Training in ‘Thainess’

Photos by Thai consulate in Los Angeles

Some Generation Z youngsters — born after the mid-90s, tech savvy, lazy and prone to whining, sociologists say — are attempting to smash the negative stereotype by working hard to reconnect with their Thai roots as volunteers teaching English at provincial schools here.

Seven young Thai-Americans, mostly from California, jumped at the chance to “rediscover” their homeland courtesy of a project organised by the Thai consulate in Los Angeles.

Getting to Thailand was the easy bit; the tasks they would be assigned once they arrived — not so much.

The Thai American Friendship Project (TAFP) has a goodwill ring to it even though it has nothing to do with shaking hands or exchanging repartee.

The 11 week-project, the brainchild of the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Los Angeles, was launched in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Rangsit University.

The project targets youngsters living in the United States who were either born to Thai parents and have permanent residency in the US or are of mixed blood.

They are able to rediscover their family heritage and teach English as volunteers to Thai students, including kindergartens, in schools and other educational institutions in Bangkok and the provinces.

Upon arrival the new recruits, aged 18 to their early 20s, were split up and allocated to different schools. In total they spent two months in the country before returning to the US on Sept 9.

Tanee Sangrat, the Thai consul-general in LA, said the project brings Thai-American students face to face with a local culture they barely know.

“This project not only fulfilled my dream [of visiting Thailand] but also helped me make new friends and enriched my life experience”, said Charatta Thongbai, who goes by the nickname Kookkik.

Living with her parents in Gilbert, Arizona, Ms Charatta was assigned to work in Khon Kaen as a volunteer English teacher at the kindergarten in Khon Kaen University’s Demonstration School.

She said walking the youngsters through rudimentary English dialogue was fun, once she had won their trust and stopped them from running away and hiding under desks. She said the biggest battle was overcoming their innate shyness.

After spending two weeks in the northeastern province, she said she had learned much about the reality of life on the ground.

“Of course, I had somtam and many kinds of Isan food, which is very tasty. Khon Kaen is a big province but people there are nice,” she said.

“If I could read and write Thai, I might return to work there,” she said. “It’s also a nice place to live.”

Another project volunteer, Anshanika “Angie” Phetbenjakul, was sent South to Hat Yai district in Songkhla, where she joined a Thai cultural camp for international youth.

Ms Anshanika said she received crash courses on Thai culture, especially dancing, cooking, boxing and speaking Thai.

These were buttressed by visits to typical southern communities, where she learned first-hand about people’s dependency on farming rubber and coconuts, the region’s two main crops.

The cultural camp also took her to Penang, a colonial resort town in Malaysia.

“I went on the camp for around a month and started teaching the students from kindergarten to high school. Both activities were very pleasant,” she said.

“I would love to come back again if opportunity permits. I wish more Thai-American youths could experience what I have experienced. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

For Rachel Forrest, who has one Thai and one American parent, the trip helped her realise what it really means to be Thai.

“I live in Oregon, where I cannot relate to Thailand much. But that changed when I came to study at the University of California in LA,” she said.

Ms Forrest was the only volunteer working in Bangkok. She was placed at Rangsit University and tasked with assisting instructors at the university’s English clinic. She was asked to share her life story in the US with students in some cultural-exchange lessons.

She said the students showed much academic potential and could easily prosper overseas, where many are keen to live and and work, but were handicapped (again) by their lack of self-confidence and often sub-par English skills.

“Maybe they’re afraid of being mocked by friends. There’s no problem if they use the wrong grammar sometimes when they speak. At least they get the message across,” she said.

Another volunteer, Ginger Slentz from Santa Clarita, California, taught as a volunteer at Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Rai.

She said getting stuck into community projects runs in her blood — her family campaigned alongside other Thai expats in the US to mobilise funds to build schools in remote parts of Thailand.

Ms Slentz taught English and chaperoned youngsters aged 2-8 (kindergarten to Grade 1).

She also recalls having to deal with some uninvited guests: bed lice.

“I found the bugs in the towel after I washed my hair. I didn’t know what they were so I called my mum on the phone and she replied with a laugh that I had hair lice,” she said.

She also visited a school in Chiang Rai that her family had helped raise funds to build.

“After this school building is complete, we plan to build a couple more. I want people to have an education,” she said.

She said the project has boosted her commitment to community advocacy work at home in California, showing her how a local network of volunteers can be strengthened to help those in need.

“Our communities have been working to help Thais in rural areas,” she said, adding she intends to liaise with Thai community networks in California to see what more can be done to help.

Another project member, Jennifer Santijaroennon from Montebello, California, also helped teach English at Ubon Ratchathani University.

She said the experience taught about the kind of hardship and struggles her parents had endured before they emigrated to the US decades ago.

“I would like to learn Thai culture more and I wanted to know how my parents grew up. They told me their lives in the past were difficult,” she said.

Now she feels “right at home” here, she added.

TAFP volunteer Kevin Saicheur, the only male participant in the group, enjoyed teaching English in Chiang Mai and also got a kick out of teaching one of his new friends how to dance to hip-hop music in his spare time for some extra pocket money, he said.

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