Welcome Back to Tie Arm

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The community elder then dipped flowers in Thai whiskey and splashed it on my face as a blessing.

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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.

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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.

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A 5th Grader and His Treehouse

Since the last time I posted a blog I finished 10 weeks of language, culture, and teaching training, officially swore in as a Peace Corp volunteer, moved from my first host family in Sing Buri to my second host family in Si Thep, Phetchabun, became a pork salesman and taught three weeks of English at my new school. I finally feel like I have a second to breathe and reflect so I’m going to post a series of throwback stories. The first story sums up my experience living with my host family in Sing Buri.

My host parents were a 60-year-old fisherman, Luung Yum, and a 59-year-old farmer, Bpaa Meow. They lived in a beautiful open treehouse that only had two rooms separated by walls, my bedroom and the bathroom, although the walls of my bedroom had large, visible gaps between each board. Both the front and backyards were gardens full of vegetables and fruits that I ate fresh daily and across the street was a river where Lunng Yum caught our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was exactly the kind of place I pictured living in during my service with Peace Corps.

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The 8 hours of training everyday were grueling but the hardest part of my day was finishing my plate of rice, hot bowl of fish soup, and glass of Ovaltine every morning. I used to gag at the site of a plain piece of toast at breakfast and now I was handed a full, hearty meal while 4 eyes stared at me listening to every chew and swallow. I had to revisit my old bag of tricks that I used as a small child, the last time I was forced to finish a plate of food. On Mondays I had diarrhea (every time my mom has ever served fish sticks), Tuesdays I was still recovering, Wednesdays I woke up late and would pack my food to “eat at school,” Thursdays and Fridays I would sneak fish out of the house in soggy napkins shoved in my pockets, and on the weekends I ate alone and would sneak food to our puppy. It was pathetic but effective, a phrase that sums up most aspects of my life.

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After school I would come home and Bpaa Meow would hand me a juice box, piece of fruit, and snack. Then, when Luung Yum finished fishing he would help me with my Thai homework. He liked making me say Thai phrases dramatically in front of his friends and I loved being ridiculous and putting on a show. I felt protected in a way that I hadn’t since high school when I lived at home with my family. Between Peace Corps and my host family almost all of my decisions were made for me and I found that I had to trade my independence for that feeling of protection. For 10 weeks the constant care and lack of autonomy was suffocating but also nostalgic in a sweet way.

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My favorite part of the day was 7:30pm when I would be told to shower and go to bed. My time in my bedroom at night and when I woke up in the morning was the only time that felt like my own. I would text my friends, read, write, or quietly watch Real Housewives. Something about the contrast of me lying under a mosquito net with ants crawling on my legs and Erika Jayne getting her hair and make up done and outfits carefully picked out and put together in a “Look Book” by an army of perfectly manicured gay men soothed my soul. My first 8 weeks at site I didn’t even have a mirror to look into, let alone any chance of anyone in the world being able to make me look remotely presentable.

Then one day a mirror magically showed up in my bedroom next to the door, as if the Evil Queen brought it herself to mess with me. It was strange to have a constant reminder of what I looked like. Most mornings I wished that it had never appeared but at night after my shower it was nice to see myself again. I hadn’t seen my body in two months so I would stand in front of it fully naked and check things out from various angles. I had gained weight from eating 3 full meals a day and I liked the way it looked, a little butt was actually starting to appear! Feeling like such an alien every day, it was nice to remind myself that I was, in fact, mostly human. I wish I could be a normal person and say it was a quick glance, but this preening easily lasted 10-15 minutes.

Five days after the arrival of my mirror, I came home to find that Bpaa Meow’s numerous posters of the King of Thailand had been moved and plastered all over the outside wall of my room. I thought it was strange until I walked into the kitchen and realized that standing there you could see directly into my room, right where I stand in front of the mirror. We were taught in training that there would be a lack of privacy living with our Thai host families but what I didn’t know was that this meant I would be putting on a nightly strip show for my 59-year-old host mother.

Living with Bpaa Meow and Luung Yum was an amazing experience and although I had a lack of freedom and privacy, I made up for it with a pocket full of tissue wrapped fish soup.

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