A Thai Kindergartner Trapped in an American Adult Body

Sawatdee Ka!
I’ve officially been here for one month! One whole month in the Peace Corps! I work, eat, and sweat in the Province of Suphanburi, about two hours north of Bangkok, and will be here for another 1.5 months until I move again. I’m quickly realizing that Thailand will offer me much more than I could ever give back, and I’ll try to highlight my experience here.

My meah (mom) is the kindest woman who breaks Thai cultural norms by hugging and kissing me (on the cheek! You little nasty). She is my go-to and I find deep comfort in her company when entering new situations. I have four sisters: Dtii (26), Payo (20), Muui (7), and Bonut (4). From what I understand, their father passed away. My yaii (grandma) is 67 and runs this household. She cleans, she cooks, she gives offerings to the monks daily, she takes care of the kids, and I believe she has made it her personal goal to fatten me up—these portion sizes are out of control and she is relentless. Most mornings she hands me kanomes (desserts) to share with friends at work and her generosity is bottomless. Though I am able to communicate with her the least, my connection with her has grown to be the greatest in the house. My grandpa (74) works in the rice fields and enjoys correcting my Thai. That’s right—I actually ended up living in a rice paddy.

The year is 2561. Looking through my search history, I see the creepy but informational “You visited this site on 1/12/2561”-- surely my phone has a virus. Thailand follows the Buddhist Era numbering system, 543 years ahead of the Christian/Common Era numbering system. Of course Thailand doesn’t recognize the birth of Jesus Christ as year 1! The internet tells me their system recognizes year 1 as the death of Buddha.

Thai culture, incredibly rich, has me adapting in all sorts of ways. When encountering someone elder, you wai. That is: elbows in, hands in a prayer position just below your chin, hands vertical, and… slight bow! Good job, now you can wai your way across Thailand when you visit! It is a sign of utmost respect and is used as a formal greeting. The rice-dominated cuisine has surprisingly kept me in anticipation. The numerous rice vectors are almost impressive. Want to eat rat? The rats eat rice. Want fish? The fish were caught with rice bait. Even ice cream has sticky rice as a topping. Each day brings plates of morning glory, fried fish, steamed fish, flat fried omelets, bowls of various spices, and servings of unknown meat. If I were more of an epicurean, I'd be on my toes but at this point I am constantly praying for meals sans intestine. I thought I would be a vegetarian here but unfortunately vegetarians are not customary to rural Thailand. I eat the occasional pescatarian meal, and will eat chicken if someone made it not knowing that I only eat seafood. It is rude to point feet at anyone, especially monks or the royal family. Never put a helmet on the ground (learned that the hard way) due to the traditional head-foot concept. The head is the highest and most sacred part of the body while the feet are the lowest and dirtiest. This goes as far as not hanging pants on the same laundry line as shirts. Pants and shirts cannot be washed together either. Clothing should be put on head first if possible. Books should not be placed on the ground (as they are sources of intellect). I mess up often and receive my daily share of hairy eyeballs.

The most challenging part of living in Thailand is communication. I have the vocabulary and language capacity of a kindergartener, but crave stimulating conversation. I want to be fluent immediately! Telling my Thai mom that I will be home from work at 6, or that I don’t like fruit, or asking where I can procure some Oreos proves to be a constant battle. The miscommunication has led me into an array of comical situations and my Thai grandma thinks everything I say (or butcher) is hilarious. For example, chang in a rising tone means "elephant" but chang in a falling tone means mechanic. One night, I wore a swimsuit to what turned out to be a concert with the Mayor because I was POSITIVE they said we'd be swimming. I have wonderful conversations with my 4 year old sister because we carry the same vocabulary and she doesn't throw in complex sentence structure or challenging phrases like the adults do. In English, tone expresses emotion and I'm finding it difficult to prevent my feelings from misconstruing my communication. To add to the chaos, I accidentally speak Spanish or Kannada when caught off guard. It's lucky this is my greatest challenge considering life in a rice paddy! My current favorite phrases include mai-kao-jai (I don't understand), Mai-ru (I don't know), and chooay-dooay (help me).

Poonam Benakatti is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Thailand. She is passionate about development, the human experience, and sticky rice.