Jacob Dobbs
2004-05 Outbound to Thailand
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Paxon School for Advanced Studies
Sponsor: West Jacksonville Rotary Club
Host: Tongkah Rotary Club, Phuket Island, District 3330, Thailand

August 9 Journal

For everyone back in the states, and those students that are out witnessing the adventure of a lifetime, I just want you to know that all is well in my first week in Thailand. Guess I will cover all my bases and start from the beginning...although it might only brush upon the surface of my experiences.

The flight was the same as any 24 hour flight... you know how it is, sleep... dinner... read... sleep... breakfast... mid-flight snack... movie... sleep... and no matter how much I tried to prepare myself with the tourist books that my friends/family had bought me, I didn't realize how different everything would be until I actually arrived in Bangkok. Not only did I find myself alone at the airport, but I had also become the main attraction of various tour guides and taxi drivers. I worked things out with the Rotary director, however, and ended up living like a king at the Ameri-Airport hotel that night. The next day I left at 11am for Phuket.

Thailand has its own unique kind of beauty. Aside from the hundreds and hundreds of stray dogs you see wandering the streets, the mountains and beaches are very different from home, very authentic and beautiful....except for the European men in Speedos.. They have a saying here, it's sabai sabai (take it easy). This phrase pretty much sums up the attitudes of Thai people, they're very relaxed and polite. I guess they forget "sabai sabai" when you put them behind a steering wheel haha, because it's very crazy on the streets. Khun mae (my host mom) always has her thumb ready on the horn, and I laugh whenever she cuts off someone or pushes them into the gutter... it's like the road lines mean nothing here haha. Khun mae and Khun Phaw are very caring people nonetheless, and they're always going out of their way to teach me new things about the Thai culture or language.

Not only have I experienced culture shock in this "Land of Smiles", but I have also experienced a type of independence shock... if there ever was such a thing. My adventures at the airport, finding my way through the streets of Rawai using the little Thai that I knew, and meeting many interesting people along the way have all shaped a more outgoing Jacob Dobbs. Oh, that and my first 2 days of school at Phuket Wittalayai. Believe me, you'll never feel so important in your life until you have over 3000 students staring at you wherever you go. After all, I AM the token farang (white person) at this school, so I guess I shouldn't have expected any less. My classmates are great, and though I have yet to completely understand what the teacher is teaching about, they have taught me so much.

And with that, I bid you farewell until my next post. I can only hope that the upcoming year will be as exciting as my first week has been.

August 16 Journal

Sorry to everyone that have been anxiously awaiting news from Phuket..  it was pretty difficult trying to use the internet when the internet uses both the home phone and business lines. I think that it will be much easier to post you all on what's going on since I now have a Computer class on Tuesdays. Whoo!  

I can't believe it's already been 2-3 weeks into my stay in Thailand.  Not only have I learned a lot of the language, find a love of tra-kaw  (famous Thai game, kind of like hacky sack), realize that Linkin Park in Thai (Ling gin pak) means monkey eats vegetable, and make many good friends in the process. As my last post showed the scenery of Phuket, this post will show some of my new friends and classmates.  

August 12th was the queen's birthday, and therefore mother's day. We  wai'ed khun yaa with a ring of jasmine around our hands, and I wrote a  little article about Khun mae (my host mother) in Thai. My host family also had a "welcome home" party for me and Jip, which was really fun. It was awesome, we had SO many family/friends come over, and about 6-7 different  local bands to play for us. Food, dancing, singing, raffles, we had it all.  A bunch of our friends decided to stay up all night, so we hung out until about 6 in the morning, woke up at 7, and had breakfast. Oh, to be a  teenager.  

School is going very well also. I've been trying my best to catch on to whatever the teacher is teaching, even though sometimes my efforts seem very fruitless. I am still the token "farang" (westerner), but I heard that some other exchange students have just arrived in Thailand. Fresh meat! To answer many of your questions, YES we do have a maid. But all she really does is clean the house and wash clothes. Unfortunately, my bungalow is separate to the house, so all the cleaning that takes place there is done by me. I don't really have to make my bed, because I hardly ever use  the sheets at night..... its so hot! Sometimes our maid cooks, but I really  prefer khun yaa (grandma's) cooking. Isn't it just funny how grandmothers always know best, regardless of what country you're in?  

Well I guess I should get back to preparing a presentation for Rotary.  Talk to you guys later!

September 8 Journal

I suppose my absence from writing is a result of being a "good exchange student", or just the fact that our computer has yet to be fixed. My first month in Thailand was nothing short of amazing; an experience filled with many different emotions. As I tried my best not to let time pass me by, I soon realized my efforts were thwarted once a few blinks brought me 37 days into my stay in the Land of Smiles... But that is not to say I haven't tried to make the most of my time here.

Yes, I'll admit that this culture requires adjustment and change from many of the customs I had grown up with in America; but that just makes every day more of an adventure. Thailand's eating habits are just like its climate: a meal isn't delicious unless you're practically melting on the floor begging for water... and I love it! Drinks aren't very necessary in meals, however, since I've discovered that they only fill you up. And if rice isn't included in the meal (which almost never happens), I find myself hungry again a few minutes after eating. As a matter of fact, I completely forgot the feeling of hunger, because I constantly eat to "greng jai" the people that offer me food. Greng jai doesn't really have an English alternate, but it's kind of like doing something against your own will just to be polite. Funny...
my mentality is turning Thai, but my skin still begs to differ.

School. It is just that, but without the worries. I have been learning English, Thai, Calculus, Biology, Gardening (don't ask...), Baking, History, Art, Geography, Computers, Muay Thai (thai kickboxing), Judo, Basketball, Buddhism, and French... and every class is in Thai. Keep in mind that I cannot speak any French whatsoever, except for the everyday bonjour/croissant. This doesn't stop the students or teachers from going out of their way to help me out, which I really appreciate. Students don't stare at me anymore, they come to talk to me instead... that is if they have time to get away from the hustle and bustle of studying for next week's entrance exams. The exams mark the end of the semester, so after this week, there's a six week vacation! Just in case you're wondering, the first semester started in May.

Rumors have it that I'll have a total of 4 host families, which is kind of depressing considering how close I've gotten to my first one. They've taught me so much: painting batik, the joy of bike riding at sunset, how to play the guitar, and how to relax. Sabai sabaiii.. My host father is so wise, he's my own personal Buddha, and my host mother is so fun to be with. Although she can speak English, she refuses to do so, which has helped me a lot.

I am also very thankful for the pressure Rotary put on its outbounds to learn their target languages. I've only formally met one exchange student that came from Brazil, who knows little to no Thai at all. WHERE ARE ALL THE EXCHANGE STUDENTS? My speech for Rotary went very well, and I even created the impression that I had been taking Thai classes before I came!

I hope all is well and everyone is safe from the hurricane back at home.

Thuk khon sawasdee ja.
Jedsadaporn / Jay
Jacob

October 5 Journal

I know how much my adoring fans are eagerly awaiting news from Thailand; sitting on the edge of their seats each time they log onto RYEFlorida's website. I must say that I am very flattered, and all your anticipation has finally paid off.

This past month has been filled with many ups and downs, all of which have made my stay here more enjoyable. Since school vacation had started, I began to find myself staying home, loathing culture shock, and counting sheep while all my friends studied rigorously for the upcoming entrance exam. It was horrible. Biggest culture shock? Not being able to drive... it finally makes sense to me why Rotary prefers to select its students at such an age: because the majority of the students have yet to feel the glory of being able to drive themselves wherever they want to go. Me? I'm the exception, along with a few others I'm sure.

To tell the truth, I think this homesickness is good for me; it seems like all part of "Rotary's Master Plan" to make a new and improved Jacob, and now I see why. Days like that made me try to compromise my situation by doing things on my own, such as taking a bus to town or the beach just to recognize what lies beyond the tourist areas. Without the bad days, I wouldn't truly appreciate those really good days as much as I do now. Days like this past week, where my host father decided to get away from it all and backpack to other cities/islands. Yes, our bus got in an accident with a motorcycle, and yes, I had been swarmed by a pack of ladyboys when I arrived (both of which probably had something to do with a bad luck fortune that I got from a Chinese temple the previous day), but these things only added to the adventure that I had experienced. You have no idea how beautiful some of the landscape is until you see it for yourself. My host father, being an artist, suggested that I take up sketching as a hobby to do in my free time... and although I'm nowhere near half as good as he is, I realize that this method makes remembering every detail of a place so much easier than merely taking a picture with a camera. Who is this young ambassador, and what did he do with Jacob, you ask? Don't worry, I'm still Jacob, I just eat, sleep, and breathe Thai at the moment.

Speaking of Thai, I believe my Thai has been coming along very well lately. Even though I have yet to understand the daily ramblings my family makes at the dinner table, I practice by taking out target words that I understand and trying to form sentences... sometimes mistaking the sentence "The news said that there is another very bad hurricane in Florida" with "Your knee is talking again. Bad knee, go back to Florida." Oh well, at least I try.

So what's the plan for October? Rotary Orientation, Phuket's famous "Vegetarian festival" in which people pierce their bodies with poles/walk on hot coals/climb a ladder of knives after claiming that they were possessed by spirits.... This month will be an interesting one, I'll give you that much.

October 24 Journal

As I had predicted, the second half of October left no room for boredom. Rotary orientation, Gin je (Vegetarian festival), Phuket Fantasea, canoe trips across Phang nga bay, "English camp" counselor; it might be a little difficult to get back in the routine of school next week. But then again, I have barely been able to see all my friends in these past 5 weeks, and therefore my Thai hasn't been improving as rapidly as it had in the first couple of months. That's not to say that it hasn't been improving! I actually had a very interesting experience while watching the movie "Walking Tall" with my host sister the other day. The movie was in English with Thai subtitles, but since I hadn't heard English spoken so fast in months, trying to follow it gave me a big headache. The result? Surprisingly, I found myself reading the Thai script from time to time to understand what a person was saying.

The Rotary orientation was very exciting as well. True, I arrived about 30 minutes late due to being stuck behind a bike rally half way to Phang nga, but I soon realized that I didn't miss much when the counselor began teaching the exchange students how to say "Hello" and "I'm hungry" in Thai. I couldn't believe my eyes. All along I had been anticipating 4-5 minute speeches in Thai, and some students still don't know how to say "Hello"?!

...Excellent...
Just like the orientations back in Florida (well not JUST like, this one didn't have an accessible kitchen, haha you guys know I'm talking about), it seemed very easy for the exchange students to bond, and even get a few pins to fill up their jackets in the process. We roamed the town like kings that night, basically spending our time waiting for a tuk tuk (small taxi) that was willing to carry about 15 people. Although "tuk tuk" means "very cheap" in English, I'd suggest never taking one in the tourist areas of Phuket... which is pretty much everywhere in Phuket... therefore never consider taking one! It was OK traveling by tuk tuk in Surat Thani with everyone else, but I've discovered that Phuket is the most expensive city in Thailand (even though it is still very cheap compared to America). I fear that my return to America will bring about a new type of culture shock: adjusting to its prices once again. However, I've observed that workers in Thailand would jump at the chance to have a job of about 5 dollars a day (from dawn to dusk), so the economy pretty much balances out.

The canoe trip to Phang nga bay was one of many that the SEA tours company provides to tourists, and I got in free as a tour guide! I had a great time exploring caves and the beautiful landscape of "Unseen Thailand", while the tourists were astonished that a young foreigner could speak Thai, in their words: "a language that people normally don't care to study around the world". Well, guess that means that I'm not normal.

My friend's mother was the host of an "English camp" for about a week. Funny thing was, the camp pretty much had nothing to do with English at all. Elementary school students were taught how to play certain games like Goh and monkey in the middle, how natural disasters are formed, how an airplane works, and much more. Some of the students actually introduced me to their parents, who then gave me discounts on various businesses that they own. I am very thankful to be part of the "Gold mine" named Rotary. By meeting new people, I am introduced to new people; and before I know it, I will have contacts all over Thailand.

And now, the moment you all have been waiting for... news from the Vegetarian festival. In the Gin Je festival, I endured 9 days of NO
1. Meat/eggs/milk
2. Gambling
3. Alcohol
4. Sex
5. Drugs

You guys have no idea how hard it is to be a vegetarian in Thailand, the food is so delicious! Sometimes I think that that's exactly the reason why this festival puts people to the test, because there's so many temptations wherever you go. But actually, the festival was introduced by China, and focuses on cleansing the body of impurities and evil. Some of the Thai people believe that the spirits of gods enter their bodies and force them to perform Ma Song (basically self mortification). People can be seen climbing a ladder of knives, walking on hot coals, piercing their mouths with various objects (as seen in the pictures below). The majority of Phuket's population and I, however, just settle with wearing all white for 9 days. I mean... wouldn't you?

Next month I leave for my next host family. Ahh, I'm going to miss calling my host sister fat... I'm going to miss those late night conversations with my host dad... and most of all, I'm going to miss the Patonko (like Chinese donuts) shop in front of my house. It will be homesickness all over again, but all for the better I suppose.

Thuk khon laa kawn na krup. Sanyaa wa phom ja khian iik deuan naa.
-Jed (pronounced jade -> J.D.)

December 7 Journal

Another month, and I have returned from yet another adventure that will assuredly change my outlook on life. For starters, Rotary decided to give its students a break from all their rigorous studying in an 11 day northern tour of Thailand (November 23rd-December 4th). On this tour, we visited many interesting temples and monuments in cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pha Yao, Khao Yai, Sukothai, Lopburi, etc. I was even fortunate enough to see the Golden Triangle of Myanmar/Laos/Thailand, which was bordered by the Mae Khong and Ruak Rivers! I also got to ride elephants in two different hill tribe villages; even though I’m pretty sure my first elephant was intent on making it my last ride. In response to the frequent questions, YES, I did get to see elephants play soccer/basketball. And no, there was no cheating involved…. just good clean (not literally) elephant fun.

I didn’t realize that living thousands of miles from the ones I love would allow me to learn so much. Sure, learning the language and culture is a must, but even the little things that catch me from day to day are bonuses that I am very thankful for. Speaking of gratitude, Thanksgiving Day was a very interesting change from what I had grown to know and love back in the states. Holiday Homesickness (HH), a common disease that normally attacks YE’s for about a day or two, was now affecting me. Quite understandably though; I mean, who wouldn’t miss a meal composed of a plump turkey, stuffing, various types of pie, grandma’s famous casserole, cranberry sauce, and all the other joys that are fit to keep a young boy satisfied until Christmas?! The Americans did their best to relive and demonstrate the Thanksgiving dinner to the other students by throwing together an old box of pumpkin pie mix, however. We replaced the turkey with a fish, stuffing with Thai chili, and grandma’s famous casserole with a dish that nobody could describe. Lo and behold, I have survived this lethal condition called HH and now move on to the rest of our trip.

If any of you ever said that Thailand never gets cold, I would have instinctively agreed with you a few weeks ago. But times change, my friends, and much to my surprise, so does the weather in this great oven. I had first made this realization while in the mountains of Khao Yai, unfortunately after disregarding the tour guide’s suggestion to bring a warm jacket/sweater. After all, the tour guide WAS Thai, and the Thai definition of ‘cold’ is completely different from that of America… right? ...Hah… The problem with this type of thinking lied in the fact that I am from Florida, a state that hasn’t seen snow for nearly 14 years. I learned my lesson though, and bought a jacket for about $3… Argh, do I really have to sacrifice my health for 130 baht?! I could buy 6 cd’s or pay for a large family dinner with that much!

As you may or may not have noticed, my attitude towards money has also been spoiled by the Thai economy. Ironically enough, this attitude is coming from someone who lives in Phuket, the most expensive city in the Thailand. Bargaining is another addiction that I have seemed to add to my daily routine… because no matter how cheap something is, I always feel like I’m being ripped off in one way or another. The key to good bargaining is to always refer to how cheap the same item is at another shop, and if that doesn’t work, act uninterested and walk in another direction. This way, guys can actually enjoy shopping; much like a game of wits, the goal is to see how much you can make the opponent sweat.

I would have never expected my 4 years of high school Spanish to be put to test in a place like Thailand. Our district has nearly as many Brazilians as Americans, and since Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, the Mexicans decided that they would speak their native tongue throughout the trip. Crazy Mexican kids.... I can only imagine how a whole country of them is treating Danny, but I’m sure he’s fitting in just fine. Speaking of crazy Mexicans, I had an experience the other day that is totally irrelevant to Mexico. As I gave a speech to an all-girls’ school with 3 of my YE friends, I realized that every country that I requested in my Rotary application was being represented there with me. The three were from Brazil, Japan, and Germany; all situated in Thailand. It was more like a message than mere coincidence, because it truly helped me appreciate where I ended up. Every culture that I wanted to experience had been with me all along; I just needed to open my eyes the way Rotary encouraged me to do. Unlike the other exchange students, my return to Phuket brought no frost that glistened on the window sill and no crisp autumn leaves that begged for freedom from the branch. It was strange, because I didn’t know whether to feel happy or depressed. True, I had returned to my oven, but I couldn’t be happier to sleep in my own room once again. The fact that I’m getting another 6 day holiday from school is just another bonus… no bargaining required.

On that note, I leave you all with another few weeks of eager anticipation.

Sawasdee jaa~

December 29 Journal

(Note: Living in Phuket, one of the areas hit hardest by the Asian tsunami, Jacob is safe. In a front-page story in the Florida Times-Union, Jacob reported that he was fortunate to sleep through the earthquake shock and to be on higher ground when the tsunami hit the beaches. Read the newspaper story.)

I assure you, my fellow readers, that this report was definitely intended to get you off those ‘pins and needles’. As many of you might have heard (hopefully), Southeast Asia was recently hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, and the result has been nothing short of devastating… and I have been fortunate enough to participate in the relief effort of this situation. First of all, I will try my best to clear up some of the ambiguous details in the newspaper article about my experiences:

My mother’s name is Deborah, not Janet. I don’t even think I’m related to anyone named Janet…and if I am, I apologize.

I also feel bad that I won’t be including any of the other interesting experiences that I had this month, but at this point I’m sure it can wait. The story all begins with a 1-month plan by the exchange students (District 3330) to spend Christmas together in the south of Thailand. We went through a few votes of places that would be nice to spend our religious holiday together, and after deciding between the top-two tourist destinations at that time of year (Phuket and Koh Samui), we decided that Phuket would probably be our best choice. Quite understandable though, since Phuket is one of the most desired tourist destinations in all of Asia… although now I guess I’ll have to get used to telling others that it used to be one the most desired tourist destinations in all of Asia.

When we presented this idea to Rotary, however, they said that they weren’t going to allow us to get together. I knew that Christmas wasn’t a celebrated holiday in Thailand, but the fact that Rotary didn’t want us to spend time together at such an event frustrated the students very much. School had been busy for testing, and none of our host families had plans for that weekend; it seemed like a perfect way to be able to see each other! The reasoning behind Rotary’s decision was not only the fact that they didn’t want to be responsible for such a large group of people, but also because they thought they could provide us with all the same enjoyment of being together in our “Southern Tour” that would take place this February. As rebellious exchange students, we tried to crawl through every loophole we could find to avoid getting Rotary sued if something bad did happen. We retrieved official statements from our schools acknowledging this little trip, made a full schedule of events that didn’t involve our host families in the weekend, and we even got our real parents to sign permission slips. Since we couldn’t involve our host families, we had tents donated and arranged to spend our few nights camping on Naiharn beach. We were one determined group of YE’s. A few days before Christmas, Rotary finally beat us at our game and convinced the host families not to allow their students to get involved with the trip at all. Christmas night was the night that we planned to sleep there, and the next morning a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit at about 7. Every shop and resort on Naiharn beach is now in pieces.

The story behind sleeping through my alarm clock came from a plan that I had on surprising my first host family with a few Christmas gifts after my host mom had returned from her aerobics class. The clock was set at 7:45am, but I guess I just couldn’t bring myself to get up that early on a weekend. Now, as I write this report, the death toll climbs to about 70,000. I have been trying my best to take advantage of the situation that I was put in, especially since so many families and local people were not as lucky as I had been in those “coincidences”. Yesterday I spent the entire day at City Hall, where over 30 representatives of Embassies from around the world tried to help the victims fix their passport/money problems and send them straight to Bangkok. The area was filled with boards of fliers with the faces of missing loved ones, and a large hospital board posted pictures of people that were too mangled to recognize. I was an English – Spanish – Thai translator for the tourists, basically escorting people through the whole process of getting enough paperwork done to get sent back to their countries. The biggest problem we have at this point is transporting the dead bodies out of Phuket, since it has started to become such a big sanitation problem… I would have never imagined being haunted by this tragedy 24/7, because even when I go to bed I have to woo myself to sleep with the sound of nearby factories making plywood coffins for all the victims. Is this what Rotary meant when they said that this will be a year that I’ll never forget? Either way, this is reality. I visited Patong beach today in shock of how such a bustling tourist spot, always lined with shops and lit with bright lights, could be left in ruins. I am happy to announce that Phuket is doing pretty well for itself at this point in time, since they have been receiving so many volunteers and donations. Tomorrow I will travel outside of Phuket to see if they need volunteers in Phang nga.

P.S. Somehow I doubt that there will be a “Southern Tour” this year.

Please keep the victims, as well as their families, in your thoughts/prayers. Korp koon mahk krup

January 7 Journal

On a report dated January 6, 2005, CNN has confirmed that the undersea earthquake off Sumatra and the giant waves it triggered killed 155,872 people, and that number is expected to rise.

It’s unbelievable how the death toll has continued to rise so quickly in the past few weeks, but another major concern in the area is actually identifying the bodies of lost/loved ones. The fliers that line the boards of city hall only continue to grow... and sadly, about 30% of these fliers are searching for lost children. My job as a translator only lasted about half a week, since Phuket had a pretty straightforward way of sending the tourists to the Bangkok airport to go home. I visited Phang nga and Khao Luk to help transport donations, cringing at the site of hundreds of coffins that lined nearby temples. The smell literally burned in our throats as we passed the temples and hospitals; a burn that not even our masks could restrain. As I handed out bags of rice, my body also burned as some of the poor tsunami victims smelled my arms and hugged me enthusiastically. It wasn’t a painful burn, just a strong warmth inside. I was even startled to find that people were rubbing my hands on their arms for good luck. I didn’t know how exactly to react, but I just carried on happy that I was actually making a difference in these peoples’ lives.

Phuket’s recovery has been amazing; not only because of all the volunteers that are coming to help, but also because of the large amount of donations. We brought up the idea of receiving donations from the club in Florida, and the members of District 3330 heartily agreed by setting up an account that you guys can deposit money into (will give account information soon). They also thought it would be better to invest the money in a long-term project like providing shelters for orphaned children... but they’re still not exactly sure yet.

I would just like to thank you guys for all your concern and prayers, because they have definitely helped. Although we didn’t celebrate New Year’s, I really appreciated being able to hear from all the exchange students back in Jacksonville. It REALLY made my day!

That’s all for now – Jacob

January 25 Journal

I have finally returned from another long quest to help with the tsunami relief effort in Khao Luk. After leaving Phuket with my friend’s family, we ended up at a Nature Resort that lied a few hundred meters from the destruction of 12/26’s path. What made this resort unique was not only the fact that it was still standing, but also the fact that the manager had contributed his entire resort as a site for volunteer relief efforts. We spent a few days on the computer, updating our website and translating autopsy reports on Microsoft Excel. Some reports were vague, and some were very disturbing; I found that my most productive method was to work fast enough so that I could avoid thinking about what I was actually describing. True, I could no longer smell the bodies from the temple, but the stench of death seemed to find its way into our computers that day.

Other than translating the reports, I was also given the job of painting the resort to make a “presentable” relief center. Day by day, our building began to look like an official center for support. We had computers lined at desks, lodging, organized meetings, a website, and donated meals. One of our meetings even settled on creating a museum to commemorate those who died on the day after Christmas of 2004.

There have been many extraordinary stories of survivals and rescues, but I’d have to say that the most amazing is seeing what everyone here has come together to do. These stories start to become reality as foreigners fly themselves from other sides of the world just to lend a hand, and as survivors risk death once again just to collect the bodies of injured victims. My story isn’t so extraordinary: I was just fortunate enough to be in a certain place at a certain time, and I have tried my best not take it for granted. It also goes without saying that I would have never been here in the first place if it weren’t for Rotary’s decision to send me into a culture and life that I once knew nothing about. Going into such an unknown has made me grow in ways that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of 5-6 months ago.

As for events at home, life in Phuket is finally starting to become “normal” once again. Our basketball team is doing pretty good, and we even have a big tournament coming up this week. Lately I also seem to be getting excited whenever the teacher gives us homework, which isn’t too “normal” if you ask me… but I’m sure that will fade once I get more activities in my schedule.

I hope everyone is well, and be sure to tell me how crazy things are in Jacksonville during the Superbowl next month! Pii nii gaw koh hai tuuk khon mii kwaam suk mahk na krup.

-Jacob

(Editor's note: In early February, Rotary International published a feature story on Jacob and his efforts to help in the recovery. Read the article at www.rotary.org/cgi-bin/printablePage.cgi?file=newsroom/programs/news02.html.)

March 1 Journal

I really must apologize from my absence on the “New posts” list, but it just seems like life in Thailand hasn’t been very predictable lately. But alas, I still do my best to adapt to new situations and make the most out of what this exchange year throws at me. Speaking of which, I have already crossed the halfway point of my exchange, and it’s only a matter of how long the clock will taunt me between now and the time I actually arrive back in the states. It’s true that I believe time has once again slipped by unnoticed, but I also believe that much of my time here has been well spent. I’ve learned a new way of thinking, met a group of wonderful friends who share the same experiences that I have, I even picked up a language that I never even dreamed of learning before I began this exchange. But here I am, 4 months away from stepping into foreign territory once again.

Since a large portion of the Thai population is of Chinese decent, the Chinese New Year on the 8th of February was a very important event. (Notice that I involuntarily rhyme when I don’t use English for an extended amount of time.) The President of my host club invited me to spend the week in Bangkok with his family, and also told me that I would be staying at his sister’s/Canadian brother-in-law’s house. Bangkok… a city that I had been dying to visit… And being the independence-craving teenager that I am, I happily accepted the invitation and looked forward to leaving my daily routine in Phuket. But there’s always the catch. I soon realized that moments of extreme joy are also priced with moments of reflection; and as I looked down on Phuket’s mountains from the plane, I understood that I would be seeing much of the same rolling hills and wonderful islands on my way home in June. I twiddled my fingers for a few minutes and glanced at the papers that the guy next to me was reading to distract myself. Funny, the papers were autopsy reports… made on Excel.

Bangkok is an amazing city. True, it IS just as large and hectic as the books say, but it felt much more different when coming from a life that had been spent in another province for so long. My glance of Bangkok from July 28th 2004 suddenly became nothing, since everything about Thailand had been new to me at the time. In my new encounter with “The City of Angels”… I couldn’t help but get the impression that I was in another world altogether. It felt like I was in New York City or Tokyo, not that I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling to either. Instead of seeing the red-necked tourists and Thai shopkeepers that attempted flattery with broken English, I met businessmen from all around the world and Thai students that spoke almost flawless English. It was incredible; I was sharing the same awe that a young Thai boy from the countryside would feel (even though Phuket is nowhere near being part of the countryside, you’d get the impression that it is once you step foot in Bangkok). People back in Phuket would try to discourage me by criticizing the traffic, congestion, and pollution in the city… but I didn’t care, and my short time in BKK grew on me very quickly. What teenager wouldn’t enjoy riding sky trains and visiting dozens of unique shopping malls? I had only hoped that I went with a few friends, because it seemed nearly impossible to enter and exit through the same doors of these enormous buildings.

The family that I stayed with was very interesting and kind. Their daughter had been going to a Thai school her entire life, and she was currently enrolled in an international program at the top university of Thailand. It was very strange for me to be able to have a normal conversation with a Thai person in English, as she mentioned that it was strange to speak Thai to a foreigner. I suppose she got a lot of her experience from her step father, who was from Canada and had lived in Thailand for nearly 10 years. I also felt very awkward eating an all-American dinner of pork chops, mixed vegetables, and mashed potatoes with a fork and knife… as opposed to Thai’s spoon and fork. Don’t worry, hopefully I can get the whole fork and knife thing down before I return home. Before leaving for Phuket, I took a tour of the Grand Palace and saw the Emerald Buddha, which was very beautiful. We also had a small road trip to Ayuthaya; Thailand’s original capital.

Valentine’s Day was filled with just as many roses and candy as you’d see at school in the U.S. Unfortunately, the chocolate wouldn’t be able to last more than 20 minutes in Phuket’s heat, so I decided that I would buy a few roses for my friends. Knowing that all the other girls in my class would probably be angry with me if I left them out, I dug into my wallet and bought about 20 roses. 20 roses… 20 girls… 8 ladyboys. Never forget the ladyboys.

Seeing that I will be leaving for my third family next week, I wanted to treat my family to an American feast; cooked by yours truly. It was pretty difficult finding exactly what I wanted to make, but I finally came out making a steak/salad/baked potato/bread roll/ brownie dinner. Not only did the family survive my cooking, but they actually enjoyed it very much! Hopefully I can learn to cook as much Thai food as I can before I go back to Florida, but I’m not promising the same satisfaction… or survival.

I hope all the exchange students are doing well and getting something from their year! Will try to get more pictures posted after I fix a format error on my camera...

Wasdee ja ~ Jacob

May 17 Journal

One month. In one month, I will be forcing myself to do what I had been preparing for in the month of July, 2004. I have run the episode in my mind more than a thousand times; the feeling of anxiety mixed with a hope that the life I left back in the states didn't change too much. Hah, too much. In this culture, I've learned to keep the Thai translation of "too much" unsaid. After all, it doesn't do much good when people think you are restraining just to be considerate to their wallets. Sometimes you need to learn to just smile and say "Yes, I'd like another spoonful of rice". You all remember the term 'Greng Jai' that I've mentioned before, right? Funny how I've come to understand such a concept that had been so foreign to me when I first arrived in Thailand. Greng Jai becomes so complicated to the foreign mind that books have even been made to help others understand what Greng Jai truly means... because a one word-translation is definitely not enough. To clear up my previous interpretation of "Greng Jai", I've also seen that it becomes a constant struggle to show others that you are doing your best to be considerate to their feelings... even if it's not something you necessarily want to do. If you want to borrow someone else's car for a trip, for instance, they are bound by Greng Jai to give it to you. Sounds pretty easy to take advantage of, eh? Unfortunately, such an action is not so easily accomplished, because in knowing that the owner is bound to lend his car to you, you must respect his feelings by not asking at all. So how can you go on that trip that you've been looking forward to for so long? It is up to the owner to sense that you need a car (without questions asked, mind you), and then unwillingly offer to lend you the car for the weekend. Of course, that's not always the case, because most people are happy to help if they can. Just know that you are once again bound by Greng Jai to turn down his offer until he goes insane and throws his keys at you. Confused? Good. Now read on to see what's been going on on my side of the world.

In the beginning of last month I was gratefully accepted into my third and final host family's home. The family is very kind, and has introduced me to the change of having 3 younger host brothers. Needless to say, I have definitely been getting the whole "warm family feeling" from this home, and being looked up on by these crazy guys has ironically matured me very much (it's funny because I must lower my maturity whenever we're together). I have been getting very fit as well, because not only do I spend some time at the gym, but my new family also takes me to a nearby pool every night to help their sons lose weight. I have been doing my best to prepare for my trip back to America, but it seems so hard when there's such a long list of things to do and people to satisfy. I'm very excited to see my family and friends, don't get me wrong, but going back to America also means being pushed into the routine of "life" once again. I suppose I should just take the advice that I gave to the Thai outbounds at a recent orientation: "You'll never be completely prepared for this, that's what makes it such an adventure"... just need to close my eyes and jump into this thing called "life" headfirst.

The Thai Songkran Festival, or Thai Traditional New Year, is a 3-day celebration that lasts for 3 days (April 13-April 15). The new year was situated at this time because it also represents the period that the sun changes its position on the zodiac, as the word Songkran means "to change place". To wash off bad luck and start anew, people from all over come join the celebration and throw water on each other, using things ranging from squirt guns to large ice-cold buckets of water. Yes, it's just one big water fight... I did mention that every experience in Thailand has made me mature very much, didn't I? If so, forget what I said. I spent this wonderful holiday on the streets of Bangkok, where it's nearly impossible to take two steps without being soaked and having white clay all over your face. And to tell the truth, I don't think I could be happier to be completely soaked with ice-cold buckets of water after enduring the hottest and driest month of the year. If there's one thing that I will have the hardest time getting over in America, this would be it. And the food. And the friends. And the prices. And the culture. And the Greng Jai.

Another great highlight of last month was my Japanese host family's visit to Phuket. I couldn't believe that its been 4 years since I was an exchange student to Oosaka (haha that one's for Chandler), which inspired the need to spend hours on end to try to make their trip perfect. Unfortunately for me, my host mother couldn't speak any English and I also had to find time to revive what I slowly lost in these past 4 years... good thing my host sister could still speak English reasonably well. After 3 days of shopping, beach, Phuket Fantasea, shopping, elephant riding, Sea canoeing at Phang Nga cape, shopping, temples, and sunset views at Laem Promthep, I was pretty sure that I could spend the next week buried in my pillows. Women and their shopping... always the same no matter what culture you're in. On the third day, though, I had to send them off. If you think it's hard saying goodbye to your families the first time, try doing it twice. I just hope that we will be able to spend more time together next time fate brings me to Asia.

Even though I know you really want to read more, and should feel bound to being considerate to such a desire, I'm going to have to let go of you guys this time. After all, I WILL be going back to America, so I need to practice on my past approach to such a feeling.

IT'S JUST TOO MUCH. And remember, if you are absolutely sure that you can't take anymore, roll on the floor while gripping your stomach and gasping for air... that should get their attention.

Laew jer gun mai na.

June 20 Journal

The last two weeks of my exchange year were quite different than I had imagined; a series of episodes that will most likely drive me insane while serving as a good source for an adventure novel. Then again, my entire year as an exchange student was filled with experiences that no single book could contain. So how does one finish a report of such unexpected and life-changing experiences?

A long anticipated guest also arrived in the last two weeks of my exchange, giving me the realization that life in Phuket would always be synonymous with the role as a tour guide. This guest needed special attention, however, because not only was he my brother, but it also seemed like his trip to Japan made him very… thrifty. Thai people would call this a case of nak tawng tiaw thii kii niaw mahk mahk lery, or the “extremely cheap tourist syndrome”. Being the evil person that I was, I also looked forward to my older brother visiting “my territory” and having to succumb to my every demand… that, and the fact I just missed him so darn much. Unfortunately, the rainy season killed a lot of our opportunities for fun, but we tried to make the best of our time together before I had to make my long journey home and he had to make his back to Japan. This included elephant riding, ox-cart riding, Thai kickboxing, Thai cooking, elephant/monkey shows, canoe trips, and my personal favorite: “beach bumming”. I even got to brush up on my unbroken English-speaking skills! My brother’s visit had also brought about the realization that I had become so familiar with Thai that listening to people talk to me was as involuntary as with English. In a sense, it came to me as English, because I had never reached such a comfort level with another language in my life. So when my brother didn’t understand what my family or friends were saying to him, I felt confused and had to bring myself back to the young exchange student that I was a year ago: viewing Thai as just one of those crazy-sounding tonal languages that seem impossible to learn, like Chinese. The truth is, languages sound much more different when you begin to understand what a person is saying. You might think that this type of feeling is obvious, but even listening to the flow of the Thai language seems more different than it had a year ago.

My brother’s leave marked the point of preparing for my own leave, which meant saying goodbye to all the friends and family that I had come to know and love. I gathered my things, handed out a few souvenirs that I had saved from the states, enjoyed eating my last ice cream with my friend Shoko (the other exchange student from Phuket), and left for the airport with my third host father. I just couldn’t let myself accept the fact that I was leaving until I actually arrived in the Tokyo/Detroit airports. I saw the cultures gradually change back to my own as I passed through terminals, from tourist agencies swarming you in Bangkok to metal detector staff politely asking “May I have permission to please search you?” in Tokyo to the high-security hustle and bustle of Detroit. It was culture shock all over again, and I felt so foreign to my old home.

I wish I could give a more detailed account of my re-entry into the states, but I’m afraid that the stories would take just as long for you to read as it did for me to experience. All in all, my near 24 hour flight back to Jacksonville was welcomed by groups of family and friends dying to take me to ‘Dennys’ and torture me with their high-speed English conversations. Of course change was obvious since Jacksonville has been the center for change in the past year, but it makes living everyday more of an adventure.

I can never thank Rotary enough for everything they’ve given me in this year abroad, but I will try my best by using what I’ve learned and continuing to provide service to the communities around me. This exchange year has truly been a defining stage of my life, and none of it would have been possible without a Rotary club like West Jacksonville and District 6970. You guys didn’t help me find myself or unleash hidden potential, because I already knew who I was before I left for Thailand (although I wasn’t too sure of what I’d become). You did, however, give me an opportunity to define a new outlook on life and to have deeper insight into my future… and for that, I will always be grateful.

As for my readers, thank you for all the support and patience you’ve given while I was in Thailand. But if you REALLY want to hear more…

Puak khun ja tawng ahn nung seu… doy farang khon nii.