For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to the Nan Province of Thailand where I taught English to students at local schools. During my three weeks abroad, I was able to help teach the people of Thailand, but also learn so much myself. Not only did I get to experience the culture, but I also learned to cook, make pottery, basket weave, speak a little bit of Thai, and more!
While completing my project, many of my views of the world changed. Going to Thailand was a culture shock. I had never been to a third world country before, and seeing the way of life for people there was alarming to me at first. No office buildings, no malls, no indoor restaurants, no safe water from sinks, no AC, bathrooms were just a hole in the floor with a bucket of water to flush it down, schools had little to no supplies, things were so censored and controlled that you could not speak badly about the government without a hefty fine or jail time, only a small minority of the population could afford a car, the list goes on and on. I knew that many countries were not as luxurious as America, but I never knew that people lived this simply.
Although the people had so little, they were so incredibly happy. When I first arrived, I thought how can this be? It seemed like a country full of blue collar workers, slaving away in their fields or markets or construction, working for the average salary of about $6000 U.S. dollars a year. They worked so hard, and even with that it was barely enough to put food on the table for their family. Furthering their education at a university was not very realistic, and traveling out of the country for vacations was almost unheard of. But then I started to think a lot about the situation while I was there. Why are they so happy when it seems like they live a life that would be so depressing in the U.S.? I realized that they don’t need money to be happy. If they are surrounded by their family and friends, and live a life of kindness and modesty, they are happy. Everyone I met there seemed so content with their lives, they did not want anything extra or unnecessary, and people were respected based on their modesty and benevolence, not based on their appearance, social status, amount of money, or occupation. The people were so calm, and seemed to be at peace with their life everywhere we went. Experiencing this culture helped me to see what it truly means to live a happy and successful life. Sometimes I get too carried away with life and striving to do more and have more and be happier, but when it comes down to it, being surrounded by family and friends and living a healthy life full of kindness are all that really matter.
This change in my understanding of happiness stemmed from my interactions with the people in Thailand. When I first arrived in Bangkok, we were walking down one of the main streets when we saw this little alley behind a food cart. We decided to walk down it to see some of the smaller streets of the city where people actually live, and what we saw was shocking. People in this little neighborhood had absolutely nothing. The houses were the size of sheds, with nothing but an area to lay, permanently open to the outside, crumbling at the seams with just a rusty tin roof covering parts of the little village. They had a porch where they stored their few personal belongings, and that was all. One little house had a bathroom/shower for people to use, one had a washing machine for the village, one had a sewing machine out front, one had a little stand with some meat and other groceries on it, one had a table with two chairs out front and it looked like it was a restaurant, etc. There was a small playground area with a slide and some concrete for the children to play games, but that was all. As we walked down the street through their homes, we got a lot of looks, but it wasn’t mean unwelcoming looks. Rather, it was greetings and welcoming into their village. There were ladies sitting on their porches laughing cheerfully. There were children running around, playing with each other, happy as can be. A man was sitting on his porch enjoying the scorching hot sun while feeding the stray cats. Seeing how little they had, but how kind and friendly they were was inspiring. I realized that they had their people around them, and they did not need fancy items or big houses or lots of toys to be happy.
While riding through Bangkok on a boat, we got to see a lot of the houses of the people who live on the water. This was very interesting to see. In America, we have many strict laws that prevent people from living in dangerous areas and in unstable houses completely above water, but here it was not the case. Peoples’ houses were completely surrounded by water. The wooden stilts holding up each of the houses were slowly succumbing to the soft waves of the river. The houses were completely slanted, wooden boards were broken, roofs were caving in, porches had collapsed in the middle, and there was not much left to any of the houses, but nonetheless they were still so inhabited. There were people everywhere. Some men were fishing on their porches. Seeing babies and young children get so excited in their mothers’ arms every time a boat cruised by or a bird landed on a house was the most precious thing. Children sitting on the leftover wooden stilts that were once the foundation of a house, just sat, talked, and watched the boats sail by. They were so peaceful, and all greeted us with a wave and a big smile. They all seemed to be making the best of what they had, and enjoying every second of their lives, which is what makes life most worth living.
My interaction with the kids I taught was hands down the transformational experience of the program. We taught at a daycare and a school, both in very rural Nan, out in the mountains where the Hill tribes lived. These Hill tribe students had nothing. The teachers told us that the further away from the cities you go, the poorer the regions get. The students at the daycare had loving families, but they did not live lives similar to my childhood. Many had never learned to brush their teeth, and they had rotten teeth by the age of 6. They rode on motorbikes to school because it was the only form of transportation for the family, no matter how dangerous it was for a bunch of little children to be hanging off the back without helmets. The daycare did not have the funding to provide a lot of extra educational supplies. The classes were large, the curriculum was poor, there was no sense of order or stability. When it was raining, the parents didn’t feel a need to bring their children to the school. Overall the education system was poor, but this did not hinder the students’ and teachers’ spirits. The second we arrived, the students were so eager to learn and hear what we had to say. They were beyond respectful, so well behaved and paid attention so well for being young children. They worked so hard to learn everything we taught them and they were so content and cheerful. In the older school that we taught in, the circumstances were a little bit different. This school was also comprised of Hill tribe children, but it was a 100% welfare school. It was a school that children would go to from age 6 through 18, and they lived in dorms at the school. It was for children whose parents abandoned them, left the children on the street until eventually they were found by the government and placed in this school, or their families dropped them off at the school and just never returned. It was extremely saddening to see all of the amazing kids who were just left to fend for themselves at such a young age, but nothing from their past changed the way they acted or lived in the present. The school did not have a lot of money, the classes very large, resources were low, and some of the teachers did not seem to care much about the students, but this did not affect morale either. The students were so happy to be there and have each other. Their faces lit up when we would show up to the schoolgrounds each morning. The greeted us with respect and welcoming smiles. It was incredible to see how happy the students were in their given situations. They were so content, and so enthusiastic about learning.
This transformation was very valuable and much needed in my life. I am always on the go, doing something, going somewhere, and all of the people I had the pleasure of interacting with taught me that it is okay to relax. This experience taught me to find happiness in my own life and with the circumstances I live with. It showed me that it is possible to find happiness anywhere, I don’t have to have the most money or be the most popular or have the nicest things, but rather happiness comes from what you make of a situation and having family and friends and a safe home and good health and kindness around me is what is most important. I also think this change helped me to not only value the simplicity of life, but also to value the education that I have the privilege of obtaining. These students in Nan were so eager to learn anything they had access to, even if it wasn’t much. This made me realize how many opportunities I have here in America, and was a good reminder to keep taking advantage of all of the learning opportunities. It made me realize how lucky I am to be getting an education and doing what makes me happy, and it helped to remind me to find the happiness in a situation, even when times get rough. These ideas ae once that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.