I got to my permanent site in Si Thep, Phetchabun the week of March 22nd. The school that I will be teaching at had already finished classes and was getting ready for their graduation. It has kindergarten through 9th grade and about 140 students. I was immediately welcomed at my school by the teaching staff and principal. Everyone that I have interacted with in Thailand has gone out of their way to make me feel at home, it’s a really special place.
I spent the first week at site sitting in the school office while the other teachers did their end of year paperwork. I talked to other nervous volunteers about what their sites were like, played volleyball with the students until my weak, little baby arms were bright red and bruised, and helped them make decorations for the graduation ceremony. It was a relatively easy and comfortable week, which always means that I’m about to be pushed dangerously outside of my comfort zone.
The day before graduation, one of the two English teachers that I will co-teach with casually told me that they would introduce me to the community the following day. I had seen Instagram posts of other volunteers being welcomed into their communities and assumed that I knew what to expect. That night, I prepared a few sentences of what I would say in Thai and didn’t think much else of it.
The next day I showed up at school, walked with a carefree stride to the cafeteria, where the ceremony would be held, and was immediately greeted by a banner with my full body standing awkwardly in front of the school. I was momentarily stunned by the shape of my body on this poster hanging for my whole community to see. After the shock wore off, it started to sink in that this ceremony was probably going to be different than what I had expected.
I sat and watched students of different grade levels graduate with tears in my eyes. It started to sink in that I would be their teacher, that my dream since I was 19 was actually happening. I felt so proud to have the honor to work with the fellow teachers at my school, to teach their students and watch them grow. As I lingered in my emotional daze I was slowly led to the table in front of my banner. As the community members moved their chairs to face me, I was instructed to sit on the table.
The sweat began immediately. All moisture drained from my mouth. I was all too aware that I was sitting on a table with everyone from my community looking at me as I smiled uncomfortably out at them. It’s hard to tell whether the smile that I was presently wearing or the one from the photo hanging above me would convince them that I was a serial killer, but I’m sure that one of them haunt their dreams to this day.
An elder of the community then sat on the table with me relieving some of my anxiety. He tied string around both of our hands as he prayed and then a cloth was placed over my head. A teacher quickly jumped under the cloth followed by my host mother.
After this part of the ceremony, I was moved to the center of the table and given an egg and banana leaf wrapped rice dessert. I held these in my hand as each member of the community came up to me and gave me blessings and luck while tying a white string around my wrist. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. The back pain stayed but the stress and anxiety disappeared.
The community elder then dipped flowers in Thai whiskey and splashed it on my face as a blessing.
Finally, I watched as the hard-boiled egg, hot from being in my sweaty palm for 30 minutes, was ceremoniously cut open. It was then moving closer and closer to my face. As I thought, “surely, they don’t want me to eat this,” the first half was plunged into my dry mouth. Before I had the chance to finish what had turned into hot egg paste, the other half made its entrance, followed shortly by the rice treat. It took me a very long time to swallow everything as the community watched me intently trying not to gag.
I was so grateful to everyone in my community for being so loving to the strange American on the table. Over the past two months they have all treated me like a family member. My “Welcome Back to Tie Arm” ceremony was a beautifully odd experience that I will never forget.