The Hokey Pokey: Volunteering in Thailand

Volunteer's bring their own talents.
The author incorporated dance into her teaching.

A sea of curious and fascinated almond-shaped eyes stared expectantly up at me. The sparse classroom was silent except for the stuttering whir of a ceiling fan and a few nervous giggles among the splintered desks. I stared back, but in more of a deer-in-the-headlights manner. Here is what I was aware of as the van from the Nong Bua Lamphu Community College navigated a cratered, dirt road through a rice field: The college’s director wanted me to see the satellite campuses of their developing higher-education institute. And he wanted all of them to see how prestigious the main community college was, since they had a farang (Westerner) working with them.

This much I knew by this point in my 10-week volunteer assignment through Kenan Institute Asia (KIA) in Nong Bua Lamphu, a northeastern province of Thailand. There were five Americans at start-up community colleges throughout the northern part of Thailand to assist them with their Self-Access English Language Centers, a United States Agency for International Development–funded project through KIA. We were the implementers.

At Nong Bua Lamphu, since there was no Self-Access English Language Center, most of my duties consisted of being paraded throughout the province (and perhaps farther, I rarely knew exactly where we were going) to say a few words in a microphone, and then sit on the VIP couch and be served coffee and sweets while the real seminar/conference/workshop proceeded in Thai.

Sometimes I would break into song and dance, and as word got around of what this farang was capable of, this became a staple of my public appearances. This is what I did not know on that first day.

I looked helplessly as Sawart, my assigned Thai counterpart/roommate/manager gave me a one-armed shove into the classroom. “What are you going to teach them?” she whispered. I didn’t happen to bring a lesson plan.

Curiously, no one had bothered to mention I would be teaching, something I have never done, but would become rather effective at as the weeks went on.

“I’m teaching? You didn’t tell me that!”

“Well, yes!” she said in an exasperated voice. “Just talk to them, they have never heard English from a real native speaker! They are very excited to hear you!” I took a deep breath, thanking my long training as an actress.

Sawatdee kaa!” I greeted them in Thai with my brightest smile, and bowed deeply. They exploded with delighted laughter and applauded.Sawart looked at me, “Michelle! In English!”

“My name is Michelle. Do you have any questions for me?”

It was their turn for the deer-in-headlights moment. The students were mostly women, ages 25 to 55, and most all covered their faces with their notebooks, afraid I would call on them, afraid they would have to speak English to a living and breathing farang.

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