Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Isabella Grace Rivera

My name is Bella Rivera and I’m from Culver City, CA. I’m an ETA at Rajaprachanukroh 8 School in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand and I’ve been teaching English to Prathom (elementary) 1-6. I graduated from Whitman College in 2020 with a degree in Global Health. After my Fulbright, I plan to work and save up money to go to nursing school. I chose to apply for a Fulbright in Thailand because ever since I spent 2 summers during college on the Thai-Myanmar border, I’ve been interested in learning more about the cultures of this region! 

Isabella Grace Rivera

The diversity of the world has always intrigued me, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had opportunities to learn about and explore several different cultures and places. In college, I joined a global health club partnered with an NGO supporting local initiatives on the Thai-Myanmar border. From this club, I took an internship in the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand for two summers during college, and learned about the complicated history, politics, and different ethnic cultures of Myanmar. During my junior year of college, I studied for a semester in the Balkans - living in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo - and learned about this region’s recent conflicts and the process of peace among a unique mix of cultures, identities, and religions.

From these travels, I learned that I love meeting people with lives and experiences different from my own; I’m inspired by discussions of similarities and differences between cultures. But I’ve also learned that the exchange I yearn for is heavily weighted with lasting imperialist dynamics. I am lucky to be a native English speaker, especially since English has become the universal mode of communication. Yet this advantage has an effect on cultural exchange and the relationships I form with people from other cultures. Most often, the burden is on someone else to use their second or third language, English, in order to communicate with me. Not only does this immediately create an imbalance in our relationship, but it also inhibits the extent to which I can understand another person’s experiences and culture. How deeply can you understand a culture if you cannot even understand the language?

Realizing the power English holds in cross-cultural relationships has motivated me to put in significant effort in learning and using the language spoken wherever I am. When I found out I’d be moving to Thailand for 9 months, I was excited for the opportunity to learn and practice the Thai language. During our 2-week quarantine in Bangkok, the Fulbright program enrolled us in daily (virtual) Thai lessons. I was ecstatic to have already begun learning the language, and so when I was taken out to the patio of the quarantine hotel for my COVID test on day 5, I eagerly responded to the nurse’s question, “What room number?”, in Thai. Impressed and amused with my knowledge of Thai numbers, the nurse asked me a few basic questions in Thai and I returned to my quarantine room feeling energized and reassured in my motivations to learn Thai. 

When I finally left quarantine and traveled to my placement in Tha Sala, Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was overwhelmed with joy to be out of isolation and finally absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of Thailand. As my host teacher and the deputy director of my school drove me from the airport, they were happy to hear that I was eager to learn Thai and taught me the words for the different trees we saw as we drove into town. This willingness to help me learn Thai hasn’t faltered since then. Every day at school, I sit with teachers at lunch and I practice saying the different names of the dishes and ingredients in Thai. I realized how much my Thai had improved when a month later I was able to tell Khun Mae, a teacher who does not speak English, all about my upcoming trip to the north of Thailand. 

My Thai mothers: Khun Mae and P’Ya

I also decided to tackle learning the Thai alphabet so I could read the signs around town and menus at restaurants. During my free periods at school, I would take my notebook to Khun Mae’s kindergarten class and practice writing the letters with the kindergarten students. My friends, Peet and Peung (2 student teachers at my school), also helped quiz me on different letters and even began teaching me Southern Thai slang words! One free period, Peet, Peung, and I were in an empty classroom and I was writing the Thai letters on the chalkboard when Peet asked me, “Bella, why are you learning to write Thai, when you will go back to the US and not use Thai anymore?” I told him this was probably true: when I returned to the US, I didn’t think there would be much use for my knowledge of Thai language. I explained how I wanted to be able to read signs and menus while I lived here, but I also told him, “I think it shows respect to learn your language, rather than making local people try to communicate in English or hand gestures, I can show that I am willing to learn your language and try to understand you.” Peet was happy to hear my answer and has since been my #1 Thai teacher - I do not know what I’d do without his insight and friendship! Learning Thai has opened up many possibilities for connection to the community. With my broken Thai, I befriended the owner of a local motorcycle repair shop, who has now become a grandfather figure to me, continually sending me messages to check on how I’m doing or to give me mangos. 

Practicing writing Thai letters in Khun Mae’s kindergarten class

But I’ve also found that Thai language is not the only language I can use to make these connections. One of the questions most often asked of me is “Can you eat Thai food?” Most Thai people are used to farang not being able to eat spicy food, and while I can’t quite eat the same spiciness level as most Thai people (Thai food is SPICY!!), I do enjoy spicy food. Everyday at school, lunch is a masterful collection of curries, dried fish, and stir-fried vegetables. And everyday at lunch, I make sure to try each dish - I’ve never had a dish I don’t like! The director of my school sits at the same table as me, and he always watches me try the different foods with a big smile on his face. “Bella eats everything!” He exclaims, pointing to each dish, “Bella, I think you will gain weight when you leave!” I think the only thing the next ETA at my school will hear about me will be how much I ate! And it’s true, I LOVE food. 

My good friend and fellow English teacher, Peet!

P’La showing me how to eat เมี่ยง (mee-ang)
My friend, P’Yut, holding ข้าวหลาม (kao lam), a traditional way to prepare coconut sticky rice in bamboo

Food is a language in which to connect to people. Thai people are very proud of their food, and they should be - it’s delicious!! I’ve noticed how excited people get when they hear that I can eat spicy food, or that I want to try new Thai dishes. And I’ve realized how much my love for Thai food and willingness to try new foods contributes to the connections I form. Food is an important part of Thai culture, as in many cultures, and my acceptance of foods signifies my interest and appreciation of Thai culture itself. I’ve never left my school empty handed; I am generally gifted with a bag of pomelo or a box of some coconut desserts before I leave school each day. I’m honored by these gifts because I understand it’s a way teachers show they care about me, a gesture to communicate their love and their desire to share their culture with me. I’ve been able to reciprocate by baking cookies and muffins in the small oven I have in my room and bringing them to school. Sharing these with teachers is always a fun exchange; I tell them how I made the various treats, and we take photos and enjoy the desserts together. 

Making som tam (papaya salad)!
Fellow teachers, P’Nut, P’Tom, and P’Sai, holding my homemade coconut lemon muffins

In the past few months, COVID-19 cases in Thailand have been increasing. Due to the situation, my school has postponed in-person learning, and students are learning at home with worksheets instead. My school does not have the resources to support online learning, so I’ve suddenly found myself with huge amounts of free time. In my search to find new, safe ways to connect with the community, I accidently stumbled upon a music club. I’ve loved making music since I was 5, when I began learning to play piano. At 10 years old, I started learning to play the flute and I played in bands and orchestras and small ensembles all through college. As I found myself with more free time, I reached out to a friend who is a graduate student at the local university asking if there might be a piano at the university that I could play. She told me she had a friend who played violin with a group at the university, and that I could go during certain hours to get access to the piano there. 

I set out on my bicycle to the university in search of this music room, supposedly on the second floor of the gym. When I arrived at what I thought was the gym but was actually badminton courts, two very kind gentlemen working at the desk went through great lengths to contact someone who knew about this music room. Unfortunately for me, they found out it was further away on the campus and inaccessible by bicycle. As I sat outside the badminton courts, trying to decide whether I should leave, a professor of mathematics came up to me and we started talking. When he found out where I was trying to go, he offered to drive me in his car, just to check it out and see if there was in fact, the music room I was looking for. We arrived at the empty gym and saw someone going into the building holding a violin case. We followed him up the stairs, and sure enough, we found the music room along with a group of five people holding string instruments. I introduced myself to the leader of the club and explained I was just looking for a piano to play. He invited me to join their rehearsal, and when I told him I also played the flute, he pulled a flute out of the cabinet for me! Next thing I knew, I was playing flute and learning a Thai pop song with the group. It struck me then, how amazing it was that this group of Thai people and myself, despite knowing little of each other’s languages, could all be looking at the same language on these sheets of paper in order to create something together. 

Playing a duet with P’Ga
Teaching tips to count tricky rhythms

Since finding this music club, I have joined their rehearsals twice a week, and I’ve even been able to offer my help as a musician. Sometimes I’m merely translating musical terms, often written in Italian, for the group and other times I work with one person, helping them to figure out a tricky spot in the music. I’ve even given a mini lesson on rhythm to the group! Joining this club has been a wonderful way to form new connections and learn about each other through a medium in which we can all understand. Despite speaking different languages, we all share a love for music and a desire to work together as a group to create something beautiful. It’s also been fun to count off in Thai instead of English: “nung song saam sii!” 

My biggest goal for my time in Thailand was to feel like I had made meaningful and interesting connections with the community. While I had thought this would mainly be facilitated through Thai language and teaching at my school, I’ve learned that there are many different languages in which humans can connect - whether that be through learning each other’s native languages, sharing different traditions of food and cooking, or making music together. 

Dance crew of P4 girls, they taught me a Southern Thai dance to perform with them during a scout camp ceremony

There is something my host teacher, P’Ya, said to me that has stuck with me. We had been talking about how I had learned a Southern Thai dance to perform with some students during a scout camp ceremony and then had spent an afternoon with Peet’s family, learning to make Thai desserts. She was very happy to hear that I wanted to learn about these things, and she told me, “Most foreigners, they come and they see, but they don’t understand.” I feel lucky that I’ve met so many people who are willing to take time and energy to teach me about their culture, whether that be about Thai language, food, dance, or music. As a White, privileged citizen of the US, traveling is loaded with unequal power dynamics and my desire has been not to simply acquire these experiences, but to strive to make deeper connections and understandings. I believe this depth can come from learning to communicate and understand culture in different ways, and I’m overjoyed to have found this possible through language, food, and music.