Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Tririna Vue

I am the oldest daughter to a Hmong family of five children,which is to say I am a caretaker for all of those younger than me. In the months before my journey to Thailand, every day of my life was filled with the energetic shouts and chatter of my younger siblings who looked to me for help. One day it would be crying about misplacing their belongings, another it could be about not understanding a maths problem. But most days, it was about the hunger that manifested in their stomachs.


Front row Left to Right: Emma, EthanBack row Left to Right: My grandma, Me, Vivian, my mom, my dad, Eric

“Trina,” my little sister Emma would whine, opening the fridge for the fifth time that afternoon. “I’m hungry.”


I would watch as her small face puckered up into a pout,tiny fingers curling around the handle of the fridge. She looked so small that sometimes I wondered if I hugged her long enough, would she fade in my arms? Before I left for Thailand, I worried about who would take care of her. Who would indulge her when she wanted to pretend to be a gaming streamer? Who would help her get the cereal box at the top of the cupboard that her little stool couldn’t quite reach?


I had tried to reassure her, patting her hair down with soft whispers they will take care of you. “But,” she had asked, through sniffles and tears, “who will take care of you?” Her question caught me off guard but nevertheless, I answered: “I’m a big girl,” I had said. “I can take care of myself.” Because I always had and I knew I would be alright. I knew howto take care of people, it’s what I’m good at.

In the Arms of Thailand

But, late in the dark of night when I arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport and the only sounds I remember hearing were my anxious breaths and heavy heart because oh my gosh this is the first time I had been in an airport in over ten years, I found myself being taken into there liable, warm arms of Thailand.


The serene view from my quarantine hotel.

Despite me constantly worrying about the next step, what to do, where to go--from the moment I landed in Bangkok, it felt like someone had taken my hands with a comforting pat to tell me “It’s okay now.” And I leaned into the hold because this was a new environment, I didn’t know what I was doing, and there was someone here to help. Before I knew it, in just under 48 hours, I went from living in a household that never had a quiet moment to a quarantine hotel room that came with the allure of muted,peaceful silence. I was no longer making three meals a day for my younger siblings or answering their curious questions—instead, I filled out a Google Form of what I wanted to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and I was the one asking questions. And every day for the next two weeks, the kind staff at Chor Cher Hotel brought my meals to me, called to check on my well-being, and took care of me

And while the staff at my quarantine hotel were attentive and generous, nothing could have prepared me for the gracious people who awaited me in Chiang Mai. Again, I underwent a fourteen-day quarantine. Although the idea of spending another two weeks inside four walls may seem tiresome and dull, it was within these few short days that I think I began to get a peek into the essence of Thai culture: care.

What does it mean to take care?

Kru Piu and I after we finished wrapping our khao tum mud.

The fruits of our labor -- khao tum mud!

What does it mean to take care of someone? Is it in the way my neighbors said hello through the screen door, gifting me with Thai words that rolled along my tongue and sweet chocolates wrapped in funny pictures; or is it in the way Mae Piu came to my door, her arms full of a tray of home cooked meals that carried a world I had yet to explore; or maybe it is in the way my host teacher, Kru Toi, visited me with a smile and oranges, or maybe noodles from her favorite restaurant? It was in these thoughtful gestures during my quarantine that I think, for the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be taken care of.

One of the many times our department ate lunch together!


In my little district of San Sai, for the teachers in my department, to take care of someone is to ask them to eat lunch together everyday, handing me a plate already hot with steaming rice and gesturing to the several plates full of somtam, fried eggs, or kanoom jeen. It is in the way everyone asks me, “Gin khao ruu yang ka?, (Have you eaten yet?)” or when Pi Aob brings me a cookie or baked good she had made last weekend.

Me with the student teachers before our walk. From Left to Right: BPon, Me, Aunpan, Wood

For the student teachers, to take care of someone is to teach them funny Thai slang, all of us laughing together because I can’t get the pronunciation quite right. To take care means to go on long walks together after school, asking each other silly questions like “In a zombie apocalypse, would you sacrifice yourself for 100 people?” For Wood, a former San Sai student teacher, it is in the way he goes to my classes because he knows I get nervous sometimes. Where he sits patiently in the back, knowing I am capable but is there for support in case I need his help.

Out on an adventure with Kru Jumpoon and his family (and fellow ETA Carmen)!

For Kru Jumpoon, to take care of someone is to invite them to his home, to meet his family, and to eat a meal together. It is to share stories and ask me to be a part of their theoretical family band. To take care is to bring me to Doi Saket and have impromptu photo shoots together, a big smile on his face because he says his daughter and I are muan gan, the same. For the Chiang Mai song teow driver, to take care of farang,foreigners, is to voluntarily take them on spontaneous trips to Wat Ban Den and a café with an artificial waterfall after we had made the one-hour drive to Namtok Bua Tong, only to be told it was closed because of COVID-19.


Playing games with M4.3 students

Out on my daily walk after school and my students from M5.5 spotted me!

My lovely M1.3 girls!

For my students, to care for someone is to say “Hi,Teacher!” and use hand motions, Thai, English, and Google Translate, all just to have a conversation with me. It is in the way they are brave in class and ask questions, play games, and include me in their circle where I know they care.

For Mae Piu, to care for someone is to welcome them into her family, telling me gently that I am her daughter. It is in the way she invites me over to have dinner with her every night, patiently telling me the name of every dish and waiting for me to get the correct pronunciation before we eat together. It is in the way she makes time for me, even though she must also care for her elderly parents and keep the dormitory running smoothly.

On a trip at Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens.From Left to Right: Kru Toi, Me, Mae Piu, Aunpan


And for Kru Toi, to care for someone is to bring them back a small Thai dessert from the local market, even though I had assured her I wasn’t hungry. And it is in the way what she brings back is made out of glutinous rice flour covered in shavings of coconut because she remembered that those are my favorite. For her, to take care of someone is to play ping pong after school together and sit in comfortable silence after a long day’s worth of work. Her care is seen stitched into the traditional Northern Thai clothes she made for me—I remember her care every Friday when I tuck the buttons together and she helps me adjust my skirt.

Care as a Gift

The most incredible view of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep. From Left to Right: Wood, Me, Kru Toi.

To be truthful, I still don’t quite understand how to respond to all of this care I am receiving. For so much of my life, I have gotten comfortable giving and taking care of those around me. Words don’t seem to be quite right, because how is a simple Thank You enough to tell Mae Piu that when I taste the rice porridge she made just for me, paired with morning glory and boiled eggs, it reminds me of my mother in America whose rice porridge I ate on days when we hid from the swirling Minnesota snow storms.Insisting on paying for a meal also doesn’t feel enough, because it can’t compare to the adventure Kru Toi had just taken me on. A day filled with the green mountains of Chiang Mai, breeze in our face and hair billowing in the wind because we sit at the back of a songteow, every twist and turn at a corner making my stomach twist in glee and excitement. How to say thank you for the view at the top of Doi Suthep, which overlooked the city of Chiang Mai and made me feel like I could fly in that exact moment.

However, something I have come to understand is that it is a gift to allow others to care for you. Sometimes, I will admit I feel that these people are so wonderful, giving me all of this care that I don’t know I deserve. But my mind wanders to my little sister Emma, who is so small and whose tiny hands can’t even wrap around the fridge’s handle properly yet. I think about how I want her to depend on me and how I want to take care of her.When I remember Emma, I wonder if when Kru Toi, Mae Piu, my students, theteachers at my school, the songteow driver, and the people of Chiang Mai, look at me, do they look at me the way I look at my little sister? The answer is in their earnest gestures and it is then that I understand to accept the care they so readily give.

About Tririna Vue

My name is Trina Vue and I am a Hmong-American 2020-2021 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at San Sai Wittayakom School in Chiang Mai where I teach Mattayom 1, 4, 5, and 6 (7th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade). I am from Mendota Heights, Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota Morris, where I studied English. Since I was 11-years-old, I have dreamed of a chance to return to the place my parents called ‘home’ and retrace the roots of my family’s history. I am inspired by my parents’ journey to learn English and hope to be the kind of teacher they may have needed during their struggle to learn the language.