The huge Buddha was under construction. Bamboo scaffolding covered the crumbling concrete torso. The head, at least 20 feet tall, had been removed and was sitting off to the side. It looked like it needed some work too. I knew how he felt. I had been standing off to the side all morning and only reluctantly included myself in some of the group activities. I really didn’t want to be here. I was detached.
This was Sports Day, a day when this group of Peace Corps trainees join their Thai teachers to take part in some traditional Thai sports—not Thai boxing—and to act foolishly muddling their way through a silly relay race. The day was intended to be fun. Teams were established early this Saturday morning and we were instructed to begin the day’s activities by coming up with a team cheer, that all important shout and chant to show team spirit, pride and solidarity. Most of the volunteers were stoked and eager to exhibit their enthusiasm and their prowess. I was not.
Just reading the term Sports Day on the schedule set my teeth on edge. I wasn’t good at sports as a child and was often the outcast, sitting on the sidelines watching instead. Things did not improve over the years. Oh I participated in a few sports, minor games that didn’t involve much physical contact or exertion, I never had the aptitude or the will to learn or participate in those activities that involved choosing sides. I surely never had that competitive edge needed to win, and that’s probably one of the reasons I was usually the last kid picked for a team. Well, that and the fact that I was awkward and unskilled. Team sports left me cold.
In some early classroom discussions during our training sessions here in Thailand we touched upon cultural differences, those things that make Thais and Thailand so different from Americans and America. After learning how to properly use our forks and spoons at mealtime and after learning the proper way to use a squat toilet, we talked about how Thais don’t place as much emphasis on competition as we Westerners do. Great, I thought, finally a place where people aren’t struggling to beat the next person at any cost, to climb to the top of the heap on the backs of everyone else vying for the same thing. Thais embrace a more collective society, not an individualistic one like ours. It’s a way of life that puts less emphasis on personal gain and more emphasis on those things that will benefit the community and the society at large. From what I was learning about Thai culture, I was going to like being here. But I immediately found myself in a volunteer training group of 70 Americans, most of them young and aggressive. And by aggressive, I don’t mean in the sense of being hostile, belligerent, or combative, but more from the standpoint of being energetic, driven and plucky. These people have spunk and can be fearless at times. I have learned to admire and respect them for that, each and every one of them, and I wonder where that part of me wandered off to so long ago and if he’ll ever find his way back.
A few of these younger volunteers are competitive and see competition as necessary for their well-being and survival. They get their energy and their solace from it. That has never been me and I am uncomfortable being around it for long, particularly when I can’t completely remove myself from it. We are in training now, in a controlled environment and at the whim of our Peace Corps handlers. We are volunteers 24/7. So on this Sports Day I removed myself mentally. I stood apart and distant, on the sidelines. I participated sparingly and with reluctance. And I was awkward at that as well, walking a fine line between being sullen and aloof.
I was not alone in my reticence. There were a few others, mostly older volunteers like myself, who would have preferred to have been somewhere else. From the sidelines I watched and observed as I am wont to do. I was not alone in that either. I need to remember that I am amongst my fellows, those people who left their lives and their comforts stateside to serve their country overseas for two years in conditions they’re not accustomed to, giving of themselves. These fellow trainees were watching me as well and several asked if I was alright. It reminded me I am part of the team after all.