Featured writer: Katherine
Sawatdee-ka! My name is Katherine and I am the first On Site Intern with ATMA SEVA! I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand two and a half weeks ago, after a few months of planning and almost 38 hours of travel! I will be staying in Chiang Mai for one year, working with ATMA SEVA as an English teacher, contributing to this blog, creating the newsletter, coordinating volunteers, and helping to develop the website. I am currently living atSaraphi Technical College and teaching English to novice monks at Wat Saraphi.
In 2011, I graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Community and International Development. During my freshman year of college I took a two-week travel study class in Ecuador to learn about land use issues and the indigenous populations. Again, during my junior year I spent a semester in Australia studying Rainforest, Reef and Cultural Ecology through the School for International Training (SIT). Both experiences abroad left me with a desire to continue to travel and do meaningful work in local communities.
After graduating college, I spent one year back at home in West Hartford, Connecticut (USA) working at an after-school program in an elementary school and part time at a children’s museum in town. With a year of experience in the classroom and an aspiration to work abroad, I began the job search. I first heard about ATMA SEVA through a family friend in Connecticut and contacted David (Programs Director) to find out more. After a series of email conversations and skype sessions, my travel plans were finally becoming a reality and I was set to go!
My first week in Chiang Mai was a great introduction to the country and Thai culture. The first day, David, Marcia (a volunteer from Mexico) and I took a drive outside Chiang Mai to find and a friends house where a third volunteer, Sapphire, was meeting with traditional healers. Our plan was to meet her and explore the area. We ended up getting lost and driving on the motorcycle for close to three hours! I enjoyed the drive though and the scenery was beautiful; rice paddies, fields of palm and banana trees, and lush green mountains throughout the vast countryside. Even the roadside fruit stands and noodle shops have their own charm and beauty. This was my first time riding on the back of a motorcycle and the only thing David told me to be careful of was the metal pipe on the side. For my first day I thought I was doing pretty good, until I touched the pipe. Ouch what a burn! Marcia remembered an old trick to rub an egg white on the burn before it blistered and our search for the friends house turned into immediate medical attention… with an egg. The first few shops pointed to their fried egg dishes and chickens running through the grounds until finally, we stopped at a small family shop and got an egg and a bowl to treat the burn. The women running the shop also brought out a medicated cream, and through a combination of water, egg whites, cream and laughter about the situation, I was nursed back to health to keep riding. Another quick look at the map and we were back on the road. David realized we were close to Saraphi, where I am now living and working, so we drove through the town and stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop near the temple. It was closed for Mother’s Day (the Queen’s birthday) but the woman opened the shop for us and we sat for a rest, noodle soup with pork, and a cold beer. A great first day.
The rest of the week was full of trying new foods, exploring the night markets and Sunday walking street, more motorcycle rides, learning new Thai phrases, a meeting at Wat Doi Saket, dinners, beers, and even a Monk competition, where local temples show off their school projects – science fair style. I also spent a day exploring “the old city”, including the Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center, and browsing used bookstores. And to top it all off, massage parlors and spas are abundant and cheap. In the first week I got two one-hour Thai massages, each for the whopping price of 170 Baht or $5.45 USD. I could get used to this.
To end the week, we had a visit from Sonam Lhaden, our ATMA SEVA partner in Bhutan. Sonam is the managing director for Bhutan and is responsible for all tours and projects within the country. We spent Thursday touring many different temples throughout the city and in the mountains. We talked about cultural comparisons between Thailand, Bhutan and the United States, and differences between Theravada Buddhism (practiced in Thailand) and Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Bhutan). To my surprise, we found many similarities between our different cultures and I learned a lot about living in a Buddhist country. It was wonderful to meet her and make new friends all over the world!
I moved into my room at the Saraphi Technical College on Saturday and began teaching that Monday. Saraphi is a charming district outside of Chiang Mai with long tree-lined streets and plenty of local shops and family life. My room is in a section of teacher housing for the college in a quiet corner behind the automotive shop.
Monday morning, I was woken up bright and early by my neighbor Nit, a teacher at both the technical college and Wat Saraphi, telling me to get dressed and ready for breakfast. With little time to get ready I stepped out of my room wearing a long black Patagonia dress and sandals. Nit looked at my shoes and shook her head, “No no no.” She turned back into her room, picked up a pair of bright orange cheetah print heels and handed them to me to put on. I tried to politely decline the shoes but she looked down at my sandals again, thought for a second and insisted. I put the shoes on and we walked to the eating area for a breakfast of rice, pork and a fried egg. The courtyard was crowded and soon I heard music playing over the loudspeakers signaling the start of the morning announcements as students lined up in the courtyard. I was introduced to a few other teachers and sat down for the announcements. Next thing I know I hear, “ATMA SEVA… Kat-er-een!” and all of the students clapping. Wait… what?! I walked clumsily to the front of the courtyard, stepped on stage and took the microphone. “Sawatdeeka” (Hello in Thai) The students replied Sawatdeeka and a deep “Wai” or short bow showing respect and then sat quietly. “Chan chew Katherine…. I am a teacher… I am from America… I am excited to be here…” It was short and sweet and I just laughed to myself as I stepped off the stage. That explains the heels.
Later that morning, in my own shoes, David and I headed to the temple for my first day to observe in the classroom. I was unsure at first about how to properly act around the monks and how much English they knew but I was quickly put at ease with how friendly, funny and willing to learn most of the novices are. Yes they are novice monks wearing saffron robes, studying Buddhist texts, chanting and living in the temples, but they are still just teenage boys at the end of the day.
My day of observation turned into teaching two classes in a row with David, including a class of 55! Although it is a large group the students are respectful and excited to have new teachers. Throughout the rest of the week I went over the same basic conversations with the classes and even started English classes for the other teachers!
It has been a long week and the first days I felt nervous and unsure of the lessons, but after only a few days of warm smiles and genuine laughter from both the students and the teachers I feel more confident in my teaching and my place at the school. I have a lot to learn about Buddhism, the novices, and teaching in general but I am looking forward to all of it.
I will be teaching through the end of September and then spending some time in the Lawa Village, five hours outside of Chiang Mai. Subscribe to our blog to follow along for my adventures and more on teaching, the students, Buddhism, and life in Thailand!