Relying on Resilience

It has been exactly two months and two days since I published my last blog post.  I’ve sat down to write this post time and time again, but each time, my fingers become paralyzed as they touch the pen or keyboard.  I have hardly been able to process the wide range of emotions that I have experienced over the past two months so how am I supposed to write about them honestly and eloquently?

Moving to site proved to be much more difficult than I ever anticipated.  I was stationed in Satun, one of the southernmost provinces in Thailand.  You can see the Malaysian border from my house.  My village is predominantly Muslim.  Most of the locals are a mix of Thai and Malay and many of them speak Malay, as well.  Some speak both Thai and Malay, but many speak one or the other.  Many of the Thai and Buddhist cultural norms and customs that I had become accustomed to in my training village no longer apply to me.  I often feel like I am not even in Thailand anymore.

While I rejoiced in the accomplishment that was completing training and swearing in, I look back and laugh at my naïveté.  Swearing in felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  “I did it,” I remember thinking to myself as I assumed that the most exhausting days were over.  Little did I know that the greatest challenges were yet to come.

As an independent introvert, I didn’t expect the overwhelming loneliness that comes with being the only native English speaker in your village.  As someone who has hardly spent time at home since graduating high school, I didn’t expect the sometimes seemingly unbearable homesickness.  As someone who has always relished in the idea of living simply, I didn’t expect to miss the amenities of America that I now realize I took for granted my entire life (i.e. western showers, air conditioning, reliable access to water and electricity, etc.).  As someone who has always challenged herself and conquered adversity, I never expected to come so close to calling it quits.

At some point in mid-April, I thought I was going home.  I would sit on my bed, feet on the floor with my head in my hands, breathe deeply, and try to recall the reasons I chose to join the Peace Corps in the first place.  On most occasions, those reasons were impossible to recall, regardless of how long I sat there.  Instead, the following doubts persisted: I don’t belong here. I will never belong here.  How will I make it another two years here?  I will never make the impact that is expected of me.  Why did I throw away the beautiful life I had in America to come to… this?  I could have a career, I could be making money (literally any money at all) and be building the life I dreamed of as a little girl and thought I would adhere to until not even a year ago.  I am missing multiple weddings, some friends are having kids… Should I be doing that, too?  I felt trapped in my mind, sick to my stomach and aching in my heart as I would go through the motions of each day, looking for something, anything, to cling to that would offer me the epiphany I was looking for and desperately needed in order to stay.

Needless to say, the mental and emotional challenges have been inexplicably more difficult to overcome than the physical obstacles I face.  I still haven’t found a bulletproof way to fight my feelings.  I write, I send letters and postcards, I read (okay, I nap with the book open beside me), I take photos, I draw, I exercise… and yet, I still haven’t found that one thing that calms my anxieties and washes away my uncertainties.  And unfortunately, I sometimes lash out at some people that mean the most to me or pull away because there’s no way for anyone back home to understand.  But what I have been slowly realizing, is that for the first time in my life, I am confronting my emotions rather than pushing them aside.  All of them: the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the desperation and especially the special moments of indescribable happiness.  In my five months in Thailand, I have gotten to know myself at a rawer level than ever before, my strengths and my flaws and especially what I treasure most in life.  And for that alone, I am grateful for this rollercoaster of an experience.

I still have days where I want to go home.  I still have moments, many moments, of self-doubt and lack of clarity when looking toward the future.  But, that is all part of this ride.  This insanely beautiful, absurdly magical, entirely incomprehensible ride.

Trainee to Volunteer

I, Olivia Brocato, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps. So help me God.

Fight Like a Girl

The past couple weeks of training have caused an extraordinary amount of anxiety to arise within me.  I have felt that anxiety from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed nearly everyday for the past week and a half as I prepare to receive my site assignment this Tuesday.  Although training is coming to a close, our workload only seems to increase as time to complete that work winds down.  Lately, I have felt as though I lost sight of why I came here in the first place.

It wasn’t until I opened a letter from my younger sister that I was reminded.  While there are many reasons why I chose this unconventional path, one particular reason was the driving force that compelled me to take the plunge and apply to Peace Corps last spring.  I am a relationship abuse survivor.  In February of 2015, my on-again-off-again boyfriend of nearly two years put his hands on me for the first time, resulting in a black eye and a week spent at home during my second semester of junior year at University of South Carolina.  In November of 2015, after countless months of both emotional and physical abuse, that same boyfriend put his hands on me for what would be the last time when his irrational anger escalated to the point of strangulation.

While suffering from an abuse this extreme was inexplicably horrifying in the moment, the months following proved to be even harder.  After confronting a police officer that night, I began the process of holding this boy accountable and pressing charges.  I was forced to relive that night over and over as I had to tell my story to investigators, police officers, victim advocates, etc.  I had massive panic attacks just walking to my classes, out of fear that I would run into him.  I avoided restaurants and bars he frequented, and even refused to drive down his street, the main street in Columbia, because the flashbacks were too intense.  I was embarrassed to tell most of my friends what had happened so when they would take his road, I would shut my eyes to avoid seeing his car and apartment that triggered the unpleasant memories.  Then, I lost many friends once I confided in them.

The worst part of it all was the way I was treated by local law enforcement.  I didn’t understand why the police officer didn’t decide to look further into the situation the night of the incident.  I was even more confused when he took me home that night and almost drove off without giving me a copy of the police report, which I needed to pursue legal action.  It then felt like pulling teeth to get the lead investigator to meet with me to discuss how to move forward.  And once I was finally able, I will never forget the feeling in my chest when he muttered, “yeah, well, most of these cases tend to be vindictive girlfriends who get upset when they see their man has moved on.”

To say that the months following were anything short of hell would be an understatement.  I was immensely paranoid, anxious and depressed.  I didn’t sleep for months because I was kept up by flashbacks of what had happened and in of fear my ex-boyfriend suddenly looming over my bed.  I reached a low that I didn’t know was possible.  I had almost hit rock-bottom when I had an epiphany and shifted perspectives.

I am a middle-upperclass American who, at the time, was about to complete her college education.  But I am a woman, and that was my handicap.  Still, so much of my background seemed to outweigh that one detail.  Then it suddenly hit me.  I am an American woman with access to what many would consider to be the ‘best’ resources in the world to assist me through this trauma.  It pained me to think of fellow women living in less developed countries and entirely misogynistic societies suffering from the same abuse.  It pained me even more to think of the young girls and daughters in those households, witnessing (if not suffering) the abuse and growing up to think that mistreatment of women is okay.

Although Peace Corps had been on my radar since I was 16, it was this experience that solidified my decision to join.  And it was this experience alone that made applying to a position that incorporates Let Girls Learn so appealing.  Let Girls Learn is an initiative instated by Michelle Obama and Peace Corps plays a vital role as LGL volunteers coordinate girls’ education projects.  My involvement in this initiative is one of the things I am looking forward to most about beginning my two years of service in just a couple weeks.  As both a woman and a survivor, I am confident in my ability to be an empathetic resource to the girls I encounter in Thailand.

And so I am reminded of my reasons for being here.  When I signed up for this, I knew I would have moments of doubt.  But as my sister so eloquently reminded me in her letter, “fear is not a weakness or a sign that [I’ve] chosen the wrong path.”  In fact, it means quite the opposite.  Anyone who chooses to do anything worthwhile is bound to experience hardship along the way.  And as I have learned over the past year or so, how we conquer those hardships is what truly matters and molds us into the people we are destined to become.

P.S.: Happy International Women’s Day!  Although, let’s be honest, 24 hours isn’t enough to celebrate the amount of ass we kick everyday.

P.P.S.: I am including the forgiveness letter I wrote (but never sent) the aforementioned ex-boyfriend.  If my words can provide hope for even one person who finds themselves in a similar circumstance then the vulnerability of sharing this letter will be worthwhile.

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A Day in the Life

5:30 a.m. – 5:45 a.m.: wake up to the sounds of our roosters crowing from beside our house and the cultural music blaring from the many local temples

5:45 a.m. – 6:40 a.m.: lay in bed with my pillow over my head, failing to attempt to fall back asleep

6:40 a.m. – 7:10 a.m.: get dressed, wash my face and brush my teeth then dtuum chaa (drink tea) and gin gloi nam-vaa (eat a banana) with Mee

7:10 a.m. – 7:20 a.m.: kii jakrayan (bike) from my house to my language-learning school

7:20 a.m. – 7:55 a.m.: typically chat with some of the younger students who want to show off their limited English skills then make calls to my family and friends from America while waiting on class to start

7:55 a.m. – 8:00 a.m.: change into my formal clothes in an extremely hazardous and unsanitary hong-naam (bathroom)

8:00 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.: learn Thai with Ajaan Norhayatee in a group with three other TCCS trainees

11:45 a.m. – 12:10 p.m.: change into biking clothes and ride to a food vendor closer to Anuban TaChang, otherwise known as the ‘hub’ (the school in which teacher technical training is held)

12:10 p.m. – 12:50 p.m.: eat lunch with fellow volunteers, typically try to avoid rice and sugar although it is nearly impossible

12:50 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.: bike to the hub

1:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m.: attempt to cool off before changing back into appropriate clothing i.e. ankle-length skirt and ironed blouse (Thailand is in a year of mourning until October in honor of the late King so colors must be muted out of respect)

1:15 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.: two sessions of teacher technical training in which we essentially learn various strategies to be the best English as a Foreign Language Teacher we can be; I also have to try not melt as afternoons typically reach 100 degrees these days

4:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.: SDL, Self Directed Learning i.e. work on lesson planning and technical skills with fellow trainees or practice Thai with an Ajaan

5:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.: play soccer or Frisbee with the Anuban TaChang students

5:30 p.m. – 5:45 p.m.: bike home

5:45 p.m.: – 6:00 p.m.: sit on the porch and eat a snack with Mee and Knong Broht; typically my ‘cousin’ Im comes over, but she is too shy to interact with me

6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.: go kayaking with Paa who coaches some of my students and other neighborhood kids (if I don’t go kayaking, I typically take the opportunity to snag some alone time, explore and taai ruup [take pictures])

7:00 p.m. – 7:45 p.m.: GIN KAAO (eat dinner… and yes, they speak it as you probably just read it) at Megan’s baan, the house of another volunteer whose Mee is my Paa’s sister

7:50 p.m. – 8:45 p.m.: bike home and ap-naam (shower)… finally!

8:45 p.m. –  9:30 p.m.: get in bed and take some time to write letters to friends or in my journal, read if my brain isn’t too friend, talk to family back home, etc.

If I am not asleep by 10 o’clock then it is a late night for me!  No day is ever the same and each day presents new challenges, but this is a fairly accurate (and extremely brief) depiction of a standard day in PST.

Learning to Live Outside Your Lens

 

Well, I am now 48 days into this wild ride. Today is my first day off since being in Thailand and it feels pretty well deserved. The concept of a day off is relative here since I am always representing something larger than myself (America, Peace Corps and PST Group 129). There are quite literally no days off, but today is the first day in which I don’t have any obligations. Curious how I am spending my one and only day off? I biked myself to an internet cafe with air conditioning, and that’s likely where I will be until my curfew of 6 p.m.

48 days into training and the momentum is only picking up. I realize the irony in writing that on a day off, but it’s true. As the days go by, training gets more dense and the anticipation of truly beginning my two years of service gets more intense. While leaving the comfort of Sing Buri, which is only just starting to feel like home, will be bizarre, I am excited to start exploring where I will call home for the next 24 months and begin what I came here to do.

Today, I am finally able to reflect on all I have gained in such a short period of time. I am discovering myself on a rawer level than ever before. But I am also uncovering a rawer perspective of humanity that I was blind to in America. Nearly 50 days into this journey, with 754 days left, and my faith in humanity has not only been entirely restored, but is at its peak.

I think I am fairly well traveled for a 22 year-old. I have been to Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, most Caribbean islands, many states and even lived in Australia for a brief amount of time. I like to think I have seen a lot of what this world has to offer. Until recently, however, I wasn’t aware that I have always experienced things with an ‘American lens.’ By American lens, I mean that I was sometimes blinded by my background and hindered from absorbing all that my experiences had to teach me. I’ll never be able to lose my American lens, but I like to think that as I explore more of this world and its various cultures, it is gradually being chipped away.

I found cynicism to be a sense of security in America. In the individualist society that America is, it was easy for me to believe that others had only intentions of self interest. I’m not proud of it, but it became easy for me to believe the worst in humanity. And American media surely didn’t help. My desire to remain informed on current events was constantly at war with my conscience, especially within the past year. I think that is partly why I was drawn to Peace Corps in the first place. Among other things, Peace Corps was my opportunity to “be the change [I] wish[ed] to see in the world.” Ironically, since being in Peace Corps, I have slowly realized that the world isn’t the hopeless, self-centered abyss I had falsely believed it to be for so long.

Not only have I been on the receiving end of immense generosity from Thais, but I have received boundless and unimaginable support from home, as well, since being here. I feel like I wake up everyday to an unexpected, but encouraging Facebook message from someone I haven’t seen in years. I have received several letters from friends. I received a particular letter from a college acquaintance. Although this acquaintance and I were never necessarily the closest, I had always admired her genuine compassion for others. After receiving her letter, I can’t express the admiration and appreciation I now have for her and her compassion. Her eloquent words lifted me up on a day when I was at my worst and needed it most. And I will never be able to repay her for that.

I received a package from one of my best friends with a journal that we will be able to send back and forth, keeping each other updated on the details of our busy lives. Sisterhood of the Traveling Journal, perhaps?  As my most challenging week of training was coming to a close, I showed up one Saturday morning to a thoughtful package from a good friend’s mom. The package included a kind letter and a cross-body water bottle carrier. Ironically, all week I had been envious of another volunteer for the water bottle carrier she crocheted for herself. Remaining adequately hydrated in the 95 degree heat of a Thai ‘winter’ is essential, but nearly impossible when your only forms of transportation are your bike or your legs. This gift will make that task even slightly easier and I am so unbelievably grateful.

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© Megan Ziegler

In summation, humanity is far from nearing its end, like I had believed for so long before this journey. If I have learned anything during my time here, it is that happiness isn’t conditional. Happiness isn’t dependent upon other people and it sure as hell isn’t situational. I am reminded of this on the rare occasion I am able to catch myself in the mirror these days and I see a smile so big it is nearly unrecognizable. I am happier than ever under circumstances that have presented more obstacles than I’ve ever had to conquer. Life, and your happiness, is entirely about perspective. So as I sit here, basking in a rare moment of accessible air conditioning, I am extraordinarily thankful for my newly gained perspective. I challenge anyone reading this to chip away at their own ‘lens,’ whatever it may be, and rediscover themselves and the goodness of humanity. You don’t have to move 8,600 plus miles away to do so. It is truly life-changing.

 

Will You Be My ValenTHAIne?

Admittedly, I am not a Valentine’s Day enthusiast.  Although, also admittedly, I don’t have a past of disastrous valentines to deter me from the ‘mushy’ corporate holiday.  I’ve actually had fairly enjoyable Valentine’s Days.  It’s strange to think that I spent last year’s hallmark holiday at a Widespread Panic concert in Columbia, South Carolina, and this year, I am in Thailand.  Anyway, I’ve digressed…

In contrast to my history of satisfyingly average Valentine’s Days (sorry feen gao… ex-boyfriends), this year’s was an absolute train wreck.  For the past two weeks, I have been teaching prathom one and two and prathom three at a local school, roong-rian wat Sopa.  While my students have not been angels, by any means, I’ve been able to maintain my sanity.  This past Tuesday, however, I lost that sense of mental stability and broke down.  My students were replaced with the spawn of Satan.  Regardless of any and all classroom management methods I tried, the tiny Thais manipulated my classroom to the point of absolute anarchy.  After an entire morning of feeling like an unpaid babysitter for nearly 50 kids, I felt miserable.

dsc_0278For the first time, I felt undeserving and unqualified to be in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I felt defeated.  After struggling to hold it together in the classroom, I walked out in silence at the end of my lesson to cry alone behind the school.  All I could think about was boarding a plane to return to the comfort of America.  I imagined how I would use the several flights of the 72-hour journey home to catch up on sleep.  I fantasized about my mom picking me up from the airport and taking me home to Bellechasse Road where I would curl up on the couch with Layla, my furry sidekick, and watch reruns of Friends.  In that moment of defeat, the thought of an American return seemed incredibly appealing.

After moments of attempting to gather myself and dry my eyes, I felt a warm and firm hand on my shoulder.  It was a fellow trainee that I have become particularly close with.  She had observed my classes – rather, failures at classes – earlier that morning.  Dismissing my feelings of immense embarrassment and discomfort with my vulnerability within that moment, my friend wrapped me in a hug which I myself did not even know I wanted.  Through tears, I told her how unqualified I felt.  She responded with a laugh and reminded me that my students’ behavior was not a reflection of my ability to teach, but that my resiliency and willingness to push through to the end was a reflection of my ability to be a PCV.  Her validation made me feel silly for contemplating giving up just a few minutes prior.

Valentine’s Day was my most difficult day of teacher training thus far.  Everything that could have went wrong… went wrong.  Immediately following that dreadful morning, I biked to a lunch date at a street vendor we PCT’s frequent.  The food took so long to make that we didn’t even get the chance to eat before we had to bike back to a four-hour Thai language session.  Of all days…  But the next day, when things did go right and I did get through to my students, it was more fulfilling than I ever thought possible.  Yes, there are moments when I cannot remember why I gave up the life I was accustomed with to shower with a bucket and pee in a glorified hole in the ground.  But in America, I was constantly looking to the future, daydreaming of the next adventure.  I was never truly present.  In Thailand, however, I am living the adventure everyday.  I am wholly present in every moment, a concept that was unfamiliar to me in the states.

I want to end this post with a quote a fellow PCT shared with me today: “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

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P.S. Don’t let this face fool you…

Full Belly, Fuller Heart

I am coming up on my sixth week in Thailand and fifth week with my host family.  My krop-krewa koong Thai (Thai family) consists of Mee (mother: Bpuu), Paa (father: Pie Roht) and knoong-sao (younger sister: Broht).  I have known these people barely 30 days, yet they have taken me in as one of their own since day one.

Upon initially moving in, I had made myself at home under my mosquito net and was ready to sleep on the floor using a glorified mat as my mattress.  Having been well aware of what I signed up for, I was at peace with this new environment and ready to take on the challenges it would present.  Mee and Paa, however, were less enthused.  Within an hour, and after disregarding my insistence that I was okay, they had moved out of their only room, replacing their belongings with my cluttered suitcases.  After just one hour of knowing me, they sacrificed their own comfort for mine.  Four weeks later, Mee, Paa and knoong-sao are still sleeping on the floor under the mosquito net that was originally mine.  Although this act of hospitality initially made me uncomfortable, coming home to a private space I can call my home has allowed for often needed alone time and some essential decompression.

Although each new day presents several new challenges, I am comforted knowing that I not only have my American family to lean on, but I have my Thai family to come home to, as well.  Not a lot is certain of my daily routine.  In fact, it often feels like I don’t have a daily routine.  And the little routine I do have is not under my control.  What I can count on, however, is coming home to Mee with a beaming smile on her face asking if I am hungry. “Gin kaao?” sheDSC_0882.jpg will say, which loosely translates to, “ready to eat?”  Although moments of hunger are far and few between (Thai people will never allow you to go hungry), it is nearly impossible to say no to the perfectly sweet bananas picked from the trees beside my house, fresh eggs from the chickens in our backyard and steamed rice picked from the lush green field that our kitchen overlooks.

In Thai culture, you will often hear the phrase “nam-jai.”  Nam-jai literally translates to “water heart.”  If a person has nam-jai, that person will go above and beyond for their friends and offer generosity to strangers.  My Thai family epitomizes what it means to have nam-jai.  Not only are they a phenomenal representation of the Thai community, but they serve as my daily inspiration to act with kindness in even the smallest of tasks.  In just one month, Thailand has not only become my second home, but has given me a family to share that home with.