Halli Benson, 130 TESS
Peaks and Valleys is a series of interviews with PCVs discussing the highs and lows in the past month. It highlights the unique quality of Peace Corps service and the range of things that people go through in a small window of time. Everyone’s experience is different, and no one can tell their own story like the individuals themselves! If you have a story to tell or wouldn’t mind being interviewed, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had an opportunity to visit with Nhi at her site in Trang, Thailand. She is a Teacher Empowerment for Student Success (TESS) volunteer. Nhi is a loving and kind individual – the gentlest of humans. She approaches her service with saint-like acceptance and tender love for her students, neighbors, coworkers and friends. Anyone who knows her knows how her hugs can heal all wounds and her sweet smile brings calm to any space. Her steadiness as a friend and person flow into a driven effectiveness in her work at site.
Her and I learned Thai in the same language group during PST and have seen a lot of Peaks and Valleys together in the process of moving here and completing our first year of service. I am honored to have the opportunity to facilitate her sharing a little bit about her recent experiences. I’m very grateful for her honesty, vulnerability and willingness to sit down and chat with me for my very first interview since I have taken this column over from the incredible RPCV 129 Rae Richards. (You will get to read an interview with her in a couple of months!! Keep an eye out!)
H: Woooo, yes! So Nhi, let’s start by getting to know you a little bit. Just a brief summary. Give this a shot: Describe yourself in 5 sentences or less.
N: Ohh, jeez! I am curious…. and very determined… I’m also extremely lazy… and I love food…. The end!
H: Awesome! Love hearing the words you choose to describe yourself. Tell us about something funny that happened in the last 30 days?
N: There was one thing among PCVS! We were just joking about literal Thai translations into English. One of our favorites is the “I CANNOT, you CANNOT, we CANNOT.” The kind of strange emphasis and tone they put on the ‘cannot’ when they just mean something not so severe, you know? We had a good time talking about that. And then, it happened when we went to see Phil. His host sister was looking at the flowers that we were making from pandan leaves. We asked her if it was pretty and she was like, “I CANNOT see, I CANNOT do it.” It was so dramatic!
H: Language is a big source of humor for us, I think! Good stuff. What would you say is the best you’ve felt in the last 30 days?
N: The last 30 days are a blur! I would say when I went to my counterpart, Pii (older sister) Ji’s house to make Christmas cookies. That was so great because she has an oven, but she never uses it. She doesn’t know how to cook or bake, so it was fun to share that with her and teach her how to make, I don’t know, something so simple as a chocolate chip cookie. It was also the first time they had tried peanut butter and the first time they had eaten a soft cookie! Her entire family was there – Her mom, dad, her brother, sister-in-law, her niece and nephew, her friends. Also, playing with her Golden Retriever puppy was the best.
H: Awwww. Puppies make everything better. Do you think this is something you’ll be able to do again, or was this a one-time special moment?
N: We’ve already told her we’re coming over every month. And she was like, “OKAY!!” She requested to make cupcakes next!! So I’m excited. I don’t know when it will happen, though.
H: Ooh, good luck! Cupcakes can be tough! But, I’m sure yours will be great – baked with love. So in the future, when you look back on your memories in Thailand, how do you think you’ll remember that moment?
N: My favorite moments with my counterpart are in those moments when we’re not in school, actually – just when we’re hanging out. She’s very curious about everything, and she’s always asking me, “Oh, why do you do this?” or “How do you say this in English?” And so those memories kind of lump together for me. It’s a nice memory I have of her.
H: That’s special. It sounds like you have a really special relationship.
N: Yeah. She understands me, which is a huge help!
H: Yess. Not always easy to find in a new home. Speaking of things that aren’t always easy, we know that this time of year can be tough for volunteers with the holiday season and the mid-service point. What was something that was really challenging for you in the last month?
N: Well, coming off that mid-service slump, December was just really busy for me. I planned a two-day camp for three schools, and then I went to another camp, and then we had to plan Christmas, which is something that I honestly didn’t really want to do. I was just feeling really low during that time, and I didn’t have a lot of time to do it. I literally only had a week to plan something. It was just a lot of extra work when I was already exhausted from doing other activities. And I didn’t feel appreciated for all the work I had already done. It was like, “We need more from you,” and I just needed a break. Yeah, that was hard.
H: Yeah, that’s a lot. In retrospect, what do you think would have made that time easier for you?
N: Maybe, just not take it SO seriously. I know a lot of the pressure I felt I put it on myself, right? Because I wanted the kids to have a good time and for it to be also a learning experience, but at the end, when I just ran out of time, I just decided we would do these three activities, and it was great. They had fun and the staff at the school was satisfied!
H: And when you’re feeling stressed like that, who do you go to at site that helps you through that?
N: I have my counterpart, Pii Ji, and the school cook actually! She’s so funny and cool, and she understands, kind of, the Western perspective of a lot of things. I can complain to her about almost anything, and she’s always like “I understand! I know! I feel the same way.” And then, we commiserate over food. *laughs*
H: Oh foood – so great, such a great way to connect with people! She sounds wonderful. Do you have any other go-tos for self-care/coping?
N: I usually need to write it down, so I go to my journal. Honestly if I have a full day to myself where I don’t have to see anyone (*laughs*) and I can just self-reflect a little bit and do the things that I enjoy doing by myself, that really helps.
H: Mmm. It’s good to have that space. So what do you think is the best life advice you’ve ever been given?
N: My one professor in college once told me to not ever get arrested because it’s much harder to get out of jail now than it was when she got arrested in the 70s.
H: That’s really good advice! What is on your reading/movie/podcast/music list?
N: On my Kindle, I’m currently reading Into the Wild. My next is Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. My next Netflix show is, I think, a German original series called Perfume. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but a singer is found murdered, and they try to piece together what happened because the murderer took out all of her lymph nodes and where she secretes her essence, and they think they took it to create some type of pheromone perfume or something! Sounds interesting. And one of the podcasts I’m listening to right now is called Ways to Change the World. It’s a British podcast. The host interviews people from all different walks of life about history, about politics, about what they’re doing proactively to change what they see could be better. It’s really interesting, I’ve only listened to a few.
H: Sounds so interesting. I feel like people often like to think of Peace Corps as a way to change the world. How do you feel about the impact that you’re able to make as a Peace Corps volunteer?
N: I have this conversation a lot with people! The immediate impact we’ll probably never see. Maybe, we’ll see it in a couple of students in their confidence to speak to us or a visiting volunteer. Even just their eagerness to come to class has been a big change I’ve seen in the past year. I think the long-term impact will just be their perspective on studying or people, and we won’t really see that unless we come back in like 20 years and see them again.
H: Yeah, true. Good insight. Let’s wrap up with some word association.
N: Oh, no.
H: This will be fun! Let’s hear the first thing that comes to your mind.
H: Ice cream.
N: So cute.
H: Peace Corps.
N: Frustratingly awesome.
N: Every day.
N: *pause* I was gonna say every day again, but I’m not sure that’s true.
H: That was deep!
*more belly laughs*
To read more about Nhi’s experiences, check out her blog: https://whimsandchances.wordpress.com.
She says she doesn’t post too often, but when she does, it’s magical!
Thank you for reading another installment of Peaks and Valleys. Join us next month for another volunteer highlight and check out previous interviews.