Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Carmen Shaw

About Carmen Shaw

Carmen Shaw is a 2020-21 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Mae Moh Wittaya School in Lampang province of Thailand. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Carmen attended Georgia State University and received a B.S. in biological sciences and Emory University where she received a M.S. in population biology and evolution. While in graduate school, she volunteered with different refugee resettlement organization like New American Pathways and Global Village Project in Atlanta, teaching English and exchanging cultural backgrounds with individuals from all over the world. After matriculating, she chose to embark on a year-long adventure to Thailand in order to learn more about Theravada Buddhism, enrich her mentoring and teaching experiences, as well as cultivate a deeper understanding of intercultural and international relations.  

Settling in Upon Arrival

Immigration and Custom at Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok, Thailand

On the night of January 9th, 2021, I touched down at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok after a full day of travelling from Atlanta, Georgia. From the plane and into the terminal gate, I looked around curiously and tentatively to absorb the plethora of new perceptions surrounding me. Almost immediately, I observed many novel regulations in place in the Thai airport. Between the designated seating arrangements approved for social distancing, the flight attendants and receptionists in full personal protective equipment (PPE) equipped with surgical masks, plastic face shields, latex gloves, light blue isolation gowns, and disposable booties, thermal cameras placed at different locations around the airport, and additional screening points with thermometers and hand sanitizing stations – I was immediately impressed with the lengths Thailand had gone through to minimize infection rates. As I was led through immigrations and customs, all of these surveyed efforts provided some insight into the news headlines I had been reading previously for preparation, things like “Thailand being hailed as an early COVID success story” and others, “WHO commends Thailand’s efforts in curbing COVID.” I provided the necessary documentation to the immigration officer, a process made more complicated given all the COVID-related documents I had to present, including: a negative test issued no more than 72-hours prior and the confirmed booking of an alternative state quarantine (ASQ) hotel where a 14-day quarantine would take place. After getting through immigrations, I stood outside to wait for the airport shuttle to the ASQ hotel and my mind returned to its previous musings: Although I would later realize the futility in comparing the two countries; initially, I couldn’t help but think about the airports back in my home country, America, which had significantly more relaxed procedures in place. This led me to thinking about the many political and cultural differences involved that could possibly account for such divergent outcomes between a global hegemon with a developed public health infrastructure that had performed poorly in containing the deadly pandemic, and another democratic upper-middle class country that expertly contained the number of infected cases with a health security system that has just recently been built up in the last few decades. The juxtaposition of these two countries was confounding, to say the least. However, after a short while, these thoughts were interrupted when a colorfully lit van strolled up to take us to the ASQ hotel.  

14-day Quarantine in an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) Hotel

The hallway of the ASQ hotel showing the small side tables where food deliveries would be placed everyday

Upon arrival at the ASQ hotel in Bangkok, my cohort members and I were checked in from the confines of the van with a fully PPE-protected hotel receptionist. After asking for our passports and documenting our information, we were individually ushered into the hotel and immediately transferred to our separate rooms where we would stay for the remainder of the 14-day quarantine. The enjoyment of such an experience largely depends on the energy source of the person undergoing the quarantine. In general, it seems to be an experience well-appreciated by the introverts of the world and well-despised by the extroverts as, well, you are alone… a lot. The bulk of the fresh air you receive during this time being from the patio or balcony, if you’re lucky enough to have a room equipped with one. Thankfully, ours did – courtesy of P’kee at Fulbright Thailand. Because of this, one of the highlights of my time in quarantine would be promptly around 6:00 am and 6:45 pm every day. This was the time when the sun would rise and set in Bangkok and would create incredibly vivid displays of yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples across the vast skyline. With the 12-hour time difference between Atlanta, Georgia and Bangkok (before daylight saving time), my sleep pattern was thoroughly disrupted to where I would be fully awake at both times to experience such wondrous views.  

The life of quarantine is otherwise very mundane and structured, though I mostly enjoyed the time alone being a natural introvert myself. Each day consisted of three meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – prepared by the hotel chef. The arrival of which would be announced with a simple knock on the door and then placed on a small table located just outside of each room. The guests could stick their heads out to retrieve the meal and then promptly return the dish in a plastic bag supplied by the hotel once finished. The food selection could be decided by the guest, via an online google doc form that provided names of the different food selections available that day, and if no form was submitted then the hotel would pick. As a brand-new expat, this online menu provided an opportunity to try out different Thai foods for the first time, from the classic pad Thai dish to khao pad garnished with sides of cucumbers to different-levels-of-spicy curry soups loaded with meats and vegetables. Guests were also allowed to order from the 7-eleven convenience store across the street from the hotel via another google doc form. The groceries would be delivered to the guest by 8pm that night.  

Besides submitting their daily food requests, the guests were also required to take their daily temperatures every day, twice a day (8am and 6pm), with a handheld thermometer provided by the hotel. We, then, submitted the numbers to the 24-hour on-staff nurse via the Line app. The nurse would always respond promptly with a typed message like “ขอบคุณค่ะ. Thank You. 非常感谢你.” ‘Thank you’ typed in three different languages: Thai, English, and Chinese, accompanied with colorful emojis of flowers, prayer hands, and hearts. This was a subtle but important reminder as an American, newly relocated to Thailand: I was now amongst the minority here who speak my native language, English. This sudden world-shifting change required some quick adjusting and learning, in order to understand the world, the culture, around oneself. This is an incredibly humbling experience that I think every American should be faced with at some point in their lives, if possible.  

Practicing my Thai with the nice woman performing COVID test at ASQ hotel

On the 7th and 10th day of quarantine, each guest is required to take a COVID-19 test. At this point of isolation, I would begin to somewhat look forward to these days as it allowed for moments of brief stimulation to leave my hotel room and speak to humans again. Working with small groups at a time, a hotel staff member would knock on each door and lead the guests to the elevator, press the designated button, and step aside as you were ushered in. As I waited to get tested, I would use these few minutes to speak with the person conducting the tests to practice my rudimentary Thai and feel an ounce of pride, if ever, they complimented my speaking abilities. In my time here in Thailand, I understand now that anytime a foreigner speaks Thai, whether developed or not, Thai people are always impressed and shocked regardless. They always appreciate the effort, which is very encouraging even if undeserved.  

After the 7th day and the result of a negative COVID-19 test, guests are allowed outside for scheduled 30-minute intervals each day upon request. Myself, and my other cohort members, pretty much jumped at the opportunity to go outside because I’d desperately missed having the ability to move about outdoors. A lot of this time outside was spent marveling at the newfound gratitude I felt towards something I otherwise would have, and quite frankly, always had, taken for granted, which were the healing and restorative powers that come with being immersed outside in the natural world. Amongst the comforts of reviving fresh air, a calming breeze, the warmth and illumination of sunshine, and the pick-me-up chirping of the birds, it’s no wonder that this effect combined with physical activity specifically combats the effects of depression and anxiety. After having been deprived of such effects, I was reunited with the proper gratitude and respect: Humanity needs nature – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This is the lesson quarantine demonstrated to me.

Life After Quarantine: An American living in Thailand amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

A deserted coastline on Klong Mueang Beach in Krabi, Thailand

As an American who has recently moved to Thailand during a global pandemic, you learn very quickly the major effect tourism has on the economy of Thailand. Tourism makes up about 6-7% of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) overall. Given the strict travel restrictions in place to protect the country from the virus spreading, there has been an extreme financial crisis experienced by many of the locals. It is a disheartening sight to see many of the stores, malls, and markets boarded up and deserted, where I’d heard that just a year ago, they were thriving and buoyant with business, sociability, and revenue. Therefore, as one of the few expats in the country at the time, it’s been an informative process of becoming hyperaware of the power that consumer choices play in regard to any particular community; namely, the importance of making conscious consumer choices to aid, stimulate, and support the environment and communities around you. Endowed with this awareness, there have been several moments where I would normally buy a loaf of bread or sweets from the 7-eleven or Tesco Lotus that is conveniently located; but instead, I’ll choose to walk through the local market and take the time to find a stand that sells locally made goods instead. This was deemed as being a part of the small role I had to play here, to support the smaller, family-owned businesses - the little guys, so to speak - who’ve taken the biggest hit during this critical financial time.

Upon flying to Lampang province after completing the mandatory quarantine, I went to work on settling into my new home. Initially, I was a bit unnerved by the fact that some of my fellow cohort members had to undergo a second 14-day quarantine once they settled into their respective provinces around the country; but thankfully, I was able to avoid this as it wasn’t a requirement in my district. However, for the first week, I still found myself spending majority of my time away from school due to it being midterms week – the week when teachers are not conducting any lesson plans and are only administering exams to the students. This week signified that half of the semester was already completed.  

Directors and teachers at Mae Moh Wittaya, greeting and welcoming me to the school

Under normal circumstances, most cohorts arrive in Thailand in September of a given year in order to begin teaching at the start of the second semester in mid-October. For the 2020-21 cohort, we arrived in our provinces at the end of January and began teaching around the first or second week of February, leaving roughly two months left until the semester ended in the first week of April. The school year itself had been pushed back, where normally the second semester ends in February, not April, of every year. Information like this would be very foretelling of the myriad of unexpected events that would inevitably come to pass as a result of this pandemic. And so very early on, I was aware of the necessary adaptability and positive mindset it would take to dutifully and optimistically wade through some of the challenges yet to come.  

The support of a collective army is what ultimately made things easier on me. With the backing of the Pi’s at Fulbright Thailand, the close friendships received from my fellow cohort members, and the unrelenting wave of support from my attentive host teachers and neighbors, student teachers-turned-close-confidants, and the respectful students at my school – each day that passed made me feel more connected, more grounded in the enveloping of a community that embraced my being, particularly at a time where, quite frankly, I desperately needed it the most. In a typical day at Mae Moh, I would attend morning assembly at the school, responding to the smiling faces and bowing heads of the students saying “Sawatdhii kha, teacher.” Throughout the day, I would be given the floor of my classroom to teach my M4, M5, and M6 students (equivalent to 10th – 12th graders) such topics like the importance of celebrating cross-cultural diversity or detailing exactly how one travels from one side of the world to the other – all the while, we are practicing their conversational English. In between class periods, myself and the other kruu’s would hole up in the foreign language office and bake croissants and banana nut muffins to happily consume and pass out to any wandering student or teacher, just for the fun of it. For lunch, I would go on friend dates with the other student teachers at my school and from these intimate conversations and fun adventures, they would go on to become some of my best friends here in Thailand. After stuffing my face with delicious Thai cuisine, we would head back to school to finish up with the remaining classes of the day, wherein the students never failed to put a smile on my face, by laughing at my apparently botched attempt to pronounce their real names or insist that I film a 3-second boomerang video with them for Instagram after class, which I would often and happily oblige.

M5 students, my host teacher Kruu Yai, and I posting for a picture together on the last day of school


These are the kind of memories that will remain with a person for the rest of their life. It is one thing to travel as a single individual to a foreign country on the opposite end of the world, but to do such a thing during a global pandemic the likes of which humanity has not seen or experienced for the past century – well, that is an entirely different situation altogether. A situation so vulnerable, so exposing, so unfortified that regardless of your natural wits and intelligence, your worldly and life experience, and your innate will to survive – you find yourself at the complete and utter mercy of the community around you. It was Coretta Scott King who eloquently said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” I am in constant awe to be at the mercy of such a community, of such a country, of such an unprecedented moment in history.