Lessons from Chiang Kham

The past 4.5 months have gone by in a heartbeat. On the one hand, it feels like I have been here for no time at all, but on the other hand I feel as if I haven’t seen my family in years, and boarding that flight to Doha alone and crying in JFK was decades ago. My time teaching in Thailand has been challenging and trying, but that being said I am so glad I took this step outside my comfort zone and experienced life through a completely new lens. Before I came here, I had a dream in my head of what teaching would be like. I

First day of school

dreamed that we would be placed in a beautiful mountain town, surrounded by friendly Thai people who would welcome us with open arms and embrace us into their culture. I dreamed of an amazing four months here, and possibly staying even longer and extending my contract with my school. I hoped I would be at a school with other foreign teachers, make new friends, become attached to my town and school, and be sad to leave when the time came. If we’ve facetimed or talked since I’ve been here, you probably know that my experience in Chiang Kham has not really come close to these first dreams and expectations but I have instead grown and learned so much in a very different way.

We all know the old adage, “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me”…I wish I had taken this more to heart before coming here. It was so naïve to think just because people I know or blogs I have read have had a certain experience in Thailand meant I would too, but in the age of social media this is often the message we get! I learned very quickly after getting here, that Thailand is a huge country! While we began to meet people quickly at orientation in Bangkok, it also did not take long to learn that these people would be placed hours and hours away from us. This became real and very tangible that second week when we had to take a 12 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Kham. We are truly out in the boonies, in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the rainbow– a town that some Thai people have never even heard of!

While I have shared some visuals on my blog during my time here…I feel it’s necessary to share a few more details before wrapping up with some of the lessons I have learned here. During our time here, 2!!! foreign teachers have left our town to go home. One of them was here just over a month and a half. That’s how tough it is! Granted, teaching isn’t for everyone, but both of those gals gave it a pretty good shot and it was just too much. To be totally transparent, there were quite a few times when I thought about leaving. I remember the first time I facetimed with my parents and it was absolutely brutal. In between sobs, I told them how hard it was, how much I missed them and how small my town was. I did not feel welcome the way I had hoped, in fact on my very first day of school after getting off the overnight bus, I was given a bicycle and made to find my way home alone after only being driven from my apartment to school one time. Not to mention my brakes make the loudest squeaking noise, and the chain falls off weekly (but hey now I know how to fix a bike)! I am grateful every day for my parents support, and them encouraging me to keep going and try my best. I am so lucky to have parents who push me outside my comfort zone and encourage me (as well as my brother and sister) to be independent and pursue our dreams. Another tough time was Christmas. Christmas is without a doubt my favorite holiday at home, and not being surrounded by family, going to church, giving my family and friends gifts and spending time with loved ones falls under one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only was it difficult to be over 8,000 miles away but it was exacerbated by being forced, I truly mean forced, to do a Christmas dance and show for the entire school. While I have been away for holidays before, I have never been in a place with almost no comforts from home, that does not celebrate the holiday, and that made it a very strange and surreal experience. I am so grateful that I got through all of those hard times, the times when I burst into tears at school (it was only twice but still), the times I cried on my bicycle on the way home from school, and the time when I cried on facetime with my grandparents, aunts, cousins and siblings to make it to the other side of this experience even stronger and more independent than when I began…yes there have been many, many tears but we did it!

It would be remiss of me not to give a huge shout out to the gals who got me through these months in Chiang Kham. Whether it was fate, luck or just good fortune, meeting Jacqui and Chloe has been such a highlight of my time here. I remember the first time Emma and I were walking through the market and turned to each other surprised that there were other teachers just like us! Shortly after that, we met them at Mo’s and started enjoying dinner together a few times a week. Chloe is such a genuine, kind, down to earth gal who always seems to reel us in when we’re being delusional, but also full of empathy and understanding for Jacqui, Emma and I. And Jacqui is a hoot. She is hilarious, sweet, wordly and always fun to be around. The four of us have clicked so well, and dinner/Blacksmith runs with them will be one of the very few things I will miss about CK. I so look forward to hearing about all of their travels and hopefully spending some time with them back on our side of the pond (Chloe if you read this please come spend time with us all on the East Coast :)).

And Emma. I feel so extremely fortunate to have a best friend like her to come on these adventures with me, stick around when I am not doing too hot, listen to my rants and rambles, and make it through all of the tough times as well as thrive in the amazing ones. This adventure will be so hard to explain to folks back home as there really are no words to describe the roller coaster (so cliché I know) we have gone through. But, there is truly no one else in the world I think I could have done this with. I can’t wait to think back on these past months in years to come, laughing and telling stories to our loved ones about that crazy time we moved to Thailand. Thank you thank you thank you, a million times thank you, for being the best, most caring, and compassionate friend a girl could ever ask for. There is just absolutely no way I could have done this without you, and I am sooooooo excited to THRIVEEEE with you the next two months through our travels and adventures.

I’ve lost my train of thought and am definitely rambling….hmm where were we.

Oh right, I could go on and on about the Chiang Kham craziness, but I think it is important to highlight some of the things I have learned here in the 135 days since arriving. Here are the top 10 things (some serious, some funny) that I have learned while living in Chiang Kham, Phayao, Thailand:

Top 10 Things I’ve Learned by living in lil old CK

  1. Smilewhen it doubt, just smile. Being around some of the teachers here (who have never once smiled at me) made me realize how powerful smiles actually are. A img_8465smile from the mango sticky rice lady can really start my morning on the right foot!
  2. Roosters “cockadoodledoo” whenever they feel like it– 6 am, 4 pm, 10 pm, 3 am…it really does not matter the time of day, there will always be a rooster crowing outside my window here.
  3. Breathe- Sometimes random surprise things would get dropped on me at work and it would take everything in me not to react. This is where breathing came into play. Just taking a few deep breaths has helped me to relax and reflect instead of react. Or that time when my sixth graders would not stop talking for 30 minutes, I could’ve yelled at them but instead I just sat there starting at them and eventually they stopped! Would ya believe that?
  4. If you think Massachusetts drivers are bad, come to Thailand- Biking here has been similar to an extreme sport. Dodge this way, quick turn that way, watch out for that tree!!! Do we have stop signs, street lights, road rules? You bet! Does anyone follow them? Maybe 10% of the population! I really wonder if there is any type of driving course around here…
  5. Communication is key- “Teacher, I didn’t tell you about your going away party because I didn’t know if you would be free..”, typically this isn’t how things work back home. The serious lack of communication here has made me so appreciative of how much we do communicate back home with friends, in our jobs, and in our culture in general. It has also made me realize I need to be an even better communicator when I get home.
  6. Language isn’t the only way to communicate- Most of my students can only speak a little English, but that didn’t stop us from building relationships and growing together. Smiles, body language, charades and games have been such integral parts of me connecting with my students here. I have made some amazing connections with students, some of whom I’ve never had a real conversation with. This is something I will carry with me forever.
  7. Laugh at yourself- There were many days I would get home from school, or trying to get something done in my town and think “what the hell goes on”. The gals and I started a joke where we would say out loud or think to ourselves “COME ON!!”, like when one of us would find an ant infestation in our brand new granola bar stash, or the lizard that’s been living in your room for a month pokes it’s head out, or when you find multiple lizards in your room days in a row, or when our water just wouldn’t turn on. It’s fun to laugh at things instead of letting them ruin your day.
  8. It really is the little things- This one is from Chloe but rings true for all of us…whether it was a surprise package from home, a mini Christmas tree from my amazing family, a new coconut treat at the market, water deliveries on Friday, clean sheets, a hug from a student– being here has taught me that every good thing is a good thing, and to embrace it all.
  9. Never trust the “bus schedule”- This one is from Emma haha…the amount of times we have showed up to the bus station and waited an hour or more for a bus that was supposed to be there, AND the time when we were on time but our bus decided to leave early and almost strand us. This has really taught me to be go with the flow, there is so much here we don’t have control over and I’ve learned to lean back and try to be as relaxed as possible.
  10. Live in the moment- Last but certainly not least, this experience has taught me to *try* to live in the moment. There were so many times that I would find myself counting down the days, or trying to figure out when I would get home, and in those moments I would not be appreciative of where I was or the crazy and exciting experience I was currently living. It’s harder than it seems, but I really have started to make a conscious effort to enjoy the time I am in rather than worry about the future.

Through this time there have been a few teachers at my school that I am thankful for. Teacher Sweet and Teacher Jo were always there through my frustrations and confusion. They listened to me, helped me brainstorm, and were empathetic when I was feeling frustrated with the system, the school and just feeling homesick. I am grateful to have met two wonderful teachers from the Phillipines in my time here, and I know they will both continue to be great teachers here in Thailand. And Teacher Wi, my co-teacher. In the beginning, I really did not know what to think. Our language barrier was so tough to communicate through, but as time went on and I learned a little Thai and she learned a little English, we developed our own way of communicating. Sure, Thai time is still very much a thing as is the lack of calendars, but I am thankful for her patience and kindness towards me, endless translating in assemblies, and for sharing her beautiful, amazing 2nd grade class with me the past months.

Lastly, my students. It has been challenging, so challenging, but the perseverance working at this school has instilled in me is unparalleled to anything I have experienced so far in life. On the days that I felt like quitting, or not showing up to school, it was my relationships with my students that kept me there. They were the ones to welcome me with open arms, listen to me, teach me little bits of Thai here and there, and celebrate holidays with me. They are the ones who have made me feel special, and (some of) them are the ones who I will be sad to leave this weekend. The relationships I have with many of them are so different than any I have had with campers, or clients, or children I’ve babysat and I feel so special that I was able to spend time and get to know them. They’re the ones who made me feel confident that I want to continue working with children in grad school, and helped me to remember how working with children comes so naturally to me. While Chiang Kham has not been the dream I had hoped it will be, the students at this school have been more than a dream (again for the most part), and I will miss their funny nicknames and hearing them call out “Teacher Emily!!!!” from all around town. Missing my kiddos already.


Teacha Emily over & out

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