Jenna Mason was born and raised in Wilton, and graduated from Elon University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education (K-12) and Middle Grades Social Studies, and a minor in Latin American Studies. She is a Fulbright Scholar in the Thailand-United States Educational Foundation (TUSEF), working as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at the Thung Saliam Chanupatham School in Thung Saliam, Sukhothai, Thailand, where she teaches Mathayom level (secondary school, age 13-18) English.
When she is not spending time with the students and teachers in her community, Jenna enjoys reading, exploring on her bicycle, traveling, and listening to the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack. Upon returning to the United States, she hopes to draw on her experiences in Thailand while pursuing a career in education policy or education law.
We saw this essay she wrote for a Fulbright teaching assistant blog, and asked her if we could share this with GOOD Morning Wilton’s readers.
It’s a letter she wrote to herself after her first six months in Thailand, titled, “(To) Me Before Thailand.” She reflects no only on what it’s like to be a stranger in a foreign land, but what it’s like to be an American abroad–both representing the country at a time of heightened conflict as well as learning how people in the country she’s visiting view Americans and America.
Dear September 2016 Jenna,
Right now, you’re preparing for your Fulbright ETA year in Thailand. You received your placement to Thung Saliam, and immediately learned the valuable lesson that for this year, Google will no longer be a consistently reliable solution to your problems. So far, all you have been able to determine about your school is from a blurry image of Thai students in yellow shirts outside a school. You don’t know yet how old the students are, how many you’ll teach, how much English they speak, or if they’ll like you. You don’t know yet that that blur of yellow will teach you more about yourself in four months than you have learned in the past 23 years.
You’re packing a suitcase full of bright-colored short sleeved shirts and knee length skirts, because you do not know yet that at the end of your first month here, the King of Thailand will pass away, leaving the country in mourning. You will not wear a single one of the colorful items you packed, as the government will mandate that all government employees wear only black and white for one full year out of respect to his majesty. You have read enough to know how important the King is to the Thai people, but you don’t understand the depth of that love. You don’t know yet that you too will mourn this King for your teachers and friends; that the members of your community’s love and admiration for the King is so unprecedented and awe-inspiring that you will try in vain to draw a parallel of this love to your own life or to the United States. You will realize that the closest parallel you can draw is to the love you share with your own biological father and will marvel at the seeming impossibility that any one person could emanate that sort of singular love to an entire country of people. You will wish your own country had that kind of unifying source of love.
The month-long orientation in Bangkok, to which you’ve given little-to-no thought, will go by in a flash. You have been so focused on honing your ability to get through this year alone, that you never imagine going through it with others. Your 21 Fulbright peers will be your support system, cheerleaders, and inspiration. When you travel with them on long weekends, you’ll have to remind yourself that you haven’t actually known them for years. You’ll be confused when you find yourself feeling homesick for them.
You’re nervous because you are the first ETA placed in Thung Saliam. You are jealous of your Fulbright peers, who each have a predecessor who is able to answer school and town specific questions. You are grateful for Elaine, Edie, and Christine, who patiently support you and answer your countless questions, even though they were placed in other areas of the country.
You are only in touch with the fears and implications of being the first American in your town, not the possibilities. You wish there were someone before who had paved the way, could answer your questions, and more than that, you wish there were someone to tell you that even through the challenges you may face, you’ll be happy, safe, and comfortable. You don’t know that even if you did have a predecessor, no one would be able to tell you those things. But I can: you will constantly adjust your sense of normalcy and happiness, but it will happen so organically that it will not be until you are reflecting four months in that you will realize it has happened.
Your one great fear–being the first American in your town–will be challenging in all the ways you imagine, but full of unique opportunities you never expected. You will have the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of shaping the way people here come to understand your home country. During the first week of class, you will ask your students what they think of when they hear “America.” Some of the responses will include “Justin Bieber,” “white skin,” “long noses,” and “hamburgers.” You will ask the same question on the last week of the first semester, and while the students will still say, “Justin Bieber” and “Lady Gaga,” they will also say things like “diversity,” “voting,” “Obama,” and “you, teacher!”
You’re recovering from having your tonsils removed, and are wondering how you will live 10,000 miles away from your parents. You have only exchanged one e-mail with your host teacher Prissana, and have no way of knowing she’ll become your parent in Thailand. You will be constantly in awe of her boundless generosity. Through her, you will acquire not only a Thai mother, but a sister in her daughter and nephews in her six and three-year-old grandchildren. You will be welcomed without hesitation into the intimacies of her family life and you will admire in her the same selflessness you see in your own mom. Being “Aunt Jen” will be your favorite of the many new identities you will acquire this year.
The cultural immersion seems far more daunting than the teaching; after all, you studied education and you are already a licensed teacher. However, you will come to rely more heavily on your theater background than your teaching experience as you stand in front of classes of 42 students and struggle to make your directions coherent. At one point, you will notice that your students pronounce the word “heart” as the word “hurt.” While trying to teach students to distinguish the difference between the r-controlled vowel sounds in the words, you will pantomime the gesture of stabbing saying, “you HURT” and then circle your heart repeating “my HEART” to distinguish the sounds. On an exit ticket asking what they learned in class, a student will write, “Romeo and Juliet.”
You’re afraid you won’t like the food and that you’ll be too isolated to access things you can eat. But, you will love the food; even when it’s so spicy that it brings tears to your eyes. You will feel a strange sense of pride when your noodle lady tells you she’s started making your noodles “normal spicy” instead of “a little spicy” (to clarify, normal spicy is feel-it-in-your-chest-spicy).
You’re scared that no one will understand when you say you’re allergic to nuts and that you’ll be constantly fearful of what you can and cannot eat. In actuality, when students (frequently) offer you food to try, you will hear them first discuss in Thai whether it has nuts. You will have never told them about your allergies, but your community will care so deeply for your safety that everyone will know.
You’re worried about how you will get around when living alone. When you mention offhand that you’d like to buy a bicycle in order to better navigate the town, Teacher Ting will be inclined to take her bicycle to be painted, fixed, and delivered to you for your use within 48 hours. You’ll think of this kindness every time you ride it.
You aren’t too worried about being lonely or making friends, because while you don’t realize you’re doing it, you’re thinking of authentic friendships as an unlikely luxury, not an inevitability. During your first weekend here, you will hear a large group of your neighbors outside your house. You will be too nervous to leave your room. You’ll be confused by how uncharacteristically shy you are being; you won’t know that they invited everyone there to meet you. Those strangers that made you so nervous will be your friends. You will eat and drink and laugh together and be invited to meet their families. You will look back after four months and realize that at some point, you went from sitting mostly silently while people spoke Thai around you to having real conversations about each others’ lives.
You think that Elon taught you to be more cognizant of your own privilege, so you will be surprised by how often you need to check that privilege. People will regularly comment on your skin, appearance, and personal items. One day, you and your friend Zhao will go to a Thai restaurant for dinner, and the two of you will ask in Thai what they serve. You will tell the women you cannot read the thai menu, but can understand what they say. You will be told that if you cannot read the menu in Thai, and write your order in Thai, you cannot eat there. This will be shocking, but you will realize that this is the first and only time in your entire life something was prohibited to you based on the extent of your knowledge or ethnicity. You will be humbled by this feeling and you will think of the many American citizens who face this feeling in their own country.
You’re worried you will either be stretched too thin, or not know what to do to fill your time. Strangely, both of these extremes will happen. You will leave for a field trip at 1 a.m. on a Friday and not return for 38 hours, operating only on cat naps on the bus. You will take overnight buses, followed by van rides and after 14 hours still not be where you need to go. Some days, you will be so physically and mentally exhausted that even listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the thousandth time will seem daunting. Somehow, concurrently, you will read 46 books by February. You’ll find joy in both of these extremes.
After four months, you’ll wake up pull your black dress past your knees, hop on your bicycle, and ride into school, as you do every day. The paths will be lined with students playing with volleyballs, sweeping leaves, and practicing instruments. You’ll be waiting for the day that it feels as though the novelty of your presence has worn off. Yet, without fail, as you weave through the students, you’re greeted with countless cries of, “Good morning, teacher!” and shrieks and giggles when you respond. It will be a Friday, so you will hear choruses of “TGIF!!” and will be thrilled that of all the things you’ve taught your students, that acronym stuck. You’ll realize that this excitement and love comes not from the novelty of your being here as an American teacher, but from the inclusive nature of the community those around you have built. You will feel honored that you get to be a part of it.
I won’t tell you not to worry; that would be counterproductive. You will miss your dog and your family and friends. You will miss Netflix and you will miss sarcasm. You will have to remind yourself that at one point, you could speak English eloquently. It will be so hot and humid that you will remember being in Arizona in July and will actually wish it was only that hot. Your fears are valid and it is because of them that you will be all the more appreciative for the expected and unexpected joys of living in Thailand.
So, sabai sabai. And don’t take the extra jar of peanut butter out of your bag.
Jenna (your perfectly happy, safe, and comfortable, future self)