A Walk in Ev­ery Coun­try

This ar­ti­cle is adapted from a blog by AMCHAM- Ful­bright English Teach­ing As­sis­tants ( ETAS) fo­cus­ing on per­sonal growth achieved through cross- cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences. In 2016 the Amer­i­can Chamber of Com­merce in Thailand Foun­da­tion ( ATF) do­nated Baht 3.5

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Property Trends - Writ­ten by: Ja­cob Pin­ter

There were three high­lights in my prep school bas­ket­ball ca­reer:

• Scor­ing a per­sonal high of seven points in a mean­ing­less eighth- grade game. • Shoot­ing and almost ( but not) mak

ing a game- win­ning shot. • Flat­ten­ing an op­po­nent with a shoul­der to his ster­num that my coach loved, but the ref­er­ees didn’t.

Af­ter egre­gious trav­el­ing vi­o­la­tions, my coach liked to yell across the gym, “That’s a walk in evvvvvery coun­try, Pin­ter!”

He was right – that’s why my play­ing days limped to a mer­ci­ful end af­ter ju­nior high – but he didn’t know he was fore­shad­ow­ing a triumphant re­turn to the bas­ket­ball court years later and half­way around the world.

There’s a sec­tion of the Ful­bright ap­pli­ca­tion that asks about your plans for com­mu­nity en­gage­ment. They leave it dan­gling at the end, and by this point I’d al­ready hit my space limit jab­ber­ing about my undy­ing love for Pad Thai, and oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be just such a true thrill to rep­re­sent the great U. S. of A. on the world stage?, and so on.

But it’s there, this com­mu­nity ques­tion, and as I wrote my es­says it ham­mered home the im­por­tant, sober­ing point that my ig­no­rance of daily life in Thailand had depth, breadth, and an­gles that were sim­ply never go­ing to show them­selves to me be­fore the grant. So that straight­for­ward ques­tion raised an even big­ger one: what is Thai so­cial life?

Team Jumper - in­ept at bas­ket­ball, un­de­feated at Pho­to­shop. Au­thor Ja­cob Pin­ter is sec­ond from left in front row.

( The short an­swer, by the way, is “food.” The long an­swer is, “lots of food.”)

I knew for me sports would be some­where in the mix. In an early ap­pli­ca­tion draft, I wrote a flow­ery BS para­graph about how ex­cited I was to learn sepak takraw, a foot­ball/ vol­ley­ball hy­brid that’s darn near im­pos­si­ble for any­body that didn’t grow up play­ing it.

Takraw or no, a year af­ter all this ap­ply­ing and ex­is­ten­tial wor­ry­ing, I landed in Thailand with now a prac­ti­cal need to find so­cial con­nec­tions across a lan­guage and cul­tural di­vide that on good days was barely a di­vide at all – I imag­ine it like the flimsy, waist- high, ny­lon straps air­ports use to herd peo­ple through se­cu­rity – and on bad days veered more toward an orange- jump­suit- and- no- hope- of- pa­role type of iso­la­tion.

Then I met Pi Pong. Pong is a shop teacher at my school and the kind of old- school sports nut that plays ev- ery­thing at a pretty high level. His love, though, is bas­ket­ball.

Small- town so­cial life and where ETAS fit into it can be tricky to nav­i­gate, but we’re of­ten treated like a blend of guest of honor, for­eign emis­sary, and help­less child. Our sup­port net­work wants us to be happy, so it closely mon­i­tors our likes and dis­likes, goes out of its way to make us com­fort­able, and al­ways dou­ble- checks to make sure we’re hav­ing fun ( sanuk).

On top of that, lots of Thai peo­ple have a fierce de­sire to be friends with farang ( Western­ers) for the same guest/ emis­sary/ child rea­sons. ETAS can en­dear them­selves to to­tal strangers by find­ing any type of com­mon ground, es­pe­cially show­ing in­ter­est in Thai cul­ture. Eat­ing som­tam, speak­ing Thai nit noi, and smil­ing a lot are near- im­me­di­ate keys to mak­ing friends.

My first in­vi­ta­tion to play bas­ket­ball with Phi Pong came a breath af­ter our

first hel­loes ( er, sawas­dee krabs). First we played just with stu­dents, then in pickup games with other adults in my town.

As soon as the first game, bas­ket­ball didn’t open doors so much as kick them down and tear the hinges off. The first peo­ple I played with were M6 ( high school se­nior) stu­dents at my school; af­ter bas­ket­ball, they seemed more will­ing to joke around when I saw them hang­ing out be­fore school. Then, when I played with other peo­ple in town, I’d run into bas­ket­ball friends at the mar­ket or at the park. They al­ways re­mem­bered my name and said hello.

Most im­por­tantly, my re­la­tion­ship with Pi Pong deep­ened. He said hello to me ev­ery day and sat with me at morn­ing as­sem­bly. He took me to lunch to eat guay tiao rua, Thai boat noo­dles, an old- school tra­di­tional Thai dish. Phi Pong showed me pictures of fish he caught at the dam and sun­sets when he was camp­ing. And when I gave him a post­card of a bas­ket­ball game from my home­town univer­sity – the Univer­sity of Arkansas Ra­zor­backs – he asked me the next day about the “wild boar” mas­cot. Af­ter a few months of spo­radic pickup games, I joined “the bas­ket­ball team.” I didn’t know what that meant or en­tailed; Phi Pong used one of my English teach­ers as a trans­la­tor to ask me if I wanted to join the bas­ket­ball team. I said okay.

The play­ers on our team, Team Jumper, all live in my town, and I had played with sev­eral of them be­fore. We were prac­tic­ing, I found out later, for a tour­na­ment in the city. Ev­ery evening we scrim­maged and ran drills. One day we picked first- string and sec­ond- string squads, and the next day we busted out brand- new, of­fi­cial- look­ing pur­ple jer­seys. Un­for­tu­nately the other teams were ready too, and we lost all four of our games by 20 points or more. We were there for sanuk­sies and worked up about it.

So let’s ig­nore what hap­pened dur­ing the games and look in­stead, this time, at the off- court high­light reel. A cou­ple of dif­fer­ent groups of young peo­ple in the stands asked to take self­ies and fol­lowed me on In­sta­gram. I hung out with an­other teacher at my school who moon­lights at his par­ents’ restau­rant down the street from our tour­na­ment. Once when I stood up to go to the bath­room the PA an­nouncer stopped his play- by- play to an­nounce, “The farang is go­ing to the bath­room! Go straight, farang, go straight!”

And af­ter our last game ( an­other shel­lack­ing) I drank milk­shakes and sang karaoke with the rest of Team Jumper: with my friends.

A year and a half ago, I tried aw­fully hard to con­vince Ful­bright and my­self I could en­gage so­cially in Thailand. But I for­got “so­cial en­gage­ment” means, “just make friends, doo­fus.”

In the first six months of this ETA year, ad­just­ments and sur­prises – the weather, the food, how to use the bath­room, and so many more – have jostled my sense of who I am and what I’m do­ing. The warmth of Thai strangers and new friends has con­sis­tently cush­ioned against the dis­com­fort all those other swirling things can cause.

They don’t care if you sing off- key karaoke, and they don’t care if you’re bad at bas­ket­ball: Thai folks just want to be your friend.

Ja­cob Pin­ter is a 2015- 2016 AMCHAM – Ful­bright English Teach­ing As­sis­tant ( ETA) at Wat­bot­suksa School in Phit­san­u­lok Prov­ince.

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