Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Veronica Suellen Madell

One of the first Thai words I learned was bag, กระเป๋า (grap-bow). I sat in the airport staring at my three large suitcases and I realized I didn’t even know what to call them. It wasn’t untilI was tucked away in my window seat that I really started to process the adventure I was embarking on. I chose Thailand in part because I wanted to learn from the sabai-sabai nature and become less rigid myself. But, realizing I had no clue what my life would look like in a few months, I was terrified. I felt very not sabai-sabai. A few months in, I have learned more than I thought possible. I have laughed, cried, smiled, and loved my life in Thailand. Rumor has it that I have become more sabai-sabai myself. The best way to tell the story of my time in Thailand is through my relationship with that one word, grap-bow.


The Tote Bag

I’ve always carried everything in my hands. I am convinced that I can hold my phone, my keys, and my wallet without needing a purse. It did not take me long to figure out this is not an option in Thailand. Saying Sa-Wa-Dee-Ka and wai-ing with all those things in your hands is not a good look. My new Fulbright friend Rose got me a tote bag with a picture from a Thai children’s book we were learning how to read. I was determined that me and Ma-nee (the little girl on my tote bag) were going to take on the world.


Arriving in my province, Chachoengsao, was a disorienting experience. The van dropped us off at Chachoengsao Technical College, leaving me and Henny (My Fulbright ETA partner in all things great) in a new place with no clue where to go. I frantically Facebook messaged my host teachers but heard nothing back. I sat there with all my suitcases and my tote bag surrounded by teenage boys staring at me. In ten minutes I met my host teacher, the director of the school, and all of the classes I would be teaching.


Those first few weeks it felt like I could do nothing right. It all started with my tote bag that was supposed to get me through it all. I kept putting my bag on the floor and my host teacher kept moving it. I just kept forgetting. She would walk into the office and move it to a chair. At lunch, she laughed and made me hold my bag in my lap rather than place it on the ground. Even at the park she insisted the bench wasn’t good enough to put my bag on. I hated feeling like everything I did caused more work for her. Looking at my bag, I realized I didn’t even know half of the Thai words on it. I felt lost and like everything I did was off.


It took me weeks to figure out why I couldn’t put the bag on the floor. My host teacher didn’t want me to get ants in my bag. She didn’t want it to get dirty. She cared about me. I took a step back and I realized that my bag was not a symbol of my failure but rather a sign of my host teacher’s love. It took months of perspective to see that corrections are not about my failures but about the love people put into helping me.


The Mom bag

My host teacher, P-ton, has an eight year old daughter, Natcha, who has entirely won my heart. She comes to school quite often and on the weekends sometimes we go on adventures. Together we have gone to a wedding, fed monkeys, swam in the ocean, and ate great meals. It was on one of these adventures that I forgot my tote bag and was introduced to the Mom Bag, grab-pow mae.


P-ton has a bag that contains everything you will ever need. It has hand sanitizer, baby wipes, band-aids, water, sunscreen, and more. She frequently takes my phone and keys and tosses them in her bag, declaring that I can grab them later. She laughs and calls it her Mom bag and calls me her second daughter. The first time she said this I teared up because it reminded me just of my mom. My mom has the never-ending purse that has everything you can imagine. And even at the too-old age of 23, I still sometimes dig around for chapstick or throw my phone in there so I don’t have to carry it. I am amazed by the ideas that are translated across cultures. Even though I am far from home and sometimes everything feels different, the concept of a Mom Bag is unchanged. In both America and Thailand, moms carry around a too large purse always ready for everyone else’s needs. And, somehow, I was lucky enough to have a woman who took me under her wing, who allowed me to put my stuff in her bag. It sounds simple and silly but it meant everything.


Those adventures with Natcha, Henny, P’Ton and her husband taught me a lot about what can transcend cultural differences. One of the best things that translates into both cultures is the joy of kids. Four adults in a car who need an app to fully communicate is awkward. There is silence and the embarrassment at not knowing enough. Four adults and a kid is a different story. Natcha turned to me and demanded that I sing a song. I laughed, knowing that I would only do this for an eight-year-old. I sang a camp song and everyone clapped along. Then, Natcha proceeded to make everyone in the car sing a song. Her joy and wonder at the world made everything joyous instead of awkward.


On one of these adventures, I taught Natcha how to float in the ocean. Neither of her parents know how to swim, and I assured them that I am a lifeguard and could take Natcha out into the water. I taught her how to take deep breaths and relax even when she was scared. She asked me to sing a song. I sang “Jet Plane”, one of my favorite camp songs, and as the words I was so familiar with helped her relax and smile, I realized this was a moment of life I would never forget. We shared a meal together on the beach and P’ton got out her baby wipes from her Mom Bag when she discovered I didn’t have any. In this moment, I felt loved and useful and right where I was meant to be.


Keychains on a backpack

I expected to be sad on my birthday. My birthday is November 28th, and I am usually surrounded by family as it is right around Thanksgiving. I expected amore lonely and solitary birthday. But, like many other things, I was wrong.


My day started with my students all leaving class to bring me in a cake. The entire department sang Happy Birthday and took me and Henny to a phenomenal Birthday lunch. Since Henny and I have birthdays back to back, we celebrated together. My host teachers took us to a temple and led us through all of the Buddhist birthday traditions. I got to celebrate in both an American and Thai way. Again, it was a day I will never forget. I felt surrounded by love in away that is impossible to describe and amazing to feel.


Myfavorite birthday gift was a keychain from my host teacher P'Jem. Her motherhand sewed flowers with bells onto a keychain. It is a piece of art that I getto carry with me wherever I go. Not to mention the little jingle that nowfollows me around. For me, it beautifully represents the love from Thailand Iget to carry with me wherever I go. I know, so sappy.


Since then, my backpack has grown in key chains. My ETA friend Charlie gave me an adorable hand sewn dinosaur keychain. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of how grateful I am for my cohort. In addition to my host teachers, my ETA peers have made this year in Thailand full of love. They are people I am sure I will be friends with for life. They are always there to pick up the phone on a bad day. It is the people who I have met here who will stay with me the longest.


Looking at my backpack, I am reminded of how much I am loved. I see the pearler beads that my campers made for me before I left America. I see P’Jem’s flowers with the little bells. I see P’ton’s hand sanitizer she gave me so I could always be ready. I see Charlie’s dinosaur. These key chains remind me that while I am in Thailand for a year, these people have touched my heart forever.


Thailand has taught me that there is no reason to carry my phone, wallet, and keys all in my hands. I can be a strong woman and still ask for help. I will carry my bags from Thailand the rest of my life and all the memories I carry within them.


Veronica Madell is an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Chachoenegsao Thailand. She graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in English and Education. Outside of the classroom she can be found curled up with a book or desperately pounding at the keyboard trying to write her own. She loves hot earl grey tea and refuses to stop her habits even in the Thailand heat.