Five Things I Didn’t Realize About Peace Corps

Until I got there

A different ‘travel’ experience then any other
As a moderately experienced traveler, I thought that I would be mentally prepared for the challenges of Peace Corps service. While definitely helping deal with homesickness and loneliness, there are many differences between solo travel ( in that I mean not on a tour or cruise) and the very non-independent life in PC/the village. I don’t have the sense of incredible freedom I get high off of when I travel. It’s more along the lines ‘Is this my real life? Well, alright.’

Chlorophyll more like Borophyll 
A high school friend was on her way to London for graduate school and showed her books and magazines she acquired for the ‘long’ six hour flight. It occurred to me that six hours sitting in a stationary position without much to do didn’t feel like much of a challenge to me anymore. In fact, now that I’m in school break for weeks on end in the village, it seems kind of laughable. And I’m really glad to have developed this ability to be bored, but for it not to be such a bad thing. It’s allowed me time to try all sorts of projects and broaden my mind in ways that I previously didn’t have time or motivation to try (crafting, cooking, a class on genetics/evolution).

How much I would change
Any one time in a young adult’s life, they think they understand a good portion of this thing called life. I was one such person. I didn’t think there would be many monumental changes and growth that were still necessary. But there were. And PC helped me go through them. Core beliefs of mine were shaken and discarded for new ones. My mind has been blown over and over again in the good and bad things in Thailand and my life in it as a Volunteer. I still have a long way to go too.

The struggle between strength and helpless
During PC, I’ve never felt stronger. I’ve also never felt quite as crAzy either. Straight up, thought I should be in a loony bin kind of crazy. I never considered that before I came to Thailand as a Volunteer. Worrying about a new language, pissing someone off for what seems like nothing, or dealing with cultural differences, quite a few times I wanted to tear some hair out. And then I remind myself how much better I am than yesterday. And the week before that. And last year. And I realized I can be a little mental, but still be mentally strong.

Find out who your friends (and family) are
I realize that it’s not easy to be friends with me. To go without face to face interaction, run in similar social circles, or have similar day-to-day issues. So it’s without blame or anger that I have fewer people to share news with. It makes me appreciate the people in my life even more than before. They’ve been on this rollercoaster ride with me and reminded me that I’m not alone in this. The even better thing about PC is you meet a large group of similarly minded people who see you at your worst, but still manage to like you. These are the people I want to surround myself with for the rest of my life.

Oh hey internet!

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I sort of disappeared for a week. It wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t even realize how much I needed a break from life until I was half way in it. Originally I only planned a long weekend, Friday to Tuesday, after Jeff invited me to his site. It was on Monday that I was aware of how much I didn’t want to go back to site, which is weird for me. Normally, when I get close to the end of a trip, I’m happy to go back home, see my students, and get back into the Thai groove. Yeah, I’m on a down.

A Volunteer from the ‘younger’ group, 124, emailed me about troubles at their site and I commended them for sticking it out through this difficult time. Talking to my best friend from home reminded me how bad I was doing last year. August is an awkward time in PC Thailand framework. 124s have been at site for six months, 123s are have just over six months left. So the newer guys are quite so ‘new’ anymore and have general expectations for their day, but there’s still a great deal of mystery. And they have an assload of time left. For my group, it’s not enough time to start any new projects, but there’s still a hill and a half to go, so you’re not really nostalgic.

I’m on the other end of that spectrum. Right now I feel like I have less patience than ever for the crazy shit that comes with this job. I even had those dreaded ‘WTF am I doing here,”this is a waste of time,”OMG you are so unbelievably annoying Thailand,’ thoughts. So with my excess vacation days, I cocooned myself at Jeff’s non-interneted, no running water, squat-toileted house. He cooked for me. We played catch (with a real baseball and gloves). I read while he went to work. No one expected anything from me. And it was magnificent.

I know this won’t last, but for today, I am not a ball of sunshine. I’m thinking about my own needs first. I can’t wait to go home. I can’t wait to not sweat every day. I can’t wait to be in front of a group of people who are quiet and listen rather than talk over me. I can’t wait to know what the fuck is going on. I can’t wait for my time to be appreciated. I can’t wait to not be laughed at for saying a simple sentence. I can’t wait to be with my friends and family that are not Thai. I can’t wait to not plaster a smile on my face and pretend like everything is ok. I can’t wait to tell someone my opinion and it not hurt their feelings. I can’t wait to not be a part of the broken Thai education system. I can’t wait to live in a city. I can’t wait to not be stared at for no other reason except that I’m white. I can’t wait to be understood or someone try to understand. I can’t wait to not feel hopeless.

And now, after that gaggle of negativity, something to guarantee to put a smile on your face. It worked for me.

Friday Five

Five Ways Thailand is Slowly Killing Me

Hierarchy
If this didn’t drive me crazy before, it’s really pushing me closer to the brink than ever before. I realize that life is mostly unfair, but the idea that it is reinforced by the system of society and culture rather than trying to make things equal can be suffocating. The older (some) people are, the more they seem to not consider what is convenient and considerate for both my coteacher and myself. This past month, we’ve been taken advantage of by those older and in higher positions and there’s nothing we can do about it. That we’re even considering it wrong, thinking of ourselves and our own responsibilities isn’t exactly smiled upon. Unless it’s the fake ‘Land of Smiles’ grin, then it’s plastered on.

Babies
Kids under the age of ten are not my specialty. When I see a newborn, I feel no aches to hold said child, but the distrust of something that has no noise control. Until someone can reasonably express their desires, opinions, think for themselves, and empathize for another person’s situation, I’m generally not a fan. And when these kids see me, they usually scream farang, giggle, and run away from me. I don’t feel like a sluggish brute at all when this happens.

Surprise Events
Today rounded off what I hope is the end of special and surprise events that have plagued me all of June. My coteacher and I were informed yesterday that we would be the only two trainers in a speech session for the education service area office. I tried to get us out of it, but they had already invited the big, big boss, so it would be major face breakage to even say anything but ‘I can’t wait to teach you'(r lazy government bureaucrat asses). I really needed today to recover, but Thailand had other plans for me, taking away my ability to say no.

Wildlife
The mouse kept me up for two hours last night. This is before the free English tutoring I was forced into. I was more than a little grumpy this morning. Also, there are ants in my refrigerator. Who loves rainy season?

Food
Watching multiple spoonfuls of sugar getting dumped into something as simple as fried rice makes my veins and arteries slowly but surely seize up me. Or at least it feels that way. Maybe all of the deceptively spicy food is cleaning my system, that is if I can swallow without choking. Apparently it’s quite humorous to watch me take a huge bite of something, then sputter and fight for air as the food lights a fire as it slowly crawls down my throat. What comes out the other side though is the most unfortunate part as you can be sitting peacefully talking to your brother in Kuwait one minute, the next having to run off camera for an emergency extraction.

The most absurd part though is despite these things, I only love Thailand more every day. 

Hermiton

A few weeks ago, I posted how much I wanted to go to Hobbiton. I didn’t realize I’d be joining a new town called Hermiton. Hermitville? Hermburgh?

Since I’ve come back from Chiang Mai, I’ve become a full-fledged, card-carrying hermit. It started out so innocently, allowing myself time to recovery from the magical land of cheese and farangs. Who wouldn’t need a few days to settle back in the moo-bahn after that? Then a week hit. I forgot what day of the week it was. I realized I hadn’t passed out of the front door for forty-eight hours. I scrounged out whatever sustenance I could come by. I wallowed in my dark bedroom wanting to go to family weddings. I ate cold spaghettios. My main social interactions were yelling at my computer screen/the TV shows I’ve engorged myself with as I laid directly in front of the fan on the tile floor. It hasn’t been pretty.

I keep thinking to myself, what’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you being productive at all? Why can’t you get out of the house? Why are you being so anti-social? Why are you talking to yourself so much?

Last April, I was such a conqueror. So fragile, but so willing to go out and give it my all. I even wrote a blog post about it. Now I kind of suck. The past two weeks I’m having a hard time motivating myself to respond to emails and do simple paperwork. I think it’s safe to say, I’ve fallen into a rut.

Back when I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and willing to bike around in April heat.

At this point in a Volunteer’s service, about 13-15 months, it’s sort of expected. You don’t quite have the enthusiasm as when you first arrived to site, but the finish line is still so far off in the distance that final spurt of energy hasn’t quite sparked yet. Essentially, I feel like their retarded little games aren’t funny anymore, but I’m not nostalgic enough yet to keep humoring them.

I think the cure is coming this weekend. With the turn of the new (birthday!) month, school starting in less than two weeks, and a visit from Jeff this weekend will hopefully set me on the straight and Peace Corps narrow. I’ve been out of the house yesterday, today, and will be on the move tomorrow too. For this hermit, that feels positively social butterflyish.

Who are the emotional terrorists of Thailand?

Children. They’re cute, cuddley, and they sure do say the darndest things. They are the hope of the future, the light of their family’s lives, and blessed with an innocence so pure, it’s hard on everyone when it shatters. They also are wreak havoc on my mental health and make me crawl into a corner in cry in frustration. True story.

Look at this little cutie-patooty... who is she tormenting?

I can understand the desire to want to have a little mini-you, sure. But at this point in my life, toddlers and babies are not high on the things I want to do list. As in hold, feed, entertain, and listen to scream. I know that I have to tolerate their existence until they grow into intellectual, free-thinking beings like my fourth, fifth, and sixth graders (love them), but until then, please don’t insert them into my life. Or leave me with them in small, enclosed areas. It’s better for everyone.

These two always reminded me of the part in 'Finding Nemo' when the baby turtle explains the exit route.

This feeling has only escalated since arriving in Thailand (the KOT? the Thaidom? I’m trying to come up with abbreviations for Thailand, what do you like?). Many children here are naturally shy around someone who looks so different from every other person they’ve ever seen or interacted with. Most also don’t tend to get the fact that I only pick up about a third of their high-pitched, whiny, rapid speech and then get frustrated when I don’t give them what they want. But let’s face it, I wouldn’t give in to them even if I did understand them because as everyone knows, never negotiate with terrorists.

When there have been the brave few that do come up to me, almost always in groups, there is usually so much giggling, staring, and lack of response to my questions that I often feel like I’m either a stand-up comedian or the new exhibit at the zoo. I lean towards the latter.

Sure, they look cute... from afar.

‘Pish, posh’ you’re thinking, ‘how could she not like these adorable little creatures?’ Hold your freaking horses because we’re getting there. A few months ago, back in a dark period, I was working alone grading tests in the library when a group of kindergarten students came up and plastered their grubby little fingers over the freshly cleaned glass door asking what I was doing and if I could play with them. I indulged their questions with a smile and a laugh, but told them I couldn’t because I was working. They stood there. I smiled. They giggled. A minute goes by, nothing has changed. So I said, go on then, and they ran off.

But then came back, louder and bolder. I was starting to get frustrated. They’d never pull this shit with any of the other teachers. When I stood up to herd them off, they took off running and laughing manically. I don’t remember how many times they came back, I stood up, they ran off again. After twenty solid minutes of this, I had enough and chased them down to the playground and had some choice words. No idea how much they understood of my Thai, but you know who did? The big kids! My sixth grade boys took care of business for me while I went back to the library, hid behind a large bookshelf, and hot tears came bursting out of me.

Believe me, I asked myself plenty of times, how could I allow this to get to me? Their just kids, they don’t know what they’re doing, and there’s that Eleanor Roosevelt quote that I love about inferiority to contend with. Now though, I’ve learned my lesson. The only thing to do is fight terror with high-road peace making terror.

With my coteacher’s nephew, he was none too pleased about my presence in the car this past week. And made sure everyone knew it. At the top of his lungs, he let everyone know that they were to not allow me to come back home with them, announced that I was the ugliest person in the vehicle, and smacked my shoulder to get my attention when I started to ignore him. Alright smart aleck, two can play this game.

Realizing I went a little overboard at Tesco Lotus and not having the hands to carry all my treats, I spied the four-year old about to pull down a display of cartoons. Averting further terrorist attacks for the good of the public at large, I asked him to be a big help and carry the exceedingly heavy load of cereal. And then showered him with compliments about how strong he was and handsome to boot.

Suddenly I had a new best friend that wanted to play hide and go seek all throughout the appliance store as I was trying to find cookware. Choosing the best tactical course, I chose to be the ‘seek,’ finishing shopping whilst he hid quietly before ‘finding’ him at the checkout.  In the car ride home, he wanted to sit in my lap and watch cartoons together. I declined, but I think this was a definite win for Team Erin against the emotional hijackers.

Kindergarteners... who knows what evil is lurking beneath that darling surface.

President Obama, if you need any help, give me a shout in rural Thailand. I have a lot of experience with radicals. I require payment in pizza.

Welcome to Nerdville: Population One

Most Peace Corps Volunteers are afforded with a decent amount of free time, especially in the evenings. Depending on the person’s interests, activities generally lean towards watching movies or TV shows acquired from other Volunteers, taking up new hobbies (we have quite a few crafters and knitters), writing emails to loved ones, and reading. I’ve mentioned in a few posts how I started to learn how to braid my hair far more awesomely than ever before. That was before I got the call. The call from Nerdville.

This is me.

Now I mentioned I’m a big Harry Potter fan. Yes, I have reread them since coming to Thailand. I’m not sure what came over me last week, but I got a hankering to watch the Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Just a normal yearning, I usually watch these movies at least once this time of year on a cozy, wintry Sunday with my brother and my Mom looking on (she has the secret hots for Aragorn). Given that I missed that all of 2011, it didn’t surprise me that I got the urge.

In case you haven’t seen these in a while

Something else did though. So there I was, plunkered down for some good fantasy-world fun. And amusement I had. Until my computer died and I lost my preloaded movie. ‘Curse you computer worms’ I cried out, much to my host sister’s consternation. I explained, she giggled, I grumbled. I went to school the next day with determination to reload it. But those worms had taken hold and it wasn’t working. But then I started to get heated (and not because of the weather, yet anyway). Why isn’t this working?! I resolved to download the entire movie just in spite of those electronic maggots.

Once I started that process though, little schemes started whispering in my brain. ‘Well, after the first one, you’re going to want to watch the second. And the third.’ ‘Yes, you’ve got a point there…’  ‘And while you’re at it, why not just get the super-duper extended versions that Tyler always wanted you to sit down and watch?’ ‘I have some time with school ending, maybe…’ ‘Well it’s only 5GB, what are you waiting for?’ ‘What am I waiting for, you cotton-headed ninny-mongins?’ ‘That’s the spirit.’

And off I went. I’m embarrassed to admit what happened next, but I went into full-on nerd mode. The battle scenes were too bad-ass. I had to reenact them. While singing the theme song to Harry Potter (I know, that makes no sense). I rewatched scenes with Elvish spoken parts to memorize bits of the language. I studied hairstyles and redid them on myself while watching the movie. And then pretended to be Legolas, only the coolest character ever. Homedog tosses a shield down a set of stairs, surfs down it, AND takes out orcs at the same time. (I feel like I could dedicate an entire blog post to the epicness that is Legolas… maybe I will).

These antics were not confined to my bedroom. I’m hopping around school, the living room, and pretending to slay orcs (ie waterbuffalos) on my bike ride to school. Luckily, only my coteacher understands English or people would be really confused by my fake old English accent and saying things like ‘son of Sauron, I slay thee in the name of all that is holy’ when slapping at mosquitoes. I don’t think anyone has caught on yet and luckily, I’ve found a way to keep my nerd (slightly) in check.

Quietly and unsuspectingly, I sit with my Ipod touch in my host family’s living room. My sister is doing homework. Our Yai is doing all kinds of nonsense with meat and vegetables. Little do they know the imaginings going on around me as I finally, FINALLY read the novels. They sat for years on my shelf, but I never could find the time to sit down and explore them fully (when in reality, I just had to wait until I was in a rural village in Thailand and get the nerd call). Funnily enough, my host family is far more suspicious of me telling them that I am in fact reading a book on the small piece of machinery that I still haven’t been able to convince them is NOT a telephone (everyone knows Iphone and Ipad, but can’t gather the reason for an Itouch).

We all need a place to ‘go’ and escape certain circumstances (mine happens to be the beginning of hot season). Somewhere your brain can do whatever it wants and relax. Mine happened to be in Middle Earth in the green vastness of the Shire, wanting my own hobbit-hole to cozy up into with a fire and tea. Or Rivendall with the Elves. It’s opened up a whole new world to me and inspires me to pursue other books (and their universes) of similar topics. So if you’re wondering where I’m off to and/or a lack of posts, that’s where my brain has swept me off to. Now if you’ll excuse me, Nerdville is missing its chief resident. And I have LOTR books to devour.

The Nerdiest Photo I could find of myself

Total Count:
Movies: Fellowship of the Ring- Three times
Two Towers- Once
Return of the King- Twice
Books: The Hobbit- Finished
Fellowship of the Ring- 1/3 through!

A Bit of an Upheaval

I’m not sure how to tell this story being fair to all of its participants, myself, and tell the truth. All I can say is this is my perspective and I hope I do it justice.

On Friday January 6th, 2012, my schools told my program manager they didn’t want me to teach in my community anymore. My PM tried to talk them around, but minds had been made up and thought it was a bad idea for me teach at different schools in the same area. So in an hourish (+), I packed up my life in Ban Rai, loaded it in the Peace Corps SUV and they took me back to Bangkok, not sure when, if ever, I’ll return to what has been my home for almost the past year.

There were some long-standing difficulties with one of my counterparts, we never really gelled from the start, and things deteriorated fast. I don’t want to list too many of the details to maintain some form privacy, at least until my Peace Corps career is finished and some time has passed for more reflection. I know that it takes two to tango and that I made some mistakes, but I do not feel like what was brought up as ‘issues’ warranted this kind of response. I never thought that this would happen to me. I am heartbroken to leave my community and going through stages of grieving. My Thai community friends have been pretty upset and we’ve both been missing each other immensely.

Peace Corps is in the process of finding me a new site. I’m waiting out that time with a lovely gal from the older group of Volunteers. As easy and fantastic as it would be to go back to America to be with my family or Australia to be with Manfriend, I just don’t feel like I’m done with Thailand yet. This has been the closest I came to imagining real life in the western world again, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s for me yet. I’m frustrated, annoyed, angry, and everything else in the book at Thailand, but I don’t want to leave.

I’m terrified of reintegrating into a new village and have lost a lot of confidence in myself and how to live in this country. In many ways, I’m more nervous this time around than the last. I know what to expect, but I didn’t think that I would have to do it again.  It is a chance for a fresh start and to be able to redo some of the things I did wrong in my first community. This is certainly going to be a unique experience, even within this Peace Corps one, so I’m trying to prepare myself for that during this time of transition.

I was hoping to have a few less rollercoasters in this second year of Peace Corps. I would (sort of) know what was happening, what to expect or at least realize that I’d never really know what was happening. That’s been blown to the wind and, eventually, I’ll be ok with that. One thing I’ve been comforting myself with leaving my site is the quote, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’  Yeah Erin, just keep smiling, su su!