>> By Alison Lapshinoff
Winter 2009, Issue #19
“Do not get between an exchange student and her sticky rice,” Michelle Stoochnow-Bouchard declares with conviction.
But hold the red ant eggs, please. The Thai people may enjoy some unusual delicacies such as dried crickets and meal worms but Michelle tended to stick with more conventional meals such as rice and noodles with vegetables during her year-long Thai exchange.
In August of 2008, instead of gearing up for the high school year at Revelstoke Secondary School, Michelle was boarding a plane for Bangkok, Thailand. Her new home for the next year was tucked away in the far north-east comer of the country, a small city of about 30,000 called Yasothon.
This was a place where the language was foreign to Michelle, the culture different and all the people, strangers. Michelle’s host family picked her up at the airport for the eight-hour drive to Bangkok. Only the mother spoke some English. Today. Michelle has a basic knowledge of their language and can even read some of their unique decorative script.
A full day’s food can be bought for about $3 and temperatures soar to above 40 degrees.
Organized by the Revelstoke Rotary Club, this year-long exchange was a total immersion into a foreign culture that included attending school, observing festivals, some travel within Thailand and living with three different host families.
A poor nation by world standards, Michelle describes Thailand as a peaceful, tolerant society with a generous spirit that defies their poverty.
“The Thai people are known for their wide smiles and tend to avoid any sort of conflict or confrontation,” she explains. “To get angry is to ‘lose your face.'”
Many Thai people tend to face adversity and disarm conflict with smiles and goodwill.
“Students are respectful and shy, seeming a little younger than their age.” Michelle speaks animatedly about her year away describing a nation of curious juxtaposition, for Thailand is at once both conservative and flamboyant. Women are expected to keep their knees and shoulders covered, yet ‘ladyboys’ are an accepted and well-known part of Thai society. Some families live in shacks but everyone has a cell phone. Curious about the ladyboy? Use your imagination.
Several interviews led up to Michelle being accepted into the exchange program.
The interviewers were looking for a student who was willing to try new things and was
not afraid to make mistakes,” she tells me. “A large dash of friendliness and eagerness are also important as well as being well-rounded and involved in a variety of activities. I was competing against only one other student as there were not a tot of applicants that year.”
Following her acceptance, a counselor helped with the selection of an appropriate country. Indeed there are less adventurous destinations than Thailand for one’s first trip overseas Host families are middle to upper class but are far from rich by our high standard of wealth.
Michelle stayed with three host families during the year to diversify her surroundings. The first owned a sand mine, the second, an ice factory and the third ran a car material supply shop.
With spirited enthusiasm Michelle describes some lively and unusual festivals she witnessed while in Thailand, specifically Yasothon’s main festival: Boon Bung Fai or Rocket Festival.
“Everyone dresses in colourful costume for parades and dancing,” she explains. “Then, amid noisy cheering, the rockets are shot into the air.”
This is all done to appease the rain gods as farmers prepare to cultivate their paddy fields
“The rocket that is shot the highest is declared the winner and then participants are thrown into a mud pit”
Michelle found that as a female she was gjven less freedom than she was used to, which felt frustrating at times. Donning her conservative uniform, every school day began with the singing of the national anthem and prayer.
Most Thai people are devout Buddhists. Sticky rice, a common staple, is eaten with the hands and food is seldom put away in the fridge after a meal.
Entire families squeeze onto small motorbikes to go into town where there is a new mall, a cinema, art shops, restaurants and markets. Helmets are seldom worn on the motorbikes.
A full day’s food can be bought for about $3 and temperatures soar to above 40 degrees. A woman must be careful to never touch a man’s head as this shows the greatest of disrespect to someone considered superior.
Now, in a more conventional fashion back at home, Michelle is finishing her studies at Revelstoke Secondary and is employed at Paramjit’s Kitchen. She is eager to return to Thailand to visit the friends and families she connected with but she also has her sights set elsewhere, perhaps India.
Clearly endowed with an adventurous spirit and a thirst for the unknown, the question is, where will she venture next?
There is no doubt that no matter where one travels, the broadened perspective and heightened awareness gained from being immersed in a foreign culture are lessons that cannot be taught in any high school classroom.
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