Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Angie O’Donnell

Published Date : Feb 13, 2019

Angie O’Donnell is a 2017-2018 Fulbright ETA at Anuban Si Satchanalai School in Sukhothai, Thailand. Angie is from Harwinton, CT and graduated from Bates College in May 2017 with a BA in Psychology and minors in Education and Geology. In her free time, Angie enjoys running and biking through the rice fields, trying out new coffee shops in town, and smiling and chatting with her neighbors in broken Thai. After the completion of her Fulbright grant this September, Angie plans to travel around South East Asia before returning to the US to work in International Education.

Knock Knock…Community’s Calling

It was 7am and I had officially slept through the first night in my new home halfway around the world. I awoke to the sound of three swift bangs. Maybe I’m imagining this, I thought, maybe it’s a dream, my alarm isn’t set for another two hours, how could this be! My name was the next thing to break the silence, “Angie! Angie! Angie! Are you awake?” Slowly grasping reality, I begrudgingly accepted that I was not dreaming, the knock was in fact at my door.

My new blue home and my red ride to school

I scrambled out of bed, quickly changed out of my pajamas (hoping to make a good first impression), opened my front door, and standing there in beautifully ornate, white and soft pink traditional Thai dress was my host teacher, Kru Weeraon. She had come to bpai gin kao(go eat food). I was instructed to change into nice, polite clothing. Where could we possibly be going at 7am and what was considered polite clothing in Thai culture – did I even own polite clothing, had I not been dressing politely? I threw on some clothes I hoped would suffice and stumbled down the street, still groggy, guided by Kru Weeraon’s hand tightly grasping my arm just above the elbow. She led me down the street and around the corner following a sea of people toward the large tents blocking the streets ahead. She informed me we were attending the blessing of a newly built home in my neighborhood. There we enjoyed a lovely family style Thai breakfast and listened to the monks deliver their blessing while seated at one of the many round tables lining the streets.

Dressed in borrowed traditional Thai style clothing

After breakfast, guests piled into cars, big and small, and drove off. Having asked the previous day to be taken to the grocery store, a quick 20-minute drive from my new home, I assumed it would be our next destination. Boy was I wrong. Instead, we were off to a wedding.Who’s wedding, I thought, and why was I attending? Would the hosts be upset that I, a stranger and an extra guest, had shown up? I imagined weddings in the US and the months of planning, guest list scrutinizing, and seat arranging that went into their lavish and expensive receptions.To my surprise, we were greeted with the signature Thai smile and escorted to the “VIP” table at the front of the venue where we again indulged in a family style Thai meal. Twice, in one day, I had been welcomed to join in celebrating the happiness of strangers and we hadn’t even made it to the grocery store.

The ceremony finished by noon and we were finally headed to the grocery store. To ensure efficiency I made a list of all the things I wanted to buy to make my new home really feel like home, using the “settling in” stipend generously provided by Fulbright. I grabbed a cart and started pushing, hoping to get in and out quickly. In keeping with the spirit of the day, my expectations were quickly shattered as I watched my host teachers review and edit my shopping list, replacing items in my cart with “better” ones. I was shocked. I’m an adult, I thought, I can shop on my own, I’ve been doing it for years! My mother never even supervised me this closely. When we arrived at the checkout counter and I reached for my wallet, my host teachers declared that they would be paying for their daughter. Then, it all clicked, and a smile spread across my face. This kind of supervision and communal inclusion, was how my host teachers were showing me that I was now a part of their family. These three Thai women were caring for me and have become my two Thai moms and the older sister I always wanted.

My Thai family threw me a surprised 22nd birthday party

Eleven months later, these affectionate wake-up calls and flexible day plans are things I’ve learned to expect and prepare for. However, it’s the over-the-top and incredible displays of community that still get me every time. I will never tire of seeing the outpouring of love at each town parade, festival, or family event I’m fortunate enough to attend. And what were initially the sources of my greatest frustrations and cultural misunderstandings have become the aspects of my life here that make me feel most at home. Best of all, I can honestly say that I’ll miss these quirks of my small Thai town when I return to the U.S. in two months.

In the now eleven months since that “rude awakening”, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to scrap my after-school workout or meal-prep plans for an impromptu dinner and karaoke party, or the dozens of classes that have been canceled for a national holiday I wasn’t aware of. Coming from a culture where “shooting a quick text when you’re on your way” is the norm, and where days are scheduled down to the minute, I was surprised at my host teacher’s spontaneous 7am appearance and not quite sure what to make of what I felt was a lack of respect for boundaries and structure. I’ve learned to manage my expectations, go with the flow, and abandon my assumption that the American way is the right way. Thai life is a slow life where relationships are priority and as a result, people and schedules are flexible. Coming to understand these cultural differences was and continues to be the best part of the journey!

Dinner, dancing, and karaoke to welcome the new School Director

“Gin kao yang, mai?”is usually the first question I’m asked at these community events and despite the sizeable language barrier, given my extremely basic Thai language skills, I can understand that someone has asked if I’ve eaten yet, is welcoming me by sharing their food, and is showing they care by asking about my health and wellbeing. It is also not uncommon for the dinners I order at Love Smooty (one of my favorite restaurants in town) to be accompanied by a free bag of mangos, or for there to be freshly cooked corn hanging on my front door when I return home from school. In fact, during my first week in town I recall a complete stranger stopping her motorbike ride home to share her Som Tam(spicy papaya salad) with me, a meal that has become my favorite Thai dish.

I also see this communal care in every teacher student relationship. On Teacher’s Day, each student pledges to listen to their teachers as they would a parent while teachers pledge to guide and support their students as they would their own children. Further, at the beginning of each school year the teachers divide and conquer, visiting the homes of every student ensuring that they have access to food and water, good light to do homework, and a safe place to sleep. Their goal is to ensure the success of each student. This is an incredible approach to the old adage – “it takes a village”.

Students wai(bow) to teachers on Teacher’s Day

An English teacher at another school in town recently explained that, “in Thailand, family and community are everything. The love around you is what matters most.” I see this each day in the way my host teachers make sure I’m happy and have eaten. Most recently, when the death of two town members threw a wrench in my carefully planned week, I jumped at the chance to support my community. This time it didn’t feel like an inconvenience to drop everything, don my polite clothing, and go. I was doing this for my Thai family. I felt like I needed to be there and was eager to show my support. Although family and community have always been close to my heart, I leave this year realizing that I need to prioritize the people I love and act with the selflessness of my Thai moms. I need to set aside my assumptions, ask some questions, and appreciate how rare and valuable it is to be welcomed into communities like this.