Published Date : Jan 7, 2019
Casey Kraichoke is a 2017-2018 Fulbright Thailand English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Maechan Wittayakom School, Chiang Rai. She is a Thai-American from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who recently graduated from the University of Arkansas with a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). When she’s not in the classroom, Casey enjoys exploring the cafes in her city, perusing the stalls at Wednesday and Friday markets, and playing badminton and ping pong. After completing the Fulbright grant, she plans to resume her doctoral studies in Curriculum and Instruction in hopes of becoming a TESOL professor to train the next generation of English teachers.
A Taste of Thailand
I had just arrived in my Fulbright hometown of Mae Chan when P’Na, the sweetest math teacher (who speaks just a tiny bit of English), came up to me and excitedly said, “Come to our party tonight.”
If there’s one consistent piece of advice I gathered from the one-month long Fulbright orientation, it was to come from a place of yes. The previous ETA cohort all encouraged us newbies to begin our journeys by being open and receptive to invitations, regardless of whether we knew exactly who, what, when, where, or why we were going, or basically everything my mom taught me not to do. Although these excursions are at times exhausting and most all the time confusing, that three-letter word has caused the past 9 months to fly by and create amazingly wonderful experiences and unforgettable memories.
So back to P’Na’s invitation…of course I said, “YES!” And then I inquired as to what we were celebrating. Her response is what I have found to be at the heart of Thai culture, and by default, Thai relationships: “Eating!”
Mentioned below are just some of the relationships cultivated through food during my time in Thailand.
My Thai Family
When it came time to decide what country to choose when applying for Fulbright, it was as easy as pie. For years, I’ve had a strong desire to become familiar with the country that has been my paternal family’s home for so many generations before me. When I received word of my Fulbright acceptance, I was ecstatic to learn that I had the opportunity to not only affect the genuine betterment of my father’s homeland, but also see my grandparents.
Although my grandparents mail Birthday and New Year’s cards every year, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had the chance to see them face-to-face. And let me tell you, nothing is sweeter than giving family a hug after years of separation. I was extremely fortunate to be able to visit my grandparents on weekends during orientation in Bangkok, where my grandparents reside.
Another highlight of orientation in Bangkok was being able to meet my relatives for the first time and attend my cousin’s Chulalongkorn graduation party. One of the best parts about the party for me was getting to hear what my dad was like as a child. To my dad’s chagrin, I learned he enjoyed holding his younger cousins upside down by their feet.
My Morning Market Friends
When you move to a new country and don’t even have the basic language skills to go about your daily life, it can be challenging, to say the least. When I first arrived in Thailand, I struggled to order food. Fortunately, over time, I’ve learned to survive and even managed to develop relationships, void of words.
The first time I ventured alone to the daily morning market across from my school, I knew exactly what I wanted, pork on a stick with sticky rice. These menu items were easy to spot, as it’s a staple snack here in Northern Thailand. I saw the skewers on the grill, pointed and held up 3 fingers. I wasn’t exactly sure how much it cost when the seller told me the price, so I casually handed over 50 baht, hoping that was enough. Luckily, I got my food and change, and then looked for the vendor with a cooler, which happens to also keep rice warm. When I approached the woman selling sticky rice, I patiently waited my turn. After all, I knew this market, and especially this vendor, would become weekly, if not daily, acquaintances in my life. However, as she kept going about bagging rice, never making eye contact, I thought I should attempt to use hand gestures, body language, and what little Thai I knew to order. When the next break between customers happened, I loudly and proudly said, “neung khao neow ka.” She then looked at me, confused. I then reverted to English, saying “one sticky rice, please.” She nodded her head and waved her hand to a shopper nearby. That kind soul, who was bewildered that I look Thai, but can’t speak the language, explained to me in English that you order in terms of how much money you want to spend, usually 5 or 10 baht.
From then on, I was easily able to order. However, she still flags down a passerby to talk with me in English while I wait for my sticky rice. And, every now and again when she sees me coming, she’ll go to her purse, pull out a bag of fruit, and hand me it with my sticky rice order.
The kindness, willingness to help, and constant offers of free snacks from almost every person I meet help me forget I’m 8,456 miles from home.
My Internship Family
Due to the school year schedule, ETA’s in Thailand have the unique opportunity to complete an internship during the month of March, which is when Thai schools have summer break. We are encouraged to pursue our passions and allowed to intern anywhere in the country. We can take a break from the daily teaching grind and get a change of pace and scenery. I was under the impression that internships were chosen based on one of two things: location or job. But, I quickly realized you can have both on my first day at ‘Paradise Peninsula.’
As a former Montessori teacher of toddlers, conversation club leader of international college students, AmeriCorps ESL teacher of adult immigrants, and teacher trainer in China, I was thrilled with the chance to expand my teaching experiences globally through Fulbright. While most all other ETA’s decided to spend their internships exploring non-teaching related disciplines, I wanted to continue to expand my knowledge of English teaching.
For one month, I interned at a resort in Krabi, Thailand. The first two weeks were, as what the General Manager told me, “getting to know the hotel.” Yes, I was told to go to all restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and order private dining…all for free! I was also told to go on excursions to islands, schedule a massage, and participate in the daily activities like hiking and tennis lessons. Not only did they pay for my flight, set me up in a guest hotel villa for the entirety of my stay, and do all my laundry, but on my days off they took me around the area. When I got food poisoning from our road trip to Phuket they took me to the hotel’s nurse and brought me boiled rice soup. Hotel and tourism employees sure know how to be hospitable and then some.
The last three weeks were spent mobile teaching. I went to visit each department to hold English classes. I taught housekeeping, spa therapists, servers/bartenders, tour guides, activity attendants, fitness instructors, boat captains and crew members.
My Host Teacher
Without fail, everyday my host teacher, P’Aree, asks me, “Gin Khao?” Like a second mom, she always makes sure I’m home safe and well fed. From weekly Tesco Lotus shopping visits, where she gifts me a different kind of Thai snack to try and in return, I gift her a Mulberry juice, to afterschool badminton matches, she’s always there to help and crack a few jokes. I’m fortunate to not just have a host teacher to help me navigate my way around school (and even count and staple 400+ midterm tests), but also a friend to explore with.
My Adoptive Family
So how does one go about finding a family to adopt them you might ask? Well, it first starts with finding a student eager to learn English! I met Kate at school, where she was a M6 student in the English/French Program. Although she wasn’t my student, she was preparing for college entrance exams and interviews, and asked for my help. I was more than happy to help her study English, especially when she offered to teach me Thai in exchange. After months of study, and way too many green tea lattes, I can now successfully write my name in Thai and recite the Thai alphabet (well at least the 44 consonants, I’m still working on the vowels). But, most importantly, I’m extremely proud that Kate is officially accepted to college to study English Education, and she plans on becoming an English teacher.
I’ve always wanted a little sister, and through the Saiphunkham family, I have gained two, Kate and Kan. From daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner invites to their home where I’ve learned how to cook: tom yum goong, pad pak boong, nam prik, and even fried ice cream, to stocking my fridge with papayas, mangoes, and herbs from their garden, their generosity and kindness have made Thailand feel like home.
It has been said that food is the simplest way to learn about another culture. No matter where you are in the world, the common experience that brings us all together is food. If my culinary experience is any representation of the culture of Thailand, I can say without hesitation that the Thai people are willing to go out of their way to welcome you with open arms and have you leave with a satiated stomach and heart, regardless of familial ties.