Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Grace Rusell

My name is Grace Rusell, and this year I am teaching at Thasala School in Nakhon Si Thammarat province as a 2020-2021 Fulbright ETA. I grew up in Belmont, North Carolina, where a close childhood friend from Bangkok inspired my dream to someday spend time in Thailand. I attended Wake Forest University and graduated with a degree in Health and Exercise Science. From working as a counselor at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp to designing an educational program at ECO City Farms in Edmonston, MD, I spent each summer during college engaging with children and youth. Spending each day here learning about the Thai education system and working with my young students is a dream come true. Upon returning to the US I will attend nursing school and hope to eventually make my way to a career that incorporates my experience as an educator and my desire to advance children’s health.

On my third day of teaching, in the midst of a chaotic afternoon trying to find my classes and remember the names of all the teachers I met, I crossed paths with one of the deputy directors of my school. “My daughter!” he exclaimed. “Sawatdee ka, Phaw Chok,” I responded with a proper wai and a wave hello.  

When I met Phaw Chok for the first time earlier that week, he had insisted that he would serve as my stand-in dad throughout my time in Thasala and asked me to call him and his wife - a P5 teacher at the school - พ่อ (phaw) and แม่ (mae), father and mother. My adopted Thai family has been overwhelmingly generous throughout my stay. They’ve taken me shopping and out to lunch, often sending me home with baked goods or some new article of clothing to add to my teaching wardrobe. Their son sells waffles at the night market every weekend, and somehow whenever I make a stop at his stall, I end up with more waffles than I paid for (and sometimes more than I can eat!).  

hopping at Central Plaza in Nakhon Si Thammarat with Phaw Chok and Mae Oi

On this particular afternoon, Phaw Chok told me he had a surprise for me and indicated that I should follow him around the corner into the covered pavilion where students play, eat lunch, and sometimes have class. So I followed him along the walkway and sat in the blue chair where he pointed. He disappeared for a minute, leaving me to wonder what this gift might be. All week long, I’d been showered with generous surprises from teachers - Thai sweets, school supplies, and iced teas to make it through the hot afternoons. However, when he came back around the corner I saw that this one was different: a gift that would take me through my entire time here (literally) - a bright and shiny green bicycle.

My first afternoon as a bicycle owner in Thasala - khawp khun ka, Phaw Chok!

I didn’t realize at the time how the bike would change my time here in Thasala. Of course I was excited to have my ten-minute walk to school reduced to a five-minute bike ride and couldn’t wait to ride to the beach and explore areas further than walking distance. I just didn’t quite realize that having a bike would lead me to friendships and routines that have been so integral to my time in Thasala. The stories that follow are just a few of the memories that began with my bright green bike.

Flat Tires and New Friendships

Walking around Thasala after a month of quarantine was a shock to the senses to say the least. I passed cows and roosters, temples and mosques, fried chicken stands, and block after block of small shops and family businesses. I stuck to the sidewalks (when possible), taking in the sights and sounds and smells. Eager to make new friends, I paused to talk to shoppers and vendors whenever I could. During this phase, my fridge was sometimes overflowing with fruit because stopping to buy a snack is always the perfect excuse to say hello. As it turns out, flat bike tires are a pretty great reason as well.  

Within one block of home, there are three or four mechanic shops, each filled with a group of friends and coworkers hanging out in the garage and working on all kinds of motorcycle repair projects. One afternoon, soon after getting the new bike, I stopped at one, knowing I would need to fill the tires with air pretty soon. I had looked up a translation to ask about air and practiced the question over and over on my way there. Even though I didn’t have my bike with me on that particular afternoon, stopping to say hello and ask turned into one of the luckiest conversations of my first month.

Suwat working on a repair in his shop

I introduced myself with my broken Thai, answering the obligatory “where are you from?” and “how long are you staying here?” questions. I told the shop owner, Suwat, and his coworkers and friends that I was teaching English down the road at Thasala School. One of Suwat’s friends that afternoon had on a nurse’s uniform and seemed to have just finished her shift at the hospital. I said hello to her as well, and was impressed to learn that she was the head of the ER at Thasala Hospital. Even more exciting, I learned that she had a daughter just about my age. We went back and forth a bit trying to understand one another, eventually resorting to Google Translate to finish our conversation. From what I understood, her daughter was studying for a big English test and wanted more speaking practice. She kept telling me her test scores, but since I had never heard of this exam, they didn’t mean much to me. Nevertheless, I gave her my phone number and said her daughter could call me anytime.  

About an hour later, once I returned home from my errands that evening, I got a phone call from the nurse’s daughter, Ji. Ji’s English is excellent, and I quickly learned that she was studying for an English test that would confirm her acceptance to a master’s program in the UK. She needed to raise her score by just one point. We exchanged contact info and set up a time to get coffee and practice English the next day. After we hung up, she sent me a message that said “I’m so lucky today, even though I just bought a lottery and I didn’t win any prizes.” I felt the exact same way.

Our friendship quickly surpassed the “practice English” pretext. As her IELTS exam approached, we did sometimes meet up to discuss practice questions or go through timed speaking exercises, but mostly Ji became the best Thasala tour guide I could have asked for. Ji, Bella, and I spent countless hours exploring Thasala. We went on walks by the river nearby, rode bikes to the beach at sunrise, made a trip to her uncle’s house in the countryside, and ate our fair share of pad thai after yoga classes at the gym. And just as we predicted, Ji aced her IELTS exam in March. This past week, she left for Liverpool where she will study marketing for the next year and a half.  

Out for a beach walk at 6:30 A.M - beating the heat is key!

Riding bikes through town

Making Ji’s favorite western food: spaghetti carbonara

Thinking back to that afternoon back in February, when all I needed was some air in my tires, I feel pretty lucky knowing where it led. River walks, coffee runs, and some pretty unforgettable conversations - from talking about holidays and traditions to answering questions about education and politics. Oh and by the way Suwat has since filled my bike tires many times, and despite my protests, always for free. So thank you flat tires for conversations worth remembering and friendships I will never forget.

Morning Greetings

As I settled into my routine at school, I found countless moments to look forward to each day. One of my favorite routines came each morning as I rode my bike to school. It’s a short ride - I loop out of the parking lot where I live and around into a soi (small road / alley) that leads directly to the side of my school. I pass some houses with animals wandering around outside, a driveway where a little toddler is sometimes splashing around in a washtub, and a Thai tobacco packing plant, where I always wave and say good morning to the workers out front. On cooler mornings I see older couples sitting outside their homes to enjoy the fresh morning air before it gets too hot. Sometimes I have to pull over to the side of the road as a school bus full of students passes by me in the left lane. Whenever this happens, the kids stick their heads out the windows and wave, calling out to me “Hello, Teacher!”  

Within three or four minutes I can see the gate that surrounds the school. Inside, kids are doing morning chores, picking up garbage, sweeping up leaves, or sometimes just holding brooms while they talk to their friends. Outside the gate, there are always a few vendors set up to sell breakfast snacks and drinks to the children before they head in. I put my mask on right as I pass the vendors and slow down to greet the kids as I ride by. I turn the corner where a teacher on traffic guard duty either motions for me to pass or holds up a hand for me to stop so kids who arrive by car can cross the street. Sometimes if I know the teacher on hand sanitizer and thermometer duty out front, I stop for a quick hello, but usually I head straight for the back entrance to the school where all the teachers drive in and around to park.  

Just through the back gates at school I am surrounded by my P1 morning greeters

The back entrance to the school is next to the P1 building, and every morning as I ride in, the first student to spot me announces my arrival. As I hear them shout “Teacher Dok Gaew! Teacher Dok Gaew!” (the older students call me Teacher Grace but the younger ones seem to prefer my Thai nickname), I am overrun with a mini mob of kids asking for high fives and fist bumps. Sometimes I am gifted with candies or stickers or a shower of glitter, but always the most joyful smiles I could ask for to begin the day. The students love to climb on my bike and show off their knowledge of colors by pointing and saying “green!” Usually we also double check that they can remember “blue” (the color of my backpack), “white” (the color of their uniform shirts), “purple” (if they have on their PE uniforms), and whatever other colors I happen to be wearing that day. Then the tables turn and I am quizzed on Thai vocab - usually the words for bike (จักรยาน, jakgrayaan, or รถถีบ, roteep, in southern Thai), watch (นาฬิกา, naligaa), shirt (เสื้อ, suea), and car (รถ, rot). Sometimes our routine takes five or ten minutes, and we have to move to the side so that other teachers can drive by. “Rot maa” (car coming!) is a phrase I picked up pretty early on to ensure that I’m not a hazard to the students’ safety during these busy mornings. After about ten reminders that I have to go to the teacher room, I continue along my ride and repeat the routine with the P2 students and anuban (kindergarten) until I get to the spot where I park each day. Getting off my bike, I’m awake, smiling, and ready for a full day of teaching.

Anuban students come to say hello as I pass their classrooms in the morning


When I’m riding my bike around Thasala, I stand out a bit. Besides the fact that nearly everyone who rides a bike is either over the age of sixty or under the age of ten, I’m pretty recognizable with my bike’s bright green basket and paint, not to mention me being a white foreigner (farang). As a result, I’ve become pretty accustomed to constantly waving and saying hello as I ride. Kids playing soccer, the woman who has a laundry business, teenagers out on motorcycles with their friends - everyone says hello, and even though they’re strangers it’s friendly and welcoming.  

Sometimes it’s even people I know, teachers from school or someone I met on the walking path near home. To these friends, my bike and I are even more recognizable. I’ve gotten messages saying, “I saw your bike at the store today!” and “Be safe riding on that narrow street!” Even though I sometimes wish I could go somewhere without standing out, like every story that begins with my bike, these greetings and concerns are just another display of a culture rooted in warmth and kindness. And thanks to my bright green bike, I get to experience even more of it every day I’m here.