Larissa Delgado, 130 YinD
I stared motionless at the river, the cut down tree, and the now empty spot where the tire swings used to be. It was my first week back after the reconnect conference that all volunteers were required to attend. Being back at site after spending so much time with volunteers had predictably lowered me into the slum infamously known as the post-reconnect blues. These blues were hard on their own, but on top of them I realized that I was also being affected by relationship changes at site that seemed to have occurred faster than I was able to process. These were the friendships (apart from my wonderful counterpart), that had really defined my initial integration period at site. To have them change on me was a shock to my system. I came to the tire swing spot in an attempt to cheer myself up and find some peace. I had joyful memories of tire swinging with my students, and quiet memories of when I needed to swing alone. However, now I just stared at yet another piece of joy that had been abruptly taken from me.
Before leaving the states to become a PCV I had mentally prepared myself to come back to changes in the lives of the people close to me. One of my sisters was off to college, some of my friends were getting married, others were embarking on their careers or moving states altogether. I had prepared myself to possibly not be able to visit America, and to only see people from home if they visited Thailand. Otherwise I would see my loved ones two years older, and two years down the line of their lives, however that would look like. Like most volunteers, I anticipated a change to happen within myself as a byproduct of serving for two years in a foreign land, and to a people belonging to a culture not my own. What I hadn’t prepared myself for, was to meet and be affected by changes in my relationships here. I saw my site as a harmless little bubble town that was impermeable to such changes. But before I had reached my six month mark at site, almost every single one of my friendships had indeed changed.
First it was Wun. She was the president of our youth council, 18, confident but soft-spoken, who knew very little English, but who was very excited to work with me. I met her at an SAO event where she helped me debrief a life skill lesson plan for the youth council. After the event she ran up to me and excitedly asked, “Do you know Thai Youth Theater?!” She had attended Thai Youth Theatre a few years back and used to know a 128 volunteer that served near my site. That day she helped me talk to some of the other girls on the youth council, and we all spent the rest of the saturday together. I meant to hang out with her again, but since I didn’t really go many places back then besides the SAO (government office), I regrettably forgot about her. I ran into her from time to time, but in the back of my head I just figured that I would have two years to become better friends with her. Then July came.
At reconnect my counterpart broke the news to me, “Wun moved to America.” Wun hadn’t said anything, but she had been trying to get a visa to America for years. When I got back from reconnect I spoke to her sister and learned that Wun’s mom lives in Florida, and Wun was going to stay there for at least two years before coming back. I felt guilty for not spending more time with her, and felt the loss of not being able to work with her. On top of that, I would have to get to know Fct, the new youth council president. Luckily, because of my close friendship with my counterpart, this naturally happened. Fct is kind, active, and a great leader. However in Thai culture I can’t easily spend time outside of work with a male teen the same way that I could with a female teen, and with that, I felt the loss of Wun more deeply.
Then there was Nan. A quiet 30 year old worker at my nearest coffee shop. Volunteers arrive at site at the beginning of bpit term when schools are closed, and are not allowed to leave site for a month. As a YinD volunteer, who back then didn’t foresee myself working at the Anamai (health clinic), this meant that all of my work time was spent at the SAO. It was a difficult adjustment to go from being surrounded by volunteer friends to suddenly being the only American at site. So for the entire month of April I did one thing for my mental health that I believed alleviated some of the angst of adjusting: morning coffee at Coffee Ann. Every morning I would spend one hour at this coffeeshop before heading to the SAO. It was the perfect place to have quiet time without having to be “on” as a volunteer. After a few days of me showing up, Nan started to make conversation with me. She told me that she has a kid, a husband who works in Bangkok, and that all of her friends moved outside of the province for work.
With all of her friends gone — except for her family — she sounded stuck. But she said she hated Bangkok, and it seemed like she could only see herself living here. For the whole month I mistakenly called her Ann, because I assumed that she was the owner of the coffee shop. Then one day the real owner, who turns out lives in Bangkok, came in to work. Ann was visiting, and Nan was actually her sister-in-law who ran the shop for most of the time. When Ann made my coffee, it was poorly done because she just didn’t put the same kind of care that Nan would put into it. I saw Nan maybe once after that because I stopped going to the coffee shop for awhile. When I did go again, I learned that Nan had finally decided to move to Bangkok for work. With no one else to run the shop, it closed down. I hoped Nan was happier in Bangkok, but I was sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my favorite morning companion.
Then there was my bhalat (Chief Administrator at the SAO). My bhalat and my counterpart went way back; they knew each other for over 12 years, and had worked at multiple SAOs together. My bhalat is the most independent, direct, boss of a Thai lady that I’ve ever met. I did not warm up to her right away but she was very intent on being my friend. She gave me clothes, cooked me dinners, and even invited me to spend a weekend with her at her home in Mueang Tak. Eventually I got just as close to her as I am to my counterpart. My bhalat seems intimidating at first, but she is incredibly sensitive, caring, and wonderfully sarcastic. I had a lot of fun overhearing her and my counterpart playfully argue and joke around in the SAO. And I began to consider my bhalat as a second counterpart, because she was always willing to help me with YinD work. I had this vision of my counterpart, my bhalat and I as the perfect trio to a successful Peace Corps Service.
It was in June over her birthday dinner in Mueang Tak that my bhalat brought up the news that she was switching jobs. She had issues with our nayok, and decided that she wasn’t going to put up with him anymore. Instead she accepted an offer for a lower job position at the SAO nearest to her home in Mueang Tak. I went from living down the street from her to living a half hour away from her. Gone were the days that she would invite me to exercise at the park, grab coffee, or even just drop by. I could call her and visit her from time to time, but it would definitely not be the same. And the vision of our perfect work trio evaporated like smoke in thin air.
Finally there was Bum. My SAO is tiny with a total of 40 staff members. As a volunteer I was put into a room with my counterpart, my bhalat, and two more workers. Naturally, I got closer to my counterpart and bhalat, and had a hard time making friends with anyone else. One day I went to a sporting event with my SAO people, and this girl Bum took an interest in talking to me. She was 25, vibrant, and very outgoing. We initially bonded over our obsession with naam-keeng-saai. But then she got more excited when she found out that I was outdoorsy, and proceeded to show me photos of hikes she’s gone on. She offered to take me to the coolest mountain top at our site and to the petrified forest national park. She also offered to go biking with me, because she bikes for fun. We quickly became close, and at one point Bum was stopping by my host family’s home nearly everyday for us go on two hour bike rides. She showed me all the different routes around Ban Tak, introduced me to the milkshake shack, and even expressed an interest in working in youth projects with me. She emphasized that I didn’t need to go anywhere alone, and that if I needed a friend, I could call her. Then June came.
Bum’s father started getting sick, and Bum consequently became less available to hang out. Her mom lives in Bangkok, so she is the only person that can take care of her father. At first she even apologized for not being available, but I understood. After I got back from Reconnect I reached out to her, but her behaviour had completely changed. Her father was still sick, she didn’t bike anymore because her friend took the bike back, and overall she was no longer the bubbly Bum that I had known. I spent all of August asking her to hang out, but after a no each time, I stopped. When I spoke to my counterpart about it, she reassured me that it had nothing to do with me, but I definitely internalized it. Three months go by and it’s November, and it still hurts to run into Bum at the SAO. I remember back when she told me her birthday was in November, and how when it was my birthday, she was the only person that got me a gift. On a low day in November, when I felt like no one noticed how low I was, I walked to my bike outside of the SAO and saw Bum about to leave on her motorcycle. She smiled and yelled over to me in Thai “Lala are you ok?” “I’m ok,” I answered with the kind of pleasant and confused surprise that one can only give to a friend who hasn’t spoken to you in months. She changed her hair and seemed a little bit brighter, like whatever storm she was dealing with had finally passed. We went back to texting, I’m getting her a birthday gift, and we might start hanging out again.
In August I thought that I had made peace with the changes in these friendships, but it wasn’t until recently that I really understood how wrongly I had reacted. Bum’s question woke me up to how much time I spend in my head assuming that I understand the ins and outs of everything, and how often I take things that have nothing to do with me personally. Nan is finally with her husband and friends. Bhalat is at a job that is better for her mental health. Wun is seizing an opportunity that many of her friends could only dream of. And Bum who I had made so many assumptions over had probably just needed some space this whole time.
Since August, I did move on and make new friends. I found a Thai church that I attend every Sunday, and having it as a faith community has been invaluable to me. I met Jenny, the restaurant owner of the only foreign food place in town. She grew up here, studied English abroad, and lived in Greece for ten years before temporarily moving back. She moves back to Greece in March, and I will inevitably miss her. I started going to the anamai after realizing I’m interested in SRH work. And by going I’ve discovered that I vibe more with the anamai staff than I do with my SAO staff. My closest friend there is 23 year old Gan, a nurse who’s agreed to help facilitate my SRH club. I finally feel emotionally available to start having weekly dinners with my host family, and I’ve gotten back in touch with their maid Pi Duan. We now hang out at the river once a week, and I’m even teaching her daughter how to swim. And finally I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Bpin and Pai, the twin daughters of a restaurant owner a block away from me. They’re joyful, smart, precious, loving, witty, and always willing to make conversation. These little characters can cheer me up on my lowest of days, and I know that when I eventually leave Thailand, I’ll cry over them the most.
Navigating through changes in relationships has been both confusing and endearing. One day while pondering over it in my room, I came to the ironic realization that I left too. I left family, friends, a job that expected me to stay, my church, I left people that didn’t see it coming, I left. And I probably left them in the same confusion that I felt when some of the people at my site left. I also acknowledge that it could be much worse. I’m lucky to not have lost anyone physically, but the loss I did experience is enough to remind me of how human I am. I don’t have much control over anything. At the start of the semester, I learned that one of my students from my smallest school left to go to school in the city. I felt how sad the other students were when I asked where she was, and nearly choked up when they answered. When your class goes from five to four you really feel it. As one thought linked to another, I recalled that she was one of the students I used to go tire swinging with, and I waited until I got home to cry.
I started blaming God for losing people. What was the point and would I ever get used to it? I can’t pretend to think that it won’t happen again. But no one’s to blame, and it’s a good sign that I don’t get used to it. The reason it hurts so much is because I love so much. Loving people is the point, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity and the time, however little, to love. Better to love than to distance yourself because you anticipate the loss. The overarching lesson here is that you don’t know how much time you have with people. The Peace Corps Timeline of 27 months makes us think we do. But life doesn’t abide to a volunteer’s timeline, and neither do the people we interact with. You can only cherish your present. You can love, connect, laugh and cry with them for today, and maybe tomorrow, all the while valuing them, and taking each day as a gift.