Volunteering in Thailand: Why cultural activities matter
When deciding on an international volunteer program, one of the main things that appealed to me about Cross-Cultural Solutions was the idea of the "full experience." When I saw that CCS placed equal importance on volunteering, educational activities, and opportunities for organic cultural exchange, I knew I had found my adventure. And while I knew that I wanted an educational volunteer experience, and I couldn't wait to learn about Thai culture, what I didn't realize was that these cultural activities are more than just educational. CCS includes them in the volunteer experience because they are a key ingredient in impactful volunteer work. Allow me to explain.
My first few days in Thailand were filled with orientation activities. We had a discussion about Thai history, visited a local food market, and learned some basic Thai greetings. All in all, the activities were fascinating, but at the same time, I was very anxious to get started with the actual volunteering. But when that time came, I was surprised to find that it was quite different from what I had expected. Although my Program Site Specialist had told me time and again that the language barrier would be a challenge, I really underestimated how difficult it would be. Needless to say, I was pretty intimidated. That is, until I remembered the tools that the CCS in-country team equipped me with from day one.
So I decided to start with a baby step. I sat down next to a boy who was sitting alone in his wheelchair. I said, "Hi! I'm Amanda," before remembering that he likely didn't understand any of that. And then I realized that I knew how to introduce myself in Thai because we had learned the simple phrase during orientation. So I said, "Di chan chue Amanda ka," and I then I bowed, a custom that the CCS staff had taught us in a Thai culture discussion, which is a sign of respect. And then the boy smiled. Phew!
Later on that same week, we learned colors in our Thai language lesson at the CCS Home-Base. So that night I practiced and practiced before I went to sleep in order to make sure that I got each and every color right. The next morning, I confidently walked into my volunteer assignment and found the boy that I had met on my first day. I found some colored pencils and an old coloring book and started doodling with him. Each time I picked up a pencil, I would say that the color's name in Thai, then color with it, put it down, and repeat with a new color. Pretty soon, the boy was mimicking me. Each time I said, see daeng," Thai for red, he would pick up the red pencil. Same for blue, green, and so on. I was pretty impressed!
I knew that I could teach him more, so I started naming each color in English, picking up the corresponding pencil, and coloring. And while this was a little bit trickier, he knew all of the colors in English within a week!
And it wasn't just the language instruction that CCS provided which was so useful at my assignment, but also the discussions on culture and religion, and even excursions to local points of interest that gave me an in-depth perspective on Thai culture. All tools that I could use in my volunteer work.
When I first started volunteering in Thailand, I had no idea how imperative the cultural activities would be to the work I was doing. I went into the program assuming that they would be fun highlights to my experience (which they were). But they were so much more! The organized cultural activities ended up being extraordinarily valuable lessons that not only gave me an insight into Thai culture and lifestyle, but helped me to be a way more impactful volunteer.