Name: Deven Comen
From: Durham, CT
School: Georgetown University
LE Program and Year: Thailand 2009
What traveling experience did you have before volunteering with LE?
I had only traveled to Canada and for 8 days in Italy before my stint in Thailand. It was the first time I truly challenged myself with a very different culture in a developing country.
Did you speak the local language of the country you volunteered in? If not, how did that add to your overall experience?
Stepping into a situation in which one cannot communicate in the native tongue is intimidating to say the least. The rural rice-paddy region of Bangkratum hosted few English speakers and my cramming of “Learn Thai 101” YouTube videos in the week before departure was inadequate preparation for communication. Many messages were lost in the shuffle, and I soon learned to wonder less and accept more. For example, a sticky situation in which I was left without a host family led to a random re-assignment with a teacher at our school. I literally got in a pickup truck, suitcase in hand, with a strange, non-English speaker and went to an undisclosed location. I couldn’t even ask her for her name at this point in my Thai language education. But my host mom became my best teacher and I was soon able to join family dinner conversation and also became a better teacher once I could say things like “Please stand up” and “Draw a picture” to instruct the kids.
Could you share with us something you learned?
Realizing that timelines really didn’t matter in the daily life of a Thai also forced me to let go of things out of my control. I discovered that first, there is never an estimated time of arrival, and second, one shouldn’t inquire about it. In my experience, the Southeast Asian attitude tended to be more relaxed than that to which I was accustomed. My usual hour-ruled-by-the-agenda-book attitude had to change, since worrying about unknowns contributed to unnecessary stress. I had to stretch myself to have less expectations for the day and let things come. I was rewarded with smiling kids, excellent home-cooked food, and a broadened understanding of another culture.