Yousif Al-Amin, 129 TCCS
It’s been 391 days since I said goodbye to the people I loved, packed my life into 2 suitcases, flew to San Francisco, and began my Peace Corps journey. If you’d asked me a year ago, I probably would have figured that, by this point, I’d have a good grasp on my role as a volunteer, a teacher, and a foreigner in my little village.
The more time I spend with Thai people and the more I attempt to learn about Thai culture, the less I seem to understand.
The more effort I put into teaching and lesson planning, the less I seem to get done and the more disappointed and disheartened I become.
I’ll be honest, I came into Peace Corps with a bit of a savior complex. I imagined showing up to a little village and bringing them western technology and ideologies. I wanted to save the world, I wanted to educate, to empower, to influence change.
Change. A word that comes up a lot when I think about my role as a volunteer. Before I tackle change, a quick disclaimer: I love Thailand. I love the people, the culture. And the food… oh I love the food. But my love for Thailand isn’t blind, nor is it unconditional. There are things that I wish I could change.
I wish I could convince my students to wear their helmets when they ride their motorbikes into school, or that the other teachers at my school took me seriously when I proposed a helmet-enforcement program.
I wish that the teachers would be more understanding when a student comes to school with hair that’s a bit too long rather than taking scissors and cutting patches of hair out, shaming the student and forcing them to get a haircut later that day.
I’m tired of people refusing to believe that I’m American, or referencing 9/11 or Osama Bin Laden (I wish I was kidding) when I bring up my Iraqi-American heritage.
The highly hierarchical structure of Thai society makes it pretty hard to get things done or to be taken seriously as a 24 year-old. I wish people were judged based on merit, and not age or social status.
Well, it’s taken about a year for me to
get over myself and realize that maybe, just maybe, instead of changing everything around me – the culture, the people, the education system – I might be better off changing myself. Accepting it all.
Well, I’ve been putting more and more effort into just accepting things for what they are and going with the flow. It’s easier to see where I fit in within Thai culture when I choose to be more flexible and understanding of the imperfections in the world that I live in. It’s more realistic to change myself and to be more malleable than it is to expect my entire community to change and adapt around me.
I imagined joining the Peace Corps and influencing a lot of change within my community. I envisioned holding hands with Thai counterparts and students, singing Kumbaya (or whatever the Thai equivalent of that would be) as we changed the world, together. I imagined, at the very least, being met halfway.
The reality is often putting in 90% of the effort and hoping to be met with that last 10%. Hoping to be taken seriously, but expecting not to be.
An important lesson I’ve learned is not being ashamed to lower my expectations in certain aspects of my work as a volunteer. Having more realistic goals makes it easier to feel like my job is worthwhile.
Here’s the thing. I don’t need to necessarily be happy about things like corporal punishment, or the not-so-efficient Thai education system, or colorism in Thailand. But I also don’t need to burden myself with these problems. There’s only one of me, and I really needed to check myself and accept the fact that I just can’t change certain aspects of Thai culture that are this deeply ingrained. Alone, I am incapable of that.
The reason I’m sharing all of this isn’t to paint a picture of disappointment, or to make it seem like the past 13 months I’ve spent in Thailand have all led up to this sad realization that I’m not getting anything done. I just often find myself guilty of sharing the things that I love about Thailand (the mountains, the beaches, the elephants, my students, etc.) without painting the fuller picture.
The reality is much more complicated than what my Instagram pictures or blog posts can convey. When you love something, it’s important to embrace and talk about the good and the bad. It’s important to recognize where you can influence change, and where it’s just not worth the effort.
The more I let go and allow myself to accept what goes on around me, the happier I am.
To read more from Yousif check out his blog so much to do, so little Thai