Lisa Menda is a 2019-2020 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Watbot Suksa School in Phitsanulok province of Thailand. Lisa graduated from the University of Houston with her Bachelor’s in Political Science and Economics, with a minor in Marketing. During her time as an ETA, she interned with Startup Thailand, merging her interests in international economics and policy.
When loved ones called me during my time in Thailand, almost every question asked could be answered by the phrase, “finding purpose in the small things.” Transitioning from my life in Houston, to the rural town of Watbot was quite the challenge. I traded my car for a rusty bike with a blue basket. I traded my family for my friendly neighbors and new church community. Nonetheless, as I went through the transition from Dallas, to Bangkok, to Watbot I found a new, quieter side of me. A side that was brought out by the calm and relaxed provincial Thai lifestyle. Here, I was finding purpose in the small things.
Living in Bangkok for a month with 14 other intricately unique individuals was easily the most fun, fast-paced, and ridiculous experience of my life. Within a few days we learned to lean into each other as we spent every waking moment together. I found joy in being with the cohort. The pressure to know basic Thai and be as culturally competent as possible with people I met in an airport was so comforting. I let the city develop a routine for me as I rushed to do as many quintessential Bangkok things like visiting 360 rooftop bars and getting weekly thai massages. As an introvert, that in and of itself was the first sign that there was so much growth to come.
As I found myself in my new large and empty house surrounded by 30 cats and fresh growing mango, pineapples, and flowers, I turned to a new small joy: the town of Watbot. Every Saturday and Sunday, I would ride my old bike with its fantastic blue basket to my favorite coffee shop, BanCafe. Whether it was my green tea or latte, the barista always made me feel at home, and the owner always tried to talk to me. Unfortunately, my fluency in Thai was still pending. Biking through the neighborhood, having grandmas ask me if I ate, rushing away from dogs in absolute fear, and enjoying my morning routine was the pinnacle of small purpose. I’d see my neighbor, also donned in his bike and basket combo, ready to go to the market for breakfast. What was initially a quick caffeine fix, became a sense of community.
In a similar fashion, I found purpose in food. The local market, which I frequented everyday, (twice a day on the weekends) was the apple of my eye. I made friends with my vegetable ladies, who never hesitated to compliment my curly hair. The beautiful green veggies, chinese broccoli, vibrantly red tomatoes, and abundance of herbs, garlic and chili felt like fireworks in my head. Thailand is known worldwide for its cuisine, and this market was no different. I found purpose in buying green onions. I found purpose in trying to understand the total amount I owed in Thai. I found purpose in seeing the same customers at the same stands. I found purpose in learning how to use my wok. Former ETA’s always emphasized the role food was going to play in our relationships, and I was hesitant in the belief because of my dietary restrictions, but it was no different. The love that outpoured when it came to food was unlike any other. I biked home from school, and was cut off by the Chinese language teacher inviting me to have som tam at her home. Food was the purpose here. Food was a joy here.
However, my time as a Fulbrighter would have meant nothing without the relationships I built with my students. After awkward first days and even rougher lessons, I devoted time to pouring relevant topics into my lessons; ensuring that what I wanted to teach could somehow resonate with not only my students, but also myself. I spent a month planning my Black History Month lesson, which took the entire month of February. As an Ethiopian-American, it meant a lot to be able to show my students that there is no textbook definition of what an American looks like, although that seemed to be difficult to grasp at first. We spent time dancing like we were on Soul Train, writing poems and hosting a poetry slam like we were in Harlem, and watched Beyonce’s Homecoming on Netflix (with Thai subtitles of course).
Easily my most favorite lesson plan, and unfortunately last, was when I was able to learn more about my students. I shared with them my college experience in between Beyonce’s Coachella performance, but also allowed them to share their own stories with me. Countless K-Pop and Thai songs streamed out of my classroom as we danced after academic competitions.
The real turning point of my time in Watbot was when I saw myself as a mentor to my students, talking to them about college visits, and asking them to teach me more Thai. The loneliness and fear of being left behind in the thoughts of my friends back in Texas essentially melted away when I began to root myself in the community of my students. In a way, I feel like this was my true purpose of being in Watbot. To find purpose in a new community, and provide purpose to others.