So…What Do You Do?

The Peace Corps tends to attract a certain type of person; the go-getters of the world, the people who want to make a difference. Once the person becomes an official peace corps volunteer and goes to his or her site, she learns very fast that the dreams of what she imagined herself doing, might not be compatible with the present situation….at least that has been my experience in Peace Corps Thailand.

I came to Thailand as a “Community Based Organizational Development” Volunteer. “Wow”, one thinks at first, “that sure is a cool title,” then comes the dreaded question, “So…what do you do?” Hmmm…for a long time in my Peace Corps service, I came up short for an answer. It was not that I didn’t do anything, but that I didn’t do anything “acceptable”, or at least what I consider an “acceptable” answer in today’s results-driven, performance-based American society.

My official job description allowed me to do whatever I wanted to “help the community”. Yet, figuring out one’s own purpose for two years is harder than one initially thinks. Soon after arriving, I noticed my community was pretty good at helping themselves. They taught recycling in schools, while the Tessaban recycled used paper. There were anti-drug programs, and the community had a thriving small business society. In my community, if something was broken, it got fixed; if something needed painting, it got painted. There are no children with pot bellies due to malnutrition as there was in Ghana, and there was no sudden urge for a microfinance program. What was I needed for? In the first couple months, I would spend hours trying to figure out what my job actually was. Eventually I came up with an “acceptable” answer: teaching English. [There has been a big push for learning English lately because Thailand will enter the ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Community in 2015. Think of it as an Asian Euro zone. English is the official language for ASEAN. As a consequence of never being colonized, Thailand takes great pride in the fact, the country has not learned English as thoroughly as other ASEAN nations.]

So if you were to ask me now “What do you do?” and I wanted to give you a quick answer, I would reply something to the effect of “I teach English to a wide variety of people and ages using new, interactive methods.”

Last week, however, I got a asked a different question, probably a better question. One that made me have to think.

On Tuesday, a group of around 40 students and teachers from the Netherlands arrived in Bantak. The high school was a buzz over this meeting. The Dutch were to stay 5 nights and participate in relationship building activities with a selected Thai student partner. ( I was fully informed on the Thai expectations and activities since I had spent the previous week going over all the English for the programs, pamphlets, speeches and demonstrations.) *

After the opening ceremony, one of the Dutch chaperones came up to talk to me (you can kind of tell I am not Thai, yet everyone at the school seems to know me). The standard greetings and questions were asked, “hello,””what’s your name?”,”where are you from?”, ” where do you work?” I was getting ready for the “So….what do you do?” question with my quick, short response on the ready. However, I was thrown off by a different question. “So….how are you making a difference? What is going to be your stamp after you leave?” My Stamp? I thought to myself, boy, that’s a lot harder question…but much better.

“Well,” I responded, “the honest answer is I am not going to build a well or design a medical clinic here. Thailand can do that on its own, and it does. What I hope that my two years interacting with the community here brings to fruition is that I radically change and inspire two people, so that one day, someone remembers they had Amy Williams, a Peace Corps volunteer help them…and it was a turning point in their life.” I don’t know what I was expecting his answer to be, but not the one he gave. “Wow,” he replied, “That’s not only honorable, but realistic.”

So…What do I do here:
I teach English to elementary students and math using English to high school students. I play soccer with the high school girls, and sometimes the high school boys. I go to church and teach English before church. I teach English to the elderly. I try to get the Thais out of their comfort zone. I dress up for festivals. I watch ceremonies. I dance. I eat…and eat some more. I laugh. I joke. I smile. I take and smile for pictures. I watch the motorcycles go by while sitting on my porch. I wave or say hello anyone that says “Hello, Amy!” . I listen, even if I can’t understand everything. I ride my bicycle. I watch the sunsets. I regularly discuss my lunch eating habits. I eat snacks at the Tessaban. I look happy even when I can’t take it anymore. This is what I do on a daily basis. To answer the other question, the better question, somewhere in the middle of all of that is the difference I am making. My stamp I will leave behind.

Thanks for reading.

(Side note: The next couple of blog posts will be about the Thai school system and teaching in Thailand.)

* Throughout the week the Dutch “did” a lot. They painted murals and gave presentations of teaching English, health, recycling, poverty. I learned that they had come here for the same reason I had, to make a difference. Did it get through to my Thai students? Probably not. The presentations were all in English and the murals could have easily been designed painted by the Thais themselves. It takes a long time (longer than a week) to make change, especially in a community that does a lot and thinks they are doing everything right. (I think there was a miscommunication of expectations between the Dutch and Thai teachers) Also, being standard Thai, the Thai teachers wanted to show their guests the best of the community, not signs of poverty or weakness. I have learned Bantak is probably not the best place to go if you want instant, long lasting, gratify results from community work.

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