I grew up as a military brat with parents in helping professions. Naturally, I have long had the desire to travel the world and contribute to assisting a community in Southeast Asia. For my time abroad, I chose to be a volunteer for International Volunteer HQ in Thailand, where I would teach English for two weeks.
I began my trip on New Year’s Eve with several lengthy layovers in China before arriving to the lush, green landscape of Thailand. I was greeted by staff members and an intern from the host foundation, along with three children from a village surrounding Chiang Rai. Three other volunteers and I loaded our belongings in the back of a pickup truck and were led to our accommodation.
The three children pointed out the different sights within the small city of Chiang Rai, such as the Chinese Temple paired with a massive statue that overlooked the jungle. We arrived at our camp and introduced ourselves to other volunteers from places like Australia, France, Belgium, Germany, South Korea – and even another student from San Diego State! Initially, many of us discussed our confusion with the plethora of mosquitoes, the squat toilets and the cold showers that are present in Thailand.
I soon became familiar with nine other volunteers who were there to introduce English to the Chiang Rai community. We had our volunteer orientation and our introduction to creating daily lesson plans for teaching. I was assigned to teaching the English alphabet and the letter sounds for word formation to first graders. The task initially sounded daunting to me, since the topic is an essential building block to learning a new language, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how intelligent the students were on my first day.
I was incredibly nervous to teach my first lesson to a group of students who spoke a completely different language than I do, but the students made me feel at ease by their morning greetings and confident smiles. Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” where it is in their belief that smiling can make another feel more comfortable. They began by standing up collectively and saying, “Good morning, teachers, how are you?” They recited the alphabet with enthusiasm and excitement before we started teaching the basics to building words and their sounds.
There were some issues with the language barrier since I cannot understand Thai and they can’t understand English at that young age, but luckily the Thai interns were there to help translate questions and instructions. Within that first day of teaching, I realized how eager the students were to learn. They individually would call us over to their desks by the raise of a hand yelling, “teacher, teacher!” in order to show us their completed work. After I would check and approve their work with a smiley face, they would smile and fold their hands in front of them saying, “thank you, teacher!”
At the end of each lesson, the students thanked us with nonstop hugs and high fives. I found all of this to be consistent among the students at the five schools we visited each week. Each child was so grateful and elated to learn a new lesson every week. I even had the chance to visit one of the hospitals in Chiang Rai to comfort the pediatric patients who were ill. We made bracelets, read books, colored pictures and played board games with the patients – one of whom beat me in a game of Connect Four. Though many students and patients could not clearly express themselves in English and extend conversation, I could instead see the sparkle in their eyes, the happiness in their smiles and the warmth in their comforting hugs.
Each and every volunteer I have met has been passionate about benefiting the Chiang Rai community, whether that be inside the classroom teaching English, or outdoors in the village painting murals or maintaining the rice paddies. One volunteer stumbled upon the Thai saying “nam-jay” which translates to “water heart.” This word is commonly used to describe the fluidity of a person’s heart and their willingness to help others without expecting anything in return.
This volunteer opportunity has made me feel like I was positively influencing the future of these students’ lives. It not only benefited the Chiang Rai community, but convinced me further that helping others is what I long to do with my future career path. This experience and the people I have met along the way are unforgettable and remarkable.
If I was told I had two more weeks to live, I would have been more than content with spending those days in Thailand volunteering to teach English, surrounded by these beautiful people and their kind hearts.
Sierra Alexis Manlapaz is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public health. She is volunteering to teach English in Thailand during Winter Break 2017.