Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Apeksha Atal


Published Date : Mar 8, 2019


Apeksha Atal is a 2018-19 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Banthuadthong School in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, where she teaches students in Prathom 3, 4, and 5 (3rd, 4th, and 5th grade). She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2018 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and B.A. in English. Born in Portland, Oregon, Apeksha has lived in both the United States and India before coming to Thailand as an ETA. Her family currently lives in Bengaluru, India. This year, Apeksha has spent her free time reading, writing, doing yoga, and seeking out street markets in Nakhon Si Thammarat. She has a special place in her heart for Thai food, and is still working on building up her spice tolerance. Upon completing her ETA tenure, Apeksha hopes to apply to graduate programs in Education Policy and further engage with international education reform endeavors.

Celebrating Holidays Abroad

I grew up moving around a lot, and watching a lot of television. This meant that my idealized sense of community was very different from what I actually experienced. Most shows circle around a core group of individuals that live near each other and go through everything together. I, on the other hand, felt more like a new girl that appears in season 2 and disappears in the first few episodes of season 3. In fact, I would say college was weird for me because I knew I was going to be at the same school for four years.

Moving to college also meant being far away from my family, who had been the only real constants in a life of perpetual relocation. They’d been my “home” when a single house or city couldn’t. No matter where we went, we celebrated Indian and American holidays in our own way – sometimes in a D.I.Y. fashion at home, and sometimes with communities we found around us. Moving to college was thus my opportunity to forge some real connections, independently. My own connections. My own community. Soon after, Fulbright posed a similar opportunity.

The Fulbright experience has proved to be a bittersweet merriment of two feelings I now know very well: being somewhere for a defined period of time and having to move away earlier than I might be ready to. This time though, I would be in largely unfamiliar territory while finding a new idea of “home”, and figuring it out with new people, speaking a different language.

With that in mind, I arrived in Nakhon Si Thammarat with a couple goals. I was going to say yes, a lot. Yes to car rides, yes to unfamiliar food, and yes to opportunities. I was also going to find any point of connection that I could, and make an effort to hold on to my own little traditions.

Halloween

Arriving in Nakhon towards the end of October was interesting. It was hard not to envision myself in the streets of Pittsburgh with pumpkin flavored treats popping up in stores and the smell of apple and cinnamon wafting through the fall air. Humidity took the place of the nippy cold, and a few warm meals of tom yam, geng som, and roti with my host teachers had replaced sipping hot tea and cider with my friends. The leaves weren’t changing color, but I was.

With the words “American Cultural Ambassador” weighing on my shoulders, my mind was swimming with potential lesson plans that wove together aspects of American culture and a constructive use of the English language. Initially, I had thought Halloween would be a good opening lesson, but school was starting on November first, and I needed a chance to gauge my students’ language abilities before diving into anything. Frustrated, I decided to take a break.

I should point out here that I love Halloween. The dressing up, the spooky decorations, the scary movies, everything about it thrills me, but I wasn’t sure if people really celebrated Halloween in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Being more or less alone, I took the matter into my own hands, engaging in the first of many mini celebrations in my room. I ordered a strange black charcoal pizza (using horrifically broken Thai), which I slowly chewed and swallowed while watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller — a Halloween tradition I’d started in high school.

 

Thanksgiving

To be honest, Thanksgiving is hard to teach. With bloody roots tying together countless conflicts, summing up the holiday’s history is quite a feat. Couple that with the language barrier, the limited English vocabulary we were working with, and the fact that all of my students are under the age of twelve, and you get a fun little predicament.

The first few weeks, however, showed me the enthusiasm I could garner from classes with familiar concepts. Students were learning about colors and clothes in their usual English classes, so I linked in familiar vocab to bring the colors, food, and turkeys of Thanksgiving to life. Most of my students giggled when we got to the turkey portion, and I discovered some truly talented artists as we made hand turkeys.

Along with the fall leaves and colors, we talked about families coming together. I loved the spark in my students’ eyes, but every repetition of the word “family” made me a little more homesick. I was, consequently, thrilled to hear that the Fulbright mid-term meeting would be held over Thanksgiving weekend, and that the cohort was going to have a lovely Thanksgiving meal together.

P. 5 Hand Turkeys

P. 3 Thanksgiving Hand Turkeys

This year, Thanksgiving was on same day as the first Thai holiday we were to experience in province: Loi Krathong. Initially, the excitement of seeing my fellow ETAs in Khon Kaen trumped any fear of missing out on Loi Krathong back in Nakhon Si Thammarat. We even went to Khon Kaen University and participated in their Loi Krathong festivities. Throughout that weekend, however, I received a flood of pictures from my host teachers with students making Krathongs and singing the Loi Krathong song. It was in Khon Kaen, when I was surrounded by my beloved Fulbright family, eating chicken wings and pumpkin pie and talking about what we were thankful for, that I realised I had yet another family to miss back in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Their smiling faces sent pangs of longing to my heart.

When I came back, I reviewed Thanksgiving and Fall as we plunged into the seasons. I remember feeling odd while listing out Fall holidays for one of my fifth grade classes. We brought up Halloween and Thanksgiving, which was great, but I experienced the weirdest urge to expand the list a little.

I turned to my class. “Do you want to know what we celebrate in India?”

I had introduced myself as Indian and American when I came to the school, but hadn’t really touched upon anything remotely Indian during my first few weeks. Despite that, Diwali had gone by, and I’d Facetimed my family with tears in my eyes, watching them light fireworks, wishing to be there. It didn’t help that we never talked about Diwali in class, and that none of the other ETAs were Indian. Some part of me was desperate to bring it up, just once.

With a few scattered nods encouraging me, I turned to the board and wrote “Diwali” and drew a small diya or lamp next to it. I then wrote “Eid” and drew a little crescent moon and star. My students thankfully knew the words “Hindu” and “Muslim”, so these were easy to explain at their bare essence.

“Okay,” I said, feeling better. Before moving on, I paused and turned back to the board. Using up the last bit of the chalk in my hand I wrote at the end of the list, “Loi Krathong.” I heard a few little claps and giggles in response.

Christmas

P. 5 Snowflakes

I approached Christmas similar to Thanksgiving. Instead of focusing on the origin, I talked to my students about the values. We looked through photos of snow that my friends from The States emailed in, made intricate paper snowflakes, and sang Christmas songs. Christmas conversation also brought back plenty of those Thanksgiving holiday vibes. Talking about it with enthusiasm, especially while pointing out my friends on the projector screen, definitely made me crave family, food, and warmth.

Fortunately my fellow ETAs in Watbot, Phitsanulok, Annie and Amy, decided to host a Christmas party/reunion the weekend before Christmas Day. Unfortunately for those of us in the South, Watbot is a VERY long ways away, and we expressed our regrets at not being able to come. I had, however, been saving up a little over the month, which presented me with the unique opportunity to be a Christmas surprise to my fellow ETAs. And so, on complete impulse, I called up Annie and bought a few plane tickets and an overnight bus ticket. Without telling a soul other than Annie and Amy, I climbed on an airport shuttle after school on Friday and flew to Bangkok, bussed to Phitsanulok, and drove into Watbot at 5 am with Annie’s host teacher. I arrived at Annie’s doorstep after around 14 hours of travel. At 9 am, I walked into Amy’s house and made my friends scream with excitement and confusion.

We spent that weekend watching Christmas movies, engaging in a White Elephant gift exchange, dancing, eating, and catching up. We cooked a full D.I.Y.-style American Christmas dinner, and took some time to reflect on the year that had passed and the year that was to come. I looked around the table during the breakfast before my flight and smiled. These people I had barely known just months ago had become such an important part of my life – as did the people I had to fly back to see.

I came back to Nakhon Si Thammarat and had a blast dressing up as a “Christmas Angel” at the school Christmas party. In a billowy secondhand white blouse I’d picked up at the Thursday market, a pink and white elephant-print skirt, a plastic white flower halo, and washable marker blue snowflakes down the side of my face, I was an eclectic sight to behold. We spent the day with a Christmas hat competition and Christmas trivia games featuring a jolly Teacher Oboun dressed as Santa Claus. There were singing and dancing performances, and I screened clips from Charlie Brown Christmas specials and Frosty the Snowman. The day was a mishmash of familiar and unfamiliar experiences, but it was perfect in its own way.

I ended the day by staying true to “college Apeksha” by throwing on pajamas and watching Home Alone 1 and 2 on Christmas day.

New Year’s and Valentine’s Day

Christmas in Watbot

Unlike the Fall holidays, I rang in the New Year with my biological family. They flew in from India and we took a short road trip around Southern Thailand. We also went to school to visit my teachers and students, and they couldn’t help but whisper bouts of admiration towards my new Thai family to each other. They were so touched by the warmth of everyone I’d spent the last few months with, and excited for the time we were going to be spending together as one big “international family”. My students’ excited “Happy New Year” chants only further enchanted them, sparking desires to stay longer. By the time Valentines Day came around, my parents were checking in often on both me and my host teachers, asking how they were and when they were planning to come visit India.

Flowers – Valentines Day

After watching a lot of Thai dramas on Netflix, I knew that Valentine’s Day was well known in Thailand. People stick heart stickers on each other, and give others small gifts with a sweet smile and warm, “Happy Valentine Day Na!” We had also been talking about Valentines Day in class and made crafts together, so I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect at school, but never could have been fully prepared for what the day brought. Every card, colorful plastic flower, and piece of candy was presented with so much love. All the stickers and hugs stayed with me long after they’d been given.

Valentines Day Crafts

Valentines Day

I think it’s truly fitting that Valentine’s Day was the holiday where I felt the most love from my students and teacher community. It was probably because it arrived later in my Fulbright career, but perhaps also because it is a day to celebrate love.

Being an ETA in Thailand gives you a small network of individuals with similar values and ongoing experiences, while also challenging you with isolation. Our host teachers and schools work tirelessly to make us feel welcome, but it’s hard not to remember the comforts of “home”. That being said, one of the blessings of being a part of an English department, is being able to teach language and culture through celebration, and getting to bring those celebrations to school. They’re great cultural connection points for students, and in turn lead to opportunities to engage with local customs as well. With each holiday, I get a little closer to the people around me, and bring them a little more into my world as well. It’s really starting to feel like home.

For now, I’m trying to finish off the semester strong and get ready for the months ahead. Afterall, it’s almost time for internship month, and I’m going to be spending tons of time with some of my fellow ETAs. Holi, the Indian festival color, is actually around that time. Maybe we’ll celebrate that too.

 

Khon Kaen Loi Krathong