Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Matthew (Kee) Her

My name is Kee Her and I am currently a 2020-2021 Fulbright Thailand English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed in Mahasarakham. My background as a Hmong American and past experience of studying abroad in Thailand in 2019 drove me to choose Thailand as my placement country. During my first experience, I traveled with a small cohort around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Khong. On this program, we learned about families and communities living in their environment and met locals from nonprofits, organizations, and ethnic minority groups. My purpose on this program was to retrace my Hmong roots by connecting with Hmong Thai locals, searching traditional Hmong clothing, and visiting Hmong villages in the highlands. My experience played a large factor in me returning to Thailand, thinking that I would be placed in one of the Northern provinces, teaching in a school that would hopefully have Hmong students. However, I did not get what I hoped for when I discovered that I was placed in Mahasarakham, a province in the Isan region where there were no Hmong and had locals who spoke both Thai and Isan only. In my narrative, I will be telling you how I came to love Mahasarakham.

When I applied for Fulbright Thailand, I wrote in my essay that I hoped to teach in a school where it would have Hmong students. My first experience when I traveled in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Khong left a deep impact on me that I wanted to be placed in the northern provinces. Then, when I heard I was a finalist and found out that I would be placed in Mahasarakham, my initial reactions were disappointed, surprised, and hesitant. I pondered a lot in the beginning of my grant to why Fulbright would place me in Mahasarakham and not in one of the northern provinces. Honestly, I was a bit upset when I heard of this news. However, I was content to hear that Fulbright would still continue our grant despite Covid, so I am thankful for this. In addition, I even heard from my predecessors about how lovely Mahasarakham was, so I wanted to have a positive outlook.

On the day when the ETAs would travel to their provinces, I was feeling excited and nervous because it was then at this point things were going to get real. I had contacted my host teacher who I and past predecessors call Khun Mae (your mother) to let her know to pick me up at Khon Kaen airport. I heard about Khun Mae from my predecessors and they said she is a hardworking, independent, and talented woman. We also chatted a bit when I was still quarantining in Bangkok and I was thankful that she was checking in on me. When I arrived in Khon Kaen and had walked out of the arrival doors, I was greeted warmly by a senior woman and three student teacher interns. This woman smiled and came up to hug me and then started tying a traditional Isan sash around my waist. I then realized that this woman had to be Khun Mae. I heard from other ETAs that their host teachers greeted them very warmly and they all felt very thankful. I also felt the same when this kind of similar love was given to me from Khun Mae. We took a few photos and then departed to Mahasarakham.  

I arrived in Mahasarakham and it was everything my predecessors had informed me: hot, spicy food, living in a dorm, be provided with a bike, living in a college town, small school of about 500 students, etc. I remembered when the first day I arrived at Thakonyang Pittayakhom, which is my placement school, I was very tired as I only had two hours of sleep the night before. I tried to uphold my composure and maintain a positive attitude. A lot of events happened so fast in a short amount of time. First, Bonus, Pam, and Pii Natcha, who were the three student teacher interns, helped translate documents for me to sign. Next, I met Pii Pen, who is a teacher in the English Department, who approached me and handed me a large stuffed bear. She and other student teacher interns took selfies with me and the whole time, I had a big smile. I was feeling so delighted that I forgot how tired I was. Third, Bonus took me around to tour the school and I was able to meet other teachers and the students. When I met some of the teachers, they were happy to see me and commented on how I was a great dancer. I realized that Khun Mae must have shared my dancing videos to the teachers and so I thanked them happily, yet I was also a bit embarrassed. The students were also surprised to see that I was there and it was then when Bonus told them I would be their ETA that they welcomed me in Thai and a few English phrases. After everything, I was feeling loved and satisfied despite how tired I was. My first moment at Thakonyang was great and it would then lean into more grateful moments.

Throughout my first semester of teaching at Thakonyang, I was able to build bonds with many of the teachers and students. Everyone knew who I was and I felt this to be both good and bad. I felt very welcomed as students would say, “Teacher!” Once they said this, I knew they were talking about me. On the flip side, I had to learn the names and faces of teachers and students. I found this difficult as there was only one of me and there were more of them. As of now, I still do not know all of the names and faces of teachers and students, so a lot of the times I would call the ones who I do not know as Pii (older) or Nong (younger). I am someone who values to call others by their names and recognize who they are, yet I am learning very slowly. However, I would have to say I am proud of myself because I do know a lot of the names of teachers and students now. The teachers have been nothing but kind and generous with me. I was a bit skeptical because the teachers were being way too nice as they would give me gifts, invite me to eat with them, chat with them, etc. I was taken back every time a teacher did something nice for me. As time went on, I realized that the teachers’ kindness and inclusiveness were genuine. It was so much that I felt burdened yet loved at the same time. I often tried to pay back the kindness that the teachers have given me by gifting small presents, but I felt that they were never enough. In addition, there were times when I wanted to express my gratitude, but I could only say the basics and thank you in Thai. Although I do have my challenges in my interactions, I am very thankful to have built relationships with the teachers and students.  

As Covid is still prevalent in Thailand, a lot of the things I can do in Mahasarakham are limited. There are two universities in Mahasarakham and my predecessors have told me that they have made a lot of college friends on campus. My hope was the same, but most college students left home to study online since college campuses were closed due to Covid. Instead of making friends on campus, I have met most of my college friends through their student teacher internship or mutual networks. There were only a handful of my friends who could speak English, particularly there were two that I often hung out with. My friends Bonus and Pii Su have been nothing but kind, helpful, and genuine to me. They have helped me accustom to living in Mahasarakham such as taking me out to places, translating Thai, introducing me to new things and people, etc. Without them, I would have never had such an amazing experience in my first semester of teaching. We always laughed, joked, gossiped, and did everything. Since our grant started late from the traditional start, I was only able to work alongside with Bonus, Pii Su, and most student teacher interns for one semester since they have graduated from college. I am blessed to meet such amazing friends who have helped me adapt to my environment and included me in their hangouts. If I were to think about it, I would not change how I met my friends as I prefer to meet through them school instead in college.

I want to talk about our students. They are a big part of the reason to why I change my mind and enjoy staying in Mahasarakham. At first, I was shy and hesitant to approach our students since most could not speak English well. I realized this as I started to walk around the school and interact with our students. Although the language barrier is present, this did not stop me in creating bonds with them. There were lots of actions, hand motions, and google translate involved when communicating. I always felt bad that I did not know Thai well to have a strong bond with our students. They always greeted me, invited me to play sports, ate with them, etc. Maybe this is just me but I think there were times when I just showed up in front of students and they would just include me in on things. There were also times when they taught me how to speak Isan. Honestly, Isan is fun to learn and I appreciate that they taught me some phrases because students and teachers loved it when I spoke Isan. I also came back to school during the evenings almost every night to play volleyball, sepak takraw, and soccer with our students. I mostly played volleyball, but there were times I watched our students play sepak takraw. Our school has a nationally recognized sepak takraw team and they are actually top-ranked as first. I am big fan of our takraw team and when I heard that they were relocating to Si Sa Ket, I was devastated. Paw Nong, who is the coach, changed his mind, so the takraw team ended up staying. I was relieved to hear of this news. I wish to create more memories with our students.  

I could go on and on about the many moments that have changed my mind about Mahasarakham. Although Covid has really affected my experience, I am still thankful for the moments that I have created in Mahasarakham. Even when I was gone away on vacation for two weeks away from Mahasarakham, I started to miss the familiarity, the people, and the food, so I came back to my province sooner than I expected. Here I feel loved and known by the people which was why it made me come to love Mahasarakham. Although I cannot have such a strong relationship with the people here like I would like to since I do not speak Thai well, I wish to create more memories with the people here. My first four months went by so fast and after vacation, I feel that my five months will go by even faster. Therefore, just like how the people have been genuine with me, I want to be genuine with them by showing more of a presence and returning the love they have given me. Although I will be going into this new semester without many of our student teacher interns, I am still excited to see what memories I can create at our school. In addition, I questioned at first and even now to why Fulbright placed me in Fulbright, but I am grateful that they have placed me in Mahasarakham. I would not change my placement. This is my story in how I came to love Mahasarakham.