Carolyn Nickels-Cox, 34
At the end of our first half year as Peace Corps Volunteers in Amphur Muang Kalasin teaching English as a foreign language at the girls’ and boys’ schools, Chuck and I found ourselves in Chiang Mai for a New Year’s party. Jon Keeton (Thai XI), then-PCT’s regional representative in the North, was our host. Because he had watched over our group during our six weeks of training at the Chiang Mai University before going on-site, he felt almost as if we were his children. One of the first things he asked me was how our months as PCVs had gone.
Chuck had continued to lose lots of weight after going on-site, as his body adjusted to an even more limited intake of beef. That had started him talking about wanting to go home.
Then there was the motorcycle accident he’d had when he hit the dog just after we bought the bike. Because of his scrapes and bruises, he’d had to take a few days off from teaching. This had made his ajaanyai, just a little upset and had caused Chuck to lose heart and want to return to the US even more.
Next he came down with dengue, and had to take even more time off! His ajaanyai became even angrier, and said he didn’t want Chuck at the school anymore. But after my ajaanyai offered to take Chuck on, and a person from the Thai Ministry of Education, had visited Kalasin to advocate for Chuck, things had settled down at his school and his ajaanyai had decided to keep him. But the whole experience had made Chuck really want to hop on a plane.
And that was followed by the unfortunate incident at Loy Krathong, which had been so weird it left Chuck looking for a plane ticket back to Seattle each time we went to the post office to pick up our mail.
As for my role? I had played the cheerleader, encouraging Chuck to take heart every day, assuring him that this or that would soon pass. But I knew I had started to become an obnoxious nagger about being determined to live out my dream of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Jon listened thoughtfully as I listed the challenges of the previous six months. Then, he said something I have never forgotten.
“Hang in there! The first year as a volunteer can be a nightmare, and Chuck’s story sounds pretty typical. BUT the day your first year ends, and your second year begins, something will click. Suddenly, everything will change. Everything about living in rural Thailand will become better than you could have ever imagined! So, my advice is that you should extend for a third year. That way, you will have two good years as a PCV.”
But it happened! Just as Jon had said it would, and almost by magic!
As we approached the end of our first year, Chuck had begun to have more bounce in his step. He had learned to speak Isaan quite fluently, had begun to play Scrabble with his fellow teachers every day, and was telling me daily stories of his classes. He had even come up with an idea for a summer project that Peace Corps liked and the Ministry of Education endorsed. He had finally begun to consider himself a member of the school community, and even the town.
So, as the end of our second year approached, Chuck agreed to extend for a third year. I wanted to stay in Kalasin, he wanted to transfer to the Secondary Education Unit in Bangkok and work on a special textbook project, the outgrowth of the previous summer’s workshop.
We went to Bangkok.
Then, we extended for a fourth year to continue working on the textbook project.
After our fourth year, we extended for three more months to train the PCVs who would take our place to finish the textbook project.
Jon’s words have followed me over the years since I left Thailand as a PCV. They have followed me as I have moved through various teaching jobs in the US, through so many personal challenges, I cannot list them. And they have always served me well. I have always hung in there, and things which seemed so daunting at first have always become easier, and have ended up making more sense in the end.
And I have never really left Thailand.
Thai 34, 1971-1975
Kalasin and Bangkok