Rae Richards, 129 TCCS
Welcome to a new column meant to explore the highs and lows of Peace Corps volunteer life– in Thailand and beyond! Each month, we will highlight a current Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in the world and ask them about the best and most difficult experiences that they have had in the last 30 days. Through storytelling, we can gleam at how different and similar life is between volunteers across provinces and borders — enjoy!
Volunteer name: Elizabeth Marik
Project: Youth in Development Volunteer
Site: Chiangmai, Thailand
Interview date: August 2nd, 2017
Interviewed by: Rae Richards
Rae Richards: Hey there, I’m glad we could find a time to do this. Thanks again for being the guinea pig for this project.
Elizabeth Marik: Oh of course, not a problem. I’m excited.
Rae: Me too. I’m going to jump right in now if that’s okay?
Rae: I want you to begin by describing yourself in 5 sentences or less. I know this is reductive but it’s a fun exercise in being concise.
Elizabeth: I am a– oh, wait. I’m thinking about this too hard and I don’t usually consider myself an overthinker. I’m pretty weird but not necessarily eccentric. I am very loyal to my friends. I am very passionate. I decided early on to not give a shit about what people think—that has really allowed me to explore who I am but who really knows who they are anyway. Oh, hang on… I’m looking up the word “eccentric”.
Rae: Oh yeah, what’d you find?
Elizabeth: It says “unconventional and slightly strange”. Oh that’s an understatement. I take back what I said — I’m eccentric.
Rae: Ahahahaha. That’s funny. Alright here’s the next question: Can you describe the best experience you’ve had in the last 30 days?
Elizabeth: About a week before reconnect, we went to go deliver—send off really—one of the employees at our Awbahtaw to another Awbahtaw. It was so much fun because like at first I didn’t understand what was going on. Everyone was in black, so I thought it was a funeral. It was so enjoyable because I felt like I was really included in the event. And then we went to this strawberry farm in a little ‘hobbit hole’ and it was so cute. It was the first time I felt like I could be myself and that I was perceived the way I wanted to be.
Rae: I forgot y’all have strawberries up there. Lucky you! So, that happy moment you had at the ‘hobbit hole’, how are you going to hold on to that and remember that?
Elizabeth: Well whenever I’m at the Awbahtaw and a couple people are hanging out and if they talk about me, they include me—that’s a remnant of the time at the strawberry farm.
Rae: Do you have a favorite person at the awbahtaw? You can be as honest as you want.
Elizabeth: I do, I do. The woman who works at the front desk, Pii Aye, she handles a lot of different things, she’s great. She helps me with my drinking water and she is hilarious. Also, she finds me endearing which is great. Also, I love my counterpart. I’m falling in love with her more and more every day because I’m realizing how much of a weirdo she is. She is a delightful human. Her children are weird. It’s great.
Rae: So this really good experience you had, what was your day like before the event? Was this an emotional upswing?
Elizabeth: I feel like I was in the monotony of everyday life, figuring out my place at my site. A place of adjustment essentially. But this moment was the upswing moment where I was experiencing the benefits of all of that IRBing (Intentional Relationship Building) I’ve been doing.
Rae: That’s awesome. So much IRBing—glad it’s paying off. The next thing I want to talk to you about is the most difficult experience you’ve had in the last 30 days. You can answer this with however much honesty and angst as you prefer—it’s up to you.
Elizabeth: This wasn’t at site so I hope it counts. When I was coming back from Reconnect, I stopped in Chiang Mai at this cafe called Akha Ama. “Akha” is in reference to the Akha ethnic minority group here in Thailand and “Ama” means grandmother in that language. So I’m there enjoying my coffee when all of a sudden a huge group of 15 tourists—all wearing the same damn elephant pants—stumble in. They are clearly on a tour being led by this Thai man who is with them. He was explaining to them where the name of the coffee shop came from—but they were so dismissive of him! He would try to explain that the coffee was from the Akha people and they were like “yeah, sure, whatever.” Then the conversation turned to include the fact that Red Bull is originally from Thailand. The tourists were like, “What, like OUR Red Bull??” So there was this weird sense of Western ownership that like bothered me. I just saw them as this weird group of social colonizers who were flattening everything this guy was saying. But then I was like, “Well, they’re white. I’m white. Same same but different” because I’m there in my travel shorts and huge backpacking backpack. No matter what pants we are wearing, Thai people will see us the same. Until I open my mouth and speak Thai. But even then. I am trying to educate myself and make a dent in whatever cultural misinformation I am spreading—like these tourists… So it was a lesson for me to see them and think that I am the same and yet different from them. I learned about sympathy for them as well as sympathy for myself on my journey as a development worker.
Rae: In that moment, did you say anything/do anything or were you just processing all of this?
Elizabeth: Well I was processing all of this. I saw myself in that moment. But I didn’t want to be “that person” so I just went back to site.
Rae: That experience—did it impact you the most on a physical level, emotional level or were you just pissed on an intellectual level?
Elizabeth: I think I was most frustrated emotionally in that moment. Also feeling insecure about my role living in this country—I mean, I studied Arabic and the Middle East but even if I went to Jordan and worked with refugees—do I ever really have an idea about the politics of that place? I struggle with this. I was much more… hmm… it made me more confident in my purpose here. It’s so important to remember the awareness piece of this whole process. How I speak to people matters.
Rae: Do you think you would have had the same kind of emotional response if you had only been in Thailand for a couple of weeks?
Elizabeth: I don’t think so. It probably would have been funnier back then. Like picking on a freshman as a senior or something.
Rae: Do you think your relationships with Thai people flavors your response to these kinds of interactions with foreigners?
Elizabeth: Yes absolutely. Especially up North where I teach at an ethnic minority school for Lisu people. The contact I have had with them makes me more aware of the issues they deal with. I see their lives. I see the isolation. I see how different they are from the other Thai people in the flatlands. It’s a different world. Also seeing the “people tourism” here—the objectification of people—is total bull. And seeing it is the first step to understanding it. And then getting to know the people here; it adds a human element to it all. It’s annoying to see that there’s a formula to pull foreigners in—it’s so predictable and I don’t know how it ends.
Rae: Yeah, it’s not clear what justice is all of the time. Thank you for sharing your highest high and your lowest low moments with me, I really appreciate it. My next question is about good advice from people who know about life. What’s the best life advice you’ve ever been given?
Elizabeth: The one I remember the most—my mother she said to me that there will always be people who are worse than me and there will always be people who are better than me. This was huge for me to hear in my teen years. At that particular moment in my life, it was signifying that my parents were no longer shielding me from adulthood. She just straight up said that people will be better than you. So awesome.
Rae: That’s great advice. Gotta keep that perspective. Now I’ve got to ask– what’s on your current book/podcasts/TV show list?
Elizabeth: Currently reading “The Sympathizer” by Viet Than Nguyen. The author is a Vietnamese person who lives out in LA and has a really cool writing style. The next book I want to read is called, “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria” but Alia Malek. So this woman whose grandmother lived in Damascus returned to her apartment to reclaim it and see what had happened to it.
Rae: Just some light reading eh?
Elizabeth: Exactly. As for what I’m watching, you KNOW I’m watching GoT. I also just finished the Netflix show called “Friends from College”. This show is about these people in their 40s who all went to college together.
Rae: Aren’t they all super attractive? Don’t they all sleep together?
Elizabeth: Yeah yeah basically. But it’s good. Such beautiful people. In New York of course. And then for podcasts, I’m listening to a new show called Ear Hustle that is hosted by this man in a prison out in California. It is co-hosted by one of the prison media teachers and they explore topics relating to the prison industrial complex. It looks at a bunch of different issues about the prison system.
Rae: I’m always looking for a new podcast– I’ll have to give it a listen. So my final question for you is how do people keep tabs on you and your Peace Corps journey? Do you have a blog?
Elizabeth: Yes I do! My blog is: elizalandpc.blogspot.com
Rae: Thanks so much again for letting me pry into your life here in Thailand. You’ve been great and I’m excited for this.
Elizabeth: Thanks so much, this was fun.
Join us next month for another conversation about the peaks and valleys of Peace Corps service!