Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Yvette LeBlanc

Published Date : Jun 29, 2018

Yvette LeBlanc is a 2017-2018 Fulbright ETA at ChumChonBanFon Wittaya School in Lampang, Thailand. Yvette is from Asheville, NC and graduated from North Carolina State University in May 2017. In her free time, Yvette enjoys Zumba with her fellow teachers, crocheting, and biking around town. After the completion of her Fulbright grant this September, Yvette plans to travel throughout Asia until returning home to study for the GRE. She plans to work in education until her next trip teaching abroad.

What’s in a Name

Like anyone else, I was apprehensive about moving halfway around the world to teach English for a year. I was worried the students wouldn’t like me, that I would never learn any Thai, that I wouldn’t make any friends, and most of all, that Thailand would never feel like a home to me. I was ready to grow as a person, but I imagined I would be waiting to return home because it is exactly that- my home. However, throughout these past eight months, I have erased all those fears. I have made friends, my students yell greetings constantly wherever I go, I can have brief Thai conversations, and I plan to stay in Thailand after my teaching ends right up until the day before my visa expires. Four months left and it does not feel like enough. It feels like maybe Thailand has become a home too. I have become a better version of myself because of the experiences I have had, the people I have met, and the places I have explored. I have grown up- and my name says it all.
Before I left for Thailand last September, everyone called me Yvie. It had survived as my nickname from kindergarten all the way to college. I had never introduced myself using my real first name and had even corrected others who used it. For me, Yvie was who I was. Yvette was the formal, adult version and I was not yet fully prepared for owning up to the name. My nickname on the other hand, was unusual and weird; this matched with how I viewed myself. I felt that what people called me needed to represent who I was.

Yvie with her mom at the airport

While traveling from my hometown to Bangkok, I decided on the plane that this year would be a fresh start. I was a college graduate who deserved to have an adult name. I had outgrown Yvie. In the Seoul airport, while trying to find my connecting flight, a fellow ETA found and introduced himself. I felt a twinge of uncertainty when I introduced myself. I say my name in a variation of ways and I was worried that this Fulbrighter would hear I had said my own name wrong thus proving I was in no way ready to handle such a title. Despite these delusions, he did not notice nor comment. And just like that, I became Yvette. Yvette the Adult. And so I believed that Yvette I would stay for the remaining time I had in Thailand.
It was easy not worry about my name as the month in Bangkok went on. I had become accustomed to my new Fulbright friends and it no longer felt foreign to me when I heard my name being called across a table during dinner or while walking down the street. When I would facetime with my family and friends back home, I would reverse back to Yvie for only a few hours or minutes, but I felt the slight difference in myself. Yvie was still a younger version of myself than what I had grown into. During one facetime chat, I told my sister that everyone here calls me Yvette. When she asked why, I had to explain that I felt the need for my name to reflect the change that I was going through. I wanted her to understand that I finally felt ready to be an Yvette and be an adult. I was out living on my own, relatively, in a new country halfway around the world. I wanted to be able to prove that change and my name was doing exactly that. It was difficult for her to grasp; stating that Yvette still sounded “weird” somehow. Because of her reaction, I was happy I had not mentioned my nickname in arriving here. I did not want others to think that choosing to use my full name was “weird” too.

Yvette with the Fulbright group at Hua Hin

Boy was I wrong! It only took one month in Thailand for my name to change once again, this time without my permission. During our customary ‘Meet the Host Teachers’ dinner, I was informed by my predecessor that I would be called Teacher Eve at school. Yvette was not a name that Thai people could say easily and therefore it was not to be used. My predecessor did offer some condolences; I had dodged the name Teacher Wet. This fact did soothe my soul for a was sure I could not handle being Teacher Wet for an entire year.
My first day at ChumChonBanFon Wittaya School in Ban Fon, Lampang was the amount of confusion, surprise, and excitement that any first day would be to a first year teacher. An added surprise was the constant shouting of Teacher Eve! Teacher Eve! From every student I passed whether walking right by them or sighting them across the fields. It took some time coming to terms with my new name. I had been miffed that my momentous name change had been thwarted. But what was a losing really? My little Prattom babies could not say Yvette. I could barely say it! How could I ask second language learners to say a name that I worried I had mispronounced? So I accepted Eve. I was still the same person, still an Adult, still a teacher. Eve was just my small way to adapt to my new surroundings. It was a way to make my arrival easier for those students and teachers around me. The variation also demonstrated that when facing difficult situations, I was given options. It demonstrated to me that in my new Thai community, people would be willing to adapt and help me adapt to my new life. I wasn’t just deemed Teacher Farang because my name was unusual. No, my host teachers deliberated and found a compromise that worked for both of us. With one simple variation, I felt welcomed into the community for who I am even though I am different.

Teacher Eve with Mathayom 3 students

I kept learning about Thai culture and fitting into my little Ban Fon community as the months went by. I was introduced to local store owners and market keepers. Everyone asked if I was the new teacher. Students waved as they saw me ride past on my pink bicycle. In passing parents and students during the big Monday market, I heard the mumblings of “Teacher Eve, Teacher Eve”. I was no longer only Teacher Eve to my students, but to the community at large. It showed a level of respect that others had for me. In Raleigh where I student taught, people outside my school knew I was a teacher. Here though, it is common knowledge that I am Teacher Eve at the local school. I feel that level of respect, not only in the classroom, but everywhere I go in Ban Fon. With each new name I was given, I felt myself grow a little bit more each time; I was recognized as a teacher. A teacher in Thailand. I was established in the community as someone who belonged here and was accepted here. Everyone knows who I am and wherever I go, I receive countless smiles, greetings, and nods of the head. With the new name came recognition. I no longer felt alone, instead I have a whole community who supports and acknowledges me. It is an experience I honestly never thought would happen. I never thought that an entire town anywhere I went would know me on such a friendly level. I simply made the right decision when I decided to apply to Thailand.

Teacher Eve and Anuban students See and Focus

In March, I ventured out of my little town with a fellow ETA and to begin our internship month at an elephant sanctuary in the north of Thailand. Here as well, I was known as Eve. Everyday we worked alongside the mahouts (men who own the elephants) and talked with guests during various activities with the elephants. My friend and I developed friendships with many of the mahouts during our month there. As we walked next to the elephants, they would share sunflower seeds with us, try to teach us some Thai words, or pretend a lizard in a tree was about to jump on our backs. These friendships became comfortable and helped the sometimes long activities fly by. One day while in the grasslands, I asked one of the mahouts if he knew my name. After weeks he admitted he did not! It was left unknown and no one had tried to ask. I was shocked! My name means so much to me and yet these mahouts have no idea! And that was okay. Their friendship was so easy and natural to obtain, that it didn’t matter what my name was or if I was a teacher or not. We were all already friends even without names. This is an aspect of Thai culture that surprises me every time. The ease with which friendships are formed for no other reason than sitting next to each other in a songtao or waiting in line at the same food stand. Everyone is willing to be a friend. It is like being welcomed back to every new place you go.

Ep in the grasslands

So I understood the lack of curiosity with my name. Once I informed him, it circulated throughout camp. A few days later, it had been changed once again. At the bathing station, guests showered the elephants while mahouts and us volunteers alike, looked on. I heard someone calling down from the road a noise that sounded almost like a bird. A strange sort of sound. An “Ep! Ep!”. I turned confused, to see one of my closer mahout friends waving and extending some flowers in my direction as he and his elephant approached. Over the course of the third week at camp, I became known as Ep. Cries of the noise could be heard while in camp or during a walk or during bathing time in the river. At first I was peeved. Eve was a name that everyone else could say, yet these mahouts were not up for it. It was as if the name were so much of an effort, that barely any effort was given. I came to resent the noises as if I were being whistled at like a dog. As the name stuck around, the mahouts were as friendly as ever. More jokes and teasing was happening while we spent the day with guests, more playful banter while we hung out after work at the local restaurant. As long as I kept answering to the call, they kept calling me. So I had to reevaluate what I thought this new name meant. It wasn’t meant in a sign of mocking, now I was sure. It was used instead as a deeper level of communication. The call was no longer just my name, but a way to communicate between a mahout and I when neither of us could adequately speak each other’s language. The way the call was used determined if someone was mad, or something was wrong, or someone needed something. We used it like cavemen used grunts to show their emotions for a situation when words were not an option. My name became the method by which we came to understand one another. It was quite an interesting time.

Ep and Anne with mahout Ngong

The new name also made me feel as if I were truly part of the mahout group and no longer a random volunteer that would leave in a short time. It was my nickname for my new group of friends. Friends that I fit in with and got along with. The giving of a nickname meant more to me than I’m sure it did to them. Nicknames showed familiarity and a level of comfort with another person or group. I never thought I would be welcomed into such a group as the one I found up there in the north.
I know most people do not feel as strongly as I do about names. Most people don’t have a name that they feel they are not ready to take on yet. Yvette felt that way for me as I flew my way into Bangkok. In the beginning of this journey, I felt my name carried more weight. Being in Thailand and being given so many other variations of that name has helped me understand that it is not the name that is the most important part, but the people. With new people, comes new connections, comes new names. New names that I am thankful to have. So what’s really in a name? The love and friendship of an entire country.