Sawaddee Ka to New Beginnings: A Fulbright Journey in Thailand

Maddy and Corrine, U.S. Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Thailand, embark on a cultural journey, exploring education, friendship, and self-discovery through teaching, learning Thai, and engaging in local customs.

"EAT IT!" Maddy squealed, dangling a crispy fried grasshopper before Corrine's jaw-dropped mouth. Sensing hesitation from her new friend, Maddy reached into the bag and popped an insect on her tongue. She wriggled through the final chew and swallowed. 

"C'mon, you can do it!" Maddy encouraged, opening her mouth to prove she had consumed every bit of this Thai street snack. 

Corrine looked at Maddy and then at the fried grasshopper, now mere inches from her face. The freshly cooked insect appeared poised and ready to spring into Corrine's still-open mouth. "I guess there is no turning back now," Corrine sighed before chomping down on her grasshopper. 

Five months prior, Corrine Sullivan and Madaleine Domingo left their separate homes in the USA to pursue cultural immersion and self-discovery as U.S. Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Thailand. Fast forward a few months after that first Chatuchak evening stroll together to taste our first insect delicacy, we are now better known as Teacher Saai Roong (Rainbow) and Teacher Taandtawan (Sunflower). 

During a transformative year-long journey as English teachers, our initial commitment evolved into an exploration of laughter, love, and self-discovery. Their experiences involved instructing lively students, adjusting pedagogy with flexibility, and engaging actively in cultural exchange—two now close friends sharing grasshoppers was just the beginning. 

Maddy hails from across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, where she could be found adventuring on horseback through the countryside or drinking tea in the garden with her mom. Corrine is from the mountains of Park City, Utah, where she skied at Snowbird chasing her dad or read between pine trees in her hammock. After moving to Thailand, Maddy resides in Sukhothai's rolling hills and rice fields, while Corrine lives amongst the fishing markets and palm fields of Thasala. This is their first-hand account detailing their journey of self-discovery, language learning, and cultural immersion as Fulbright educators in Thailand. 

Chapter One: Beyond adjusting to a different climate, we are learning how to order our favorite noodle soup, ride in the back of Songthaews, and engage with our communities using Thailand's elegant tonal language. While our teaching commitment was initially driven by a desire to impart knowledge, we learn alongside our students. Our journey highlights the interconnected themes of education, friendship, and generosity woven into our daily interactions. 

Corrine teaching one of her fourth grade sections.

Corrine teaching one of her fourth grade sections.

Corrine and Maddy teaching together during orientation training in Bangkok.

Placed in elementary schools, we teach English to students aged five to eleven. Our pedagogical approach centers around the motto, "He who wishes to learn must first believe" (Aristotle). This belief translates into dynamic teaching methods, such as vocabulary hot potato, memorizing through singing, syntax in conga lines, and spelling with letter tiles. Our goal is to implement strategies to make the English language seem manageable. Adaptation and flexibility prove essential in navigating the diverse energies of our classrooms. Some days, we are met with sticker-covered six-year-olds; other days, we are sweating with sassy preteens. Each day is filled with gleeful cackles and positive reinforcements from the delightful company of the most welcoming crowd – our students. 

Despite living alone, we are never lonely. Constant "sawaddee, teacher" shouts echo across school grounds from students who race over to plaster stickers anywhere within reach. Host teachers embrace us like friends, Zumba ladies feed us like family, and local mechanics continuously pump our bike tires for the daily school commute. Cultural exchange extends well beyond the confines of the classroom. 

Every evening after school, Maddy strolls down to the nearby parking lot and joins twenty older adults in an evening of Thai traditional dance and Zumba exercise. The Zumba ladies beckon with ear-to-ear smiles, "taandtawan maa leeo," signaling the beginning of another fun-filled evening of song, dance, and laughter. As she attempts to find her place in the synchronized flow of bodies, gentle palms on Maddy's back fix her posture, and soft hands flex her fingers in directions she never knew were possible. Maddy mirrors choreography with as much control and grace as she can muster, angling her body in worship to the shapes of mountains and rivers. Maddy practices her Thai and repeats the word that cues a new eight-count in the song. "Gohok!" she exclaims over and over. Not yet knowing the meaning of this word, she consistently shouted. 

After an hour of laughing while trying to keep up, smells of baked bananas and purple sweet potatoes waft from the riverside edge. The dance team shares food by the riverside, and Maddy pieces together the new Thai vocabulary she had picked up from the songs that evening. "Gohok!" she repeats. The ladies look at each other, smile, and reveal the translation of the word Maddy was shouting on repeat. "taandtawan, "gohok" means to lie," they giggle. Maddy's face is beet red, realizing everyone within earshot watched her flail limbs about while confidently repeating, "Lie! Lie! Lie!" 

From the North to the South, we connect over Facetime, sharing stories while sipping nightly lemongrass tea and speaking in 'thinglish' (half Thai-half English). We taught each other the new words we picked up that day. "Gohok means lie!" Maddy exclaims one evening. Our laughter and reminiscing in broken Thai signals the noticeable progression of our language skills; we have come a long way since the language training class in Bangkok at the beginning of our journey. 

After our first week of Thai training back in September 2023, our group decided to try a nearby Indian restaurant for dinner. The cab driver turned to us and asked, "bpai tiinai?" or "Where are you going?" Maddy leaned forward in response, confident in her newfound language skills, and 

replied. "bpai hongnaam ka." We nodded, proud of our studious pal and her impressive Thai language ability.

The driver leaned back and asked,"hongnaam?" Maddy repeated herself, this time adding the name of the restaurant, "Royal India Hongnaam, ka." The driver went wide-eyed and started weaving through traffic with increasing speed. All was well, or so we thought. As our driver whipped past cars, tuk-tuks, mopeds, and bikes, it dawned on us that raanahaan is how you say restaurant. So that means… 

Uh, Maddy, hongnaam means bathroom!

Our heads were thrown back against the seats, laughing. Losing his patience, the driver pulled over at the closest 5-star hotel and hastily ejected us. We collapsed in giggles on the gleaming marble steps of this random establishment. As for the rest of the Thai language, the tones are proving challenging, but we are learning as we go. Our baristas teach us the words "hot and cold," and our students teach us to say, "listen and dance." Despite the cab drivers' confusion and Zumba ladies' giggles, our Thai friends continue encouraging us to keep making mistakes and never stop singing. 

Initially learned from each other and now reinforced by teachers, students, landlords, baristas, mechanics, and chefs, we understand that friendship is a powerful bridge across cultural differences. Our journey transcends the initial commitment of being English teachers. Through teaching, dancing, eating, laughing, singing, and talking, we illuminate the path toward a world where unity arises from acknowledging our shared human experience. By gobbling grasshoppers, Zumba dancing with new aunties and grandmothers, and driving to the local Indian bathroom; we embrace the greatest gift of all—belonging. 

Our aspiration in this column is to share what has been generously bestowed upon us: the transformative power of friendship and the remarkable gift of endless generosity the Thai people endlessly provide. Together, we can bridge seemingly opposed yet fundamentally similar cultures from across the world. Join us on our year-long journey of storytelling, education, and inclusion through this monthly column. 

The first step in learning about those among us is as simple as saying, "hello" and "sawaddee ka." 

Your friends, 

Teacher Taandtawan (Madaleine Domingo) and Teacher Saai Roong (Corrine Sullivan)