Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Haley Gerber

Published Date : Apr 17, 2019

Finding the Love That’s There

Haley Gerber is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Mae Moh Wittaya School in Lampang province. She grew up abroad in Tokyo, Japan, but is originally from Columbus, Ohio. Last May, she graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University with a B.A. in Sustainability, a minor in Educational Studies, and a concentration in Environmental Education. In her free time, Haley has picked up many hobbies, including yoga, photography, and cooking. Haley enjoys exploring her community, learning and practicing Thai, eating her body weight in fruit, and reading. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to pursue her Master’s degree and go on to work in the field of sustainability.

The first month of being in Thailand a wonderful whirlwind. Our cohort’s in-country orientation meant we got four weeks in Bangkok, attending crash-courses in anything from teaching to Thai language. As crazy as it all was, with long days of sessions and then long nights of bonding with my cohort, it confirmed my decision that Fulbright Thailand was the place I wanted to be. It was going to be a year of extreme personal growth.

For about a week, our cohort overlapped with the last, and we spent hours hearing them talk about their experiences, struggles, triumphs, and ridiculous ‘This-Is-Thailand’ moments. One sentiment that stood out above everything else is that the year ahead of us would be one of extreme personal growth. With how consistently it was said, I thought the point had sunk in. However, it was not until I truly began my real in-province experience that I understood what they meant.

During the first month of being in province, I was struggling in more ways than one. My body seemed to be running on empty all the time and I was struggling to find ways to connect with the new community I was settling into. I was alone for the first time in a country I didn’t know yet, language barriers made it hard to communicate with people, and my vegetarian diet essentially limited my meal options to fried rice or stir-fried veggies with egg.

My host teachers and students went out of their way to welcome me. I’d often come home to bags of produce from my neighbors hung on my front door. Kru Noi, a empty-nested teacher in my neighborhood, was quick to take me under her wing and invite me over for weekly dinners with her. But something still felt ‘off’.

Fresh vegetable at the local Mae Moh market

After countless calls home and some serious reflection, I came to the realization that way I perceive affection and love differed from the ways in which people were trying to show me. The more I looked into it, the more I came to understand this discrepancy as misaligning ‘Love Languages’. Essentially, I was searching for certain signals and acts to feel cared for, not realizing that my teachers were trying to give it to me in a different way.

Right around the time I came to this realization was also when I decided something was physically wrong with my body as well. For weeks, I felt lethargic and unlike myself. No matter how many hours of sleep I got, I felt deeply tired, and even laughter felt like a drain of energy. This made class ‘grey’, and I felt like I wasn’t giving my students the fun classroom environment they wanted or deserved.

My immediate assumption was to chalk it up to my on-going battle with my mental health, and that it was probably situational depression. But reflecting more, I realized I was happy. It wasn’t my mental health, so it had to be something physical instead. Searching online, WebMD gave me their usual suggestions of cancer or a slew of other fatal conclusions, so I decided to seek help from an in-person doctor instead. Much to my relief, their suggestions erred less on the side of imminent death, and instead pointed to some sort of nutrient deficiency.

Finally, it clicked. The type of protein replacements I had access to in America simply weren’t available in my cute new town of Mae Moh, and my body wasn’t getting everything it needed from endless meals of Pad Pak Ruam (stir-fried veggies). No wonder my I felt like I was running on half a tank all the time—I was!

The decision to start eating meat was a huge turning point for me in ways that I never thought it would be. The news was literally celebrated by my teachers, excited that they could finally show me all the food I’d been missing. One teacher, Kru Noi (also known as my Thai mom), invited me over for a huge dinner of all sorts of Thai dishes with meat. When I showed up to her house, she was beaming. “Now I can share with you my heart from home,” she said. I felt I understood her better than ever that night. Every serving she gave me was followed by stories. She served me somtam that she shared every year in a neighborhood party, pork curry that she learned to make for her kids when she was a new mother, and her grandma’s famous Khao Son recipe she’d helped cook since she was a little girl. Kru Noi’s favorite memories sprawled across the table in ceramic dishes, I finally understood the love she had been giving me all along.

Kru Noi at the Mae Moh lookout

That night catalyzed my journey into better understanding when people were sharing themselves with me in their own love language. During the next celebration at my school, my students set up a stand to sell skewered meats, and for the first time since moving to Mae Moh, I understood what it meant to be a part of that experience. I found opportunities to connect with my community with something as simple as raving about the canteen meal-of-the-day, and it felt like something had clicked into place.
With a greater consciousness for building community, I also started sharing the goodies growing in my front-porch garden. The bloom of my cauliflower seemed to perfectly coincide with my new perspective on food, so I harvested a couple heads to bring over to my neighbors. To repay the love they had been showing me all along, I wanted to respond in their love language.
When I gave them a small bag of cauliflower, my neighbors were so excited that they went out to their own gardens and picked a bunch of their fruits to give me in return. Some even took the time to walk me around their property and show me everything they were growing, Google-translating the fruits I did not understand. I walked back to my house with 2 full bags of produce that night with everything from lettuce to jackfruit.

Fresh Vegetables grown in my front yard, (from left to right), cauliflower, papaya, and lettuce

Phrases like ‘the way to my heart is through my stomach’ suddenly made all the sense in the world. One night, I was sitting across from Kru Noi at her dinner table. Between bites of Pad Krapow, I told her that over the weekend I tried to recreate a dish she had taught me to make the week before, but it just didn’t taste as good. She said that her kids always say the same thing when they leave home after visiting, and that food just seems to taste better when someone makes it for you. I giggled a bit, remembering my mom’s saying back home that explained why that was. She always used to say that her cooking was extra tasty because she added the special ingredient of ‘love’. After explaining my mom’s quirky saying to Kru Noi, she thought for a moment and then added “I think your mom is right. This has lots of love for you. I want to care for people, so I cook.” More than ever before, I understood our standing ‘dinner dates’ to mean more than an excuse not eat alone.

Now that I’ve settled into living in province, I cannot imagine my life in Mae Moh without weekly meals with Kru Noi. She teaches me slowly every week how to make a new meal, explaining along the way (as best she can through her broken English) the ingredients she’s putting in. My favorite part of it all is that now, without fail, when we sit down to eat and I say how delicious the food tastes, she grins ear-to-ear and says “Secret ingredient for you. I add love!”

A Variety of Meals at Kru Noi’s House, usually served with rice

What I wanted to receive through deep conversations and spending lots of time together was instead showing itself as random bags of fruit hung on my front door by neighbors or the constant question from teachers and students alike: “have you eaten?” I finally saw their language for loving me, and found that that community I had been yearning for was there all along. I just had to know where to find the love that was there.