In this edition of ‘Where are they now?’ we checked in with Anton, a former volunteer with our Wat Doi Saket project who is from France. Read his answers below to hear more about his time in Thailand with ATMA SEVA and what he’s been up to since returning home to France.
1) How did you first get connected with ATMA SEVA? Why did you choose to volunteer with the Wat Doi Saket Project?
Initially, I was just looking for an internship somewhere in Southeast Asia; the country and the activity of the organization did not matter as long as their mission was in line with my own philosophy. I found a short message written by programs director, David, on a forum so I contacted him to learn more about ATMA SEVA. After hearing about what this experience could be, I immediately said “yes”. For me, the appeal of the program was being able to explore Asia in a rural and traditional area while also teaching kids. The idea of living in a Buddhist temple was also exciting, and even if I am a mostly convinced atheist, I knew I would discover new points of view and ideas about life with the monks, which is exactly what happened.
2) Tell us a bit about your time at the temple and teaching at a Thai government school. What were some of your favorite moments?
At first, it was hard to adjust to the temple schedule with a lot of free time, teachers living in the temple, and often changing class times. I like teaching and it was quite pleasant to teach in these places. I had a lot of freedom in the classroom and I could talk about whichever subjects I chose. The hardest thing was that so few people spoke English at that time in both the temple and the school. This meant that I really had to make an effort to learn the Thai language, which is difficult to learn, in order to integrate and communicate. Despite the challenge, it was really interesting to get into it, and very valuable for my work with the kids. Some of my favorite moments were bonding with the kids in both the government school and the temple. I also really enjoyed a theatre project I worked on at the government school.
3) What was it like being the first volunteer?
Intense! I was glad to be the first volunteer and help to continue building relationships with these monks and teachers who are continuing partners with ATMA SEVA. It was a challenge to figure out how to communicate and work with so many new people, but I enjoyed sharing our ideas about education and teaching. I hope my work has been beneficial and that the links between ATMA SEVA and its partners continue to grow and strengthen.
4) How did you find your transition back to France after being in Thailand for several months?
Actually, after Thailand, I spent two months in South America and then five months in Quebec. The whole year was crazy for me. The transition between Asia and South America was really a shock because these two cultures are quite opposite in many ways: quietness and meditation, “soft human contact” for Asia; intense social life and passionate feelings for South America. The difference was pronounced and it was incredible to see how diverse human life and culture can be. Once I got back to France, it took me about a year and a half to get used to French people again and appreciate them, but that’s part of traveling!
5) What are you doing currently?
I am actually finishing my master’s degree in political sciences in the cultural field. I am on an internship in the French countryside, working on a theatre project involving an equestrian show mixing classical text and modern direction with hip hop music. I manage the administration of the project by looking for funds, places to perform, and setting up partnerships to communicate about the project.
6) What are your plans when you finish university? Would you consider any more work internationally?
My plans are still tentative, but I would like to finish this project that runs up to summer 2014, and find another job in the cultural field. After this, I would like to go to Quito, Equator, for a master’s degree in video documentaries. Eventually I’d like to get back to Montreal, a city that I love, and spend a part of my life there.
7) What did you learn from your time in Thailand volunteering with ATMA SEVA?
I learned how to integrate to the unique Thai culture and how to communicate with people who don’t share a common language. I learned about how to teach effectively, what life is like in a Wat, that French food is not the best in the world, how to drive a motorbike… and more! I learned so many things that I can’t list them all!
8) What is your advice for anybody interested in volunteering or traveling abroad?
First, make sure to get enough information about the country and the organization that you are considering working with. I didn’t do as much research as I should have. I was lucky that ATMA SEVA was a good NGO, that David was so helpful and that Thailand is such a welcoming place. I have a few friends who landed on an unfriendly territory, and had a bad international experience. It’s good to know a little about where you’re going and what to expect before committing to work abroad.
Once you’ve arrived abroad, I recommend forgetting about what you know or think you know. Everything is relative, and it’s really dangerous and inappropriate to think your culture and your ideas are the one correct way. Understanding a country and its people doesn’t depend on simply the language or politeness, but on your capacity to think as others do and understand perspectives other than your own. Always keep in mind that your views derive from a history you did not choose. Meeting different people is a great opportunity to challenge your ideas and beliefs in a search for your own personal truth. And don’t forget to have fun with the people you meet and enjoy your time!