Skyler Matthias, 130 YinD
“Honey, I love you” is a game where one volunteer stands in the middle and chooses a person sitting in the large circle around them to walk up to and say, “Honey, I love you.” The receiver of affection must say, without smiling, “Honey, I love you too, but I just can’t smile.” Depending on whether or not the person sitting in the circle successfully holds a straight face or not determines whether the volunteer will continue around the circle or if the volunteer will switch with those unable to hold their straight face.
One afternoon in English club, with a room full of 8th and 9th graders, I decided to play “Honey, I love you” as a quick warmup. While playing it with my students, I hoped to help engage them in English as well as create a fun, yet relaxing atmosphere to start the day. It took a moment to teach them the English phrases, but finally, we managed to start the game. No one laughed and immediately I was hard on myself and thought, “Man, this game sucks. Oops.” I then told my English co-teacher to help the students speak the phrases in Thai, and like magic, the room burst into laughter.
In “Honey, I love you,” my students didn’t laugh because English isn’t a part of them; English is still math equations and a mess of noises circling around in their heads. The Thai language is a part of them and is therefore coming from a place more powerful than their heads. True laughter comes from the belly, it comes from a release of tension, it comes from something that doesn’t quite make sense but is most definitely felt.
I have a mother and father at site and they are a big reason I speak decent Thai and basically the only reason I know how to cook the few Thai dishes I know. They took me in as their child and my mom regularly has me pick out lottery tickets saying, “If I win, I will build you a house next to ours and when you visit you’ll have a place to stay.”
One day, my mother painted a stand that is inside her restaurant. The colors she decided on were alternating blue and pink. I didn’t realize the significance of these colors until she later explained to me the blue was painted for me. My nickname is Sky in my community. ‘Tong faa’ means ‘Sky’ and ‘see faa’ means ‘blue,’ so a simple connection is made between ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ in the Thai language. This was followed by her saying pink is representative of ‘rak,’ which translated into English is ‘love.’ Therefore, the well thought out paint choices can technically be translated to, “Love Sky.”
I’m the luckiest person in the world to have a person who loves me in my home in Thailand. When my new mother says, “I love you,” in her own language, I know she means every word, not because I don’t think “I love you” can’t come with different intentions or a whole array of complexity, but because she is gaining nothing from our relationship besides exactly that word: Love. In exchange for my time, spoken from a place much more powerful than her head, I’m gifted the words: ‘I love you.’ Genuine love comes from the heart, from a part of us only special places, people, and things are welcome into.
During pre-service training, I was one of the slower learners in my language group and consequently I found myself defeated in many classes. For one of the first times in my life, I found myself sitting outside of a classroom holding back tears because of my inability to grasp something that so many others were handling with ease. These experiences allow me to empathize with my students when I see the blood flush from their face, eyes widen, and, from time to time, genuinely run away after I ask them a question in a foreign language.
I didn’t realize how easily this could affect the people I work with as well. I found out one afternoon the reason a specific co-teacher in charge of supporting me in one of my classes never attends is because she’s scared to talk to me. She is scared because she also feels inadequate in speaking English, a language that she didn’t grow up speaking. After many months of struggling with the language (and with much further to go), I proudly proclaimed, “She shouldn’t be scared, I speak Thai!”
My co-teachers are scared of me because of language, that same fear that I must push through and encourage myself to engage with others in in this incredibly difficult language. Fear is important to keep us safe, supplying us with instincts to keep us away from danger. It’s scary to take away such a big part of us; something so powerful that it can force me to tears, something so connected to our being it can scare away, as well as, with time and patience, bring those around us incredibly close.
At the end of my service, I know for a fact I will say the most challenging part of my service was language. Language is the reason my classroom management is horrendous, the reason I can’t keep up with my counterparts in meetings, and the reason I lose my confidence in many situations and feel incredibly inadequate. Language is also the reason my students are connecting with me, my new mother loves me, and I can slowly start to convince my co-teachers that I’m not all that scary. I’m grateful for the struggle of learning the Thai language because even though I am still accomplishing math equations and Beethoven’s ninth symphony in tones with every sentence I produce, volunteers have the opportunity to communicate and connect to the people of our communities on a level that goes beyond a smile.
True Laughter, like love and fear, cannot be faked. And when humans experience true laughter and joy, genuine love, or the overcoming of fear: this is where true connection is born. All of these things are so deeply connected to what we know, so deeply connected to everything we are. This is why Peace Corps gives us three months to prep in pre-service training, ten weeks of studying the language with a teacher, and a kind host family that takes in a foreigner who doesn’t speak any of their language, because they know that to truly connect, we must communicate. What I learned through, “Honey, I love you,” through my second mother, through my colleague’s fears, is language is just as much a part of us as our legs, arms, or brain; language is a part of what makes us human.
I shared a quote at pre-staging in Los Angelos about a goal for my service: “At first, you are in your head, and it’s American meets other, then you get more grounded and its… teacher meets student and then, if you are lucky, the simplicity settles in and its human meets human; heart to heart.” -Meleia Egger, RPCV Malawi
Right now, I am a 7 month old baby in my language learning, I’m able to tell people I’m hungry and ask where the restroom is with ease, but something tells me as I continue to grow older, and start to form full sentences like a true two year old can do, I may, just maybe, be able to truly connect to these beautiful Thai people; human to human.