Volunthai in the News

The Washington Post

by Michael Patrick Anderson
Sunday, August 13, 2000

Note: This article made its way to Mrs. Carol Hecklinger, wife of the former American Ambassador to Thailand, who greatly helped Volunthai come into existence.

“Why did you come to Thailand?” That’s the question I am most often asked over here, and I have many answers, depending on who’s asking. If it’s a colleague at the rural high school where I taught English for a semester, I say that I studied Asian history at my university in the United States and now want to see Asia firsthand. If it’s an old woman, I say I came because I love Thai food. If it’s a taxi driver, I say because Thai women are so beautiful. My students, of course, assume I came to be a volunteer teacher, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I came to Thailand to escape. I can’t explain exactly what I was running from, but it had something to do with my country, something to do with my family and something to do with boredom. As soon as I finished my mandatory 16 years of schooling, and had waited on enough tables to save a few thousand dollars, I began to seek my destination. Where is the other side of the globe? Where is it midnight when it’s noon here? Where will my stack of traveler’s checks last the longest? Those are the real reasons I came to Thailand.

After two months of traveling, I was tired of traveling and wanted something more fulfilling. I thought of volunteering at a Karen refugee camp along Burma’s border. Then one day I stopped in the small town of Phibun Mangsaban in the southeastern region of Thailand called Isaan. I talked to some students on the street–their English was better than my Thai–and they urged me to come speak at their high school. I did, and the principal invited me to stay and teach English for the rest of the semester. Thus began one of the best experiences of my life–beautiful in its simplicity and wonderful because I was given so much for doing so little.

I’d never thought much about teaching. I didn’t understand how much it means to Thais to speak English. All Thai schools offer English, but in truth, not many of the teachers speak it well, so it is hard for the students to learn. My students were mostly the children of rice farmers in this hot, flat part of Thailand that few tourists visit. Their school uniforms concealed their poverty, but I saw the reality when I visited their homes. The best students dreamed of being teachers and doctors, but to do so, they must attend a university, and to do that they must speak English. The school had no money to pay me, but I was given a host family, a room above a noodle shop and three meals a day, plus incredible love and prestige. My day would begin at 6, when I crawled out from under my mosquito net, slipped on my sarong and took my morning “shower”–cold water from a basin. Then I would go to the front door, where my host family “sister” would have delivered fresh soy milk or ginger tea. I would sit on the stoop and sip my tea and watch scooters hurry by–some with three or four passengers. They would stare at me, wondering what this white guy in a sarong was doing in Phibun so early in the morning. I would put on my pants/shirt/tie combination–the first time I’d ever worn a tie to work–and ride my scooter to school. In the early days, as the first foreigner ever to teach at the school, I caused a sensation. The boys would yell “hello” and the girls would scream and giggle–I felt like a Beatle, circa 1964.

Besides being fed, housed and generally spoiled, I enjoyed more subtle pleasures. The smiles from my students’ parents as they sat in the market selling their home-grown produce. The satisfaction of learning a new Thai word correctly. A monk in a brilliant orange robe, sipping emerald green Fanta through a straw. The lovely girl I tutored in French, who couldn’t afford to pay me but brought me tiny animals she made out of paper for my windowsill. The sensual experiences in Thailand are unending and extraordinary; I savor them. I think of my American friends, working in an office, starting at the bottom of the ladder, and I want to stay here forever. There is so much for a foreigner to learn, especially from Buddhism, which permeates the people’s lives. I have never feared violence here. People are open and trusting. They teach you how to be compassionate, how to treat strangers, how to appreciate simple pleasures, how to accept that you really have no control over life.

There are many schools and many opportunities, and the reason I am writing this is to encourage other young Americans to come here and do what I’ve done. Not everyone can do it. Probably you’d either love it or hate it. You have to adapt to the national attitude of “que sera sera,” which renders clocks and frowns useless. If you can’t do that, you’ll go crazy waiting for late buses, slow waitresses and cashiers using calculators for first-grade level arithmetic.

To succeed, you should be neat and polite, like a good Thai. Just after college is the perfect time, because you’re old enough to take care of yourself but young enough that mothers still want to take care of you. You must be open-minded regarding religion, nationalism and food. At the very least, you must bow to monks, stand for the king’s anthem and eat animals whose heads are still attached. As a teacher, you must be patient, caring and creative. And you must be self-sacrificing, because it’s not always fun to be in the middle of nowhere, a long way from family and friends.

But as I see it, I had the good luck, or good karma, to be born a middle-class American. I’ve had 24 years of fun, and now it’s time to give something back. If you want to do that, there’s nothing wrong with the Peace Corps or other groups that send volunteers abroad, but I didn’t need an organization to find schools that wanted me. Being on my own meant that I could pick the schools and places I wanted.

Not long ago, visiting my girlfriend in Bangkok, I reread Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” ,and it occurred to me that Southeast Asia today is like Paris was in the 1920s–a place where young expatriates can live cheaply and enjoy a culture very different from their own. I’m not saying that living and teaching here is glamorous, only that if you are the right kind of person, Thailand will give you back far more than you can ever give it.

What an English Teacher Learned in Thailand

by Jordan Fiorillo

After graduating from Tulane in 2003, I worked for almost a full year as a legal assistant at a small law firm in New Orleans. Because I didn’t find the job to be particularly challenging, I ended up spending a good chunk of my day daydreaming about foreign lands, trying to devise ways to get myself out of an office. So, one day I began looking for a job teaching English abroad. My original plan would have put me somewhere in Central or South America, somewhere I put to use all the time I spent memorizing the preterit and imperfect Spanish verb forms.

I was amazed to find thousands of websites for people searching for the same thing I was: adventures overseas. However, I was amazed to discover that there were few agencies that would place me as a volunteer teacher in a foreign country without asking a few thousand dollars for their assistance. The exceptions to this were church volunteer agencies and several Catholic schools I found in the Caribbean. Aware that I was not equipped to work under such auspices, I continued my search. It was a while before I found a website for an organization willing to train me, house me, and place me in a school as an English teacher for free. Only this organization was not located in the Americas, or even in a Spanish-speaking country. The organization was called Volunthai, and it placed English teachers in schools in Thailand.

It was amazingly simple to apply for the program, and it was not long before I heard back from the organization’s founder, Michael Anderson, and was invited to join the August 2004 volunteers. Information on exactly what we would be doing was scarce, but Michael assured me that, as long as I was willing to be flexible and keep and open mind, I would be in good hands. And so, in August, I quit my job, packed up way too many suitcases, and flew to Thailand.

Landing in Bangkok, I had four days to explore before I would start my stay as a volunteer. I did a bit of touring around, rode the river taxi down the choppy and somewhat scenic Chao Phraya river, saw the magnificent Royal Palace and visited what seemed to be thousands of Buddha icons. I took copious notes in my journal, recording every sight and smell, every thought. I had several timid interactions with Thai people and ate a lot of fried rice during those first few days, but I think back now to what Thailand seemed to me then and I realize I had no idea yet how lucky I was to be there.

In the last week of August, I boarded my first Thai bus and headed three hours northeast to Volunthai headquarters in Korat. Once there, I met up with the other five volunteers, four other Americans and one Canadian, and we followed Michael back to his house. Volunteers live in the house while they are in training and between teaching assignments. Michael’s house, like many of the middle-class Thai houses we saw, is beautiful, with a lot of open-air and dark wood. It is in a nice little neighborhood, with Thailand’s predictable stray dogs roaming around, but we felt safe and there was plenty of room for all of us.

Michael is from Washington, D.C. and moved to Thailand six years ago, searching for the same things his current volunteers seek: a chance to live and work overseas. While planning his trip, Michael shared the frustration of many would-be teachers who cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars to a placement agency to then come work as a volunteer. After moving to Thailand and finding volunteer work on his own, he decided to stay. Not long later, with the help of his stunning Thai girlfriend, Ae, Michael began Volunthai. Each month, he and Ae open their home to a handful of volunteers and take on the joy of training them in various facets of Thai language, culture and food.

Training is brief, but Michael and Ae gave us some very helpful Thai expressions to memorize and explained to us what we would be doing in the next month and how we should behave while teaching and with Thai people. He explained that Thai people take great pride in their appearance and, as teachers, so should we. Many Thais shower several times each day to stay clean, and while staying with teachers at schools, we were warned that we would get strange looks if we did not do the same.
Michael also taught us a nifty little Thai expression: Mai Pben Rai. Mai Pben Rai means, literally, “nevermind” or “it’s okay.” Thais use this expression fairly often in their speech, but it has greater significance as a lifestyle, or approach to life. In Thailand, most people just want to have fun, relax, be happy. They do not rush around or get worked up about insignificant details or small problems. Maintaining harmony is of the utmost importance and, in fact, it embarrasses Thai to cause or even see a public scene. Mai Pben Rai permeates the culture, creating a population of people that are ridiculously easy-going, and, at times, extremely disorganized. Michael wanted to warn us about this before we began teaching at schools, because he did not want any of us uptight Americans to get frustrated or, worse, embarrass any Thais.

We had about three days of training before we began the first leg of the Volunthai experience: English Camp! English camp is an optional program for students and 120 students would sign up for camp from each school. Our camps lasted two to four days and gave Thai students a chance to practice their English with native speakers. Most of the time, students did not have to pay to attend and Volunthai provided the service to the school for just a small donation.

Our first camp was in a small town in central Thailand called Chainat. Arriving at the school the day before camp, we were enthusiastically greeted by the Thai English teachers and were dragged from one office to another, being introduced with pride to the other faculty. During this particular camp, we were given hotel rooms, but for all the other camps we either stayed in the homes of Thai teachers or in classrooms or infirmaries of schools.

Camps all began about the same, with an opening ceremony to officially welcome the “farang,” or foreigners, as we were affectionately called. Thai students tend to be very fun and playful, but they were almost always shy at the beginning and hesitant to speak English. So Michael would begin the camp with a series of jokes, always leaving us volunteers wondering what he was saying about us when he switched to speaking in Thai and the room erupted in laughter.

Shortly after breaking the ice, we would break up into groups, with each volunteer taking on a group of about 20 students and giving his or her group a name such as “Super,” “Awesome,” “Lovely,” and “Groovy.” The teams would split up, fill out name-tags, learn group cheers, and regroup for a cheer-off. Loud, raucous activities were particularly amusing to the Thai students, who are generally encouraged to act respectfully, demurely, and not draw attention to themselves.

Most of our activities involved songs, games and competitions that culminated in dancing and exploring the campus. We did scavenger hunts, the hokey pokey, and other high-energy activities. By the end of the first day of English Camp, I was exhausted, sweaty and genuinely happy. For me, this was the perfect way to get to know Thailand and its people.

All the time we were holding English Camps, we were treated as celebrities and pampered by our hosts. The best food I tasted in Thailand was during English Camp. The teachers were so grateful to have us and I think they were truly surprised that a group of foreigners would want to come help their students learn English for free. The entire towns, in some places, welcomed us and treated us with the utmost graciousness. In one town, we met the mayor while seated alongside a road waiting for a bus. The mayor stopped, introduced himself, and invited us to a dinner with him. The next day, after appearing at English camp to encourage the students to take advantage of this opportunity to practice English, he took us out to a scrumptious dinner and then back to his office in City Hall. Later that night he surprised us with a visit from some friends on motorcycles, giving each volunteer a tour around town on an impromptu motorcade!

In the month that we traveled the countryside facilitating English Camps, I came to appreciate the unwavering warmth and beauty of the Thai people, especially the students. Whenever we split into groups and some of my female students had a chance, they would ask me questions about my life in America: if I had a boyfriend, if I still lived with my family, if I liked Thai food. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I could not resist falling in love with Thailand, not to mention the other volunteers I shared such close quarters with.

Once or twice a month volunteers may have an opportunity to get together on the weekend and lead an English Camp such as this one.

Nation Junior

Updated: November 15, 2004

Learning English with P’Farang

by Jessada Salathong

It’s the beginning of the school holidays, but 11-year-old Metavee “Pim” Sangthong gets up early as usual to go to school. The only difference is Pim won’t be studying with her normal teachers. Instead she’ll be having fun with a group of 25 American volunteers she calls “P’Farang” (foreign brothers/sisters).

“I met some farang before but I was too scared to talk to them, let alone study with them. It’s so exciting,” says Pim.

The little girl packs her notebook and pens into her backpack and, after a quick breakfast, heads to Baan Maab Phai School. Her little school, in Baan Buang district in Chon Buri, last month hosted an English language project organised jointly by the Semester at Sea programme from the USA and Volunthai, a local group that brings foreign volunteers to help rural students learn English.

Cruising around the world, the 600 students of the Semester at Sea programme recently docked at Laem Chabang Port before heading off to other regional destinations. While some of the students choose the sandy beach of Pattaya and others ventured off to Myanmar, 25 diehard volunteers chose to go to Baan Maab Phai School to spread the word of English among the students.

“As a visitor, I can come back anytime I want to get suntan and enjoy the beach. But teaching the kids is a rewarding experience. It gives me the chance to see Thailand in a different way than average tourists,” says Cassie Minto, a volunteer from Semester at Sea.
Even though the school is just a couple of hundred kilometres from Bangkok and very close to the tourist destination of Pattaya, most of the students have difficulty with English and some are even farang-phobic. “Our school doesn’t have enough teachers. Sometimes a PE teacher has to teach Maths and English too. All we can do is explain the basics and some grammar. That’s why the standard of spoken English is very low,” says Ramrieng Aonnuam, principal of Baan Maab Phai School.

“This camp is a great opportunity for the kids. What they gain in these two and a half days could be more than they will learn in a year at school.”

The combination works well and it isn’t only the kids who are excited. Even though they know only a little English and the volunteers know hardly any Thai, communication is not a problem.

“The language barrier is overcome by drawing and using body language, like putting pointed fingers to my head to say “buffalo”, says Alden Schiller from Austin, Texas. “They are very keen to learn and very respectful. They always gave us a wai (traditional Thai greeting).” The activities include English songs, pronunciation, reading and writing activities, and picture interpretation from many colorful books that the volunteers brought from home. The kids have the chance to speak and interact with native speakers naturally. After a long day in the classroom the volunteers then get to learn Thai by staying with a local host family.

“I was nervous at first because I had no idea what a Thai family was like. But my host family was very welcoming. They treated me to huge meals. I showed them pictures of my family and important cities like L.A., New York, and Washington DC. Then my family showed me photos of themselves, their friends, and many places around Thailand. We were like tour guides for our own countries. It’s truly a cultural exchange!” says Dennis Konicki from Boston.

How much English the kids actually learn is not as important and the inspiration to learn more that they get from such a fun meeting with the volunteers. For once they were meeting real farang and not just the Hollywood celebrities that come over in movies and on the TV. This is what Michael Anderson envisaged when he established Volunthai in 1999.

“Volunteering is a valuable experience for the foreigner as well as for the Thai students. We hope to change the students’ attitude about the English language. The volunteers also learn something equally important and get an insight into Thailand. They are treated as if they were Thai, as part of the host family. I would like more farang to see this side of Thailand,” says the project leader and Asian Studies’ graduate.

After three days of activities it’s time to say goodbye. The kids chose their favorite farangs and the volunteers awarded scholarships to the students who had gained the most from the project.

Rapeepan “May” Kanthilaruk, a 14- year-old student, has a notebook full of notes she’s taken over the past few days but she’s learnt more than just a little vocabulary:

“It was great. I learnt many new words and now I know that the P’Farang are so kind and friendly. I love them all. I want to talk to them more and to visit their home. I’ll study English harder and harder so that I can stay in touch with them,” says May.