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!
SA WAT DEE KA!!