Berlin Exume, 130 TESS
During Pre-Service Training, as a group, we are told that the first few months at our new site may be rough and require a lot of flexibility. We are also told that the first three initial months at site is a time for integration. You may ask, “what is integration in terms of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand?” Integration looks like talking to the people in your village and/or town with your broken Thai desperately hoping that they’ll understand. Integration looks like stopping by the raan ahaan (restaurant) and stumbling over your words as you try to simply order one plate of rice with a side of fried chicken, your favorite by the way. Integration looks like going to the dta laat (market) and forgetting how to say “banana” and you are really craving some bananas. Integration looks like being thrown into conversations where everyone gets the joke except for you. Integration is many things. What we were not told to get ready for is the drumroll please readjustment period.
Us volunteers can pretty much all remember the day that we found out where we would be placed in Thailand. Some were happy and overjoyed, while others were nervous and possibly anxious. Some volunteers realized that they would be in a Buddhist community, as they have been for the first three months. While others such as myself realized that we would be placed in a Muslim community, which up until now was unfamiliar territory. So many questions arose. How do we be riep roy (proper)? How do we properly say “Hello?” What kinds of food will we be eating? What is the community like? What are the kids like? Why do I have to wear a life jacket?
Aside from some words of encouragement and advice from volunteers who had previously been through the experience, nothing could have properly prepared any of us for the readjustment period that we would all have to endure. For me, readjusting has been a rollercoaster which I haven’t quite yet figured out if I’m ready to get off of. Similar to a rollercoaster, readjusting has some very fun and thrilling parts that force my hands to rise to the sky and smile wide while other parts force me to squeeze my eyes shut, waiting for the ride to be over. Other parts are pretty relaxing to the extent that I am able to smile for the camera with a smile that’s not forced or funny looking.
I, in particular, am in the deep South, far away from everything and everyone. I live on an island that I once upon a time I envisioned was surrounded by blue waters and sand— yeah it’s not that kind of an island. To do the smallest of tasks such as buy soap or drop a letter off at the post office, I must first get on a ferry/boat to be dropped off at the mainland. I have become quite aquatinted with the goat and sheep that prowl around the island. I have also become acquainted with eating seafood everything daily versus beloved pork.
What I struggled with the most was coming to terms with the fact that I am surrounded by a people who speak Malayou, the language of Malaysia. PST prepared me to speak Thai. Great. PST introduced me to Southern dialect. Great. But PST told me nothing about Malayou. So riddle me this: I arrive on the island ready and excited to jump into integration and BAM – language barrier. Upon first arrival, I saw myself drifting off during conversations a lot because my levels of anxiety would rise as I struggled to express myself. I also figured out different methods to exit conversations just as quickly as they began. I definitely became a professional at saying, “Puut Pasa Thai Dai Nit Noi, dtee Mai Puut Pasa Malayou” (I speak a bit of Thai and no Malayou). The goal with that phrase in mind was that conversation would perhaps cease since I didn’t understand, but it never really happened that way. Conversations would continue and I would just smile and nod.
Readjusting to a different sub-culture after having already lived in Thailand for three months has been as inspiring as it has been challenging. I find myself inspired by my community as I learn more about them and the history behind their relation to Malaysia. I no longer run away from conversation, but rather sit and listen. The more I sit, the more I listen, the more I learn, even if it is only to know how to say “Selamat Malam” (good night) or Selamat Baggi (good morning). I am definitely not on the most picturesque island, but I am surrounded by hardworking individuals who rise early and go to bed late as they are the ones who steer the ferries/boats that pick up and drop off community members. Considering that the island only stretches so wide, the community is very tightknit. I can always expect a guest or two to stop by with a smile and a plethora of questions. One popular question I am asked is if I am Muslim or not, because of the way I wrap my hair. I usually explain that it is more for convenience than anything else and that sparks up an entirely different conversation about American fashion. The goat and sheep haven’t grown on me, and they probably won’t, but that’s okay. Readjusting is forcing me to throw away any stories or preconceptions I had about Thai people. They are obviously not all the same country wide – nor do they hold the same beliefs. Readjusting is helping me pinpoint those areas that make me uncomfortable like language barriers and figure out how I can turn those challenges into something productive and possibly make some fun out of it along the way.
PST couldn’t prepare any of us for readjusting because each volunteer is experiencing it differently. From my conversations, a few volunteers are eating cobras weekly, a few volunteers have been without power unexpectedly, a few volunteers have family members who have little to no regard for privacy, a few volunteers are struggling to voice their sense of independence, and a few volunteers just want to eat spaghetti versus rice. No matter what the struggle, we are all going through it, and we will all come out of it with very interesting stories. By the end of the readjustment period, we will have cried. We will have literally ran away from the situations without looking back. We will have found a secluded space and screamed as much expletives as possible. We will have called back home and vented to our best friends who cannot relate, but offer an awesome ear. Some of us will have even found one hundred ways to remain occupied as to not be held captive by boredom. More than anything we will have had opportunities to grow. We all will have had opportunities to share a bit about American culture through our own personal lens. We will have all had uncomfortable conversations that were very necessary and edifying.
The readjustment period I guess in a way is hard, but it really is what you make it. It’s a time to get to know your community without your friends near you to provide support. It’s a time to establish boundaries as you vocalize your values. Most of all it is a time to get to know yourself a little bit better as you place yourself in this new world and attempt to figure out how you and what you bring to the table fit into the bigger picture. You eventually realize that you are awesome and able to accomplish so much more than you could have ever imagined!