Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Matt Spence

Almost exactly one year, I remember receiving the email that I was accepted to the Fulbright program on the same day that I received notice that I would need to leave my college campus and return home due to Covid-19. It was a rollercoaster of emotions, but ever since that day, I began to picture what my life would be like living in Thailand. Having travelled to Bangkok for a week previously, I had gotten a taste for what Thai culture was like, which was a major reason for me originally applying to Thailand.  

Chaeson, Lampang

However, I had not travelled to any of the less touristy provinces or smaller towns. When I received my placement in Thung Saliam, located in the northern province of Sukhothai, I was admittedly hesitant because I was scared that this location would not match the type of experience I imagined. The days flew by in those months before the trip, and before I knew it, I was aboard my flight into Thailand.  

First quarantine sunrise

Before I could truly exist in Thailand, though, it was necessary to quarantine for 2 weeks in a hotel room, which I was definitely not excited about after being trapped at home. I expected the room to be outfitted with only the bare necessities, but I was greeted by a balcony as I walked in. As jet lagged as I was, I awoke to realize it had a perfect view of the sunrise. Every day, we had options to choose from for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and the food was actually really good). Every Monday night, the hotel provided live music in the courtyard for everyone to listen to. In our second week, the staff allowed us to have some time outside to exercise. All of these little things made my stay there so much more enjoyable, and only later did I realize how much effort our program coordinator, P’Kee, had put into finding us the most comfortable quarantine. She didn’t need to do that. She could’ve saved a lot of money by choosing a different option. But she was generous enough to put our mental health into consideration and we were all the better for it.  

Finally fourteen days passed, and we could all finally begin the grand Thailand adventure, right? Wrong. Some of us were met with a different reality because our provinces had Covid restrictions against Bangkok. This meant another fourteen day quarantine. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly excited to be trapped inside again.  

The historical park, Sukhothai
Second quarantine

Once I arrived in Thung Saliam, I was met by my host teacher and settled into my new home, where I would be staying for the next two weeks. Like the hotel in Bangkok, the teachers at the school were nice enough to deliver food to my house for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That first morning, I received two meals in the morning, so naturally, I thought this must be the breakfast and lunch meals. I ate the first meal and stored the other in my fridge until lunchtime. Around noon, as I was eating the second meal, I got a message that my lunch was just delivered. Confused, I walked to my door to check, and there were two more full meals waiting outside. I couldn’t believe they thought I could eat so much! They were truly making sure that I did not go starving while I was there for quarantine, and it was just incredible how generous they were with their food and money.  

This continued for a few days because I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was too much, but after a certain point, I had enough food to last a few days stocked in my fridge, so I told my host teacher not worry about bringing me food for the next few 2 or three days. She seemed rather concerned when I told her this, though, and insisted that I wasn’t being a burden to them. As a compromise, she offered to bring me fruit, which I gladly accepted since I love fruit and Thailand is known for having some of the best. Of course, I thought that she’d bring me a bunch of bananas and mangos. I should’ve known better, but it seems I didn’t learn from my previous experience. That evening, I got a fruit delivery larger than what my family of five would eat in a week. I spent that next week trying to give away, eat, and do anything I could with that fruit to avoid letting it go to waste.  

When this second quarantine ended, I was finally able to experience Thai life outside of four walls, and I met with some of the most caring, genuine people in my life. From the students to the other teachers, everyone showed me the utmost kindness and compassion. One of the greatest examples of this is when I sprained my ankle during a pickup game of basketball after school one day. As soon as it happened, everyone stopped what they were doing and helped me by getting ice, and collecting my belongings, and even driving me back home. I didn’t even know the names of the people that took care of me at the time (I’m still working on getting the names of my 300+ students, give me a break), but they went out of their way to assist me in my time of need.  

Trip to the hospital

I woke up the next morning, and I still couldn’t put any weight on it, so I finally told my host teacher. That day, my host teacher and another English teacher took me to the hospital and spent hours there waiting with me as I was seen by the emergency room doctors and had X-rays taken (and then retaken since the angle wasn’t right the first time). Since I am 6 feet tall, the crutches that I received from the hospital didn’t weren’t nearly the right size, so they brought them to one of the school engineers to custom fit it to me. They not only kept me company the entire time, but also took me to lunch right after the hospital.  

Fitting the crutches

Even more so than the generosity of food and money from the people that I’ve interacted with here, what has truly surprised me is their generosity of time. The students come to see me during lunch just to try to talk to me. The teachers volunteer themselves to take me to national and historical parks. Some have even invited me to their homes to meet their families and play with their grandchildren and nieces/nephews. Having recently graduated from college, where my schedule was a Tetris board of color-coded events, I had been conditioned to treat time as my most valuable resource. Even more so than college, I have spent all of my life living in the northeast of the US, where people aren’t exactly known for being the most caring or selfless to strangers. For the people here, some of whom I barely know, to grant me time out of their days to tend to my needs is something that I truly haven’t experienced in my life before, and makes me even more grateful for all of the kindness they’ve shown me.  

About Matt Spence

My name is Matt Spence, and I am currently spending this year as a Fulbright ETA in Thung Saliam, Sukhothai. I first realized my passion for teaching as a summer school teacher during the summers of my high school years, and I have tried to get as much teaching and mentoring experience as I can. After visiting Thailand for a week during my undergraduate years, I knew that I needed to return and I couldn’t have imagined a more suitable way to spend my time there than to incorporate teaching. While I plan to matriculate to medical school after Fulbright, I aim to make teaching an integral element to my future profession.