I was in a good mood and enjoying myself with colleagues. Six months into our 2-year service commitment, PC Thailand Group 127 was together again for a week and a half of meetings, technical trainings, and advanced language instruction and review. During this time with each other we would steal away minutes to compare notes on our sites, our living conditions, our work environments, our frustrations, our lowered expectations. We talked about the food, the heat, the rain or lack thereof depending on which part of Thailand you were living.
We had four days of language instruction in cozy groups of 4 or 5. These sessions were fairly relaxed, not as regimented or strained as they were during our pre-service training (PST) six months earlier. The training staff were more willing to adapt different methods to better match our individual learning styles. This time around we didn’t have a language proficiency test looming over us, there wasn’t the same pressure on us—or on our teachers.
During the first language session of the week I watched a fellow volunteer in our little group shut down. He slouched lower in his chair, butt on the edge of the seat, legs tucked under, arms folded. He kept his head down and those times he did look up he looked at the teacher with a distant mien tinged with glower. He was reluctant to participate and when spoken to directly complained through a wan smile that he was incapable of learning this way. He was having flashbacks to PST and was railing against the method of training, making the others in his group edgy and annoyed. He had given up.
I understood. I understood completely. There were many days during PST when the language lessons simply didn’t sink in. I was full up—no room at the inn. My fellow trainees had sprinted ahead of me and I wasn’t keeping pace. I was falling behind in hearing and comprehending simple phrases. That feeling of distress and the fact that I wasn’t going to catch up anytime soon was upon me before I knew it. My heart would race, my mouth would go dry, my breathing would become shallow and there was a muffling of incoming sounds. All the while I knew the very act of shutting down was keeping me from advancing. While it was happening, there was nothing I could do about it. During those moments I kept my head down or stared absently, resentfully, at the flip chart in front of me.
I was being forced to decipher words without the benefit of seeing them written down, without being told their meaning. (The written word and the translations didn’t come until the end of daily lessons.) I was expected to “get it” through repetition and context. I was being directed to learn in a way different from the way I would have preferred. As a visual learner I wanted to see the word, the phrase, the sentence before me in an alphabet I was accustomed to. We weren’t learning the Thai alphabet, not just yet, so the words would be spelled out phonetically with romanized letters. Volunteers that work in the southern region are Aaron, Taylor and Chris becoming “aa-saa-sa-mak tii tam-ngaan paak-dtaai k
uu Khun Aaron Khun Taylor le Khun Chris.” With this transliteration from English to Thai I would be able to take a mental picture of a word or phrase and recall it later, each syllable spelled out. It was during those times in PST when those things didn’t happen: when I didn’t understand what was being said, when I couldn’t see the word or have the instructor just tell me what it meant, when I was forced to figure it out based on the context that I would become petulant and shut down.
As I watched this fellow volunteer resign, I caught myself feeling good about his lack of enthusiasm. I felt a little bit better about myself because of his air of inadequacy, because of his abject absence of motivation. I was feeling a bit superior and for that I felt guilty. It wasn’t that I speak the language better than him, or understand conversations more naturally. I don’t. At that moment I was better able to read and repeat the transliterated sentences on the flip chart, nothing more. When spoken to I freeze and fumble. With every conversation I struggle and hesitate and intersperse English and long-ago-learned Spanish with Thai. I shake my head, shrug my shoulders and say mai kao jai, I don’t understand. Yes, he was frustrated. Yes, he was feeling left behind and was probably beating himself up. I had been in his shoes and will likely be there again.
As the morning wore on, empathy won out over grasp and guilt. Hand and hand with that I came to realize that I needed to stop comparing myself with him and with others, contrasting my limited abilities with the abilities, good or bad, of my fellow volunteers. I’ll do the best I can and I need to accept what is. Serenely, sa-ngop. Humbly, dtam-dtoi.