On September 13th-16th, 2018, I attended the AFS check-in camp with all of the other students living in the North. We stayed in a lovely hotel in Phitsanulok, a province about an hour and a half away from my town.
Months had past since I had any reminder of the life I used to live in America. I was tried and tested everyday. It was not long before waking up with burning fire ant bites, coming face to face with gigantic spiders or lizards, and cockroaches scuttling past my feet under the dinner table was normal. I didn’t realize the toll exchange would take on me. I felt like a totally different person– and I looked like one too. I steadily began growing as I left America being 5’5’’ and all of a sudden I was 5’7’’. I gained weight like never before and soon began analyzing my ever-changing body and face every time I got a glance in the mirror. My hair was growing longer but as I didn’t have a reliable hairdresser, it was at a very unflattering length. On the emotional side of it, I was all over the place. I felt oddly detached from myself and life around me for a little while, as if I was watching culture from a window. Because I wasn’t doing anything extremely spectacular every day like people at home sometimes expect from me, I was also facing imposter syndrome. If I had something on my mind, instead of talking to my parents or friends like I normally would, I just kept it to myself. There were amazing moments every day that made everything worth it– trips to ancient ruins, bike rides with my host family, the palm trees and coloured buildings, lunch with my friends, and so on. Being a different person also changed me for the better. I let more things go and I felt that I was becoming kinder and more educated every day. However, after a while, these little things added up and I was in dire need of a break from my intense lifestyle. North camp had been an exciting and promising chatter for months because it marked the next time I would see another American (Sofia) and the other AFS students who had been in the same unique situation.
I arrived earlier than most, living only an hour and a half away from the hotel our camp would be held at in Phitsanulok. My host father, who had driven me, checked that everything was alright, told me to have fun, and left. I was greeted by two AFS Thailand returnees, both college age, named P Lilly (Brazil) and P Jib (Germany.) P Lilly was enthusiastic and full of life, leading dances and cheers or excitedly talking about exchange. I was also met by the AFS Thailand staff and as I checked in, I made a hopeful and only partially joking plea to share a room with Sof. It was met with a “we’ll see,” and a knowing smile.
Lunchtime crept up fast at 12 and the other students began trickling in. I seated myself awkwardly with the other AFS students, who had either formed fast friendships with their countrymen, already were best friends from living in the same town, or didn’t really speak any English. I only knew Maya, my German friend from KPP who I only saw sometimes due to attending different schools. We were a small group of about thirteen: three Germans, six Italians, one French boy, one Russian girl, and two Americans. I much preferred this small group to the exceedingly large central & northeast groups because the social pressure was significantly less. I sheepishly pecked at my plate of rice, wondering where Sofia was and being too nervous to insert myself into the conversation just yet. Plates were almost cleared when I caught Sofia out of the corner of my eye and instantly rushed out of the dining hall into a sweeping hug. We were shrieking each other’s names with joy and giddy laughter and then remembered we were in a lavish hotel, surrounded by people, in a country that almost never yells. We apologized to the AFS staff after, who told us it was no problem considering they’d seen far worse when friends see each other again.
This was the first of our cohort reuniting hugs but it wouldn’t be the last. Seeing each other again after months is seeing sense in an insane world where fifteen-year-olds can be adults, alone in foreign countries. However, we’re never really alone, no matter how much it can feel like that sometimes. I always have the YES cohort (and AFS) in my corner but sometimes I just need a little reminder of that, like a hug.
I was greeted again by Sofia’s advisor who I had met at our arrival camp. We rejoined the group at the tail end of lunch and chatted with Emil and Arianna, a German boy and Italian girl our age who went to the same school in a province closer to the south.
The camp began with a silly activity where we each were given a piece of paper and were to draw only one part of another person’s face and then switch until everyone had drawn a part. Sofia and I were given free rein of the Spotify, as the only ones who cared, and blasted some obscure American bops along with the worldwide hits. We saw one of our AFS staff peering over at us and we wondered what was amiss, seeing as the music wasn’t inappropriate. Days later, she tagged us in her Instagram story saying how much she loved a song we played, which was very sweet. The room was alight with giggles and sarcastic declarations of beauty as we peered over at each other’s portraits. I received mine at the end: a girl with an oval face, short and purple straw hair and bangs, bushy eyebrows, beady eyes, a completely hooked nose thanks to Sofia, black big lips curled into a smile, a thin neck and broad shoulders. I turned to see Sofia: square faced, brown hair slicked back in a ponytail (courtesy of me), uneven furry eyebrows, red eyes, a lump of a nose, a half circle for lips and visible sets of teeth which I suspected were the work of Emil.
We hung them up on the windows, our rainbow hair reflecting down upon us along with the sad messes that were our caricatures and were off to a light start for the day.
After an informational meeting, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived: the announcement of roommates. People were placed one by one until there were two pairs left to be made. While there were prior friends made, nobody had as close of a relationship as Sof and I did. We were not merely friends, we were sisters and utterly inseparable. There was a suspense of sorts as the room watched Sofia and I holding each other, excitedly clamouring to see if our dynamic duo would be split up. Our AFS staff member announced the other two girls would be paired, therefore leaving Sofia and I to be roommates. We were elated and laughed quite a lot at the happy news. We were back!
During our half hour or so of free time, Sofia and I hung out in our room and unpacked a little. We were nervous, as we both wanted to make new friends but felt awkward to squeeze ourselves into other country groups and I’m certain the other kids felt the same way. However, with such a small group, we were working with an advantage as we could very well get to know each person.
We were split up for group therapy and discussion. I was in the group with Sofia’s advisor and other AFS staff. After general discussion and feedback, we did an activity where in small groups we wrote down all of our negative feelings, concerns, and struggles from the year on one poster paper. As my group looked at our paper from afar, it was shocking how much we could all relate to each other. Every feeling I discussed earlier in this blog and others that I didn’t mention, other students voiced before I even did. We wrote each other letters of encouragement anonymously and then each of us picked one. Mine was very sweet and written by one of my Italian friends. I still have it hanging on my wall in my room! We left with weights lifted from our shoulders and promises of either action or support.
We enjoyed a classic Thai dinner in the hotel and played a game about cultural customs.
We split into groups based on country and relayed our country’s general take on certain actions. For example, how people greet each other or customs when it comes to paying for bills. It was loads of fun as we attempted to explain American manners and listened to everyone else share theirs. We turned in pretty early that night, most of us exhausted from travel and knowing we had an early start the next day.
The second day was long and full of logistics and culture meetings. We had many breaks which we filled with silly games or sing-alongs. We also had a three-hour language session with the DPU staff! It was great to see them again and learn much needed vocabulary about directions and sickness. I unfortunately was very sick on the second day and couldn’t even talk because of throat issues so I missed some sessions resting and taking medicine. At night, we had dinner, played games in the lobby, and went our separate ways fairly early.
The third day was off to a much better start. We woke up at around 7am, a little later than I anticipated, and piled into vans. In our van, Sofia and I chatted with Arianna and complimented her on her French skills, which she used two nights prior to help our new French friend, Gonzague, with his answers for the culture game as he barely spoke any English. Arriving at one of our Italian friend’s schools in Phitsanulok, we were ushered into a meeting room where were presented with flower garlands and watched some traditional Thai music and dance performances. There happened to be an AFS returnee and alumni from the school who went to Russia so he and our Russian friend, Alina, chatted a lot. There was also a rotary student from France at that school so he and Gonzague got along great too. We were split up into various groups for cultural activities and luckily, Sofia and I were in the same one.
We began with Thai handicraft, in which we were attempting to make paper streamers and crafts from banana leaves. While everyone else slowly fashioned a similar craft, one of the Thai high school students running the session took pity on my completely warped crafts and showed me how to make it slower, eventually just making it for me. I expressed my gratitude and we moved on to Thai cooking. We created colourful Thai coconut jelly desserts. They didn’t take very long and were beautiful. While I personally don’t like them very much, I thought it was a fun activity for the time being. We chatted with Sofia’s advisor for a while and made preliminary plans for me to visit Sofia in Nan in the coming months.
Lucky for us, lunchtime was approaching and our groups reconvened. We had a type of buffet in the cooking room featuring Pad Thai, a dish I was still not very familiar with. It was easily one of the most delicious things I’d ever had. It was perfectly cooked, a mix of sweet, sour, salty, and comfortingly warm. Seeing as Sofia and I had yet to eat that day because we woke up late, it tasted twenty times more delicious on an empty stomach. Sofia and I sat by our Russian friend and some of the Italian girls and then talked with Emil and Arianna for a while.
We prepared for our Muay Thai lesson after each picking out a pair of Muay Thai shorts to borrow. All of us girls gathered in the bathroom where we tried to decipher which way to wear it was right and wrong, settling on the wrong side only to be corrected minutes later. We burst out laughing looking at ourselves in the mirror, our amalgam of colours and patterns.
We each had to present one-on-one in front of the class with the instructor, who had a talent for seeding out the weaker ones in the class to teach them and rightly doting on the already skilled. Maya, who I knew had been taking lessons for weeks, was an absolute star. She was fierce and confident in her moves, whereas I was easily the worst in the class. Sofia and I were split up shortly after class begun and we began exchanging helpless and funny glances at Emil and Arianna. I became Emil’s partner after a while, as we were both not quite as good as we’d have liked to be. Emil caught up with the class and I was pretty hopeless, which led me to having an excruciatingly long presentation in front of everyone. I did learn a lot and the instructor was well-intentioned, but I breathed a sigh of relief as class ended and photos began.
We took a tour of Rachele’s school, thanked our hosts, and were on our way. That day in particular was special, as we were going out for dinner. We arrived at Phitsanulok’s market, full of stalls of cheap, delicious Thai food. Sofia and I purchased smoothies, sticky rice, fruit, and chicken and we scoured the stands with small groups.The thirteen of us met up long before we were due to leave and sat together at a long table, discussing the day and sharing food. A bag of fried insects was passed around and we eagerly peer pressured each other into it until all of us had tried each kind. With every crunch of a slug or worm, there was a chorus of ew’s and giggling.
The sun was beginning to set when we climbed back into our songtaew for the hotel. It was the perfect mood and Sofia and I sat across from each other at the end, our eyes searching the light sky with streaks of pink. The wind was blowing and we began singing songs with P Lilly as the sun set and the town’s coloured lights turned on. We got off the songtaew and made a collective plan to meet in the pool in twenty minutes.
We changed and all hopped into the chilly pool. We played games, taught each other funny words in our respective languages, and eventually retired to the edge of the pool because of the freezing water. Music was blaring through a speaker from all different languages and we talked for a little while before deciding to get out and meet up later. We changed yet again and all of us met the AFS staff in the lobby, where they had provided snacks. We played a game, led by P Jib, popular in Thailand and other countries that I had never played before, called Werewolf. There is an app for it on phones but it is easy to play in real life too. The premise is that each person is assigned a secret role of either Seer, Doctor, Werewolfs, Villagers, or other special people. The game alternates between night and day. At night, while the other players have their eyes closed, the werewolfs attempt to kill a villager and the doctor or seer or other people try to save them. During the day, it is revealed who was killed or saved and if someone is killed, they are out of the game and must reveal their role. The villagers then vote on one person to kill out of the whole group. They win if they kill all the werewolves and vice versa. It was rather funny to play as Sofia and I were lying next to each other and kept trying to use each other’s slightest movement against each other in voting. We played several rounds out of boredom and then moved on to Never Have I Ever and other party games. Eventually, we left the lobby and met up in someone’s room where we played music, played cards, and hung out for a little while longer. I had a really fun time and felt that I did get to know everyone rather well.
The next morning, we had breakfast and people started to leave for their communities. We had one girl in our group whose program only lasted a semester so we had to say our final goodbye to her. Everyone else we would see again in February at our Chiang Mai cultural orientation camp. The group got smaller and smaller until it was just me, Sofia, Gonzague (who also lived in Nan but had never talked to Sofia before), and P Lilly. We played games until my host dad and sister arrived. Saying goodbye to Sofia was really hard and we both had to try our best not to cry with the knowledge that we would see each other in a month at the latest. I hugged our great AFS staff and left pleased that I made twelve new friends in just a matter of days.