Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Anne Cushman

Published Date : Aug 17, 2018

Anne Cushman is a 2017-18 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at Watbotsuksa School where she teaches Mattayom students. Anne is from Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from Winthrop University with a BA in English Literature and Language and a minor in Biology. When she is not acting crazy in front her students, you can find her reading on her front porch with the neighborhood cats, cooking, watching movies, attempting to learn Thai, kicking a soccer ball, and pretending to work out.

The Delusion of The Timeline

A rice field seen on my daily commute

Every day on my bike ride to school I pedal past rice fields that I have seen in all forms of growth: a muddy field, slowly imbedded with thousands of small green sprouts, a sea of lush, waving green, and back to another muddy field. Every day I pass these fields and remark, often to myself out-loud, on how beautiful they are, how I should stop and take a picture, how I should visit them again when I’m not rushing to make it to school or rushing home to make it to the air conditioning.  Next to the rice fields sits an elderly man in a wheelchair. No teeth, but we share a friendly nod and “Sawatdii ka” each day. A little past the rice fields is a small coffee shop. Always bustling at breakfast, I wave hello as I bike on by. Savoring the wind on my face, I bike on by. I just continue to bike.

Throughout my life I have never known what exactly I wanted to do, other than be successful. Yet although I didn’t know exactly where I would find said success, I had a path in my head on how to get to there. Graduate college, graduate school, awesome job, become super successful, super quickly—sound likes a breeze.  But although, I had these vague notions established in my mind, I continued on unsure of where I was actually going.


When I first found out about receiving my grant to Thailand, this experience seemed to fit nicely into my timeline. I’ll just push off grad school a year and not miss a beat.
However, I later found out my grant goes well into September, so it then became pushing it off for two years. That’s fine, I decided. Because I knew that not going was not
even an option; I had my heart set on this before I even got in.

When I first arrived in Thailand, I was adapting to my new surroundings, very much like my friends in the US had done at their new jobs before I even left for Thailand.
Living alone and not having many friends at first, I found myself with plenty of free time on my hands. I sat at my computer and watched my friends take steps forward in
their jobs, while I sat in my bedroom watching “Cheers” in its entirety. The feelings of falling behind seemed to come naturally.

Luckily, as I became more comfortable in my new home, I began to push back against those feelings. It did not happen overnight, but rather with small successes in my daily
life. A sense of accomplishment of speaking two complete sentences in Thai and someone understanding. Making friends with other teachers. Pressing pause on Netflix and
getting out of your house on the weekends. Eating food with strangers that soon become friends.

Playing English games with students in another class, I won, by the way

I felt so much success from just these small things, it almost seemed ridiculous. Integrating into my community and traveling around Thailand started to show me that I was
not falling behind. Falling behind in what, I began to wonder? My life? This is my life. This is my reality.

I found that I began to ruffle my feathers at fellow foreigners I would meet here who would always comment, “Are you having fun in your gap year?” or “What a great way
to escape reality for a year.” This new country is not an escape, it has become a home. The comments are harmless; I’m sure I might have said the same because it doesn’t
fit neatly into the typical American school, job, family timeline. Yet after living here, I have come to announce BALONEY to these timelines, to these preconceived
measurements of success, and rather enjoy a different trail than I had initially planned.

That is, there is nothing wrong with having a path and sticking to it. But when I realized my path was merely a vague inclination, Thailand taught me sometimes I
might need to stop the bike and stare at the rice fields, or bring an older man food, or just break for some local coffee.

My cheerleading team on Teacher’s Day

Throughout my time in Thailand, I have admittedly been frustrated at times at the loose scheduling of things. Classes unexpectedly cancelled, meetings an hour behind, students coming to class late. But looking back at my time here, I have come to find that some of my fondest memories have arisen out of the spontaneous, sometimes slow moving, Thai schedule. Once classes were all cancelled for Teacher’s Day. I volunteered to be a cheerleader, not knowing what that implied. Unexpectedly the day of, I was given a full costume, dance routines, and fake eyelashes; and it was one of my best bonding experiences with Thai teachers, especially with those who cannot speak English. Other days, when classes are cancelled, I’ve taken up Scrabble with my students. No only has it humbled me, having lost numerous times to them, but it also allows me to hang out with them as a friend. When students come late, instead of becoming bitter as I would at the beginning of the year, I try to talk to the students who are there. Often, I scare them by talking too fast or too much, but sometimes they scare me for the same reasons too, so it counts as bonding because we are both scared.

The list can go continue on: trying new foods waiting for a meeting to begin, playing soccer with students in free time, coffee shop dates with teachers during long lunches.  The list is constructed out of small memories of random moments, many of which would not have happened if I wasn’t willing to just say “yes” to whatever came my way. At the beginning, I ruined these moments with worry or frustration, and saddens me to remember those times wasted times. The timelines and schedules I previously found so important became foggy background information. The times that were in front of me were what needed to focus on.

One of my students waiting for class to begin with his giant pencil

Focusing on the moments happening now, living wholeheartedly in the present: these are things I knew in the United States, but they were not things I felt until I came to Thailand and was forced to find success in the smallest of endeavors. “Almost” crying because a friendly stranger gives you a bag of sticky rice after no one understands you all day even when you are just asking where the bathroom is– those feel like important moments. Maybe they ground me. Maybe they slow the bike down. Maybe they are just moments. But Thailand has shown me the importance of relishing the moments around me, not only for their ability to propel me forward, but also looking for the reason that they are propelling me anywhere at all.

One of many Scrabble games with my students