Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Vanessa Grapes

Vanessa Grapes is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Thakonyang Pittayakom School in Mahasarakham Province where she teaches students in Mattayom 1-6. She graduated from West Virginia University in 2018 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Secondary Education. In her free time, she can be found eating homemade meals with teachers from school, riding her bike to every coffee shop in town, exploring Thailand with fellow ETAs, buying too many hard copies of novels, visiting temples,  and going on roadtrips throughout Isan with her mentor teacher, Khun Mae.

I had just erased the whiteboard and was preparing to teach my second lesson of the day. Listening for approaching footsteps, I discarded a third dry-erase marker in a series of failed attempts at clearly writing “Period 2” on the board and meticulously rehearsed revised instructions in my head. Did I print out enough copies for everyone? What was the Thai word for “ask” again? What if students arrive late?- or  worse, filter in sporadically throughout the class period?  This internal monologue was shattered by the sound of my Thai nick-name. “Agnoon! Something to inform you”, my mentor teacher, ‘Khun Mae’ -my Thai “mother”, said as she peeked her head through the open doorway

I motioned her in with a slight head-bow as she eagerly made her way into the middle of the blue-tiled, deskless classroom. “This period, maybe no students come,'' she began. I set down my marker and turned in anticipation while suppressing a confused smirk at the routine irony. “Maybe”—how had such an ambiguous word come to dominate my daily schedule? “The boys from the takraw team are fishing at my farm to prepare a traditional Isan dinner tonight,'' Khun Mae said, beaming up at me with an expectant nod, “Would you like to join?”

Fishing? I glanced at the clock. The school day was barely halfway through. I had arrived early to create lesson materials by hand and I had already envisioned a relaxing evening by myself jogging, reading, and opening belated Christmas gifts. Yet, before I could formulate a proper request for more information, (or an excuse not to go) I heard myself say, “Okay! When?” I scanned my messy classroom with feigned confidence as my mind whirred in a million different directions. I wondered how I’d ever make up for the class-time that was consistently lost to unexpected holidays, events, and schedule-changes, how many lunch periods I’d spent futilely planning out detailed units and assessments, and how often this year I’d have to abandon my personally regimented after-school plans in favor of whimsy and the unknown.

My thoughts were once again stopped in their tracks when I noticed Khun Mae’s car keys, already eagerly twinkling in the grasp of her tanned fingers. “Are you ready now?”, she said.

I felt myself nod as I rushed towards my desk to unbutton my backpack, double-checking to make sure I’d followed my standard protocol of bringing a pair of pants to change into—they were there. Sighing with relief, I slung my bag across my shoulder, scooped up my shoes by the heels with two fingers, and pulled down the strings of six dusty fans, lulling them to a stop mid-oscillation. I took one more intuitive glance at my incomplete agenda on the board, faced Khun Mae with what I hoped would be interpreted as a reassuring smile, and said, “Prom Kha!”. Ready.

I piled into my regular spot in Khun Mae’s passenger seat, greeted by the now-familiar smell of dried pandan leaves and ya dom spices. Within ten minutes, we had left the whirring, motorbike-filled, coffee-shop lined streets of Mahasarakham University in favor of dusty, pot-hole dented roads that carved their way through miles of seemingly endless, golden-tinted rice-fields. I drew a deep breath as I looked out the window.

The members of my graduate education cohort in the U.S  can attest to the fact that I’m typically labeled as someone who “thrives in chaos” - a coffee-clutching, chronic procrastinator who has difficulty resisting the charm of last-minute adventures. Before arriving in Bangkok, I had heard much talk about Thailand’s “sabai sabai” mentality; an outlook based on going with the flow and taking things as they come without placing too much stress or concern on knowing everything ahead of time, and was excited by the possible implications.  I additionally noted the inclusion of the words “adventurous”, “flexible”, and “adaptable” on the country-specific Fulbright application and honestly believed I’d be the perfect fit. I could eat whatever was put in front of me. I could think on my feet. I could heed our predecessors’ advice of saying “yes” to any new, strange or even mundane experiences.  

As a result, I have retrospectively realized that upon my arrival in Mahasarakham, I ended up spending a lot of energy naively convincing myself that I was prematurely adjusted to my new surroundings- or perhaps worse (and more truthfully), that I didn’t have all that much adjusting to do in the first place. Part of me thought I was somehow already equipped to find amusement in the unplanned, to balance out moments of frustration with gratitude, and to consistently navigate my day to day encounters with patience. Two months into my Northeastern Thailand placement (Isan), however, and it seemed like I’d finally met my match.

The anticipated script of the “sabai sabai” attitude was rolling itself out before me in every situation, but I kept forgetting my lines. All it would take was one morning spent waiting for my students to show up only to be notified that my schedule had (once again) been changed, one afternoon spent in a car hours away from home, watching helplessly from the passenger seat as we stopped at every fruit stand along the road to ask strangers for directions (despite my fully functioning google maps), one night spent being reluctantly pulled onto a dance floor  to mimic traditional Isan hand movements instead of sleeping-- and all of those layers of confidence would unceremoniously come crashing down.

I’d tense up, shut down, and begin building up walls of resistance  to the people around me. By default, I’d begin etching a  mental list of all of the personal tasks that I was forcibly neglecting, ravaging my brain for remnants of  the educational theory that I had studied so passionately yet was failing to effectively implement in my classes, and generally stewing over the unprecedented level to which  I was being  inconvenienced.  

And there I was once again, battling out my thoughts in a passenger’s seat. I let out a slow exhale.

“We’re here na kha!” Khun Mae said. I snapped myself back into my immediate surroundings as we turned down a gravel road and slowed to a stop next to a small, wooden shack and weather-worn pavillion that she proudly announced had been in her family for the past 100 years. We immediately set to work unloading the trunk of the car. I grabbed an armful of bags spilling over with green papayas, chillies, ginger, tomatoes, and fish sauce, and set them down on a cluttered table alongside bottles of Fanta, sticky-rice baskets, and countless other supplies that Khun Mae must have carefully set out in preparation the night before.

She pointed out nearby patches of lemongrass, tamarind trees, and mulberry bushes, informing me that the small, white flower petals that we tiptoed over in the grass were not only beautiful, but also arroi, delicious. As I closed the trunk, she  asked me if I could believe that her own mother had taught her how to fish on this same land when she was a little girl. With each new bit of information, Khun Mae revealed  an increasingly vibrant landscape behind what had, just moments before, been nothing more than a dried-up blur of greenish-brown to my untrained eyes.

I smiled as I absorbed the rest of the landscape, trying to imagine Khun Mae as a small child, fumbling as she mirrored her parents’ hand movements for tasks that have now become muscle memory. The field was lined by banana and coconut trees on each side, stretching out as far as I could see, a seemingly out-of-place cluster of forest the only obstruction towards the middle. Puddles of water twinkled in the divets leftover from the recent rice harvest, and the afternoon sunlight that filtered lazily through a group of crowded tree-trunks it possible to only make out the silhouettes of two boys as they moved about in the distance.

“You can!”, Khun Mae said, motioning in their direction, ”They are catching fish; you can go watch!” She turned and busied herself with preparing coals for the grill. I started walking.

Though I was beginning to learn the necessity of avoiding expectations, I admittedly still had a few in regards to what this fishing excursion would look like. However, the scene that I was approaching slowly disrupted them all. As I neared the patch of trees, I could hear birds chirping, and two boys speaking in an easy-going  yet business-like manner in what I later learned to distinguish as Isan language.  Both were shirtless, barefoot, and covered in mud from head to toe. One of them was holding a large, black trash-bag.

When he noticed my presence, his eyes squinted in amused excitement and he shouted “Teacher!! S-ah-peak Thai dai mai?”, do you speak Thai? I said “nit noi”, motioning with my fingers, “a little bit”. He proceeded to hold up the trash-bag, his arm briefly buckling under its massive weight. He pointed to it as one would a trophy and shouted, “Teacher! Fish Coh! Fish Coh!”. Confused, I looked more closely and realized that the black bag was filled nearly to the brim with ceaselessly writhing figures.

“Coh!”I pieced together later, is the Isan word for “snakehead fish”.

I looked over the boys’ shoulders, searching for a pond or fishing poles that had perhaps escaped my view. But I saw only trees, dirt, and mud.. “Ti nai?”, Where?  I asked, failing to suppress an incredulous laugh. The boy who wasn’t wrestling with the bag of live fish pointed helpfully to a thicker patch of forest behind him. I could vaguely see the dirt sloping down into a ditch between the trees, but before I could attempt a follow-up question, the boys spoke to me in rapid-fire Isan, motioned back towards the farmhouse, and together began diligently lugging the bag towards Khun Mae’s small, hunched figure, expectantly tending to yellow flames in the distance.

I didn’t know whether to stay or follow them back. Ultimately, curiosity made the decision for me. I figured I’d find a glittering pond tucked away behind the steeply sloping land,  perhaps a couple of old fishing poles propped up against a bordering tree-trunk. Instead, I found a pit of grayish-brown mud laced with thick, mangled vines, the surface of the mud bubbling and churning ever so slightly enough to give the entire body of sludgy liquid the eerie impression of breathing. I questioned whether I really could have been in my classroom preparing for a lesson just an hour before. Just then, I heard a truck door slam in the distance.

I turned to see the rest of the boys takraw team jumping out of the bed of the truck fully equipped with nets, bags, buckets, and several scythes. I watched as they flung off their shoes, attentively tilted their heads to receive instructions from their coach, and excitedly began walking towards the muddy pond (and me) in chatter-filled clusters. As the boys took off their shirts, waded into the mud, and began calculatedly clutching at the layers of sleeping snake-fish with their bare hands, I made myself as out of the way as possible. I crouched beside a thin tree-trunk and assumed my role as a silent spectator once again.

This of inaction was, of course, fleeting. After three minutes of confusedly watching students fling their freshly caught snake-fish into giant buckets and chase after the larger ones  that had somehow escaped by propelled their wriggling bodies across the pit of mud, I again heard “Teacher! Teacher! Agnoon!”. The shouts came from three boys whom I had taught the day before. They were, perhaps jokingly, motioning for me to come down into the mud to fish with them. Unable to gauge their seriousness, I bashfully began to shake my head no; but then I stopped. Part of me  knew that if I turned down this strange opportunity in my new home, I always regret it. I tossed flip-flops aside and started making my way down.

I spent the next hour thigh-deep in mud, catching only the tiniest snake-fish as my students, in good-intentioned jest, took turns launching larger ones my way while attempting to use their limited English skills in between bursts of laughter to coach me in the proper form to prevent the silver scales from cutting my hands. It was the most relieved I’d felt in weeks.

Only when the sun was low and each of our buckets were piled high with squirming fish , did we climb out of the mud and begin making our way back to the farm-house. I could see that the  pavillion and surrounding areas were now filled with guests, all busily setting up bamboo mats, rinsing off fish, and cooking. Khun Mae’s eyes were fixed on the papaya she was chopping and  did not seem to notice my presence among the crowd of muddy boys approaching her. “Khun Mae!” I instead sang once I was close enough. She set down her knife and looked at me with her jaw open wide before collapsing into a deep, closed-mouthed chuckle. “Now you are an Isan girl,''she declared, and led me to a rusted faucet to rinse off for the meal.

As the sun set, several hands motioned me over to complete one of the many circles of guests that had formed on the newly spread bamboo mats around the farm. Students politely set down dishes of sticky-rice, somtam, ant-egg soup, and grilled snake-fish at the center of each circle of teachers before settling down amidst their own friends. We all took turns grabbing clumps of sticky-rice as Khun Mae began telling the story of how her “American daughter” had decided to catch fish in the mud with the Takraw boys while she wasn’t looking. It was the day after Christmas, and there I was- in the very midst of my new chapter in Thailand.

Unconsciously, futilely, I  rubbed my fingertips together in an attempt to shake loose the bits of rice that stubbornly clung to my skin. I swatted at the flies that hovered around our bowls of soup. I started to think of how much I missed eating without ants crawling up my ankles. But then I stopped myself.  I looked up at the white flower petals falling from the trees overhead and  tried to remember what I had done  on this same day the year before. Amused by the juxtaposition, I took one more deep breath and reached for a fish. As I confusedly scanned the surrounding plates to determine the proper etiquette for grabbing a cooked snake-fish, I caught Khun Mae’s understanding gaze amidst the chattering crowd, and we laughed and laughed and laughed.  

Months have passed since this day, and still I look back on it fondly as a turning point within my community. Though they are no longer my students, when I see the boys from the takraw team walking around  campus, I know we can smile at one another with an understanding that goes beyond the confines of the school’s walls. When Khun Mae proposes an excursion on a random Tuesday, she can trust that I find joy in these seemingly small moments. When I reflect on my time in Thailand as a whole, I wonder how different things would have been if I had allowed myself to perceive that Boxing day as just another “interruption”, how many experiences I would have missed out on if the ways my days unfolded were left entirely up to the ceaseless, nagging monologue inside my own head.

After catching up with a mentor of mine and telling her this story in March, she sent me the following quote by Henri Nouwen:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them”

While I still struggle to be fully present in my day to day interactions, and while it is still difficult at times to maintain a positive and patient attitude, these are the words that I have consistently come back to in order to reframe my thinking. And these are the messages and memories that I hope to carry with me long after I leave.