Where are they now? – Anton

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.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

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? 

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

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? 

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

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.

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

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!

Anton helping set up for a temple festival at Wat Doi Saket.

Anton helping to set up for a festival at Wat Doi Saket.

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Wat Doi Saket project – Finding a ‘new normal’

I was first drawn to Thailand for its deep-rooted culture, natural beauty and easy way of life, and while I have traveled before, I underestimated some of the difficulties of living in a new country and just how different it would be.  However, after almost three months in Chiang Mai, the culture shock is finally fading and I am beginning to feel more comfortable living in another country, starting to find a ‘new normal’.  As a popular holiday tourist spot, Thailand can be very accommodating and it is not hard to find some of the same comforts as home, but living outside of the tourist spots and trying to adjust to the language, food and culture while teaching, working, and living in a Buddhist temple has been a very unique experience.

For the month of October I have been living at Wat Doi Saket, the main temple for volunteers with the Wat Doi Saket project, in a district North of Chiang Mai.  The town is relatively small but the community is strong and the culture is vibrant.  Some of the cultural differences are small, things to eventually incorporate into daily life, and others are the major definitions between American and Thai culture.

Here are some of biggest cultural differences that I have (mostly) adjusted to:

Paying Respect

Thailand is officially a Buddhist Kingdom, so respect for the Buddha and the King are a must.  Images of the King and Buddha statues are in every government building, school, store, and most peoples homes.  The King’s song plays every evening at 6 pm (TV, radio, loudspeakers, etc.) and in public you stop what you are doing to stand and pay your respect.

To the Buddha statues you Wai (bow) three times and sometimes tuk tuk drivers and people on motorbikes “Wai” to Wat’s and various Buddhist statues as they drive past.  Monks are always highly respected in the community and often people from town will come and bring a gift to the monks and the Wat to “make merit” for themselves or a loved one and receive a blessing from the monk.

This is just a small part of a larger cultural standard regarding the importance of family, community structure, and social roles.  Younger people respect those older than them, including teachers.  Even when I am just walking around the school the students Wai to me and say “hello teacher”. This still makes me smile everyday!

Please Remove your Shoes 

This one is very simple but ties into a strong part of Thai culture.  In Thailand feet are considered the dirtiest part of your body and, out of respect, you must remove your shoes before entering school buildings, someone’s house, and of course the Wat’s.  When you are in a Wat you must not point your feet towards the Buddha or the Monks, and it is impolite to point with your feet in a store or street market.  At first I couldn’t think of any possible situation when I would point with my feet until I was at a market, drinking a coconut with one hand and carrying my camera in the other, and wanted to show something at the stall.  I unintentionally pointed with my foot and the women at the stall stopped talking and stared at me and I understood how rude it was.

DO talk to strangers

Although this is the complete opposite of everything you were told as a kid, talking to local people is the best way to understand a new place and get adjusted quickly.  The locals are eager to talk to you and will often go out of their way to help you.  This genuine kindness was surprising at first when people in town would see me walking and stop on the side of the road to offer me rides on the back of their motorbikes, even if it was just up the hill or down the road.  When I refused and got strange looks, I realized that people actually want to help you get wherever you are going.  I was even offered a ride home by the masseuse after a massage because I had to wait a few minutes for her to finish with another client.

Restaurants and shop owners are excited to see “farang” (foreigners) and almost always do their best to make conversation and get to know you.  For dinner one night I went to a roadside barbeque stand for grilled chicken, but the women working said she was out and would have more tomorrow.  I came back the next day, not sure if she would remember me, and when I walked up she said “you’re late!”  There was only one piece of chicken left on the grill that she said she was saving for me because I said I would come back.

Mai? Mai. Mai! mai. Maii.

Thai language is made up of 5 tones (high, low, rising, falling, & mid-tone) and one word can be said 5 ways with 5 different meanings.  A word that sounded simple at first, Mai, which I just understood as “No”, also means “new”, “fine”, “silk” or “yes-no?”.  I am far from understanding how to pronounce the different tones and language is still one of my biggest challenges, but just trying goes along way and most people will correct my Thai with a smile.

Spicy, sour, bitter and sweet with rice.

Just like the language, traditional Thai food is complex and full of many flavors at once. Most dishes are based around rice or noodles, and can be spicy or ‘Thai spicy’.  At restaurants they offer chilies, fish sauce, sugar, and salt to amp up the flavor.  Even something as common as pad thai can be prepared more than ten different ways, with different spices, meats, and vegetables.  I am still getting used to the tangy fish sauce and just how much spice I can handle.  Meals are also eaten communally, where each person has their own bowl of rice, the dishes are shared and you take one spoonful at a time. Most meals are pretty informal and the communal feel is relaxed and enjoyable.

Motorbikes rule the road

Learning to ride a motorbike has been one of my favorite things about living in Thailand. The freedom to explore other districts and small towns is addicting and driving on the highway is exhilarating.  In America I would see a handful of motorcycles on the roads and thought of motorbikes for racing or on country back roads.  But here motorbikes are the main mode of transportation and it is not uncommon to see whole families on one bike at a time.  I hate to admit that since my first blog I have had more than one burn and a scratch or two, but this is one aspect I am fully enjoying!

Squat toilets, bucket showers, & bug netting

Since being in Thailand I have moved around quite a bit, from a hotel, to a technical college, a Buddhist temple, and now a rural hill tribe village, with weekend trips in between.  Before Thailand, I had never used a squat toilet, taken a bucket shower or slept with a bug net before, but with everything else, after a few times (and some funny mishaps) I am used to them.  Each place has had varying living conditions, most are without bug netting, a stand up shower and flush toilet, but at least the “how the heck do I use this?!” moments are over and I am not surprised to see a hose instead of toilet paper anymore.

Whenever I start to really get comfortable I have moments when it hits me that I am actually living in Thailand and I have something new to adjust to.  I will not be fluent in Thai anytime soon and I still gasp when I see parents holding their babies on the motorbike on the superhighway, but travel is necessary to help you understand that things are constantly changing and you can find new comforts when you are open to new experiences.  It is also important to know that you can move to a new country, or even just a new city and still find your rhythm and routine with a new way of life.

Subscribe to this blog to read more about life abroad, Thai culture, Buddhism, and the Wat Doi Saket Project.

By Katherine Devine

katherine@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

ATMA SEVA – Meet and hear from our new intern, 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 at Saraphi 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 motorcycle I was riding outside the noodle shop

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!

Group dinner! It was at a friend of Nids (Dave’s girlfriend) house. Her name was Dang and her home is in Mae Jo district. From L-R; Sonam, Dang, Nid, Im, Katherine

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.

Saraphi road

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!

First day in the classroom

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 and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to follow along for my adventures and more on teaching, the students, Buddhism, and life in Thailand!

Katherine Devine

My new email – katherine@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

First impressions, culture shock, & teaching the novices

Hi! My name is Marcia and I am from Mexico. I am currently volunteering at Wat Doi Saket as an English Teacher with ATMA SEVA Ambassadors. I will be here for at least 4 months.

I have been here for a month already, I cannot believe how fast time flies. I arrived in Chiang Mai’s airport and Dave and Natch were there to pick me up. (Dave is the program director and Natch is the English teacher at Wat Doi Saket) Both of them have been amazing all this time. Dave has introduced me to the Thai culture teaching me something new everyday. He showed me around Doi Saket and has taken me around Chiang Mai also. I have never felt alone. He speaks quite a bit of Thai and he has been incredibly helpful, friendly, and supportive. Natch is the School’s English Teacher and in charge of the English Language department amongst many other activities in school and the Wat as well. Natch has also helped me tons! He has made me feel welcome and needed at the school. He is eager to learn more English and always has a smile on his face! He is very optimistic and loves working for the kids. He wants the students to find learning English fun and attractive and has asked me to prepare classes which involve conversation, listening, and speaking activities.

I must say that the culture shock during the first week was unexpected. Accustomed to ‘America’s luxuries’ and taken those for granted, my first glance at the bathroom threw me off…..to the extent of thinking that this arrangement might not work for me. Now, it all seems very nice and I feel comfortable using water instead of toilet paper!! I remember Dave mentioning how it all was a shock for him too, and now he has ‘switched to water’; I never thought I would say this but: ‘me too’! I could have switched to a nicer place with my own bathroom but I decided to stay here at the Wat and experience the culture instead of isolating myself somewhere else.

One of the hardest things has been coordinating with the meals’ schedule. Food does not stay warm long, so I have been eating cold eggs, cold rice, cold fried chicken, etc.  I have yet to eat cold soup, just can’t. When I eat cold meals, I try to feel grateful for having food on my table, unlike many other people whom might not. But I miss having a microwave!! 🙂

The food is super different compared to what I am used to. Rice is present in almost every meal, if not rice, rice noodles or rice flour snacks. They even eat it with fruits, coconut, and condensed milk. The only way I used to eat sweet rice was in rice pudding but here the possibilities are endless! Being mexican and loving spicy food has been of great help with the spicy dishes; the other day at the market I bought some chilies and the lady who sold them looked at me in a very funny/strange/surprised kind of way; I guess they are not used to seeing ‘farangs’ (foreigners) eat chilies.

One of the funniest things that happens everyday is in regard to the amazed looks and gossip that goes on every time someone sees my electric scooter. Being somewhat handicapped by Chemo induced peripheral neuropathy I travel with my scooter and use it to go places. I think seeing one for the first time causes incredible surprise and curiosity especially amongst the ones who would love to have one due to their age or disabilities. More than once Thais have approached me and began talking to me signaling the scooter, I listen to them deeply wishing I could understand what they are saying and talk to them but I just smile and say: sorry, I do not understand. One day I hope to be able to speak Thai so I can establish at least a simple conversation with them.

Learning Thai has not been easy. I have learned a few sentences but Thai language has 5 different tones to the same vowel and this is haaaaard! But I am getting there.

Teaching young Buddhist novices has been an amazing experience. They are novice monks, wear robes, and are treated with deference but they are still kids nonetheless. A regular teaching schedule has not been able to be set up due to all the holidays but hopefully in January things will get back to a somewhat normal schedule.

We have reorganized the English classroom and it looks cozier and inviting. Dave got a few boards and we covered one of the walls in hopes to fill it with student’s work. I am looking forward to more teaching. I will also be working on an English Curriculum for the volunteers in the future.

Sa wa dee ka!

Marcia Somellera

marcia@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org