Going back to your Peace Corps site is kinda like going home after your first semester in college. You realize that you will always be a guest from that point forward. Your life as you knew it no longer exists. Strange things have happened to your room (my old house in Thailand is now a motorcylce repair shop) and you are acutely aware of the most minor changes that have occurred since you left. In your mind that place is frozen in time, but in reality time has marched on without you. One of the biggest shocks for me was how big some of my students had gotten. They were grade school children when I left and now they are young adults in high school. It made me stop and think about time and how precious every day, week, and month is.
We went to Lalo’s site first, which is way up north, about 9 hours from Bangkok. We decided to fly because although we both missed alot of things about Thailand, neither of us missed voiced over action movies blasting all night long and air conditioning set below zero. When I first arrived in the swanky new Bangkok airport (which I hate), I was immediately struck by how developed Thailand seemed. Then I went to a few new ridiculously upscale malls downtown and I thought of how different Thailand was from how I remembered it. I had apparently forgotten that Bangkok is Bangkok and Thailand is Thailand, and when we stepped off that plane into Issan (the poorest section of Thailand) it was exactly how I remembered it. Smiling, barefoot children, old women with red mouths from chewing beetle nut for years, and dust. Lots of dust. I breathed a sigh of relief because this was the Thailand that I know and love.
We decided to make our visits a surprise because it is Thai custom to go a little (ok, a lot) overboard when you have a guest. Eventhough it was a surprise, it still got a little overwhelming at times. When you have a guest you should feed them. Alot. And if you can do it at a party, all the better. We spent about 48 hours at Lalo’s site and we attended two Round Table Parties: one of the most dreaded events in a Peace Corps volunteers life. Especially if you’re female and you can’t drink.
A round table party consists of a round table, 7-8 dishes which are usually the same… at every party… in any part of Thailand, lots of men drunk on whiskey, and young (sometimes disturbingly young) girls dancing around in skimpy, flourescent, sequined outfits. If you’re really lucky there’s karaoke and you are forced into singing a song in front of hundreds of people. It’s the same party for everything: weddings, retirements, Teacher’s Day, so-and-so’s running for public office, etc. We decided since we weren’t Peace Corps volunteers anymore we didn’t have to smile and pretend we wanted to be there so we made an early exit both times. At my site we weren’t the victims of any Round Table Parties, but we were forced to eat. All day and all night.
Everybody was really excited to see us. There were screams of joy and tears and hugging and the like. Visiting was good. I feel that I have closure with that part of my life that I didn’t have before. Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a big emotional investment. When it’s over you are left with so many powerful mixed emotions, and readjusting to American culture is probably more difficult than adjusting to Thai culture. Leaving Thailand was difficult for me, but now I see that I made the correct choice in coming back to the States. I am grateful for those two incredible, frustrating, challenging, sometimes magical years I spent in Thailand, but I am also grateful to be back in the United States.
Being in Thailand was so easy and comfortable: I knew the language, I knew the customs, I knew how to relate to people, I knew my way around, etc. and it made me realize I’ll always know those things. Thailand and all of the valuable lessons I learned there will always be with me. I think about the fact that I can travel halfway around the world to a foreign country with a completely different culture, a completely different language, a completely different world view from my own, and I can feel like I’m home, and that’s pretty awesome. I guess you can take the Peace Corps volunteer out of Thailand, but you can’t really take Thailand out of the volunteer… or something like that.
Lalo’s people gave him this necklace and my people gave me the necklace below. In general, they’re for good luck, and these ones in particular will supposedly make you rich. So, if I’m a rich woman one day, you’ll know why.
Tags: Peace Corps Thailand, Thailand, Travel