Upon committing to volunteering in Thailand, I knew the language barrier would be a significant challenge I’d face during the year. However, I wasn’t too worried about going into the “Land of Smiles” knowing only the words for “hello/goodbye” and “thank you” because I was constantly reassured that the Thai people would be forgiving of my linguistic ignorance and more than happy to teach me their language -- not to mention there would be some English speakers among my community. I have quite a few humorous stories involving mistakes on my part trying to speak Thai as well as members of my community trying to speak English, but there’s one in particular I want to share because as funny as it can be when we mispronounce words or use incorrect phrases in a language we don’t know, I found one scenario rather sweet.
I’m serving my year with GSV at Hands of Hope, an income generating project in the northeast of Thailand that provides dignified work and fair income to men and women living with HIV. There, the producers create hundreds of beautiful products out of Thai saa paper. They make paper flowers, keychains, jewelry, mobiles, and many other items including cards. One of the card designs can be made with a variety of messages such as “Happy Birthday,” “Thank You,” and “Thinking of You.” One of my jobs at Hands of Hope is printing labels and logos for the products. On this day, one of the producers looked at the samples she had and read them off in English, asking me to print 5 pages of “Happy Birthday” and 5 pages of “Thank You for You” messages for these cards. I started towards the computer before realizing there must be a mistake. Did she mean to say 5 pages of “Thank You” or 5 pages of “Thinking of You?” I asked for clarification, and we laughed at the mistake. I explained the translation of “Thank you for you” in Thai, and although she wanted 5 pages of “Thinking of You,” we both agreed that “thank you for you” would be a nice message for a card as well.
This misunderstanding was brief and seemingly unremarkable, but it made me consider what kind words “thank you for you” are and all the people I would send a message like that to. I could send that card to the people who provided me the opportunity to volunteer internationally, to the people who supported me in my decision to do so, and to the people I’ve gotten to meet and work with throughout this experience. Volunteering for a year half a world away from home comes with many challenges -- expected and unexpected. But more importantly, it comes with many rewards. One of the biggest rewards just happens to be the same as one of the biggest challenges: being immersed in a culture so vastly different from my own. I get to learn so much about a different country and its people, but being surrounded by all things new can feel a little isolating at times. That is until I remember that I now have strong ties to people in two different parts of the world, and I have all of them to thank for where I am now and all I have learned and continue to learn through this experience of being an international volunteer. When challenges arise, I simply need to remind myself of all the support I have from so many different people in so many different places and tell them “thank you for you” -- a phrase that was first spoken as a mistake but that everyone deserves to hear.
Written by, Elsie Keifer Thailand Community '18-'19