Marika Lou - 2015 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

After graduating college, I knew the time was ripe for traveling abroad. I had long had the idea in my mind that I wanted to spend some time working outside the U.S., and this seemed like a good time to do it. I firmly believe that it is very important for people, especially young people, to spend time experiencing and living in other cultures, and to know other parts of the world. I have been fortunate enough to have gotten to travel previously in my life, and I just couldn't wait to do it again.

Phraya Nakhon Cave in Thailand

Phraya Nakhon Cave

Why did you choose GeoVisions?

Southeast Asia is a region of the world I had never been to before, and I was really excited by the idea that I could learn about and live in a culture so different from my own. I also knew that I wanted to work, to do something constructive, during my time abroad, rather than just traveling and being on the outside looking in.

Given that I had some experience with teaching and children, teaching was the logical choice for me. I was eager to try out teaching in a real classroom setting, and more than anything I wanted to integrate into whichever community I ended up in and really experience what life there is like. My boyfriend and I also wanted to share this international experience, and we knew that by selecting a teaching program, chances were good for us to be placed somewhere together.

What was your favorite part about the location you were placed in?

We ended up being placed to teach in Amphawa, Thailand, a small town about an hour southwest of Bangkok along the Mae Klong River. Choosing just one favorite part about this location is a real challenge, because I came to love so much about it. I was initially slightly skeptical about the town; it really is quite small, there weren't many obvious things to do in one's free time, and their culinary specialty is all things seafood, a food category I generally don't enjoy.

It didn't take long for Amphawa's beauty and charm to fully permeate our hearts, however, and the beauty and pace of life along this massive river was such a joy to be a part of. It's all in how you look at things, and how much time and energy you spend discovering the wonderful parts of a place. Before too long you have your favorite spots to eat, your friends and acquaintances who recognize you and greet you, your favorite places to watch a sunset or read a book.

If I had to choose a favorite part, however, it would be the familiarity and closeness that comes from living in a small town. Most of us came to recognize, if not know, one another, and that feeling of being known and valued is something I will always remember and treasure.

Nighttime view of Amphawa, Thailand

Amphawa at night

Photo Credit: Ethan Parrish

What aspects of your program experience made it unique?

In and of itself, any experience abroad, especially a work experience, is going to be unique because so many factors come into play. Even within the decision to teach in Thailand there is a lot of space for variation that will result in many different experiences for different people. Where you are placed in the country, what the characteristics of your town are, what sort of school you teach in, what age group you teach, these factors will all combine in different ways to result in an experience that is all your own.

Teaching, in particular, often left me wondering who is really the teacher and who is the student. I learned so much from my students, about everything from Thai language and culture to life and my own thoughts and feelings about things.

Teaching is beautiful in that the more you give to your students, the more you'll find them giving back, and you'll learn things you never knew you needed to learn.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The staff of both GeoVisions and XploreAsia were extremely helpful, open, and communicative for the entire duration of my program. Both would periodically send emails to check in on how I was doing, what sort of things I was up to, and if I needed help with anything.

XploreAsia also connects all of its teachers that it certifies, so that there is a constant link of communication and support between all the teachers and between the teachers and XploreAsia staff. Teachers can, and do, post any questions, concerns, and requests that they need to, and it seemed like there were always plenty of teachers and staff members ready to try and help.

My questions were always answered quickly and helpfully, so I never felt alone or unsupported in the least. It's great to feel like you are part of a network of teachers who are all struggling with the same things as you and exalting in the same successes as you. In addition to the community in which you live, you become part of a community of teachers.

Temples in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Temples in Ayutthaya

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had learned more Thai, both before going and while I was there. The five tones made it a really difficult language for me to pick up, but I wish that I had worked toward doing so more aggressively. I found myself really wishing I could communicate better with my students (whose English proficiency was mostly pretty low), with other teachers at the school, and with everyone in the community. While everyone was very nice and tried their best, we never really moved beyond very basic greetings and questions, and I regret not being able to deepen the communication.

Describe a day in the life of teacher in Thailand.

On a typical day, I would wake up at about 6:15 a.m. to have time for breakfast and getting ready for the day. My boyfriend and I taught at the same high school, so we would ride to school together on the scooter we rented from our landlady (an option I was only comfortable with given that he has experience driving two-wheeled vehicles). After about a five minute drive we would arrive at school at 7:15 a.m. for gate duty, where we, along with the two Chinese teachers at our school, would stand just inside the school gates and greet the students as they arrived at school over the course of about 45 minutes.

Then after signing in, we would head to the English department office, where we each had been given a desk to use, and get organized for the day. Our school had eight class periods in a day, and each class was 50 minutes long. I taught between two and six classes a day, but they totaled to 20 classes a week. I taught all the students in grades 10, 11, and 12, and saw each class of students only once per week.

During my free periods, I would grade worksheets or notebooks, prepare for upcoming classes, or work on planning next week's lessons. My school only gave me a rough curriculum outline of what they wanted me to cover with each grade level, so it was entirely up to me how I wanted to structure my lessons, what I wanted to teach, and what sort of work or assessments I wanted to assign. Luckily, XploreAsia had prepared us well to function in such a work environment, and also provided online resources to help with lesson planning.

We typically ate lunch in the school cafeteria, as there were lots of cheap and tasty options. We would leave school between 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., depending on when we were done teaching, and head home to relax and decompress after the day. I would usually relax with some yoga and a book, or maybe go for a walk along the river. We always ate dinner out, because our accommodation did not really have much of a kitchen and eating out proved to be cheaper than buying food to cook anyway.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

Weekends became exploration time for us, and since we had a scooter to use we could explore anywhere we felt like. It was so much fun to be able to go to a different place each weekend and explore all it had to offer. There were regular and frequent vans to Bangkok, so we made use of those several times, but beyond that our town didn't offer anything in the way of public transportation. We used our scooter to explore some national parks near Kanchanaburi, a beautiful waterfall and hot springs near Suan Phueng, the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya, among other things.

I did also love spending a weekend in Amphawa, because this is when its famous floating market took place. Every weekend busloads of tourists, mostly from Bangkok, would flock to Amphawa to enjoy the floating market and all the food and handicrafts it had to offer. It made for some fantastic people-watching, there were always sure to be students around to chat with, and eating dinner along the canal that ran through town was a treat.

International teacher at Amphawan Witthayalai School in Thailand

Teaching at Amphawan Witthayalai School

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

We rented a house that was part of a resort that typically rents its houses by the night for people coming to enjoy the floating market. It had two enclosed bedrooms and a covered living area/porch upstairs, and the downstairs was the open air kitchen and living room, with an enclosed bathroom. It was a great size for two people, and during the week we were usually the only guests present. The best part about it was absolutely the family that owned this resort. Our landlady is one of the sweetest, kindest, and happiest people I have ever met, and the rest of her family is equally delightful and warm. They loved housing us and we loved living there.

She asked me to tutor her elder son in English, to help him prepare for his university entrance exams, which I was more than happy to do. I would have gladly done it for free (such was the appreciation we had for this family), but she insisted on paying me for my time. Towards the end of our stay we asked her to teach us how to cook some of the dishes she made for us once in awhile, and this opened a veritable floodgate of friendship and bonding that we had no idea would come from what we were worried was an imposition on her time. I miss that family a great deal already and fully plan to stay in touch with them as best I can.

Now that you're home, how has teaching abroad impacted your life?

I have only been home about a week and a half, so I think the true effects of this program will still be revealing themselves as time goes on. For now I know that I miss being a student and would love to go back to school, though what for remains to be seen. I do know, however, that I just had the privilege of experiencing six months of life in an amazing country, making friends (both Thai and from all around the world), and gaining valuable experience in a work environment utterly unlike anything I could find in the U.S. The lessons I learned and things I discovered by putting myself in that environment have undoubtedly left their marks on me, and I'm excited to discover them as they reveal themselves.