From Then Until Now

Well, here I am, seven weeks later. I wanted to post updates every month, but at the end of last month I began a three-week travel marathon that didn’t allow a lot of time for bog posting. It doesn’t help that at this point I don’t know how to write these blogs, either. At first I was writing to keep my friends and family in the US up-to-date, but more Thai people read my last post than Americans, so it is hard for me to guage who my audience is. I thought about this a lot, and ultimately realized that this is my blog, and I can either share or not. So some of my posts may be geared more towards my Thai friends, and others towards Americans, but I can’t stop myself from sharing.

September was the time I most felt like an exchange student, or at least the exchange students that we have in the US– students that come and live the same as students in that country live. I went to school, attended Rotary events, and hung out with friends.

For example, one week my videography teacher assigned us an open-ended group project. My friends decided to do a travel blog, and they asked me to be in their group, so one saturday we went to the beach by my school and hung out. We ate lunch, hiked to the top of a navy outlook, and went canoeing around an island. It was an absolutely incredible day.

 

Other days, we went to go see The Nun, celebrate my friend’s birthday, and go eat food together.

My friends at school make me so grateful, and every moment with them feels almost bitter-sweet, because I realize how much I will miss everyone at school when I go back to the US. I already miss my family so much so I now realize I am stuck in a perpetual loop of loving and missing people across the world from each other.

In Thailand, they have year-round school with sporadic breaks. There is a break from school in October, but how long it is depends on what school you go to. For example, my host sister (who goes to a private school an hour away) got one week of school. On the other hand, I got almost 5 weeks off of school (plus an extra week because I did not have to take exams for a total of 6 weeks).

For the first week or so of break, I mostly stayed home. Everyone was afraid that I was going to get homesick, but I did appreciate the time to myself. Thankfully, my host mom worked with other families to plan some trips so I would not get bored (and, therefore, homesick) during school break.

First, I went with my host father and my host sister to Bangkok for a day to go to Detective Conan’s Cafe in Siam Square, as well Dusit Zoo. Conan’s Cafe is based on an anime that my host sister loves, and Dusit Zoo is the oldest zoo in Thailand. It is incredibly well constructed, but had very little room for the animals to roam. Fortunately, the zoo closed that monday for several years so they can construct a better habitat for their charges.

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Dusit Zoo

That night, my host mom received a text from my friend Marine’s host mom asking if I could come to their house, as they would be going on a trip over that weekend. So that night, my second host parents drove me to Rayong where I met up with my family for the next 5 days.

The next day, we drove 2 hours to Trat and took a ferry to Ko Chang– a beautiful island that is very popular with tourists. The first day, we went driving to view what Ko Chang had to offer, then we went to on a ferry to snorkel and swim around four different islands in the area.

 

I am so grateful for this wonderful trip, and I am so happy I got to go with Marine. We really challenged each other to try new things, like climbing over the side of (and jumping off of) our two-story ship.

That night, we went to dinner on the beach and to watch a traditional fire show. The next day, we went to a restaurant on a river and rode a traditional wood boat. I often find it funny because the things here that I label as “traditional” tend to be the ones most geared towards tourists. For example, I would never say “I am going to the traditional thai market today” but going to a market is still one of my most common day-to-day activities. That said, the things I say are “traditional” feel more like windows into a past culture before modernity, and in that way I love these traditional opportunities.

We then returned to Chanthaburi where we met up with another exchange student from Canada. Together, the three of us went to a waterfall, sang karaoke, and visited some dolphins. The waterfall was incredible but it was filled with fish that liked to pick at the skin on your feet and legs, and it hurt a little.

 

After a few days in Chanthaburi, my exchange student friends and I returned to my hometown, Sattahip, where another exchange student from the US joined us. The first night, we went ballroom dancing with my Rotary club. We were staying at my second host family’s house, and as they live above a spa, we spent the next day getting a spa treatment from the woman who works at that house. The next day, we went to a beach near my house and met up with the Kakarndees, and their exchange student from Japan (Rin). Anyone reading this from Grants Pass might know of them because their son is living in my house in the US right now. I have lived with their family before after our district inbound training, and I was so happy to see them again!

Together, all of us took a boat from Sattahip to Ko Samae San, which is an island near where I live. We all went snorkeling, swam, played in the sand, and went canoeing, before having dinner back on the mainland.

 

After all that, is was time for all of us to say our goodbyes. I went with Rin to live with the Kakarndees in Korat. In Korat I really lived like a family member, but we also travelled a lot. For example, one day stayed at home, made pancakes, and hung out. Another day, we travelled over 4 hours to the Surin Elephant Village, and then we travelled to several ancient ruins with some other exchange students. On a separate day, we spent a few hours at the Korat zoo, then went to a nearby water park. The Kakarnees have six children, four of whom live a home, plus two exchange students and I had a ton of fun hanging out with all of them.

 

Together with some other students form Korat, Ruth, Rin, and I travelled to Trat for RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards). Almost all of the exchange students met up at RYLA along with kids from across Thailand. In fact, RYLA is a required event for any aspiring exchange students in Thailand.

I had a lot of fun at RYLA– with Thai friends to speak with and exchange students to pull me through the boring moments, I was at peace.

 

A lot of Thai people ask me about culture shock– what things have shocked me the most since I arrived to Thailand. In general, the things that have been the hardest for me to adjust to have been the ones that change my daily schedule more and more away from my schedule in the US. For example, I still have a hard time remembering that I cannot drink tap water here. Whenever I cook for my host family, my host mom has to remind me that I cannot use tap water to cook with, and I have to go use water from the bottles that we keep beside the kitchen.

That said, the water problem has also made me realize how US-centric many environmental activists at home are. The truth is, yes, if Americans cut down on the number of straws that they use or use reusable water-bottles, they will help the environment. But if we actually have to address the core of the problem, we need to expand access to drinking water in countries that are not fortunate enough to have ready access. It is not like people in other countries are not aware of how much plastic they are using– my Thai Rotary cub just made a rule that you have to bring tupperware in order to take leftovers after meetings– but the nature of their infrastructure limits their ability to actually cut down on that plastic.

So, it has been a busy month. I am super tired, but I am also super grateful to all the people who have worked with me and created these opportunities in the country that I love. So I just wanted to give a massive thank you to everyone who has helped me get here– you all are incredible!

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Just the Beginning

สวัสดึค่ ฉันชื่อ Lucinda Roberts มีชื่อเล่นว่า Lucy และมีชื่อไทยว่าลลิษาค่ะ

(Hello, I am Lucinda Roberts. My nickname is Lucy and my Thai name is Lalisa.)

ดิฉันมาจากเมือง แกรนท์ พาส รัฐโอเรกอน ประเทศสหรัฐอเมริกาค่ะ

(I am from Grants Pass, OR, USA)

ขอบคุณค่ะ

(Thank you!)

ฉันหิว

(I am hungry)

ฉันอิ่ม

(I am full!)

กาลิเลโอเป็นคนขๅวอิตาลี

(Galileo was a white Italian)

 

Above is a list of the extent to my functional Thai vocabulary in the first week I was here. Technically, I do know a lot more Thai, and I am actually okay at writing, but when it comes to day-to-day conversations, that was my comfort zone– especially when I first arrived.

Thankfully, my host family has been incredible about helping me to learn Thai– they speak to me in Thai about 70% of the time (they only speak English when I do not understand the Thai). My classmates all have been wonderful too– they teach me phrases, help me sound out words, and translate when the teachers do not speak English. Next week, I will start taking Thai lessons with my incredible counselor, and I am very excited.

I think as an exchange student, the hardest thing for me has been walking the line between language immersion and cultural immersion. Before you go on exchange, there is a heavy push to fully immerse yourself in the language, but for me that created an expectation that once I came to Thailand I would pick up Thai within a matter of weeks. Retrospectively, I know that is not practical, but within the first day of my arrival, it dawned on me that learning a language is hard. And I had to seriously reevaluate the extent to which I spoke the language.

There are three things that are the main objectives of an exchange student– to learn the language, to make connections in their host country, and to immerse themselves in the culture. I attend school with at Singsamut High School in the Mini English Program, so for me the second and third objectives come into direct conflict. If I were to not speak English, I wouldn’t have made the close friends that I am so grateful for today. I am so lucky that I have friends and host families that are willing to work with me with my language skills, because they are truly helping me to get the best of both worlds.

I am starting to settle into a schedule here, which is weird because I have been here for three weeks and have only gone to school for a week and a half. Every morning, I wake up at 6:30 to go to school. We wear uniforms, so it only takes me 5 minutes to get dressed (I have timed it). My school has a particularly strict dress code, so I am not allowed to wear makeup, do my hair (outside of a ponytail), paint my nails, or wear jewelry. This is much to the chagrin of my fellow classmates, but I really appreciate it because it makes my life easy. My host mom and I leave at 7:15, and it takes 15-20 minutes to arrive at Singsamut.

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Typical School Uniform
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Typical Sports Uniform

Every morning we have morning assembly, which has been a culture shock for me. On Mondays and Fridays we have full assemblies with all the students at the high school and middle school (approx. 3,000 people), but on Tues-Thurs we have assemblies with our grade (Matayom 6 (Grade 6); approx. 600 people). Morning assembly typically consists of a recitation of the national anthem, a Buddhist prayer (which goes very long on Thursdays), and a speech from one or two of the teachers. Sometimes something different happens, though. For example, this week we are practicing our Thai manners because there will be a school-wide manners competition.

After that we have class, which is organized very differently from the US. Here, students do not get to choose the classes they take, and they study 13 subjects at a time. I have another blog post planned for how the school system is organized, so for now I will just talk about myself. I am including a picture of my schedule because it is difficult to explain. Every Thai student stays in the same class for every class of the day, but because I am an exchange student, I bounce from class to class. Every class on my schedule is with M.6/1 (Grade 6, Classroom 1) unless otherwise noted.

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So far my favorite academic classes are Math and Russian. In the US I finished Calculus 2, but currently we are studying what I learned in AP Calculus 1, so I understand the math that they are doing, and I am able to learn a lot of Thai. Russian is the only class that I have been really expected to do things for, and I really appreciate it. Even though I spend most of my time trying to learn Thai, I feel a little restless– like I am not learning enough. My Russian class gives me a lot of structure, and I learn a lot of Russian and Thai. Since my teacher speaks Thai, Russian, and English, she teaches the Russian in Thai and then translates for me. It is an aspiring-polyglot’s dream.

I also really enjoy my Thai culture classes– classes like Thai Boxing (Muay Thai) and Thai Dancing.

We have lunch around 12:30 and the food is incredible. A bowl of well-cooked Thai food costs 20 Baht, or about $0.60 (and the students still complain about food in the “cantine”). After lunch, we usually get snacks at the mini-mart, which is like a Circle K or Seven Eleven in the middle of campus. Then, we go back to the air-conditioned classroom and hang out until class starts again.

School ends around 4:30, but my host mom usually picks me up around 5:00. Then we go to a market (the market locations change everyday), and buy food for dinner. That has also been an adjustment for me– because food is cheap here and in Thai culture you share several dishes for meals, we eat take-out for almost every meal. It is a wonderful experience, though, because it lets me try a lot of Thai cuisine. And I love going shopping with my host mom, she is incredible.

On weekends, my host sisters come home. Phi Fun goes to college in Bangkok and Pow goes to high school in northern Chonburi, but family is very important in Thai culture, so they still come home to stay with us. We have gone on a lot of adventures together. If you want to see day-to-day updates, you can check out my instagram account @lalisa.day.to.day, but here is a sample of what we have done:

I have gotten the opportunity to travel a lot in Thailand. On top of a few day trips to Pattaya and Bangkok (we go every weekend to drop off my host sisters), I went to Khon Kaen for the Rotary Orientation. It was so much fun to connect with the other exchange students– people from vastly different backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life, all brought together under one shared experience.

I was picked up in Khon Kaen by Mae Su. Mae Su’s son, Philip, is going to stay in my house for 3-4 months this year during his year-long exchange in Oregon. Mae Su picked up me and two other exchange students (Ruth from the US and Rin from Japan), and I stayed in their home in Khorat. Philip has 4 siblings, as well as Rin, staying in his house, so visiting ther home was a whirlwind of coloring, laughing, and sharing Thai, American, and Japanese culture.

After two days, we all went to Bangkok to send Philip off at the airport. His goodbye was a lot different than mine was in the US. My goodbye was small and very emotional– my family huddled together in the airport crying as we said goodbye. Philip and his family, however, did not cry as they parted ways. When I asked them about that, they asked me why they should cry, “It is only a year.” That made me feel better about my own exchange, in a way.

We stayed the night in Bangkok, then went to Pattaya to play on the beach and tour around before my second host parents picked me up to bring me back to Sattahip.

It has been very hard for me to find the time to sit down and write this, because I want to talk about everything, but even in the little down-time I have here, I try to spend it with my host family so that I can get more exposure to my new language. But in a way this is also therapeutic to write, as I can so easily share what I am experiencing with the people back at home.

A Fast Kind of Friendship

I am leaving in 5 days. 5 days. 5. Days. Five Dayzzzzz.

It is funny how five days seems to be an eternity during the school year, but now I feel like my perception of time has been put on fast-forward while I am moving slowly as ever.

Since I found out where I was assigned, I feel like I have been living my life in bursts of intensity. I found out that I got a scholarship to my college, and then I waited for weeks to find out if my acceptance had been deferred. I graduated from high school, then spent the next few days cleaning my room and writing a debate case. I ended up being 16th in the nation in my debate event, but returned home to start packing and (continue) to clean my room. I have travelled and cried and eaten junk food and done Zumba and tried to soak up the last few days I will be in my small valley.

Through all of that, the most intense experience occurred when I found out where I was going in Thailand. If I could bottle up any emotion to preserve forever, it would be the sensation of finally knowing where you will be transplanted for the next year. Once I got accepted into an exchange program, I could feel my roots being yanked out of the soil I was accustomed to after 18 long years living in the Rogue Valley. After I found out the place I was going, I feel those roots beginning to reach out and take hold. I could text my host mother, meet my host sister (who was on exchange in Washington), and google my way through the entire area.

That excitement could also be helped by the fact I got the best assignment I could ask for. When I was first assigned to Thailand, I had dreams of the Thailand I saw on google images— warm beaches, new wildlife, exciting cities. Thankfully I was assigned to Sattahip District in the Chonburi Province, which is right on the coast and known for its heavy monkey population.

I very commonly get asked what city I will be going to in Thailand. I am sponsored by the Rotary Club of Plutaluang and going to a city called Plutaluang, but it is very uncommon for Thai people to identify with cities (as opposed to districts or provinces, which are more like general areas). In fact, the only thing that comes up when you google “Plutaluang” is the Royal Thai Golf Course.

I like to think I know a lot about my Thai high school and district, but mostly I have educated guesses based of of intense google dives, so I will spare the conjecture and give more updates as I actually live there.

While I may have been doing a lot the past few months, I have also been on an emotional and social roller coaster. My district requires that we attend Youth Exchange “trainings” approximately once a month to connect with other outbounds and prepare for the journeys ahead.

Even if I never was able to go to Thailand, this entire experience would be worth it, if only for the friendships we have been able to forge with the exchange students here. From spontaneous hikes to long car rides, they have given me friendships like I never thought existed. It is the kind of friendship necessitated by short time-frames and stressful life events. It is a fast kind of friendship, a passionate kind of friendship, and a beautiful kind of friendship.

I think that passion is because being an exchange student forces you to approach life differently. When the entire life you have known has been put on a timer, you must live in the present. That is the first thing I learned as my time in the US has drawn to a close– to never wish time away. In practicing that simple creed, I have been able to more fully enjoy the remainder of my time in the US, even as I look to create a new life for myself.

Where to Go

“I am going on exchange.”

Those words were the words pinging back and forth in my head for months. It was a way to somehow make the unimaginable more real, like I might actually realize I was going to leave all that I had known for a year.

Even at that moment I had a very stagnant view of what I expected my time abroad to be like. I believed that, within a year, I would be eating croissants in the middle of France, hanging out with friends while snow piled outside in Finland, or walking down some nondescript, moonlit European street right before Christmas.

Then, accidentally, I fell in love.

Initially, I was terrified. I had had dreams of weekend train rides to neighboring countries and trying to find the best chocolate in all of Europe. Instead, I was finding my heart following a future my head did not know I had wanted.

At that time, I had to make a decision. Like the judge of a national olympics, it was my job to assign a rank to each of the available countries to exchange in. Unlike other adjudicators, I had no criteria by which I could compare my candidates. There was no way for my scientifically-inclined brain to whittle my options down, except advice from my family and a gut instinct.

And that is how I found myself, the hour before country rankings were due, sitting up and holding the hand of a girl I had barely met. We both were beginning to realize our ideal exchange would not be in the traditional format, but instead would take us to new parts of the world with languages we did not know at all.

With three clicks, we changed our selections and awaited our country assignments two days later.

After an anxious 48 hours, all the exchange students sat nervously in a large, empty cafeteria. It was the kind of place that should have been filled with poorly-masked BO and whispered drama, but it was closed for the weekend and was instead filled with exchange students– palms dripping and chins quivering– whose muted whispers carried both hope and fear at what may be ahead.

After our names were called, we slowly opened up our envelopes and read where we would spend the next year of our lives. I was overjoyed when I heard my new friend got Brazil, the country she had been hoping for, and, when it came time for me to squeak out my destination, I took a deep breath and said,

“I am going to Thailand.”


 

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