Ascending the stairs of Alpha Dormitory, clutching the plastic bag which contains my dinner (vegetarian spring rolls and papaya), I am greeted by a familiar student. “Bai nye ka?” she asks as I smile, grasping for the appropriate response. After a few seconds hesitation, I respond “Bai gin!”, jiggling the bag to emphasize my plan, thankful that I understood the Thai interrogative. As our Thai instructor explained to us early on, even though “Bai nye?” (“Where are you going?”) seems like a probing question, a long, detailed response is not expected nor is it encouraged. In Thai social interactions, “Bai nye?” serves the same purpose as “What’s up?” in American English: a casual question that deserves a casual response. Despite my acceptance of this explanation, I have begun to consider the question with greater thought and attention since my introduction to Thailand in August. The spaces -- both public and private -- I traverse on a daily basis lead into and cross over one another in unexpected ways, making the seemingly simple query Where am I going? more complex and varied.
Payap University in Chiang Mai signifies the space where we as Grinnell Corps fellows work and live. Located several kilometers from Chiang Mai’s “city center” (better known as “the Old City”), Payap is predominantly an undergraduate institution, though the International College (IC) encompasses several graduate-level programs. After completing a two-month accelerated Thai language program and TESOL certification course through the IC, Aki and I were assigned to teach in the Intensive English Program (IEP). Although the IEP is offered through the university, the IEP students come from diverse educational backgrounds and nationalities; most IEP students are not only from outside Payap, they are from outside Thailand as well. Within my classroom, South Korea, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Mongolia are the countries represented by the six beginner-level students whose dedication and self-accountability make my job as “teacher” much easier.
Meeting 12 hours a week, the Beginner IEP class is my primary responsibility, though our time also extends into Payap’s residence halls where the Grinnell fellows and several other volunteers tutor English on a nightly basis. The English Resource Corner (ERC) is housed within Alpha Dormitory, the all-female residence hall, and attracts a small number of (mostly) Thai undergraduate students desiring assistance with homework, conversation skills, writing, etc. While my IEP classroom and the ERC serve a similar purpose as spaces to practice and learn English, their environments are notably different. The language used is, of course, the same, but the style of my appearance and interactions denotes a marked contrast in their composition.
In the IEP, we are expected to dress modestly and professionally in accordance with Thai culture -- female ajans (teachers) wear skirts or dresses, and ones’ shoulders should be covered by a blouse or sweater. The heightened expectation regarding my appearance came as somewhat of a surprise, having grown accustomed to my “casual Midwesterner” clothing style over the past four years at Grinnell. However, my initial discomfort has transformed into a comfortable acceptance and appreciation of the cultural standards. None of my students in the IEP are Thai, yet my role as an ajan at Payap, a Thai institution, encourages me to comply with the culture surrounding my work environment. Indeed, how I present myself to my students coincides with their recognition of and respect for me as their teacher.
My IEP classroom is one of three in the library’s English Language Enhancement Center, a space designated, as its name suggests, for providing English aid and resources to students and faculty members during the school day. Class begins at nine o’clock in the morning and concludes at noon, Monday thru Thursday. At first, the three-hour period seemed to be a daunting amount of time, particularly since we were provided with few materials with which to teach and little guidance in terms of structuring the class syllabus. Fortunately, I welcome the challenge and enjoy planning lessons specifically designed for my students’ abilities and interests. Having been teaching the same group of six students for two months now, I am consistently surprised and delighted by my students’ progress. They are noticeably more comfortable with one another and with me, laughing as I try to explain “revolution” using only hand gestures and awkward body movements. In this way, the physical space of the classroom has developed into a comfortable learning environment that eases both my anxiety about teaching as well as my students’ shyness about speaking in front of their peers and a native English speaker.
Every day at four o’clock marks both the completion of the school day and my wardrobe transformation. Arriving back at my room, I transition from work mode to relax mode with rapid ease, exchanging my dress for a pair of jeans and an over-sized sweatshirt. Most of the students undergo similar transformations at this time -- as I head down to tutor in the ERC, many are positioned comfortably in their doorways (where the internet connection is fastest) wearing pajamas, playing YouTube videos, writing papers, and chatting on Facebook (not unlike residence life at Grinnell). After a quick stop to buy a snack at the adjacent 7-11, I enter the ERC and ready myself for an evening of tutoring. A couple of large dining tables are placed in the middle of the room as a large, floral couch rests against a stretch of windows. Posters with English grammar rules and clichés about learning add a colorful vibrancy to the white room, while a row of shelves filled with English activities, games, and books line one of the walls. The ERC is a relatively new addition to the dorms, having just opened this past July, thus there are only a handful of students who visit the ERC on any given night. As the year progresses, the two of us Grinnell fellows and the volunteers are considering ways to increase student numbers. Yet despite having a low attendance, the ERC succeeds at providing students with a safe, undemanding space to practice English.
In addition to being my work space, Payap serves as my private living space. In Alpha where my room is located, my visibility as an ajan is, obviously, not as apparent as when I am on campus. When Aki and I first moved into our new rooms, I noticed students looking quizzically at me as I passed by them in the hallway. The Grinnell fellows do not act as RAs, following our personal and Grinnell’s commitment to self-governance, thus our presence in the dorms is somewhat a confusing one. However, by making ourselves consistently available in the ERC as tutors, our role in Payap’s residential life is steadily becoming more solidified. I do my best to make myself available to the students and dorm staff whom I also tutor on a bi-weekly basis. Recently, polite smiles have turned into “Hello Teacher L!” exclamations as I maneuver around campus, stopping every so often to engage in conversation with my IEP students who live in the dorms or those who regularly attend the ERC.
My room on the third floor faces East, with a perfect view of the rising morning sun and the constellation Orion at night. From my balcony I see horses grazing on rice fields, students playing basketball, and the glistening golden top of a Buddhist temple, recently adorned with twinkle lights for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 82nd birthday. Though I am still on campus, the position and privacy of my room allows me to retreat into my own world with relative ease, something for which I am incredibly thankful. It is on my balcony where I am able to reflect most clearly about time and experiences in Thailand thus far. The stimulation I receive on a daily basis can be overwhelming at times, particularly as I am constantly transitioning from one space to the next. From my classroom to the dorms to my room to the city nightlife, I have only just begun to understand the complexity of my life here. At this moment I may not know where I’m going, but I am certainly curious and excited to see where this experience takes me.