Hugo Villanueva
2005-06 Outbound to Thailand

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Laem Chabung Rotary Club, Si Racha, District 3340, Thailand

September 26 Journal

Well, I’ve been here about two months now, and I guess it’s about time that I let the other side of the world what’s going on with me. I’ve had to put writing my first entry off a few times, but now it’s vacation and I have all the time in the world. I guess I can start from the beginning. O.K.?

Before I left the United States, I’d have to say the tension was a bit disappointing. No sweaty palms, no butterflies in my stomach. I’d even say that my “goodbyes” to my family and friends felt a little lukewarm. Now I can safely say this was only because I had no idea was I was getting myself into. This became even more apparent as I boarded the connection flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. Instead of the usual three hour flight, the plane had to make a detour and I ended up on that plane for about seven hours. I think it’s safe to say those seven hours were among the most intense hours of my life. Although there were several other exchange students with me, I kept envisioning different outcomes of my first meeting with my host parents. Maybe they would speak English perfectly, and I’d have no problems communicating with them, and it would be a marvelous first night (even though I knew this was not true, since I had already spoken with them previously. Maybe I was delirious?) Another scenario I envisioned was no one would be there to greet me, and I would have to walk home in the rain or something. Even though I knew Rotary wouldn’t let that happen. Well, out of the twenty or so possible outcomes, I think I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of just my host family, I was greeted by the entire Rotary Club that was hosting me. They showered me with fruit necklaces (or whatever their called, lol) and many welcomes. All the nervousness and the uneasiness passed instantly, because Thai people are so darn friendly. Even though most of them didn’t understand a word I said, and just smile and nod, and I smile and nod back, even though I thought I heard a “farung ngong” in there somewhere. I arrived there very late, so the predetermined tour of Bangkok never went through. Instead I went straight home, playing charades with my local Rotary Club in our escort van.

When I arrived to Sriracha, (or Khor Khao, which is where I REALLY live) which is about a one and a half hour drive from Bangkok, I noticed many temples of the Buddhist faith, which are very beautiful. I live in a nice house, close to anywhere that I would need to go. The weather here is EXTREMELY humid now, because it is the Rainy season here. The humidity is even more noticeable than the heat at times. Well that said, I’m very happy with my host family. They are very nice, and I could not have asked for a better host family. It saddens me that I have to move soon, but I guess it is inevitable. I have a host mother and father, and a host brother and sister. My host brother is 18 years old, and is also an exchange student. He already left for the United States, where he will be staying in Illinois for a year. My host sister is a student in a University in Bangkok, called Chulalongkorn. So as you might have surmised, I am alone with my host mother and father. My host father works in an oil refinery plant, for an oil company called Thai Oil, and my host mother is a school teacher at a private school.

When I first arrived almost two months ago, my fluency in Thai was minimal at best, and unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for me my host mother did not speak any English at all, other than the ever so popular “Hello”, “Sorry” and “Thank you”. My father could speak English fairly well, so a lot of the communication difficulty was softened. However, when my father was not around, it was a game of who had the better sign language abilities. It was REALLY frustrating at times, but my persistence has paid off a bit. My Thai language is much better, and most of the time I can get my meaning across without too much wordplay. My first weekend in Thailand, my parents took me to a famous temple about 20 minutes away from my house. It was simply huge, and the design is very unique. I got my first glimpse of some Thai dancers there, and (as I’m sure a certain Rotarian will be happy to hear) I saw some Gratoys, or lady boys. The thing about Ladyboys is that sometimes they are obviously men, and sometimes indistinguishable. And my school is full of them. Well, moving on...

One thing I noticed quickly about Thai culture is the respect people pay to each other. Most of this in the form of a “Wai”, where you clasp your hands together in front of your chest or neck, and bow your head down so your face touches your fingertips. People who are younger generally Wai to older people. Also, people of lower status Wai to people of higher status. It’s quite confusing sometimes, and as a foreigner, I end up looking rather awkward when I wai. I have made some big mistakes, like Wai’ing to the kitchen staff of a restaurant, and wai’ing to our waitress. I think my culture skills are improving however, but not without some difficulty, much to the pleasure of onlookers, as they love to laugh in delight when they watch me stumble on the Thai language. Of course, this is not scornful laughing. Thai people are very friendly for the most part, and I can always practice my Thai with happy, willing strangers.

No more than two days after I arrived in Thailand, I started school. This brought a whole new wave of nervousness and anticipation. Instead of blending in with the Thai people, I tend to do the exact opposite. I thought that maybe since my school was big, I wouldn’t receive so much attention. Man was I wrong. Turns out my first day, I had to give a speech for my entire school.... IN THAI. Haha, was that a circus act if I’ve ever seen one. My Thai was pitiful, and I think I managed to pump out three of four sentences in Thai before I gave up and ended my speech. However, instead of being criticized, I was applauded for my efforts by teachers and the school director. Well, as I know now, my Thai was actually very good for a farang (foreigner). Well, all my hopes that I would blend in with students at school were blown away the same day I gave my speech. It turns out, I was the only exchange student that year, and Si Racha really doesn’t have a lot of foreigners. Well, that said, you can imagine how my first few weeks of school were. EVERYWHERE I walked, everyone wanted to shake my hand, or speak English with me. I was constantly stared at. No matter where I walked, I was looked at with curiosity. My school goes from the seventh grade to the 12th grade. The little seventh graders followed me everywhere, even to the bathroom at times. For a while, I’ll have to admit, this wasn’t a bad feeling. I felt like the President or something. After a while though, it did get kind of irritating. I couldn’t even sit down and eat because everyone would yell my name (in Thai, my name is Saharat, meaning “United States”) and offer me snacks and food and comics. Most students at my school spoke minimal English, even less than I spoke Thai. Most of their English consisted of “Hey Yo” and “Sup Man” and “Shake it down”. So, consequently I have learned some Thai slang. My Thai has improved considerably as a result, however. I always find myself helping the English teachers at my school conduct lessons, or read words for students to repeat. My pronunciation of words sometimes sounds strange to them, because they are taught British English.

My host Rotary Club is very nice. It has about 12 members in it, and everyone is well acquainted with each other. I received a special welcome from them in the form of a Welcome to Thailand party. I am one of two exchange students hosted by this club, called the Rotary club of Lam Chabang. The other exchange student is a boy from Germany.

For a while, it was frustrating not knowing any Thai, and it still is. They speak very fast, and even when I ask them to speak slowly, they seem to think by slowly I mean LOUDER. For a while, a typical conversation went something like this.

(Translated for your convenience)

Friendly Thai stranger: “Hey! Where are you from?”

Hugo: “Uh.. What?”

FTS: “Where are you from? You don’t look Thai.”

Hugo: “Uh. Can you repeat what you said?”

FTS: “Where are you from?”

Hugo: “Uh...Can you speak slower please?”

FTS: “WHERE ARE YOU FROM!”

Hugo: “Eh.. Excuse me?”

FTS: “Where...are...you...from...”

Hugo: “OH! No I haven’t eaten yet, thank you.”

FTS: “Oy. Never mind!” mutters to self: “Farang ngong (confused foreigner)”

Of course this isn’t every scenario, but it’s safe to generalize my earlier conversations this way. At least now, I can get by in the language in quite a few scenarios.

When I go to the shopping mall, or anywhere for that matter, I am always stared at, even now. I thought since I have tan skin, I could pass off for a Thai southerner, but I was wrong. While I’ve gotten used to it, it sometimes brings a sense of uneasiness. This will pass with time, I’m sure.

One last thing I’d like to point out is the food, and the cost of living. Food is very cheap here, and very delicious at that. For the equivalent of 50 cents, I can eat and fill up. Noodles, chicken fried rice, beef with sauce, any kind of seafood. The variety is incredible. Some foods are extremely spicy, and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to taste something, before you try to eat it. “Gin Len”, or eating for fun is great. They have many different kinds of snacks and foods, all readily available. The snacks that students here eat my sound a bit strange to American teenagers. Sometimes they eat eel skin with spices, or fried fish strings, or squid crackers. I was also skeptical at first, but I’ve gotten quite used to them and they are very good. Transportation is also relatively cheap. You can get somewhere for prices ranging from 20 cents to one dollar. Transportation is never a problem here, as their are always Red pickup trucks (Rot Song Tao) and Tuk Tuk’s and buses to take you wherever you need. Motorcycles are also available, but I’ve decided to steer clear of motorcycle taxis after seeing a few accidents involving them. Motorcycles are abundant here, sometimes ever more so than cars. Almost everyone has a motorcycle here. It is not uncommon to see a thirteen year old or twelve year old kid driving around on a motorcycle. It looks dangerous, but some of these kids are pretty good at it.

Well I know I’ve rambled on and on, so I guess it’s time to wrap this up. I am extremely happy with my host country, host family and host Rotary club. I would definitely like to thank my sponsoring club in Gainesville, Florida. I’m having a great time, and I’ve only been here about two months. My language skills are improving, and I am beginning to really understand Thai culture in depth. My only real complaint is the lack of tissue paper in public restrooms. They make you pay for tissue paper, and sometimes I’m short a Baht or two. Oh well, I guess it’s not THAT serious. I’ll update the western world on my experiences in another month or two. Thanks for reading.

3oD Rules

Antitrust
Tonic
TK = Dream Team
Kate

Oh... And I guess ET.

-Hugo Villanueva