Kathryn Goldman, Director of Programming and Training
At COS Conferences, I always advise Volunteers to reflect not just on how they changed or what they learned, but also on what parts of Thailand and this experience they want to take with them, what do they want to integrate into their life, carry forward, keep as something that will always be with them. My parents left Peace Corps with some beautiful Korean chests, a recipe for delicious pulgogi and a deeper understanding of life in Asia and why Americans should care and be interested in people on the other side of the world. They also brought home the Korean Tol Ceremony done at one year of a child’s life. When I left Togo, I had a suitcase full of African fabric, a new West African accent in my French, and a much deeper understanding of cultural relativism, what poverty and gender mean in different contexts, and what development from outsiders can and cannot do. I also brought home a tradition of honoring New Year’s Day by sharing food with friends. Now as I depart this experience in Thailand, I am trying to identify what I want to carry forward from Thailand. I have bought the silk, the hill tribe fabrics, some wooden furniture, and of course an appreciation for Thai cuisine. My family has talked about hosting a Songkran or a Loy Kratong party at our house in Washington so we can share some of the fun and beautiful holidays we have learned here. But what I am really deeply taking with me from this experience? Thailand has given me many gifts over my 4.5 years here.
Respect– the first word that comes to my mind when I think of my learning curve with Thai culture is Respect- the beauty of the gesture of the wai, the way age in any social status is deserving of deference, the importance of respecting places, events, and people. While I know to us Americans, some of it can feel constraining at times, I have found a lot to love in the culture of respect. I have also observed such a transformation of Volunteers from when they arrive to when they depart in terms of how they interact with staff, other Thai people, and even each other. I think that showing respect as it is done here and as I have learned to do, is a mark of someone who has maturity and professionalism, someone who can interact with anyone and take any kind of person seriously.
The value of food. We joke about how much Thai people love their food and planning their next meal and when one eats a truly good Thai meal, one can see why. The love of food is deeper though than just a delicious meal. A good Thai meal is not just delicious, it has all of the four elements- sweet, spicy, sour and salty; it has complicated tastes and ingredients that are appreciated, commented on, enjoyed. The food is almost a form of art in the way it is put together and enjoyed. And Thai people take the time to enjoy it, to eat and savor the food, to talk to each other and enjoy the food at the same time. I have genuinely treasured my meals with my Thai colleagues because they order the best food and then the environment of enthusiasm for all the dishes, the laughter and discussion of it all, it’s truly a wonderful (and delicious) experience.
Relationships. What Peace Corps Volunteer doesn’t feel that there is a song on repeat about the importance of relationships? When I arrived in Thailand, I was nervous to take on the leadership of a team that I didn’t know in a country that was unfamiliar. The team not only welcomed me as a colleague, they were open and kind and taught me key life skills like how to cross the street, how to eat dinner at 7-11 when you have to, and how to order my coffee. We were able to build a relationship of trust and understanding and that relationship became the underpinning of our ability to work together as a team, to address issues, to make changes, and to even have conflicts and disagreements. The focus in Thai culture on building and maintaining ties with people- both professional and personal- is something that has enriched my life and will continue to do so.
Beyond Thailand, being a part of this experience called the Peace Corps has given me its own set of gifts:
An amazing team. I don’t think in my career to date, I have ever felt so privileged to work with such a talented group of people. It was humbling and inspiring to arrive here and to see how deeply talented everyone was, how hard-working, how dedicated to doing their jobs well. I realized early on that to be a leader of this team, all I had to do was make sure the path was clear for these individuals’ talent and creativity to carry them forward. As a team, I love their ability to laugh at anything, to have fun doing anything, their willingness to continue to learn about whatever Peace Corps and Volunteers throw at them, their ability to bounce back from a difficult situation or task, and above all the absolute dedication they have to helping the youth of under-served Thai communities. It has been such a joy to work with this team every day and every week, every month, I learn something new from each and every one of them.
Inspiring Volunteers Having finally accepted over the last few years that I’m officially middle aged, my new claim to fame I’ve decided is that I’m one of very few 45 year olds who have like 300+ friends under the age of 30. It’s easy for people, the media, etc to complain about millennials and gen Z and I can do that when required, but I have truly found that having all these young people in my life (again- having had to accept that I’m not in the “young” category anymore) has been educational and even transformative. Just when I think I understand some important topic like diversity or mental health, I can have all my old assumptions upended and learn to see things in a completely new way. I love how Volunteers- young and old and in the middle- not only exemplify the inspiring values of service and learning about another culture, but that they constantly push the boundaries on the rest of us at the same time. I’m still definitely never getting a tattoo, but I know you all have changed me and how I do my work and for that, I am grateful.
The learning mindset. Working in Peace Corps, one never feels really truly expert at anything because we are always trying to learn something about another culture, about another generation or about ourselves. The experience of Peace Corps and the organization itself continues to force introspection of ourselves and open-mindedness about others, a willingness to try new things, and an ability to accept that your way isn’t the only way. I hope I can always keep that kind of mindset no matter what work or parenting or life situation I find myself in.
I want to thank everyone who had a role in this experience from the staff that gave me a chance at this job, to the Thai P&T team who welcomed me and all my ideas so openly, all the other PC Thailand staff who are professional and kind and always ready to help, the Volunteers who made the experience meaningful by opening themselves to change and to doing hard things, and my own family who have supported me in this amazing journey. I will truly miss each and every one of you though I will carry you forward with me as the true gifts I have gained from this experience.