During PST131 (pre-service training), representatives from the Peer Support & Diversity Network (PSDN) polled Group 131 trainees about questions they had related to integration and identity. PSDN compiled these and presented them to currently-serving Group 129/130 volunteers. Here is what some of them had to say:
“You’re comparing your behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel: just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean others aren’t struggling too.
Your first year is honestly just foundation for getting your projects up and going your second year. Focus on building those relationships and getting a feel for your community. I know Becky with the Hair already did three camps or whatever, but there’s a decent chance her obodo (sub-district administrative office) put in a lot of the legwork for that, and she just helped.
Every site has its gems. It does you no good to compare: just focus on your reality.
Share your victories! Celebrate those! Find a place where you feel like you can share those, big or small, be it a PCV (Peace Corps volunteer) or someone from home or even just your blog.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other PCVs. You may think you’re being weak or a burden, but your PCV cohort is your family through this, and in a lot of ways, they’re the people who will understand what you’re going through the best and know how to support you and what you need. And check in on others, too, especially around those points where people will be feeling low post-Reconnect, holidays, etc. It might not matter much to some, but it will mean the world to others.” – Anonymous TESS volunteer
“Talk to everyone and anyone even if you are super insecure about your Thai. Making mistakes is the best way to learn. Swallow your pride. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling even if it isn’t considered acceptable behavior in Thailand; after all, you are not Thai. Lastly, don’t let Peace Corps get in the way of your Peace Corp-ing. There are going to be things you have to do that are all just part of the bigger puzzle. Do it. Get over it. Move on. The less time you spend worrying over things beyond your control, the more time you will have to dedicate to doing the things you love.” – Anonymous YinD volunteer
Psi Avilés, YinD:
- Have a daily routine that includes work, but also makes time for self-care, Netflix, exercising, your hobbies, an occasional coffee shop visit, and keeping in touch with friends.
- It’s okay to feel lonely, sad, or anxious. You are not alone. Many of us have experienced these feelings. They are normal. Peace Corps is tough. Reach out to someone you trust, talk, journal, or blog about it. PCMO is always an option as well.
- Saying YES is key to IRBing (intentional relationship building), but saying NO when you need to re-charge is key to self-care.
- Stay true to yourself. By this I mean: rock that red lipstick, those cute earrings, provide cultural teaching moments. Ex: I’m not from Spain. I’m from this beautiful island called Puerto Rico. We speak Spanish, love to dance, etc.
- 97.9% of the time your local yai (grandma) is your best friend and will shoo off boundary breaking people.
- Making friends with the market sellers is always a great idea.
- Through the tough moments, remember the kids because that’s why we chose to travel 10,000 miles in the first place. We have no idea what they might be facing in their daily lives. We can be an agent of change, love, healing, happiness, and stability the two years we are here. Put yourself in their tiny little shoes.
“My biggest integration tool has been my practice of respect for the culture and religion. Because of this reverence, I was encouraged to participate in a special holiday dance. My dedication to performing it to the best of my ability and my determination to reach a “Thai” quality of performance has gotten me a lot of respect as an individual because I am giving a lot of respect to them as a collective. This is not an opportunity that everyone may have, and it may not be right for everyone, but I do believe that visible acts of respect and appreciation can go a really long way.” – Zari, YinD
“Find success in the small things. It’s easy to compare or feel like you should be doing more, but as long as you’re trying and doing your best than that is enough. Two years is a long time, and if I’ve learned anything in the last 17 months, it is that this is not a job you can do in isolation. Lean on your fellow PCVs, loved ones back home, or even HCN (host country national) friends you’ve made. Relationships are ultimately what you will remember most about this experience.” – Yaneth Pena, YinD
“Always question your first (and even second) assumption. There are many moments in this experience where it is easy to rush to judgment or make hasty assumptions. Don’t. Wait, watch and listen. You will almost certainly be pleasantly surprised.” 🙂 – Nick Melrose, TESS
“Before coming to site, I thought that I had to remain riep roi (appropriate) in order to integrate into my community. I was nervous about showing my personality and just being myself. I was always quiet and didn’t try to joke around thinking I might say the wrong thing. Over time my co-workers asked why I was so quiet, and they were worried I wasn’t happy. I started letting my riep-roi-ness soften, and I have been able to relate more and have fun conversations with my coworkers. Now, I joke with them, and they joke with me, and we have a great relationship. Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to be yourself and acting as you usually would in America because the Thai people you work with are still people, too. They want to let loose and be fun with you as much as you want to with them.” – YinD volunteer from the Isaan (Northeast Thailand) Region
“Something that makes site easier for me is having a routine and sticking to it. Although all the problems don’t go away, I find that it makes your days a lot shorter than you think, and you’ll be so busy trying to do what you need to that the problems you’re having are an afterthought. A routine gives you something else to focus on.” – Anonymous YinD volunteer
“My advice is to try to connect with people based on what you love. For me, it’s music and soccer. Also, be honest with yourself about what gets on your nerves, and try to set those boundaries early. At my school, I established early on that students could high five or hug me, but they were not allowed to climb on me. I also established that I needed some alone time after lunch.” – Philip Hendrix, TESS
“I wish I would have felt more comfortable being myself. I know how post-PST feels like you must be everything except who you are, but ultimately, you will find more personal and professional success in being true to yourself, your values, and culture. Now, by no means am I saying disregard all of the invaluable advice you have been granted during PST on community integration as attending the temple or mosque (for example) with your host family/counterparts or dressing professionally is important for establishing relationships. What I mean is balance. If church was your thing back home, see if there is a church in your community, go, and maybe offer English lessons, so you can cultivate a community around your interests and beliefs. If you identify as a person of color, show pictures of your family in America, give American history lessons on diversity, and share a part of your culture with your host families and students (like celebrating Kwanza, braiding someone’s hair, inviting people from your community to watch you style your hair, or cooking a cultural dish you grew up on like the popular Native American fry bread). Don’t lie about who you love. While your sexual preference is no one’s business, if you happen to have a love, regardless of their gender identity, I hope you feel safe in expressing that and trusting that whoever is meant to be in your support network over the next two years at site will be without expectations or conditions. Lastly, growing up, my mother always told me everyone is not your friend, and while we want to be perfect with hopes of everyone at site liking and accepting us, that may not happen, and this is okay. Be yourself, and trust that you will gravitate towards those people, even if it’s a few, who truly want to learn from and support you along this journey. Those connections are what matter most.” – Daylisha Reid, YinD
“I set a lot of boundaries coming into site, for better or worse.
The first being my independence. I told my host family that I was going to move out, and they were flabbergasted as to why I wanted to live by myself. After explaining to them that I was used to living alone, they kind of understood, but I think this was an instance where I distanced myself too much. We weren’t close while I lived with them, but I also think I broke their face when I moved out. Now, we rarely see each other due to our schedules, and we also don’t make time to see each other either outside of community events.
I also set a dating boundary telling my community that it was against Peace Corps policy to date anyone in my community. I didn’t want to constantly be harassed with questions about having a Thai boyfriend or when I was going to get married. This worked in my favor, and I am rarely asked about my relationship status nor am I being set up with anyone.
At work, I was extremely adamant about never teaching by myself. As a TESS volunteer, this was something that is asked of us and expected at times. It was difficult to explain to them that it isn’t my job to be a free teacher, and I knew that if I made allowances they would take advantage of me having free periods and send their students to me because they didn’t want to teach. Under extreme situations when we have many absent teachers, I am willing to sit with the students while they do other work, but I will not teach any new material. This was something I was constantly asked about, and at my one-year site visit with Kun Chadchaya, they asked her about this as well. She supported my decision, which was wonderful, but it is something they really didn’t understand and didn’t believe until they heard it from someone else. This made my relationship building a little more difficult with the staff at school, but in the long run, I am happy that I did because it is a reminder to them that I am here for a specific purpose.” – Nhi, TESS
“One of the continuing problems I have is the perception that all Americans are rich, and we should be able to spend much more than what we can afford on PC allowance. I have faced multiple indirect questions that would give my friends an idea of my financial status in the U.S. Some examples: what car did I drive in the US, how many bedrooms does my house have, where do I go for vacation. As an older volunteer, I do own a house, a car, and go on vacations. So although I truthfully respond to these questions, I try to emphasize that PC allowance is very small, and we are expected to live within this allowance. Now, all my co-workers know that I have limited means in Thailand and my status in the U.S. is not relevant to my services as a volunteer. They frequently joke saying “you do not have Thai money.” I once had a person come to my house asking for financial help. My CP (counterpart) was able to explain that my income in Thailand is in fact less than hers and was able to deflect the request.” – Anonymous YinD volunteer
“Remember your only job is to be human and try to help people. If you do that, you’re a success. Everything else is gravy.” – Anonymous TESS volunteer
“Do everything you can, and don’t expect anything of it.” – Anonymous TESS volunteer
“Even though we’ve been drilled during PST to integrate into site and really embrace cultural customs, norms, and values of our community, it’s easy to begin to lose our own sense of identity and what makes us unique. Don’t be afraid to stand out on occasion and show your true personality, sense of humor, etc. At this point in service, your community is beginning to know you, and sometimes, especially for women or minorities, it can be difficult navigating cultural differences. Standing out from those can be a great opportunity to teach them about American culture. Remember, this isn’t just you adapting to their culture; they’re learning from us as well. Keep being you because you’re awesome.” ❤ – Lucy Zhao, YinD
Tatiana Velez, TESS:
- Start healthy habits: eating/diet, exercise, reading, yoga, running, etc.
- Routines: daily routines, class routines
- Attend community events. Don’t feel like you have to attend every event. Going to a couple every once in a while is enough (your community will be excited!).
- Thai lessons with teachers: ask if they can be your tutors. This will help you integrate and get to know your teachers more
- Be honest. Let your community know your likes and dislikes early on.
- Lavender candles: use them at night to help keep bugs and mosquitos away.
- Keep your portable chargers charged. You never know when you will lose power!
- Wash your hands often.
- Keep face clean.
- Drink lots and lots of water.
- Relax, and get a good night’s sleep.
- Treat yourself when you have time off.
“Get your counterparts to introduce you to the leaders of the community. These can be elected or appointed people. Tell them about your role in their community. Explain why you shall decline offers to ride on their motorbikes. Do the same with the monks, pastors or imams (Islamic leadership position) in your community. Go often to the local market or where most people gather. Not to buy anything, but just to be seen. Your presence will prompt questions, and so that’s an opening for you to explain your PCT service and role.
You may be the first foreigner living in the community, so you should expect many questions. Some may seem intrusive, but know that these are prompted by curiosity rather than malice. On the issue of work relationships, you may wish to observe for two to three weeks about how things are done. You can then decide for yourself what you are willing to do and not do. Setting boundaries that are too rigid without much local operating context may close you out of learning opportunities and rich intercultural exchanges. On that point, accept invitations to do things, but be firm about safe transportation and other potentially harmful behaviors (i.e. drunkenness of your driver). Believe me, these invitations may come only occasionally. It depends on the family situations of your colleagues. Do not be too disappointed if you rarely get invited to homes or events.
Even if you are low-income, Americans are wealthy by comparison to most rural Thais. Just accept that fact. However, you can explain that you are not paid a salary and that you are here to share knowledge and not material wealth. That said, you could share your good fortune by buying food for others when eating together. It’s the give and take or nam jai (generosity) that makes Thais accept and welcome you into the fold. If you are inclined and have the resources, maybe sponsoring a party on major American holidays is a great way to be integrated. Food and the related-holiday items are tangible ways to share American culture. July Fourth, Halloween, and Thanksgiving are truly American holidays, and so they are good days to share a little of your material wealth, too.
Lastly, be compassionate with local Thais if their ways or questions confound you. And be patient and kind to yourself. This PCT service is an opportunity to grow, and there will definitely be days when you question your decision to come. If so, talk to your cohort members or reach out to us in Group 130. Nothing is gained by struggling on your own. You have compatriots, and we are here to lend a sympathetic ear and may even have brilliant solutions to your problems. Take deep breaths, sleep well, and eat good food. Relax a tad more, and the two years will just fly by. Truly!” – Lee-Hoon Benson, TESS
“Sometimes, you have to break someone’s face (figuratively not literally). When it comes to self-preservation and self-care, no amount of integration is worth putting your needs on the back-burner. You are the expert of your life; no one else knows you better than yourself.
You decide who to let into your life, and while it’s important to open yourself up to the possibility of new connections, especially for the sake of integration, it’s equally important to be discerning about who you let in. Listen to your gut, and take your time. You have two years to make friends, so don’t be too hasty!
In the end, integration is easier said than done. It takes a lot of intentionality and sacrifice. You will probably never fully integrate into your community, and that’s okay. But one day, you will need to integrate your experiences here into your life narrative, so make sure you are saying and doing things that stay true to you.
In the end, you will need to pick your battles wisely. Set and manage boundaries as needed. Sprinkle your sparkle whenever possible. And whenever things get real tough, reach out to your fellow PCVs and PSDN. The community we are building here in Thailand is something truly special. Welcome to the family!” – Casey Butler-Camp, YinD
For more information about the Peer Support & Diversity Network (PSDN), please visit their website.