. Nonetheless, I think I owe an explanation, and maybe even an apology to those of you who have gone so long without hearing anything from me, especially since I was a fairly loyal blogger back in the days of France.

Life here has taken on a sense of normalcy. I'm at the point in which I have to physically remind myself sometimes that I am in Thailand, a country that is thousands of miles away from my home in the United States of America. I've reached what is to be considered the "Surface Adjustment Period" in my time abroad. I have started to get used to Thai customs, traditions, and culture, and it has reassured me that yes, although it will be hard, I will be able to survive this year.

Culture shock was an undeniably awful experience, but I am glad that I had to go through it. After spending days trying to divise a proper escape plan and feeling like crying every day when people addressed me, I gained a lot of insight into my psyche.

I have been grappling with a lot of unanswerable questions lately, and in recent times I have struggled to find even an inkling of intuition in the ever-flowing stream of consciousness that my brain throws at me. These two vastly different cultures that I have been forced to accept and appreciate really make me question myself and human existence. Things like "Why am I here, in Thailand? What do I want to accomplish? Where should I start?" have slowly morphed into inquiries such as "What do I need in order to survive and thrive as a human being? Why I am here, in the world? What has led me to make such decisions in my life? Why do people act as they do? How can a culture withstand time?" In the past few months, these questions have led me to see the most unpleasant and best sides of me.
I am an imperfect being. I am self-conscious, introverted, and abrupt. I am made up of unbalanced dichotomies of light and dark, good and evil, and I have trouble coping with that. My first month here brought out the most extreme versions of myself. I receded into the solitude of my own mind, I would only really say something when I was unhappy. It has gotten ten times better, but I can't forget how I acted then.

I've often thought that regret is the worst feeling in the world. I look back at my first month, and regrets flood back like a tsunami in the south of Thailand. You see, memories leave scars. Some scars you look at and think to yourself, "How badass," or "It gives me character." But others, regrets, leave deeper wounds. They come back to haunt you and leave you with a bitter feeling in your mouth and disdain for yourself and your actions. The problem is, the scars of regret are always left in the most obvious of places-- in the center of your calf, or in between your septum and the top of your lip. These scars seem to be here to torment you. All you can do is look at them, recall how you got them, and kill yourself for letting it happen. The past is a haunting thing. These regrets have a way of seeping into my everyday life and keeping me from living it. They come in the form of jealousy, frustration, and embarassment.

Exchange is a surreal existence. It truly is living two lives at once. Even if you aren't on Facebook or Skype, it is impossible to keep yourself from thinking of the past, which indubitably, includes your life somewhere else. This collision of lives makes memories from your previous life more acute and sentient, as well as exacerbating the present moment. In this black hole that is created, this dimension-less in-between, your mind is constantly filled with ephemeral ideas, thoughts, and reminders of then and now, and regrets and painful memories resurface with more fervor than ever. But at the same time, exchange makes things so much more beautiful. Earlier this evening, my host sister drove me back from the park on her motorcycle. I love riding on the back of motorcycles. In a car, you can easily drown out the world around you and lose yourself. Being on a motorcycle enhances your senses and makes you appreciate every little thing you see. As we drove around the park on our way out, I looked up at the palm trees with awe and saw hundreds of little stars glowing in the sky. I was truly speechless as we continued heading down the tiny streets, hanging street lamps swarmed by mosquitoes and flies lighting the way. In addition to emphasizing the hard times, exchange also allows you to see the irrevocable picture that is the world we live in.

I've strayed from the topic at hand, but I think that it is an accurate representation of what I've felt while abroad. My mind is brimming, and the thought of writing a blog post has been so daunting to me that I haven't even tried. The most I have done is journal in incoherent bursts, occassionally proclaiming a shortcoming or triumph that I have had, and even less so trying to sort out the overactive nerve endings in my head.

Back in my senior year, my English class was the most inspiring course I have ever had in my life. My teacher, Miss De Soto, taught me not only about literature, but also about life. I'm eternally grateful to have had that year before coming here; it taught me so much about myself and really helped me to accept the mass of unresolved contradictions that make up my being (I've already referenced this class four times in this post... hehe). At the end of the year, we had to do a project called the "Senior Statement." In this assignment, our goal was to take a leap into the icy waters that separate us from our comfort zone and tell the truth about ourselves. I gained respect for so many people during the four or five class periods we took to present them all, but one student in particular really took my breath away with her perspective. Simply put, she mentioned having so many thoughts in her head that she needed to get them out onto paper in some creative form. Therefore, what she created was not just for fun, it was truly an extension of herself, and therefore she held it dear to her heart.

Similarly, I find that I am constantly being bombarded by a series of tiny revelations and thoughts, and it seems to be impossible for me to keep them around for long enough to be able to cement them in a journal entry or a blog post. They just keep coming and going and coming and going, and while I am in the middle of trying to properly format one into an acceptable creation, be it in an essay or poetry or art, new ones find their way into my brain, and I fear losing them, because it feels like I am losing a part of myself. I beat myself up because I feel like if I can't create something great, I may as well not create it at all. But I know that is not the right way to look at life. If I could just manage to organize my thoughts and understand what it all means, I might just be able to figure out this crazy thing called exchange, and more importantly, life.

Maybe dancing will help.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A "Very Thai" Birthday Celebration

On August 4th, I reached 18 years of age. I had been in my host family's house for just under a month, and was not expecting much from the day. My friend from school, whose name is Cake, spent that Friday night at my house, and she woke me up mid-morning so that we could go downtown. The previous night she had tried to explain to me what the event was, but in a hodge-podge of Thai and English I was unable to understand the reason, so I just decided to go with the flow-- 'mai pen rai'-- like a true Thai person.
So the next morning we got in the car and headed into town. My host dad dropped us off at the "plaza," which is a covered parking garage and shopping area connected to the market and a grocery store, and we walked up to a little makeshift stage that had been set up. Photos of Thailand's favorite movie stars, Nadet and Yaya, adorned the area, and the stage's background was covered in advertisements for an instant noodle brand for which the two have done several ad campaigns. I chuckled quietly. Only in Thailand would two of the most famous actors in Thailand be noodle presenters. And not just noodle presenters-- Nadet and Yaya aren't only known for their acting, but also for Lays brand potato chips and several other food products. What can I say, Thai people love food.
My friend and I waited near the front of the line, for it was only about 10 o'clock at our arrival. After about an hour, I was slowly being pushed backwards by an awkwardly placed swinging fan in front of me and the ever encroaching crowd of people joining the area.
Just then, I looked to my right and saw another 'farang' waving at me. It happened to be another exchange student from Yasothon Pittayakom school. I forfeited my spot in the ranks and went to say hello. Noticing that the people around me had automatically filled in my space, we walked around for a while. An hour later, another exchange student and the foreign teacher assistant at Yasothon Pittayakom showed up, and we bought some food. My chances of getting back up to the front with Cake were squelched, and the four of us sat down on the sidewalk within visible distance of the stage. Soon enough, we heard screaming coming from the area, and it was obvious that the two had finally appeared.
One thing I will never understand is the screaming capabilities of a tween-aged fangirl. Of over two hundred people gathered there, there were only a handful of adults, and an even smaller amount of boys. We gravitated towards the stage and tried to peek at them, but to no avail.The area was packed with people, and the stage wasn't tall enough to give people in the back a good view, if any at all.
Instead we walked back to the curb, plopped down, and waited for a good twenty minutes for the celebrities to end their chat about Yumyum ramen. Eventually things died down, and the crowd cleared out.
Donia, the teacher assistant, and I decided to wave randomly at all of the fancy-looking cars with tinted windows in a joking manner, but were surprised when a silver van drove by slowly and Nadet opened the window and waved back at us. I can only credit this peculiar occurence to the fact that we were farang in a sea of, well, Thai people. As soon as we caught a surprised glimpse at him, he was gone, the car surrounded by a newfound wave of fans gesticulating in front of him with pens and paper.
With a laugh we walked back up to the stage to meet up with my friend, who seemed to be beaming with excitement. She showed us up-close photos she had taken of Yaya, and she even received some instant noodles to boot.
My host dad picked us all up after that, and we headed to lunch. The last exchange student at Yasothon joined us there. It was a delicious Thai meal, as always, and Cake relayed to us that she had heard a rumor that Nadet and Yaya would be eating there. We determined that the only place that they could be would be in the back room near the kitchen, so we nonchalantly decided to 'go to the bathroom' at the same time that they were leaving, running into them and their entourage along the way. With a sympathetic smile, we asked to take a photo with Nadet. He agreed, although it was obvious that he was not entirely enthused. I felt empathetic. I mean, although I don't have screaming hordes of Thai girls between the age of 10 and 17 running behind me at all times asking for my autograph, I know the sentiment of being watched all the time, and wanting some privacy. Nonetheless, we shamelessly walked over next to him and snapped away.
Since we were all together anyway, Cake, Silvia, Marine, Miriam, Donia and I all went back to my house to watch some movies and relax.
"The Help" may not have been the greatest choice on my part, being the only American in the house, but we watched it regardless. Then we ate dinner on the floor, in an almost-Isaan-but-not-really manner, while watching Julia Roberts feast on Italian food in "Eat, Pray, Love." The movie, although extremely cheesy, managed to provide some valuable insight. Julia Roberts, like the four of us, went on the journey of a lifetime searching for enlightenment. Smilarly, we came to Thailand for a host of reasons, and slowly but surely, we are finding ourselves along the way. It's easy to overlook how much I am changing-- not just concrete differences like going from 17 to 18 years old, but also intangible differences, like becoming more appreciative of my life back home and learning to balance my values with those of Thai culture.
As I blew out the candles on the birthday cake my host mom so kindly got me, I wished for happiness in the months ahead. I know that wish will only take me half way there, though. It's up to me to enjoy my fleeting life here in Thailand, with almost two months down and about nine more to go. And as time moves forward irrevocably, I am bound to grow up as well.
Happy birthday to me!
Our photo with Nadet. Awkwardness all around. Yaya slipped away in the hubbub. She looked very unhappy... but I can relate. Heheheh.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Traveling Through the Land of Smiles

I am in Thailand... after a four day Pre Departure Orientation for YES Abroad, two days in DC for the gateway orientation, two days of traveling, and about one week of orientations in Bangkok, I have reached my host family in Yasothon and started school. I am definitely going through a bit of culture shock, something that I didn't ever really feel in France, and I am taking my time to adjust. For now, here are some cultural "nuggets" (homage to Miss De Soto) about Thailand.

Driving home from the AFS orientation camp was the least boring ten hour car ride of my life. My perspective of Thailand originated in Bangkok, but in reality, Bangkok is not a accurate representation of Thailand. I was sad to leave the friends that I had come to know and love in the past week (or two weeks for the YES crowd), but it was time to move on. As my host family opened the car door for me and I sat down in their black Toyota, I was automatically struck with the idea that my life was changing for good.
The first thing that I noticed that I found peculiar was the roof of their car. I looked up and was surprised to see over two hundred miniature Buddha amulets stuck to the fabric, shining down on me like a thousand beams of light filtering through the forest (how poetic). I didn't ask why, but it became fairly apparent that Buddha and Buddhism means a lot to my host family.
As we got on the road, I mentally waved goodbye to Bangkok, a city that is completely and utterly in its own league. To me, it is indescribable-- I don't know how to express how amazing it is. Everything is compact and colorful, and there are people everywhere. I was a bit despondent to let it go; however, I knew that it was time to go home.
The first thing I noticed outside of bangkok was the mountains. In a province called Saratburi, I couldn't take my eyes off of the lush green hills rolling past my vision. Californian hills are big, but Thai mountains are beautiful. We stopped after only about an hour of driving, and walked up to a stand where they were making some sort of dumpling. I wasn't quite sure what was happening, but it seemed like my host family and the cooks were on a friendly basis, and they had me pose for pictures with woman frying them in a large vat of oil, and even had me put some filling in the dough and awkwardly try to make it ready to be fried. It was an odd, yet "sanuk" experience, and we bought a few boxes and got back in the car. I asked my host mother in English: "Do you know them?" and she responded with a slightly bewildered "No." Needless to say, Thai people are friendly.
After every hour or so, we would stop and get a snack at seven-eleven (thai peanuts are delicious), or we would stretch our legs and buy something at a little market. It definitely made the ride much easier. Three hours out of Yasothon, I started noticing the sky. The clouds were unlike Bay Area clouds. They seemed more three dimensional; they seemed to take up more space in the sky and start lower to the ground. It looked as if somebody had dabbed a paintbrush across a piece of paper and splattered and blotted the extra paint on top of it. I am not doing it justice here...
I also noticed the fields. Skinny and malnourished cows grazed here and there, and on the off occasion I saw a motorcycle or truck parked under a tree in a very picturesque fashion. Stray dogs roamed everywhere. They roam everywhere. I can't walk somewhere for five minutes without seeing a stray dog. The worst part about it is that I can't just go up to it and cuddle it. I have been warned coutless times to stay away from them because they are sick and dirty. I don't question this... but I wish that it would be different.
One more thing that I noticed in Bangkok, on the way to my host family's house, and in Yasothon, even, is the poverty. It permeates every portion of the country, and often you will see a ramshackled house on the side of the road patched together with wood, tin, and other scraps. In Bangkok, there were large concentrations of these houses in various parts of the city. It isn't something that is hidden, like it can be in America. Poverty is everywhere, and you can tell. I try not to feel a sense of American entitlement, for I have chosen to come here upon my own free will, but even with all of the conversations at the YES Abroad Pre-departure orientation and the gateway orientations, I find it hard to understand, and I can't help but ask myself "why?" Why does there have to be so much poverty in Thailand, and so little comparably in the United States? It is a difficult concept to grasp, and I feel like I should do something about it, even though that may be impossible.
I know that this is getting way too long, but I also want to mention a little about Buddhism in Thailand. It is pervasive in 95% of Thailand, and it plays a big part in how people live their lives. I am trying to learn more about it by researching and observing my host family, but it seems to bring about a very unique way of life. For example, monks are everywhere-- and female monks, too. They cannot buy their own food, so people must offer it to them in the morning. Many of them look extremely thin, however they always seem to be happy, or if not, at least content with the task at hand.
In addition, women wear buddhist pendants around their necks. My host mother wears one daily.
An American teacher at my school lent me a book called "A Constitution For Living." It is about 80 pages, and it acts as a "cheat sheet," more or less, about how to conduct yourself as a Buddhist and a member of society. It is fascinating, but I feel like many of the statements in it require further explanation, and therefore I want to delve deeper into the various aspects of Buddhism to attempt to understand a Buddhist worldview. I think that if I read and observe Buddhist practices that I will be able to cope more with any difficulties that are presented in front of me during my exchange.

Me making a presentation in front of my school-- they couldn't understand and I couldn't understand them, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Performing with the other American AFS'ers in Thailand at our welcome party.

Making dumplings on the side of the road.

All of AFS Thailand!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hey there world... this will be my last post from Los Gatos, CA for approximately a year, and perhaps from the USA. I head off tomorrow morning at the ripe 'ol hour of 5:00 AM for the YES Abroad National Pre Departure Orientation in Washington D.C.. We will have three days full of bonding, workshops, and visits to the State Department and the Thai Embassy. I am excited, sad, and nervous. All of the emotions expected of person who is about to venture off into the unknown for about a year. I don't have much to say. It's true that it doesn't feel real yet, yadda yadda.
All I really know is that I hope I live up to the standards of the greatest exchange vlogger in existence:
And I love you all. And I want you to know that.

I am really just dreading saying goodbye to my parents. I know that there will be tears, and I just don't want to have to face that solemn pit in my stomach once more. :| But in time, it will be replaced with the excitement of arriving at my destination, and the beginning of a new and irreplaceable experience.

So, I would like to say adieu.

That's all for now, folks,

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hello, Y'all

I have two weeks left in the good 'ol U S of A, and I am trying to soak up as much Americanism as possible before I leave. Reflecting on my time before France, I was much more anxious and fidgety than I am today. I had so many expectations for France, and in this case, I just don't have many of them for Thailand. I think that doing this a second time around will be a very awesome and unique experience. I have learned from my prior successes and failures, and I will try to improve upon them this year. I am aware that this year will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination, and this has kept me grounded during my last few weeks in the US. I imagine that my first month will be even more terrifying than my first month in France, and that I will struggle relentlessly with the infamous Thai language. That being said, I am also very excited to explore a part of the world that I know little to nothing about, and I can't wait to meet up with the YES Abroad kids in DC!

Back to reality:

I wrote this post to keep you all updated about the ongoing happenstances in my life. Countless shenanigans have ensued since my last post. First and foremost, I graduated from high school! Hooray! It was a jolly good ceremony. The last two weeks of school were the biggest whirlwind of my life, filled with tantamount stress levels and piles upon piles of work. Now that I am done, I can finally have un peu de repos...

Secondly, I GOT MY HOST FAMILY! For those of you who don't remember/have not followed my blog back quite that far, I left the USA for France without an inkling of who I would be staying with. While in New York, I was finally notified of my permanent host family. Needless to say, I was not expecting to get word of my Thai host family so soon. A few Thursdays ago, I got an email from YES Abroad telling me that I had received my permanent host family placement. I don't know too much about them, but I have traded a few emails, and they seem awesome! There is a mom, a dad, and a 22 year old son. The parents are both teachers (!! :D), and I am not sure whether the son lives at home or not. I will be living in the Yasothon Province in North Eastern Thailand, close-ish to the borders of Laos and Cambodia. It is a small town, and apparently everybody knows that I am coming... All the attention will be interesting. I expect my first few days to be filled with many a Thai bow and innumerable sa wat dii's. I am overjoyed to have gotten this information so soon, and I am looking forward to meeting them.

Lastly, I had to say my first goodbye yesterday. :( One of my neighbors and close friends is leaving for Europe this morning with her family and will not be back until after I am gone. H√ČLAS!! It is saddening, but, in fact, she will be departing for France on September 5th with AFS, so I am excited to say that there will only be a five hour time difference between us next year. Yesterday was our last day together, so we climbed a mountain:


That's about all for now. I hate to inform you that I will not be bringing my laptop to Thailand, so I don't quite know how often I will get the chance to blog. We shall seeeeeeee... :)

I will talk to you all soon-- perhaps a post in the midst of packing.

Fun Dee! I don't know how to say goodbye, so a "sweet dreams" at 11:19 in the morning shall have to suffice.

Monday, April 30, 2012

New Beginnings...

Two weeks ago, as I sat on my swivelly chair writing the previous post, I had no realistic expectations to write a another one. I expected that it would be the end of my blogging days, and that I would resign to 'ol-fashioned journaling on the off occasion in college. However, I was wrong.

Early last week, I received a voice message on my home phone, which, coincidentally, we barely ever check. As we sat down to dinner, my mom pushed the "play" button to read the new messages. It was one of the YES Abroad staff letting me know that they hadn't received my alternate status acceptance forms and telling me to submit them as soon as possible if I wanted to be considered for the scholarship. After a slight freak-out, I ran upstairs and sent the forms as fast as possible. The only problem: it was eleven o' clock eastern time. I came back downstairs and picked at my dinner begrudgingly, mad at myself for not confirming that they had originally been received by somebody. Being late is not something that I like to do... and my chances to study abroad for a year were in jeopardy!

Fast forward two days. It is Thursday. I spent the day pondering YES, and thinking about the six or so spots that had miraculously opened up. I wished and hoped with all of heart that I would be chosen, but I knew that wishing and hoping weren't going to get me very far at that point.

Right after lunch, as I was about to walk into my French classroom, I heard my phone buzz. I looked at the text, and it was Olivia, another alternate (whose blog you can find in the "helpful links" page), who had written "I GOT INTO TURKEY OMGGG!!!!!," an understandable reaction. I called her quickly and jumped up and down with her in spirit. She deserved the scholarship so much, and finally her hard work had payed off. After the phone call; however, I couldn't help but notice the absence of email in my inbox. I checked my phone discretely and at various intervals during the class period, but to no avail. The sadness started to hit me.

I really thought that I had lost the opportunity. I sat back in my chair and waited for the bell to ring so that I could go home and lay down pensively on my bed. I got a ride home from my friend as always, and as I was nearing my door, I took one last look at my phone. My mom sent me a one-word message reading: "Thailand!!!." I truthfully didn't know what to think. I called her, and as soon as the words escaped her mouth, I started crying. I don't even know why. I am not one to cry at happy occasions, but I was laughing and choking and tears were flowing as I walked in my house. I ran around for a while and then called Olivia. We rejoiced at our luck, and then I was up in my room, laying down on my bed pensively, and reveling at the amazing opportunity that I had just been offered.

I am going to Thailand...

In less than two months, I leave for DC to meet with the fifty-four other YES Abroad scholars who have been chosen for several different countries, and from there I will leave for Thailand. I am incredibly excited for what is to come. In the meantime, I have to finish up school, learn a new language, pack, and say some dreaded goodbyes. But it's all worth it in the end.

Goodbye USA, sa-wat dii kaa Thailand!

*Pardon how long and unnecessary most of the information in this post is!*

Monday, April 16, 2012

Warp Speed Ahead!

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have been altered"
-Nelson Mandela

Guess what, world? I have a lot of stuff to talk about. It has been, believe it or not, about ten months since I got back from France. I have undergone periods of sadness, nostalgia, reflection, and just about every emotion in between since July 11, 2011. I am constantly analyzing and changing my opinions about my time in Normandy, and even after almost an entire year has passed, I have continued changing because of it. I can honestly say that exchange was the best thing that has ever happened to me, and because of that, I desperately want to do it again.

Back in 2010, right before I left for exchange, I discovered a program called NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth), and I found out for the first time that you could get a scholarship to do the same sort of thing that I was about to embark on. I kept the idea in the back of my mind during the early months of my exchange, but eventually forgot about it.

Fast forward ten and a half months. After I got back from France, I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life after high school. I started brainstorming what college I might want to attend, what I wanted to study, and what my long-term goals were going to be. In that process, I realized that I had one more chance to unearth some of the secrets of the world while I was still young, impressionable, and adventurous, and I decided to pursue a gap year. I found the NSLI-Y site and started the application, and along the way I also discovered a similar scholarship program called YES.

This one, short for Youth Exchange and Study, focused on sending students on cross-cultural immersion exchanges in countries with a significant Muslim population. Founded after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, it aims to promote diplomacy among the United States and Muslim countries. Initially, the program sent teenagers from all over the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Africa to America for a full school year to learn about American culture, but in 2009, the opportunity was extended to American teenagers to study for a year in either Inodnesia, Ghana, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali, Egypt, Turkey, Oman, Malaysia, India, or Morocco. Its mission resonated with me, and I decided to fill out the application and see where it led me.

Lo and behold, a few months later, I was informed that I was a semifinalist for the program, and that I was going to be attending the annual In-Person Selection Event in Denver, Colorado, in late March. I jumped for joy (figuratively--there was a seatbelt around me when I found out), and started packing my bag for Colorado...

Within a few weeks, I was in a beautiful hotel near the Denver Airport, sitting at a round dining table, and greeting all the people I had tried to connect with before the event. We hushed ourselves as a few speakers stood up to talk to us about the great opportunity we had been given. Among others, Allen Evans, the YES IPSE coordinator as well as a head member of another scholarship program (CBYX--which sends people to Germany for a year), gave us some words of advice, and then we ate dinner.

Eating Group B:

Although I was nervous, I could already tell that I had found my people. All of the YES Abroad kids share similar goals and motives in life, and I automatically clique'd with practically everybody I met. With 90 semifinalists at the event, I wasn't able to meet everyone, but I managed to forge some pretty strong bonds with people I did talk to, even though I had met them only days beforehand.

But of course, the selection event was not only there for finding new friends, but also to give us a chance to show our personalities to the selection committee and alumni who would eventually be choosing who got to go abroad the next year. The second day I was there, I had my personal interview and two group evaluations. Surprisingly, I was less intimidated by the interview than I had expected to be, and I thought that it was a good practice for any job interviews that I may have in the future. I was calmer than I had imagined partly because the leg of my chair had literally fallen through a little whole in the floor right as I sat down in the interviewee seat. After a couple laughs, the interview resumed its semi-formal tone, and I was asked a series of questions for a about twenty minutes. The people who interviewed me were friendly and asked me questions that required some thought and self-analysis, which actually made me think about myself in some ways I hadn't previously recognized. Altogether, it was a good experience! I won't go into too many details about the group evaluations, but I can tell you that they were stressful, comical, and confusing all at the same time! I personally thought that the actions that they asked us to perform were hilarious, and I enjoyed both rounds (Sorry about the vagueness, but I don't think that I should disclose that much about it!). Anyhow, even the parts of the weekend that I had initially thought of as being the hardest ended up being quite fun. :)

After that, I spent some time looking at all of the country options at the country tables they had prepared for us. The alumni were super helpful in answering any questions we had about the customs, food, language, and culture of the countries, and the representatives of AFS, iEarn, Amideast, and American Councils also gave us a lot of insight into what the exchange would be like in each place.

By Monday, I don't think that anybody wanted to leave-- everybody had made at least one great friend, and we were all enthralled at the prospect of going abroad at all. Just this morning I was informed that I am an alternate for the program, and I am happy to even have made it this far. I encourage anybody interested in exchange to apply to YES, NSLI-Y, CBYX, or any other program out there that offers it. The time to explore, discover, live, and love is now, but it's up to you to seize the opportunity.