Kirsten Keefe, RPCV Thailand 99, TEFL/Crossover Volunteer
I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, Group 99 from 1991-1993. There were about 45 people in our group and around 120 volunteers in country at that time. The even numbered programs included public health volunteers and engineers, and the odd numbered groups were filled with English teachers, forestry and fishery volunteers. My program was TEFL/Crossover which meant that all of us teaching English as a foreign language were supposed to be doing other “crossover” projects. We were left to our own devices but encouraged in two directions. The first was “income-generating” projects – a term that came down from the Washington DC office and I wonder if still an edict? I’ve never been a very good capitalist or entrepreneur so my “income-generating” project was paying the family I lived with for meals and my laundry (they had a washing machine!). I certainly generated income for them and over the two years, we moved from eating on the floor in the living room to a table in the small kitchen they added onto their home with my room and board. The second direction was AIDS education. AIDS was the scariest threat of the day and no one, except Khun Mechai Viravaidya (of Cabbages and Condoms, and PDA fame), was talking about it. Khun Mechai was friends with our country director and she brought him to talk to us during training. He deeply loved his country and saw the devastation AIDS could have if action was not taken on every level. He told us we all needed to be talking about AIDS at our sites. So when I got to site, I created a basic educational program and went out to all the schools and wats around me and talked mostly about how you can’t get AIDs. I also put a lot of condoms on bananas.
My main job was teaching middle and high school English at Chaimongkon Pittaya, located in the village of Ban Mai in Tung Saliam, Sukhothai (about 30 km west of Sawankoloke, northwest of the old city). I just loved it, loved every minute being there. I lived in a small village which had never had a volunteer even nearby. The school’s janitor’s family had a compound with two houses, so they moved into one and I rented the other (it was one big teak room upstairs, and a linoleum-floored downstairs sparsely decorated with a chunky wood bench and table, cabinets filled with colorful nylon comforters and, nan nong, pictures of the King and Queen hung on the wall). They became my family and I became an utter source of amusement, especially for my grandfather. Paw Luang had a huge toothy smile and a guttural laugh like no other. Hearing it in my mind now makes me smile. He marveled at how much I traveled (“Grisana tio geng!”), couldn’t believe I wasn’t scared of ghosts, teased me with bug savories, made funny faces while trying to eat my peanut butter, and could not get over the fact that my father who came to visit couldn’t speak Thai (I was upstairs in my house, hearing him in the yard yelling at my father, “Poot Thai mai dai, lehhh??”). With all that said, Paw Luang spoke a northern dialect, and I was at best, good at understanding maybe sixty percent of regular Thai. I surely failed to recognize a majority of what came out of Paw Luang’s mouth. So what I really learned through my grandfather was how much more there is to relationships than language. He was the kindest of people, with giant misshapen hands and feet from a life of farm work and plastic shoes. We hung out a lot at home, often in verbal incommunication, as Ma Luang and their daughter worked in the fields (I did attempt to plant rice with them on occasion but my slowness and crooked rows didn’t lead to many invitations.) To this day, one of the three saddest days of my life was the day I left site and said good-bye to him. It still makes me tear even thinking of it now. #whatasaddaythatwas #braceyourself
At the risk of sounding like the older person I have become, “back in those days” over half of us in country were TEFL volunteers. A big thing was English Camps – we all wanted to host one at our school and it was a great time to have your friends come for the weekend and foist an influx of American energy and boisterousness on your school (and prove to your co-workers that you weren’t really that weird, or at least there were others). English Camps were a ton of work and a ton of fun! The environment (“Da We Set” was the national campaign at the time) was a popular theme. We would have all day workshops and games the volunteers ran and students rotated through, using English lessons to reject plastic bottles, straws, and bags and re-embrace the wonderful powers of banana leaves and bamboo. At night would be skits from the kids, and then a play done in Thai by the volunteers on stage – which always got roars of laughter (how I miss that Thai laughter!). Total silliness. The day would end camping out altogether in the host volunteer’s house, drinking Singha or Carlsberg (the only beers available in the countryside), or worse yet, Mehkong and neon green or orange Fanta with Krating Daeng (the real Red Bull, not the watered down, less-toxic variety sold in the States now), and talking deep into the night with fellow idealistic, adventuresome, atypical Americans.
One of the unexpected bonuses to the Peace Corps for me was befriending Americans whose paths I never would have crossed in the US. I grew up in a smaller town (Albany, NY), went to a homogeneous college (Holy Cross), and had a pretty insulated life until going to Thailand. I became friends with a California hippy who lived in a tree house, a farm girl from Iowa, a fifty-year-old free-spirit, a future doctor from North Dakota, and so many more fascinatingly different people. At that time we were really isolated from home. There was one telephone in the village next to mine that I could call my friend from in Pittsanuloke (I would have to call to schedule a time, and then the owner of her village phone would fetch her) but I could not call the States. To talk with my family and friends, I had to travel at least two hours and by three modes of transportation to get to a phone (I can hear the violin music playing in your head). Plus it was expensive (collect calls! Is that even still a thing?), so it happened just a few times a year. Emailing, let alone Facebook weren’t things yet. I wrote a lot of letters on that wispy air mail paper. Everyone was interesting, everyone had something in common, we just had to find it in each other. There is something comforting knowing you are in a group with other rare Americans willing to throw themselves across the world to live for two years away from everything and everyone you know. Everyone had different motives and goals for being there, but at the heart of it – even the person we suspected might have been in a witness protection program – everyone was there because they wanted to do some good in the world and experience life.
Because Thailand had good transportation and mail systems (we used telegrams a lot), volunteers would get together fairly often for common projects. In addition to English Camps, we conducted teacher trainings, convened on beaches for environmental labeled beach clean-ups, and met in the mountains of Chiang Rai to cut fire lines. We had one all-volunteer conference while I was in country, and traveled during school vacations – while our students were home planting rice in the fields – to do joint projects. Everywhere we went, we were treated specially – I’m sure you know the feeling – as it is a tough feeling to overcome. Very early on, during training, we had a weekend off and a group of us were on a tio. We hitch-hiked a ride in the back of a truck and at one, very scary point, the truck veered off onto a dirt road up a mountain. Our language was still very limited and we were terrified. When the truck finally stopped, its driver got out with a big smile, holding his hands out and turning us around to the view. We thought he was kidnapping us and in fact, he had driven out of his way to show us an incredible mountain vista. When we finally unloaded at our destination, our stranger-turned-friend filled our arms with bags of fruit for the rest of our travels. My first few months at site, I felt like all I was doing was taking from the incredible generosity of the Thais, and yet I thought I had gone there to give. It was a humbling moment to realize that there was no way I was going to ever give more than I took. But a wise friend told me that was OK, in fact inevitable. But it was making me a better person to go on and do better things in my life for others. Living in Thailand was a true lesson in the goodness of people and the beauty that comes from trusting others and accepting their gifts.
Other rich memories for me which I imagine still resonate for you include waking up to indecipherable banter screaming over the local wat loudspeaker, being asked if I can eat hot food, being asked if I can eat sticky rice, telling a mother her baby is ugly, loving staring out the train window at never ending rice paddies, fresh mat muang, sapparote, naught AND mangkoot (oh how I miss mangkoot!), and that grand home that is Peace Corps headquarters where there was always a friend to sit with on the front steps and felt like such a respite in the middle of chaotic Bangkok. Khao Saan road three blocks away from the P.S. Guesthouse where we all stayed, was the world traveler street back then and a good place to go to not stand out and find a bad burger. I’m sure the best beach to go to has changed, as volunteers try to keep one step ahead of the world travelers (back then it was Kho Tao and Krabi), but staying in grass huts on remote islands is a great memory too. And walking through markets, sneaking up on the grandmother sellers who kept baht in their bras with my Thai – the laughter my attempts to buy bananas would incite, and the banter among them calling out to one another that the farang could speak Thai. Oh, how delicious it all was and how warm it makes me feel that you were brave enough to venture and are there collecting your own delectable experiences at this moment.
There certainly has never been a day I regretted going and though it all is a distant memory now, writing this makes me feel like it was almost just yesterday. When I returned I went to law school at Temple University in Philadelphia and then had the great fortune to work in a legal services program with Lou’s (Louie Ackelsberg, 128) father. I’ve since moved back to where I started in Albany, NY and have continued to have a career in legal services, focused on consumer law and helping homeowners facing foreclosure. Today I do more policy and advocacy work, mostly lobbying our state legislature for reforms. One of my best friends is a friend from Peace Corps who remained in the NGO world and has lived most of her years since then abroad. Last month, I headed to Middlebury, VT to teach a day of a class she teaches on micro-finance. Facebook has reconnected many of us who were in country at that time and we have a page covering the years we were there. If I had known then that Facebook was coming, I would have given out my real name. My first week at site, after rejecting being called “Chris –tin –AAAA” the name of the most popular pop star singer and the best they could do for “Kirsten,” in Thai-style I was nicknamed Grisana (a homme plant, used for diarrhea). I wish my students could find me now, though. I went back for a visit once in 1997 after finishing law school, stayed with my family and saw some of my former students, but no one had computers or phones back then and my Thai writing skills never progressed far beyond my address so I wasn’t able to keep in touch with folks. My dream is to return with my husband someday as the village will always be a big part of me that I would love him to know.
But Peace Corps is a sweet secret inside RPCVs and when uncovered, there is a palpable connection. No matter when or where you served. There is a sense of “OK, I get you now,” coupled with a mutual understanding that even though we had vastly different experiences, we had a vastly similar experience. It is that thing that connects me with all of you, us strangers, in a way that those around me every day will never get. Time has a way (violins can start playing again in your minds) of leaving out the hard days – the days I felt like I did something wrong but no one would tell me, days I just didn’t want to be so noticeable, days someone got married or passed away at home and I couldn’t be there, the day no one told me not to wear red to a monk’s funeral. I hope for you the cliché rings true, as it did for me. I hope you relish your moments there, even the tough ones, for two years is short compared to the rest of them. I will march for you here if you promise to soak up lots of Thai laughter and eat many mankoots there for me.