Note: This is a repost of a blog entry I wrote for Isara, originally posted here: “Farewell to Isara, Nong Khai and Thailand“
After dropping out of university after a mere two months of a disappointing computer science course, I admitted to myself that I had absolutely no clue as to what to do next.
It seemed that much of my life up until this point had been laid out for me in perfect order, but now a choice beckoned, and I was rearing to put what had passed behind me.
After a few months of debt repayment and soul-destroying IT jobs, I decided to quit and do something oft sold as worthwhile but something I had never even considered before: volunteer.
I wanted to volunteer, although I wasn’t sure it what field nor on what continent. After a bit of research I had narrowed down my search to Asia, and eventually landed on Thailand. The choice of what country wasn’t particularly important to me, I just wanted to volunteer. You could say I was driven by a blind need to do so. I had decided to go to Thailand for three months to teach English.
This was no frivolous excursion either. I will admit that the lure of volunteering abroad is not entirely objectively founded. There’s plenty of work to be done at home after all, and if my intentions were solely altruistic it would probably make more sense, financially at least, to help those already in my immediate vicinity. Alas, my intentions were not entirely altruistic. I was eager to travel abroad, to leave the path that seemed expected of me, to escape the monotonous eight-hour work drill that we, as a society, have become so used to. I wanted to escape. I wanted to discover something new about myself, something that no amount of time at a university, no matter how prestigious or expensive, could reveal.
Upon landing in Thailand, apart from being drained and agitated from the flight, I was in slight disbelief that I had actually gone through with it. I had been told I was more of a dreamer than a doer, so much so that I started to believe it, and so I being in Thailand was quite something to behold. Me acting on my concerns and principles as opposed to superficial wants and intuitions was surely a novelty.
Whatever apprehensions I felt on the day were more than matched upon arriving in Thailand’s poorest region, Isaan.
The first part of my stay was spent in a small village on the Mekong river, bordering with Laos. I spent six weeks teaching English to secondary school students. The school accommodated and fed me, in exchange for my English language and British humour. Much of what appealed to them, no doubt, was something I am unintentionally – white, and therefore foreign.
It feels odd writing about a subject so taboo, but race is a pervasive and relevant issue here. If your skin is of a whiter shade, or if there are any indications that you’re foreign, then upon walking into a Thai village, you’ll discover that many of the locals are quite fascinated by you – not for anything unique to you, but rather the simple fact that you’re foreign.
In the very rural areas, you’re likely to be the first foreigner many of the children have ever seen in real life. They point, they wave, they shy away, and they’re often silenced in curiosity and awe. For some of them, you’re a new skin, hair, or eye colour. For others, you embody the west and much of what young Thai people look up to. When they look at you, they don’t only see these new colours, they see another world – they know little of it so just to gaze at you is novel enough for most of them.
After my six weeks at the school I travelled to Nong Khai where I found Isara, a non-profit foundation that dedicates itself to teaching English & IT, looking after and raising awareness about the environment, and health & safety. As one would expect, they teach English for free. Anyone that wishes to learn English can walk off the street in Nong Khai and learn from English-speaking volunteers.
I first spoke to the founder of Isara, Kirk, when I was still working with another organisation. This other organisation charges volunteers a fee. If you’ve volunteered abroad before, the concept of volunteer fees probably won’t come as too much of a shock. It seems this is the widely accepted status quo and, currently, it is quite a challenge to find organisations that don’t operate in this way.
Just the concept of paying to volunteer was absurd to me when I begun but, after considerable exposure, I began to accept it. This all changed, of course, when talking to the founder and other volunteers at Isara. They charged nothing. This may not seem special but, trust me, such an organisation is a rarity. In exchange for your volunteering they will accommodate you. They only ask for five hours of dedication per week, but most volunteers give so much more than that.
Upon finding Isara, my three months in Thailand eventually turned into six months, and after Kirk requested that Michelle, a volunteer from Canada, and I take part in Isara’s new “Free Volunteer Thailand” project, my trip turned into almost eight months.
There are some things that simply must be experienced to gain the most out of them. Leading a game of Simon Says in front of a five-hundred-strong audience should fall into this category, if just for its ludicrous nature. Until you’ve done it, you can’t quite imagine the absurdity and surrealism of it. Another cherished memory from my first few months was teaching fifty eleven-year-old students the chorus line of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, with added dance moves. Young Thai children enjoy moving around, and saying foreign words, even if they don’t understand them.
Of course, let’s not forget the odd feeling one experiences when celebrating Christmas with one-hundred-plus Thai students in a place so distant from the usual wintery Narnia that envelopes the UK during that time.
Every individual Thai person I’ve met has added to my experience, and I have to say that I don’t think I’ve yet had an encounter with a Thai person that wasn’t at least pleasant. In the depths of the countryside, surrounded by farmland, I will meet a humble family and share a meal of Ant eggs and sticky rice, and in the bustling semi-urban experience that is Nong Khai I will meet so many interesting people on many different paths in life, from a wealthy manager of the local mall, to the woman that wheels out her cart every single day to sell coffee and tea on the street.
Even while celebrating Song Kran, I couldn’t help but notice the little things happening around us, that would probably go unnoticed to most foreigners. The lady in the shop next door to Isara worked throughout the celebrations, probably upwards of fifteen hours a day dedicated to her som-tam shop. This is the reality.
To experience another world’s reality is valuable beyond reasonable measure. It can’t be explained by words, only by the recipient’s subsequent actions—actions that will be decided upon with a great influence from the perspectives gained from knowing another reality.
Heading home will be strange. But it’s not the same home. Not to me. I will see it through a different pair of eyes; alas, probably a more cynical pair of eyes.
Farewell Isara, Nong Khai, Isaan and Thailand! And a huge thank you to all the awesome people I’ve met here. I will be working on my Thai and hope to return some day in the future.