Alumna Julia Schulkers '12 Peace Corps service in Thailand
I remember a poster from grade school that stated “Smiles are universal,” and it had several pictures of people across the world. Some people showed their teeth, others wore dimples, freckles and gap teeth proudly. The rest of the world seemed so far away and abstract back then. I wondered what sort of people traveled the world. Little did I know that I would be one of them. The Peace Corps lands me here in Thailand, also known as the Land of Smiles.
A typical schedule for me is six days of focused training. Sunday is family day. The topics range from cultural lessons, Peace Corps policies, health matters and, of course, language. I go to “school,” essentially, six days a week. My technical training is in teaching English as a foreign anguage.
My village Wat (monastery) begins playing music at 5 a.m, followed by a gentle rap on the door from Paaw (my Thai father) around 6 a.m. for breakfast. Some days it just makes me smile; others, I begrudgingly swing my legs out of bed and stumble into the kitchen. The family is almost in full motion at this point. My May (Thai mother), has already cooked enough breakfast for the eight people living under her roof as well as the monks that we feed every morning.
When I stumble into the kitchen, still half asleep, my Paaw, May and Thai sister all greet me with a smile and a chuckle. I feel 5 years old again. My brain hasn’t even turned on yet and they are striking up a conversation in Thai. I have only heard Thai for the first time a week and a half ago. Trust me, you get the hang of it pretty quickly when everyone is speaking it around you.
After the first few mornings, Paaw took notice that I always drink a cup of hot tea with breakfast so he sets out a teacup and saucer with a spoon for me every morning. Even though a 3-in-1 coffee mix is all the rage here in Thailand, they have taken notice of my eating habits. Today, Paaw walked over to a grocery bag and pulled out a box of green tea. He went out of his way to buy me a box of tea, despite it not being prevalent. I smiled. Gracious doesn’t come close to what I felt. I felt like family. I feel like family.
For my first week of school my Paaw and I rode side-by-side to the Tessabon. He strolled along in his old-fashioned bike, equipped with a basket and cushy backseat for prospective riders. When we approached busy intersections he would quickly pull ahead of me and hold his arm out in front of me, much as a mother does to a child riding in the car, the imaginary safety belt, in a sense.
While I was in training lessons one day, he called the Peace Corps staff to see if I wanted him to come pick me up and ride with me on the way home. They assured him that I would be safe and he kindly replied that he wanted me to ride with another volunteer if possible, and not to forget to stop at the busy intersection. I smiled.
My Paaw is much like my grandfather. Both of these men are teaching me a great deal about life. Paaw Prathum has just begun, and my Grandpa has been molding me and shaping me as a successful young woman since I was a little girl. Every time I smile at Paaw and he smiles at me, I see nothing but kindness in his eyes.
I remember when I hugged my grandfather goodbye at the airport. I looked into his eyes and he smiled at me. His eyes were soft and kind. He was so proud to see his baby granddaughter go off and do something so courageous. Admirable. All that he had taught me to be.
Grandpa is 84 this year, and he led the family herd out to the airport terminal when I left America. As a matter of fact, he was several steps ahead of all of us, trucking away at life at a faster, steadier pace than most of us.
My Thai Paaw is 70 this year. He is a respected retired school teacher and one of the most patient men I have met. During dinner, his 4-year-old granddaughter sits on his lap and eats with him. He smiles softly and spoons rice into her mouth. I have much to learn from him.
Today was one of the days where it was a struggle to pull myself out of bed at 5:40 in the morning. Paaw wanted me to go with him to the Wat to feed the monks. After the Wat and now rushed for time to make it to school, I began my 4 km bike ride a little early just to get out of the house.
I was upset at myself for being frustrated but knew it was understandable because of volunteers’ tight schedules. By the time I made it back home I couldn’t help but perk up again when greeted so warmly by my family.
Tonight, after dinner, Pi Ning, my Thai sister, took me to the oy fields (sugar cane) to see where Paaw and Bpuu go to chop down the crops. I returned home and took shower number two of the day, a common practice in Thailand because of the heat.
After I got out, I looked down at my leg and noticed a small patch of raised, itchy bumps on the back of my leg, much like poison ivy or sumac. I panicked slightly. I sat on the floor in my towel, and May inspected my leg. She went “ahhhh” and dabbed a cream on every part of my legs that resembled a bug bite. She gingerly tended to my rash as I sat there scantily clad. When she finished, I thanked her and flashed a huge smile.
When she smiled back I realized: It is more than just smiles that a