What I Heard At Mid-Service

Rich Ambuske , 127 YinD

Four months of no rain has given way to the eight-month rainy season my province is so proud of. I have to remember what that’s like: the umbrella by the door, the pocketful of plastic bags to slip my phone into, the wet sandals each morning, the oily bug spray each evening, the slugs that find their way into my dishes overnight in the dish rack. Last year, my first year in Thailand, this was all new and while 28 days of rain a month for three straight months may not be considered ‘exciting’ (after that it drops down to 23 days a month on average), it was novel and gave me something to write home about, a bragging right when comparing hardships with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Oh yeah, well my mosquitos are bigger than yours.

Now that rainy season is in full swing I can more readily justify all the time I spend on Facebook scanning the success stories of other Volunteers so totally engaged with, and integrated into, their communities. They’ve all made friends so easily and are connected to the students and teachers through the popular LINE app. They haven’t known these new friends for only a short year, they’ve known them a lifetime. These are soul mates, long lost brothers and sisters separated at birth. I just know that when these Volunteers finish their Peace Corps service they’ll go back home, finish grad school, and singularly fill the void left by Mother Teresa. They’ll invite their Thai BFFs to their weddings, or to their Raoul Wallenburg Award ceremonies. Their wedding will of course be a Buddhist affair because they became Buddhist while in the Peace Corps, it being such a natural fit. And I immediately think, I don’t have any friends here. I have no one I’ve connected with. Not one single person. My landlady stopped bringing me food. My counterpart doesn’t talk to me. All the kids throughout the village are afraid of me and cross to the opposite side of the street whenever I approach them. No one has even friended me on Facebook and when I ask about LINE, they just stare and say,  “No, No”.

Then someone will post a message, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” What does that even mean? I’m sitting on my patio watching the clothes dry for God’s sake, wallowing in Facebook feeds and that’s going to make me feel better? When Bruce and Myrna were here, they were trying to make me feel good about what I was doing, trying to make me see the small victories. They mentioned that when they walked the streets of the village, more kids and adults are saying Hello to them than in the previous years they wintered here. Of course they all know how to say hello, that’s how everyone in Thailand answers the phone. It’s universal. Hello. They can’t say anything else in English. So I can’t take any credit for that.

Peace Corps Thailand Group 127, what’s left of it, met recently for its Mid-Service conference. Two-thirds of us have survived to this half way point of our two-year service. I sat and listened and compared. I heard about the wonderful villages everyone lives in, those strange rural places with a 7-Eleven on every corner and convenient transportation choices and I just shook my head, crying on the inside. I heard of folks having their meals delivered nightly to their air conditioned houses. I listened to these same Volunteers talk about how successful their projects have been, or I could have been dozing. I heard about English clubs that have been so enriching that the yais (the grandmothers) now label all the fruits and vegetables they sell at the market exclusively in English and I swear I thought someone said that their rural village is now accepting US dollars, like they do in Cambodia.

Another Volunteer said that since she began teaching, the HIV and teen pregnancy rates in her schools are actually below zero. Another mentioned that his simple hand washing project became so successful that the kids are now sanitizing all the stray dogs and that mange has been eliminated throughout the province. And another told the funny story of how everyone in her village loves her yoga classes so much that when they meet on the street, after the traditional Thai greeting (wai) folks will automatically go into Warrior I, II, and III poses. She created a whole new social norm.

One of my biggest obstacles has been the language. I simply mumble, point, nod, and say chai, chai (yes, yes) as if I understood what anyone was saying. My fellow Volunteers all speak Thai fluently and can carry on meaningful and deep conversations with teachers, students, vendors in the market and all the government officials they spend time with, who, by the way, they regularly drink under the table, which is no easy feat. I’m sure I overheard one of the Emilys say she is currently translating (and illustrating) the latest Harry Potter book for her students, not just into Thai but into the dialect of whatever border province she’s in.

I eat lunch at the school canteen most days and the teacher’s table is next to the slop bucket, the barrel all the students and teachers throw their food waste into. When the barrel is filled the contents gets transferred—somehow, I’ve never asked how—to a local pig farmer. The teachers usually reserve the seat closest to that bucket for me. Did I mention that the bucket sits under a roof downspout? Well, now that it’s rainy season…

I’m right where I’m supposed to be.


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