Published Date : Feb 14, 2019
“A Year in the South”
Hannah Wiles was a 2017-18 Fulbright ETA at Thasala School in Nakorn Si Thammarat, a southern province of Thailand. Hannah graduated from Coe College in 2017 with BA in Communication Studies and Asian Studies.
I had only excitement for my Fulbright grant. From the moment I applied, and from the email informing me I was accepted, I could only think of all the wonderful opportunities I’d dreamt of since my freshman year. It would be my chance to truly immerse myself in the country I’d fallen in love with on my study abroad. I could continue my study of Thai. Food like khao soi would once again be at my fingertips. This unbridled excitement continued until June when I finally received my placement.
I raced home after a text from my father who told me my long awaited grant packet had arrived. He, as impatient as I, had already scoured the materials and the map of Thailand denoting everyone’s placements. My eyes immediately went to Chiang Mai, the city I’d lived in as a junior in college. My name was not there, nor in the surrounding area in the north. I’d prepared myself for this slight disappointment, and so eagerly searched the region of Isan where I had pre-reasoned I could appreciate a new look at the country. My name was not there either, nor in the greater central area. I checked over it all again in confusion.
“Where am I?” I asked, prompting my dad to draw my eyes down. The silence that followed confirmed our broken expectations.
“The South,” I remarked, puzzled. In my research on placements, I had never heard of anyone placed south. What I knew of that region was limited compared to what I understood of Thailand as a whole. My dad tested that knowledge by asking me what it meant to be there.
“The food is spicier. There is a lot of seafood. They speak quickly,” I listed. Apart from these few facts, and the knowledge that the deep south was plagued with violent insurrection (a knowledge I kept to myself) I knew almost nothing. Furthermore, from the map it seemed I had been given one of the most isolating placements possible: the nearest province containing ETAs was almost one thousand kilometers away.
I’d felt so prepared to go to Thailand on Fulbright. In the previous year I had doggedly worked to be able to read and write in Thai, and had studied Thai casually to be able to have basic conversations. I’d chosen Thailand because of my love of Thai cuisine, the people I’d met on my previous trip, and the culture I’d encountered. Everything I learned about the South suggested that what I was going to encounter was going to be completely foreign to my expectations.
I wanted to learn to speak Thai fluently. Southern Thais are renowned for being unintelligible even to fluent Thai speakers. I don’t generally like seafood. Southern Thailand is known for seafood. I have moderate spice tolerance. Southern Thai food has some of the spiciest food in the country.
My mother expressed immediate reserve that I countered with forced optimism. “I’ve already been to so many places in Thailand, and now I’ll be able to experience something entirely different,” I said, meaning it to sound like a grand new adventure. “Plus I’ll be right on the beach.” While I convinced her, I still had trouble convincing myself. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that I was being sent to a country I hadn’t really applied to.
Many of my cohort were jealous of my close access to the sea. The nearest beach was only 3 km away and islands were within hours of my town. It was all very glamorous. It also seemed wasted on me, a girl who couldn’t bring herself to appreciate it. So it was with bottled uncertainty that I stepped into the plane to Thailand, wondering why I was being tested with such an unwanted placement.
Before I even got to my placement I decided to spend the school summer break in Chiang Mai up north. I was looking forward to it before I even landed in the South, though I had slowly warmed up to the idea of being down South when I became friends with the ETA I had as a next-door neighbor.
As I arrived in the South after a month in Bangkok, full of trepidation, I was greeted with open arms. My host teacher and the other teachers at my school were delightful people that took care of me as I adjusted. The language was indeed confusing. I struggled during the first semester to understand the rapid fire Thai. I had some troubles with the spice level of foods served at the cafeteria. Yet my worries slowly eased as I grew close to the students at my school, to the people who worked at my hotel, and to some of the locals that I would pass around town. I came to see that my worries were unfounded, based on experiences that were not my own and biases that I hadn’t even realized.
It wasn’t until school summer break that I came to fully appreciate the South for all the wonderful things that it can offer. I returned to Chiang Mai after two years away and found a city that felt both familiar and very foreign. I also realized some important things about what being in the South had done for me.
I had been afraid at first that I would be unable to learn Thai in Nakhon Si Thammarat. While I struggle to understand some of what is being said down South, being in Chiang Mai I realized I knew much more than I thought. I had several conversations with cab drivers that suffered no miscommunication, were completely intelligible, and demonstrated that I had improved my Thai quite a bit.
My favorite dessert in the South, roti, was strangely lacking. While I’d first discovered roti in Chiang Mai, it was not nearly as delicious as what I’d become used to in the South. Likewise I couldn’t find one of my favorite dishes, khao mok gai, anywhere.
Little things everywhere continued to remind me of everything I missed about the place I’d come to call home. I missed the birds and birdcages that line the streets. I missed my hotel and the food there. I even missed the shadow puppet figurines, realizing that the statues of characters alongside the road or the depictions of them outside restaurants and shops had come to be a comfort. As much as I had been looking forward to the break in school, I found that it was the time I was most homesick. I was touring countries and thinking about the restaurants I missed in Tha Sala, about the teachers at my school, and about my students.
When I first thought about being in the South, I thought I was being sent to a place that wasn’t really Thailand. Yet far from being a different country, it demonstrates that, just like my own country, Thailand is a place that is diverse, with regions that are proudly Thai but have their own distinctive traits. I’m proud to live in Thailand. But I’m also proud to be part of the South and to be able to share what I’ve learned about this amazing section of Thailand with the greater cohort, as well as with my friends and family back in the States.
When I returned to Tha Sala after being away for two months, I did not arrive with trepidation. Rather I arrived with a smile and greeted my host teachers happily, saying, “I’m home.”