Alex Refosco
2012-13 Outbound to Thailand
Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor: District 6970, FL
Host: District 3350, Thailand ,The Rotary Club of Chaophraya Nakhon Sawan

October 14, 2012

Sawatdee ka, I have now been in Thailand for two months. Looking back I have done so much, even if it doesn't seem like it because everything just seems normal now. It is really strange to be writing this Journal. Before I became an exchange student I used to read all of the exchange student's journals. Once I was accepted an a RYE student I read them even more because I was amazed at all the thing people where doing. Well now I am writing my first Journal and while there have been plenty of times I have just had normal days to day life, I have gotten to do some pretty cool stuff, too.

When I first got to the Bangkok airport it was dark so my grand idea of seeing the city, didn't happen. What did happen was my I said bye to the other exchange students from Florida who were on the flight with me, and me and my host family headed out to get some food at McDonalds. After that I fell asleep in the car and missed the 3 hour drive to my small city of Nakhon Sawan.

The next day I woke up reasonable early at 9 am, considering I had not really slept most of my travel time, it started a pattern that I still haven't been able to break, I can't sleep-in in Thailand. Oh well it worked out because me and my host family got in the car and drove out of Nakhon Sawan to the country. There we visited a school, to check on a clean water filter Rotary had donated, so all the students could have clean water to drink. The next two days where very similar we went to a total of 3 schools, with a group of Rotarians,and checked on water filters, handed out backpacks and donated books. The backpacks we handed out were stuffed with soap, a towel, a dictionary, etc. packed full for many of the students who were affected by the massive floods in Thailand last year. My area of central Thailand was hit especially hard, in fact my host families house was flooded by several feet of water. My host mom in particular helps a lot with promoting literacy in Thailand by providing books to rural schools. It was really cool to visit all of these school, a few even performed traditional Thai dances for us!

Then on Wednesday, five days since I arrived in Thailand, I started school. I was told to prepare a speech in English to give for a little presentation at my school, and was there bright and early at 7:30 ready to give it. Only right before I got up on the stage a teacher came up to me and said don't say your speech just introduce your self in Thai. *So this is to any future exchange students* actually write and memorize a small introduction in your host language, you never know when you will have to give a speech in front of your school of 4,000 without any warning. This also happened to me at all three of the rural schools we visited.
After wards I was shown to my class and got a very loud cheer from everyone. All the students were so happy I was in their class and everyone wanted to know all about me or as much as their English skills would allow. The rest of the day I just sat in class and answered my classmates questions. (In Thai schools, you stay in the same class and the teachers switch classrooms). Now to be totally honest I hated school that first week, I got hit with horrible homesickness, the school day lasted forever, everyone was very nice but I could only speak to one person who was good in English. I really really could not stand it. Since then I really started to enjoy school, but it took time, this was one thing I was not expecting about being an exchange student. After about two weeks I got my own schedule and it got much better. Even though I could recognize some math and science topics, it became pretty clear I couldn't follow along with the rest of the class, so I now take some other classes and can go to the library for any period I don't want to join (say Biology or Pre-Calculus). I still go to my normal class on occasion, I eat lunch with them, line up with them during announcements and I always help out the teacher in English class. In English class mostly I just sit there and explain English or American words, ideas, and answer their questions. These can be very random and are really pretty hard to explain, these include: "what is the difference between nice and beautiful?", "what is surfing and why is it popular in Australia" (based on a section in the textbook), "are you sure there are 50 states in America and not 56" (I have no idea about this question, I guess they included territories?), and the strangest was "what is the dispute over Marijuana in California?" (this question was posed by the teacher based on a practice test in the textbook so I had to explain to the class what Marijuana was and why people in California are arguing about it). The list goes on and on, so be ready for some really random questions!
I also take a few art classes, a Chinese class, help with the elementary aged English classes, and I even got the special privilege of getting a private flower arranging class given by the head of the department, and received the honorary name Bua meaning lotus. By honorary name Bua I of course mean no one can pronounce the name Alex so they decided to call me Bua instead, and by private flower class I mean I have the head lunch lady teach me how to make flower arrangements in the back of the cafeteria. Actually, my teacher is very good at it and we make a lot really cool stuff.

After about a week things started to get into a routine and I started to like school more and more. Though I still do not like the Thai school system and here is why: first it is very inefficient, school lasts most of the day 7:45 until 4 and many students take extra classes after wards, then they spend a good portion of time doing homework and studying for the one big university exam that determine whether or not they get into a good college; second, a lot of kids don't pay attention in class, they talk, eat, draw pictures, one day I counted 8 kids sleeping. I could go on and on but it easiest to say they system could be improved.
I do meet and hang out with the other exchange students in my town sometimes. I am the only exchange student at my school (so I get stared at a lot there, and people shout good afternoon a lot too, no mater what time of day it is because its all they can say in English), but I hang out with them on the weekends or after school, when my Thai friends are studying. I used to think spending so much time with other exchange students defeated the purpose of coming all the way to Thailand, but I realized even when we hang out we still are speaking Thai to buy a snack, or hang out at places where Thais hang out.

So I was planning on this being short but since it is already so long, I will save you some time and just make a few bullet points about things I have noticed and thought were strange or different in Thailand. I am also doing this because there is no possible way for me to explain everything I have done and felt since arriving, just know that if you become an exchange student you will have to do a lot of smiling and you will have no idea what is going on 99% of the time.

There are motorcycles everywhere! and most road rules are taken suggestions, even wearing a seat belt, so streets in Thailand can be kind of scary.

Thai teenagers love cartoons and Facebook, if you come to Thailand be ready to get all sorts of friends requests and see a lot of animated drawings or song quotes. On that note, you will never escape American Pop songs, they love it here, along with K Pop.

For girls, hair must be kept short(chin length) or worn in braids at Thai school. Fingernails must be kept short too, otherwise the teacher will cut them.

They love Disney! I have yet to see any of my classes physics note with out at least five pictures of Mickey Mouse on them.

On Thursdays (for me it varies by school) we have scout day where we wear special uniforms that look like old fashion Girl Scout uniforms and do different activities. Most of the guys then go to military training, once they are old enough.

McDonalds and KFC deliver here.

They have the most intense fly-swaters. They look like small tennis rackets and when you push button they get a surge of electricity so flies do not stand a chance. Still it doesn't even put a dent in the fly population

If you thick school buses in America are crowed you have never ridden on a Song-taow. They are covered pick-up trucks with two parallel benches in the back.

Tuk tuks are fun! They are like a motorcycle with a bench in the back that is covered and used like Taxis. Thailand still has taxis (which come in all sorts of colors) but Tuk tuks are less expensive and more fun, if its not raining.

They are defiantly more conservative with clothing here.

Everything is super cheap, except electronics. I can buy a can of coke-cola for 6 Baht or about 20 cents and a basic lunch at school (a dish of noodles and a drink) costs about 28 Baht or roughly 1 US dollar.

Even so you will defiantly get ripped-off if you ever visit Thailand, its perfectly legal to charge more to tourists, or farangs (white people)

Coffee makes you white and skinny here (or so they claim they have no real regulation on it). It is advertised all the time on TV and is sold health stores. Last week we had an inbound "camp" because there is no school in October and all the exchange students were drinking coffee in the morning. My host mom who organized it, kept telling me how strange it was the boys where drinking coffee, it is for girls only she said.

Yes, Thailand is sexist, and will treat you differently if you are foreign, its just a part of their culture.

Thai people will never flat out tell you if you are doing something wrong or something that is considered impolite, you just have to pick up little subtle hints or notice when your host family acts differently. It gets very confusing but Thais will often give you slack if because you are foreign and they rules are very... complicated.

Buddhism is the main religion here so Wats (temples) are everywhere, they are all gorgeous and very ornate. When you visit one, though, you can not show much skin or they will give you a cloth to cover yourself with.

They wai here all the time. It is comparable to shaking hands but done much more often, to basically anyone you meet. It is for respect so younger people wai to older people, students to teachers, etc.

To wai you place both hands about chest level and the bend your head to tough your hands. How far you go down depends on how senior the person is, with friends it is maybe chin level, teachers about nose level, and monks forehead level so you are almost making a right angle.

At some point you will have to use a squat toilet, they are very common here and sometimes they even have signs on regular western style toilets telling people not to stand on the seat because they are not used to them. But most houses do have regular toilets

You might have a hard time finding toilet pepper in public bathrooms here often Thais will use a water hose, just make sure you always have an extra stash of toilet paper and hand-sanitizer every time you go out.

Even so toilet paper is still very common but here people use it as tissues. They literally take out the middle cardboard center of toilet paper and put the roll in a tissue box.

January 2013

Sawadeeka! Hello! I have now been in Thailand for 5 months! Let me start by saying how hard it is to actually sit down and write these journals. Not because I have nothing to write about, but because so much has happened there is no way I could write down everything I have done, seen, felt, and experienced. My Thai is improving everyday, but it does not feel like it. I can understand a good portion of what is being said around me, even when I am not directly addressed, but I have a terrible time speaking back. This makes people think I do not understand and switch to English, which gets very frustrating. Thai it self is not difficult grammatically, and a lot of words make logical sense. For instance the word for ice is nam kang, nam meaning water and kang meaning hard, so ice is hard water. Still learning a language is never easy, and with tones and pronunciation, Thai is challenging.

I guess I will start with Sports Day, which is actually a week long sports competition but because there are no plurals in Thai is it just called sport's day. It is one of the biggest events of the year and each school in Thailand s it sometime between early november and late December. I was lucky because the first day of school in Thailand was the sign up day for sports day (they start preparing months in advance!). At that point I had no idea what was going on and accidentally signed up for the basketball team. All the signs where in Thai and everyone was running around like crazy so I just walked over to a random group and wrote my name. I am just glad I did not accidentally sign up for dak gaw (similar to hackysack but with a wicker ball and one of Thailand's favorite games so everyone is very good) or Chairball (like soccer but you throw the ball and try to score my throwing the ball into a basket that is held by a person standing on a chair) because I alrea dy knew the rules of basketball. So by November everyone was very excited. There were tons of sports some similar to ones we play in America (running, volleyball) and plenty of others (badminton, a kind of volleyball played only with your feet, ping pong ((it is a sport here)), etc.). The most interesting one to me was cheerleading, where there were complicated hand movements, costumes, a story, and singing. So how teams competed was against other colors. Each classroom was assigned one of four colors (Go Green!) and for each sport there was a tournament. The winner in each sport both girls and boys got a trophy, the team who won the most trophies won Sport's Day. But not everyone in all schools is allowed to participate, at my school anyone who wanted to could join a team, but at other schools only boys were allowed to practice and compete. What I found the most different between America and Thailand was the way spectators cheered. On the first day I asked my friend wh ile we were watching the running competition my other friend was running in "what do you say in Thai to cheer?" she responded, "you scream." I thought at first she was just kidding, but no, to cheer you literally make a blood curdling scream as loud as you possibly can. I had such a fun time, a won the second place trophy in girls basketball! 

The rest of November was mostly school. School in Thailand lasts a really long time, but it is fun once I stared making a lot of friends, mostly because students don't really pay attention in class, even though they spend all of their free time after school studying. My thanksgiving was great though! I got a package from my mom and was able to make my favorite pumpkin pie for my host family. (They were shocked I mixed pumpkin and cinnamon together.) the best part though was my host family surprised me with a big Thanksgiving dinner, getting a roast chicken and a pizza! (traditionally Thanksgiving food is pretty hard to find in Thailand.) It was great!

Right at the beginning of December I had an amazing opportunity. I go to a catholic school, which is pretty rare in Thailand as most people (even most of the ones at my school) are Buddhist. During the first week in December my school in Thailand was hosting a conference of all the sister schools across Asia and the Pacific, and I was chosen to be a representative for Thailand at the conference. It was held in Bangkok and lasted almost a week. I had so much fun meeting so many kids and I got to help them all understand some cultural aspects of Thailand. On the last night I even did a traditional Rumthai (Thai dance)! 

Christmas time was pretty strange. I had a great time, and got several wonderful packages from my parents and grandparents in America, which was amazing!!! I was happy I was in a catholic school this time of the year because I got Christmas day off, I think I was the only exchange student in my district who did not have school. Also on Christmas Eve we had a Christmas pageant. I played an angle and did a little ballet dance. Basically it was the same as every other Christmas story but they rushed the begging up to when Jesus was born and then had a whole long scene about a king and Indian belly dancers. I asked why there were Indian belly dancers in Bethlehem, and no one ever gave me a clear answer. I think my host family (and host sister, Ball, especially) liked celebrating Christmas. They are Buddhist and never had celebrated before so we make tons of Christmas cookies and put up decorations. In the evening I met up with a few of the other exchange students in my town an d we all had a Christmas dinner at a Korean grill restaurant. It was a great christmas.

I was really expecting to be homesick around this time, but it just didn't happen. As far as homesickness goes, I had just awful homesickness the first maybe month or so I was here and after that it just went away and I started to really love Thailand. At first I could barely eat the food and kept making tons of cultural mistakes, but after a while I got used to everything and truly do love it. 

Then just on January 10th I celebrated Children's day. Basically a whole day where kids get spoiled. Actual Children's Day was January 12th and I woke up to an air show above my house and an impromptu marching band next-door that lasted most of the morning and afternoon, but on the 10th we celebrated at my school. I wasn't really expected anything to be different that day just a normal Thursday, but in the morning my host mom said to wear my regular uniform(not a scout uniform like regular Thursdays), and as we were walking out the door she handed me a bag of uncooked rice and a spoon. By this time in my exchange I was really used to really seemingly random things happen, and just to go with what everyone else was doing so I did not think much of it until I got to school. So, instead of the large courtyard filled with lines of students talking and waiting for morning announcements I found a huge maze made out of rope and desks. about 7:45 everyone lined up b y their class all along the maze like path. Then 22 Buddhist monks in a line walked past us and each person put a spoonful or two of rice in their offering bowl, this ended up being a lot of rice from each of the 4,000+ students and the bowls kept being emptied into large sacks. We ended up with so many sacks full of rice it took several truck loads to haul it all off. Then we all went to the covered area of the courtyard and sat there while 86 (the age of the King) monks chanted. After a few minutes on of the monks walked around and sprayed water on the crowd (a type of blessing) and bopped a few kids on the head (who knew monks had a sense of humor?). It was really strange. I liked listening to the monks and participating in Buddhist traditions but my school in Thailand is Catholic, so the whole ceremony took place less than 10 feet from a church.
So I will say I had awful homesickness the first few weeks I was here, I especially didn't like school. Now I have gotten used to school and I even like it. One things though that still drives me crazy, is the uniforms. I never wore a uniform before so that in itself took a little getting used to, but what really annoys me is I have four separate uniforms! I have a regular Thai school uniform which is standard across the country, I have a sports uniform to wear on days I have P.E., a scout uniform for a girl scout/military activity I have on Thursdays, plus a special green shirt for special days. I keep comparing it to the new Karate Kid movie, where the main charter keeps wearing the wrong uniform on the wrong days. I can not tell you how many times I have worn my scout uniform when I should have worn my regular uniform, or my regular uniform when i should have worn my sports uniform. It does not help that they keep switching the days. Either way everyone stairs at m e, so I guess it is not to different from any other day having kids stare at me (being the only non-asian in my school). Also, who ever decided we should wear a long thick pair of sweatpants for P.E. in Thailand heat, really did not think things through.
That is basically what I have been up to the last couple of months in Thailand! One thing that I find hilarious is all the funny questions I get asked. For anyone who becomes an exchange student, you will defiantly experience these crazy questions, too. Here are a few of my favorite questions I have been asked while in Thailand.

My friend at school "do you have Facebook in America?"
Me "yes, Facebook is from America."
My friend "really? well what about Oreo's, have you ever tasted them? Do you have them in America?"
Me "Oreos are also from America."
My friend: "really? I thought they are from Thailand..."

A teacher at a school "where are you from?"
Me "I am from America, Florida."
Teacher "I know where that is, that's the state that boarders Cuba and Canada, right!"

Another friend from School: "where have you traveled before"
Me "I have been to the Bahamas."
My friend "Where is that?"
Me "It's in the Caribbean."
My friend "Oh WOW! Isn't that dangerous? Because of all the Pirates! Like the movie Pirates if the Caribbean."
Me "No thats just a movie, there have been no pirates like that for a few hundred years."
My friend "Really!?! I though they were real…"

In class one day, "have you been to all the states in America?"
Me "No, but I have been to a lot"
Classmate "Have you been to Venezuela?"
Me "Venezuela is not a state. Its in South America, near Colombia and Brazil"
Classmate "Oh I thought Brazil was in Europe"

Well the list goes on and on. This is not everyone in Thailand but people have actually said these things. Most of the time the questions are about if I have something in America, people think most things are from Thailand. Thats not saying anyone is stupid they usually just don't think the question through or honestly never learned.

So that is my mid-year journal. I am sorry I am submitting it so late. I thought I sent it in months ago, but it must have had some issue and did not work. I am having a wonderful experience in Thailand and I can not thank Rotary enough for such an amazing experience!