Natalie Garro, 129
It’s Day 1 of Sports Day at my school, and I’m doing the same thing I did last year: seeking a moment of silence and solitude in my office, where I can close off the 5 separate sets of speakers blaring dance music against the sweat-soaked backs of kiddos, kindergarten through 9th grade, behind two separate sets of doors.
I had a realization this morning that what was overwhelming this time last year has become familiar. I marched with the students in the opening parade for Sports Day. I cheered as the two male students – dressed entirely in white – handed off the torch, lit the flame opening the Ban Wangchumphon Games. I laughed as the kindergarten teacher shouted encouragement at her tiny students slowly pulling the other team across the line in tug-o-war. I prepared myself an iced hot chocolate from the snack stand.
But it’s more than that.
I didn’t exactly follow Peace Corps protocol in my integration. Peace Corps tells us to say yes to everything: to reach out, participate, get involved. As an introvert, I’m slow to insert myself into an unfamiliar setting. I’m extremely uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially in a room full of strangers (a funny notion for someone willing to spill her guts on stage in a poetry slam). Small talk makes me intensely uncomfortable. I stumble over my words when someone asks me a question I wasn’t anticipating. If I spend too much time with people – even with the people I love the most, who require the least amount of my energy – I still end up exhausted to the point that my ability to speak coherent sentences ebbs into oblivion. When I don’t get adequate recharge time – alone, watching movies, reading, drawing – I get moody, snappy, unpleasant… and if this persists for too long, I get sick. I know this about myself.
When I arrived at my permanent site in Nakhon Sawan, I didn’t exactly throw all of the advice I’d received in Pre-Service Training (PST) out the window… but I did stow it firmly in my back pocket, and proceeded to do things my way.
For a year, I ran nearly every morning. I watched as the astounded stares that usually followed me transformed into a chorus of, “Hellos!” and eventually “Su su! Gaeng-gaeng!” (“Go go! Great job!”). I biked for literally hundreds of kilometers around my amphur. I walked to the store, to the market, to school. I smiled and waved at everyone everywhere I went. And yes, I accepted many of the invitations extended to me, but I turned many down, as well. I developed a reputation for being independent, but not unfriendly. My friends and neighbors eventually stopped checking in on me, knowing I could take care of myself.
Unfortunately, the check-ins stopped around the same time school ended for summer break… and I found myself horribly, soul-suckingly alone. Stuck in the spiral of my “mid-service crisis,” I wondered if I could stick it out for another year. I exhausted every self-care method I’d listed on my Peace Corps application: I ran every day, I biked, I yoga-ed, I meditated, I watched movies, TV shows, read so many books, listened to podcasts, drew, called my friends, wrote letters, tutored, and I still found myself with more vacant time than I knew how to manage. I started visiting the Yai (grandmother) next door regularly. I walked to the stores just to talk to someone. It wasn’t until I made a temporary friend – a girl around my age who lived in Bangkok and was home visiting her parents for the weekend – that I realized how much I missed these kinds of connections. I missed the teachers from my school (none of whom live in my community, and who had all gone home for the summer), I missed the other volunteers, I missed my friends from home.
I had asserted my independence in an effort to enable myself to come and go from my community freely, without having to inconvenience anyone for a ride. I turned down invitations so I wouldn’t constantly be expected to attend events that left me mentally and physically exhausted, because I knew that wouldn’t be energetically sustainable for me. I kept people – even my friends here – at a relative distance, not for any reason, but because it’s my nature to be slow to open up with people. And one year into my service here in Khao Chon Kan, how foolish I felt for establishing my boundaries so firmly. I was kicking myself for creating the circumstances that left me feeling so isolated and alone – so lonely.
And summer came and lingered – a bit too uncomfortably long – and then it went. And then the teachers came back. And my students came back. And, lo, something shifted, and to this day, I have no idea what it was. It was like I passed some sort of test, crossed some invisible threshold. My landlady started making kanom (sweets) in my house again (which she hadn’t done since I moved in a year prior). People started visiting me at home. My friends here started inviting me for dinner and on trips. My neighbors stopped by to drop off naam-jai (small gifts of fruit, sweets, whatever they had extra of). I started visiting my neighbors. I started participating in all of the school activities that frustrated me last year (because class was so often cancelled for these activities). I started chatting with more of my coworkers and more of the parents. Somehow, my Thai had improved enough for me to function as a normal human being, meaning my brain didn’t hurt from operating in two languages throughout the day.
There has never been a point in my service where I felt unwelcome in my community, but there have been many times where I’ve felt like an outsider. I felt like part of the community, but I still felt foreign. At some point over the last few months, something’s shifted. I can’t precisely say what it is, but whatever it is has led me to start calling my community home. There is a trust here, a joy that didn’t exist before. There is patience and understanding, especially on the days when I’m not feeling at my best. There is laughter, and I’m seeing my life here in a way that feels similar to the way I did when I first arrived in Thailand.
The word for “normal” in Thai is “tamada” (ธรรมดา). I think the most remarkable part of my life here thus far is how tamada – how normal – it all feels these days. How I can’t imagine not seeing the people I see everyday, everyday. How the simplest parts of my life here – the neighborhood dogs greeting me at my front door with wagging tails when I come home from school, waking up to my landlady opening up my house to start baking on a Saturday morning, the Yai down the street scolding me for wai-ing her every day (a formal greeting) – bring me such joy. How I’m not ready to say goodbye to everyone and everything that’s made this place home. How in 7 months – my scheduled Close of Service – I won’t be ready to say goodbye. How all of this is mine, despite my reservation at the beginning of my service. How I get to be me here, and that’s enough. What a blessing. There is no gift greater than that.
Read Natalie’s previous articles Rain Bugs, Grit, Laundry, On the Funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, and Gulaap: A Lengthy Reflection on my First 4 Months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.