Linda Smittle, 128 TCCS
Once upon a time, a Peace Corps Volunteer went to a faraway country. Her parents called the country Siam. When the PCV was a child, she called the country Thailand. Now she calls it home. As a little girl, the PCV loved the story of Goldilocks encountering three bears while exploring the countryside. Now that she’s grown up, she loves exploring the three Cs while encountering the Thai culture.
Cuisine. Curriculum. Community.
At the monk’s ordination, servers distributed bowls of a stew-like mixture. The PCV didn’t recognize the chunks of meat mixed with the green veggies; she noticed lots of small red flakes. She watched others put their individual spoons into the communal bowl to eat. She followed their lead and took a spoonful. “Yikes! Too spicy!” Her eyes widen. Sweat trickled off her already damp forehead. She swallowed a huge gulp of water.
At the school lunch table, the cook gave the PCV a plate overflowing with white rice. “Too much!” she said with a smile. She reserved a small portion of the rice on her plate and put most of the starchy rice back into the huge vat.
At the local market, the PCV marveled at tables with piles of colorful just-picked fruit. Her eyes feasted on fruits she had never seen in American supermarkets: rambuton, longan, dragon fruit, mangosteen, custard apple, jackfruit, and durian. Traditional American fruits like grapes, apples, watermelon and bananas were also available. “Just right!” She bought a kilo of a couple different fruits and hoped her bike basket would be strong enough to carry her produce back home. She bragged about the exotic tropical fruit to her far-away family and friends.
As a Teacher Collaboration and Community Service Volunteer, the PCV was assigned to a school in rural Thailand. She partnered with two Thai teachers to teach English to 282 students.
She opened the P1 English text book. The book included two pages for the first grade students to write their ABCs. “Not enough practice.” She and her co-teachers thought of fun ways for children to learn their ABCs. Writing in the air. Tracing letters on a card. Writing a letter on someone’s back. Matching letters. Creating letters with their bodies. Shaping playdough into letter shapes. Finding letters in magazines. The children learned to recognize the 26 letters and make the sound of each letter; they wrote the letters to create their own ABC books.
The PCV thumbed through the M3 English text book; she was impressed with the English skills expected of the ninth graders. Page after page of stories written in English introduced and reinforced vocabulary and developed critical thinking skills. The colorful book included lots of open-ended questions to evaluate understanding. Sequence. Detail. Alternative endings. Then she met the M3 students. Some didn’t know the letters of the alphabet. Few could write their name in English. A handful could read some words in English. She evaluated the text books: “Too advanced!” Instead of using the text book, she and her co-teachers created student-centered activities to teach the 15-year-old students basic English communication skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
She met weekly with her two English co-teachers. They started slowly, but after a few months, they jointly identified topics and brainstormed creative ways for the students to practice new English communication skills. They used the text books as a foundation and taught concepts based on the Thai school curriculum. Students had fun learning. The PCV and her co-teachers smiled when the children created their own games to practice communicating in English. “Just right!”
During her first four months in Thailand, she lived with host families. The host families treated the PCV like a special guest – cooking her non-spicy food and taking her on trips to see family or interesting cultural sites. Even with limited verbal communication, they taught her how to cook and wash clothes. (Squash the garlic clove with the flat edge of a large knife; without removing the paper skin, put the garlic in hot oil to sauté it. Make lots of bubbles in the clothes-washing bucket by using your open hand to agitate the soap and water; wash your shirts before you wash your pants.) They introduced her to neighbors and took her to the local outdoor market. She loved her host families, but she was used to living by herself. She needed her own space. “Too close to others.” She wanted independence even though she knew she would be dependent on everyone in the community while she lived in their country and adapted to their culture.
She moved into her own home. The first month flew by with sometimes twice-a-day rides into town to buy household items. Hangers and soap. Passims to put on her sofa and mats to put on the floor. Cooking utensils and standard cooking ingredients. Toothpaste and mouthwash. She loved the independence of living alone. But after she made her house a home, she sometimes spent the entire weekend inside her house. Watching movies or reading books. Talking to friends and family in America. Connecting with other PCVs. Stretching on her yoga mat. Working Sudoku or crossword puzzles. No energy to interact with curious neighbors. No desire to speak the local language. Very limited face-to-face interaction. She told herself she was “recharging.” She realized she was “too lonely.”
So one day – even though she would have preferred to spend time alone – she forced herself to leave her house and walk around her community. The woman who ran a small shop a block from her house asked her where she was going. The PCV answered in Thai: Walking for fun. She was surprised the shopkeeper understood her response. They waved good-bye. Two Annuban students squealed with delight when they saw the PCV. The Kindergarteners ran to give her high fives. A trio of fifth graders eyed her from a front yard. They whispered to themselves. Then in unison they greeted her in English: “Good afternoon, Teacher Linda.” She returned their greeting and smiled. They exchanged the class-closing ritual: “See you soon. Bye. Bye.” The PCV walked on. The cook from the school approached the PCV and motioned for her to follow. They walked down a side path toward the cook’s house. They stopped at a five-foot tall cactus-like plant. The cook pointed to a soft-ball sized dragon fruit on the green plant. She plucked off the pink fruit that looked a dragon egg and handed it to the PCV. They walked together down the lane to a custard apple tree. The cook jumped up to grab and pull down a small limb so she could reach some custard apples. The PCV said “Kob koon ka” and added three custard apples to the bag with the dragon fruit. She hummed a happy tune as she walked back to her house. “Just right.”
The PCV was happy.
Goldilocks learned from her encounter with the three bears: Don’t enter someone’s house without being invited.
The PCV learned from her encounters with the 3 Cs: Eat the cuisine that’s “just right” for you. Adjust the curriculum and teaching methods to make it “just right” for the students. Find the “just right” balance between having alone time and interacting with people in your community.
She continues to eat lots of fresh fruit while avoiding too spicy or too starchy food. She and her co-teachers teach the students English using the strong foundation of the curriculum, the ideas from the text books and lots of hands-on activities. And even though she might not always feel like it, she gets out of her shell (and her house) and explores her community.
She’s in the process of creating her own “just right” happily ever after.