[Book Review] Sit and Cry: Two Years in the Land of Smiles

Carly Allard, 129 YinD

SAC-TYITLOSTitle: Sit and Cry: Two Years in the Land of Smiles

Author: Burgess Needle, RPCV Thailand, 1967-69

Published: Wren Song Press (2017)

Synopsis: Somewhere in Buriram, Thailand, there are people in their late 50s or early 60s who just might crack a smile if asked about “Teacher Burgess”. From 1967-1969, Burgess Needle served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Buriram, a province in Thailand’s northeastern “Isan” region, where he taught English at a rural secondary school. In the day-by-day memoir spanning his two years of service, Needle accounts everything from cultural complexities and language barriers to teaching frustrations and unparalleled experiences. Readers, whether they’ve personally served in the Peace Corps or not, will enjoy Needle’s intricate descriptions of Thai life and culture and the nuisances that accompany Peace Corps service.

Needle served in Thailand during the Vietnam War, which proves to have been an interesting time to live and work in rural Southeast Asia. Many of Needle’s entries, especially those which take place outside his small community, mention effects of the war, namely in the presence of U.S. soldiers and the Western comforts developed to accommodate them during their leave from Vietnam.  

That’s not to say Needle doesn’t offer full, detailed descriptions of the everyday experiences within his community. Living and working in a foreign environment for two years provided Needle plenty of stories about confusing cultural norms, sweltering heat and torrential rainfall, creepy-crawly creatures, unfamiliar sicknesses, and loneliness.

Since its establishment in 1962, more than 5,400 volunteers have served in Peace Corps Thailand. While each and every volunteer has their own, unique adventure, it’s safe to assume anyone who has served or is currently serving in Thailand would smile and nod while reading and reminiscing about the Land of Smiles in Needle’s creatively constructed memoir.

Personal Connections and Reflections: 

Fifty years. That’s the exact span of time between Burgess Needle’s arrival in Thailand and the start of my own Peace Corps service. Sure, there’s a half-a-century between our swearing-in dates, but I found the experiences Needle elaborately recounts – confusions, victories, feelings, and frustrations – to be astonishingly familiar. Within my first few months of service, I found myself wondering what life was like in Thailand before the Internet, cellphones, indoor plumbing, and reliable electricity. I found answers to many of my questions in Needle’s memoir, along with a glimpse into a time period I am only able to read about in history books.

Burgess Needle served in Thailand during an interesting period of American involvement in Asia. Although the scale of international conflict is slightly lessened, I, too, find myself serving during an interesting period of time. While events unfold in our home country, many of my fellow volunteers and I feel very conflicted. It’s hard to be abroad when there are events we feel like we should be home for.

Needle conveyed similar feelings as he reflected on anti-war protests of the 60s and the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. “Recent news from the States never really touched me, but now I wish I was there. I wonder what the Thais will say. Will they care that much? (222)” As Needle so brilliantly articulates, I, too, have felt a certain sense of missing out and wanting to be home when major events occur in my country. But I’ve also found these events to provide a sense of inspiration for my continued service in Thailand. As Peace Corps volunteers, we are the best advocates for the good of Americans and all of humanity. We have a responsibility to represent Americans as humble, brave, caring, and helpful people.

Because, just as Needle asked, the Thais – our communities, co-workers, students, host-families – do care. They’re immensely touched by the fact that a fair-skinned, 20-something woman is trying to speak their native language and eat their traditional food. They admire the bravery it takes to travel across oceans and live in an unfamiliar place for two years. They understand our world is immensely interconnected and recognize we’re all people who are equally as touched and effected by global events.

In moments of heartache and homesickness, I try to remember I’m here to do much more than teach English or facilitate life skills activities. I’m here to build meaningful relationships with my host family, community members, and students. Because, in the end, the relationships I and all Peace Corps volunteers around the world create will better represent what it means to be American than any media coverage will. Just as Burgess Needle did fifty years ago, I am in Thailand to convey a better understanding of Americans and, in turn, to better understand Thais and the world we all share.

This book can be purchased on Amazon.

1 reply »

  1. I am looking forward to reading Burgess Needle’s book. I served in the PC in Thailand in group XVII (malaria eradication) 1966-68. A very fulfilling and memorable experience. Snippets of that experience: no TV, no significant radio service, no telephones (telegraph service was the best form of communication), no mobile tel., limited electricity service, but endless moments of friendship and fun. Yes, there were times of despondency and self reflection as to whether I had made the right decision. And then I started receiving notices from Bangkok that my 2 years service was coming to a close. Not a lot of time for reflection back on times gone by. I was in TH at the time when the Vietnam war was ragging in full force. I recall that 3 members of our PC group received their draft notices for the military during their service in the PC. It was a long standing belief that the PC was an alternative to military service. This was not so as deferment from the draft was handled on a case by case basis by each PCV’s draft board in their home community in the US. My PC experience was fully loaded with a wide range of experiences. Like our Thai work colleagues we were all but required to spend as many as 15 work days interacting with malaria eradication workers within our assigned region which in my case covered 4 provinces stretching all the way to the Cambodian border. Spent some nights sleeping in Bhuddhist temples. Rode around in jeeps and occasionally on long tail boats in swampy areas. My Thai work colleagues surprised me at my first new year party with a gold ring (with logo of Min of Public Health) and when departing they presented me with a large silver bowl with a meaningful inscription on the bottom. I occasionally accompanied my colleagues to scheduled month-end meetings at the Min of Public Health office in BGK. More than once I found myself in a bar sitting next to a soldier who was on R&R from the war front in Vietnam. Their experiences in VN were enlightening and often very sad. No question that it was a very very memorable time in the early part of my life. Little did I realize at that time that Thailand would be intertwined in the rest of my life. Now retired and resident in Bangkok, I have found my terminus point in life. Barent Springsted, Bangkok


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