Caitlin Lacey is 26 years old, and currently the head of production at Dandelion Chocolate, a small bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the Mission district of San Francisco. She graduated from Pitzer College in 2010, and spent the following year teaching English in Thailand on a Fulbright Scholarship.
On The Fulbright Process: For Fulbright, you have to choose a country. There are first round interviews and then your university has to nominate you. You can also choose to apply for different types of Fulbrights. The two main options are research or teaching, and I chose the latter. The program consisted of a month of orientation in Bangkok—intensive Thai language class in the morning and teaching methods in the afternoon. Then I was set up with a school in a more rural area of Thailand. We were also required to get an internship during the school holidays, and I did mine with someone doing a research Fulbright on reforestation in the mountains around Chiang Mai.
The program covered airfare and a monthly stipend that easily covered all my living expenses. They were incredibly supportive with making sure our transitions to our host schools went smoothly and even flew us back to Bangkok for a real American Thanksgiving. They were always a phone call or an email away for whatever we needed which was an incredible resource and luxury.
For more information on the Fulbright program in Thailand, check out https://www.fulbrightthai.org/.
On Teaching Responsibilities: Though titled as an assistant teacher, I almost always taught solo. I liked this because if a Thai teacher was in the room, the students often looked to her for translation instead of being able to work on communicating in English. I taught 625 students in 18 different classes each week. I was also in charge of English club, as well as providing an English camp for the school.
On The Living Situation: I had a small house in the teacher housing part of campus. I shared my humble abode with a family of leopard geckos (you would not believe how loud they are!) and often ran by the large window in the front of my house in just a towel hoping the gaggle of 7th grade boys outside were not looking. (Usually they were just trying to snag papayas from the tree outside).
On Thai People: I had heard that Thais were nice before going to Thailand and I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I have often been described as “nice” and it always kind of bothered me because it’s a non-descriptor. After living in Thailand for a year, I found my co-workers, students, the Thailand TUSEF (Fulbright office) staff, and the rotarians near my school to be some of the kindest, warmest, most giving, welcoming, hilarious, and fun people I have ever met. I loved that my host teacher would tell me that I was being too serious and needed to laugh more and that my students would dress up in crazy recycled-material costumes (that they made) for every school event, and that people greet each other by saying “have you eaten yet” and if you haven’t, they make sure that you are properly fed (until you feel like bursting).
On Costs: Sunscreen in Thailand was shockingly expensive. Thais are generally obsessed with keeping their skin white and so sunscreen is viewed as a beauty product and priced accordingly. This was unfortunate for someone who legitimately turns the color of a lobster when out in the sun. On the flip side, padthai with chicken was 30 baht (which is about a dollar). Most dinners were just $1-2.
On Food: I tried everything I could–live shrimp with chili paste and lime from the ditches in the rice patties, pig brain, insects, intestine, you name it. The one thing I avoided was the live octopus in Korea when I traveled there, because it freaked me out that it could suction to your throat.
Thai food is SO DELICIOUS and so spicy. I definitely laugh-cried my way through many meals because of the spice.
On Learning Thai: Thai is tonal and that really threw me. I tried to incorporate more Thai and even took secret Thai lessons from a teacher at school (my director told the teachers not to speak to me in Thai so that they would practice their English), but it was very tough to speak Thai and be understood. It was incredibly difficult to distinguish between the five tones. For example, one word “mai” could mean smoke, new, not, wood, and silk. Also, if placed at the end of a sentence, it made it a question.
I watched the Thai soap operas with my host teacher every night and that helped quite a bit with understanding how people actually use the language and provided a springboard for interesting conversations about idioms in both English and Thai. I eventually got to a point with the language where I could hold a basic conversation, get around on my own, buy things, and talk a lot about food (of course!).
On Tips for Traveling: Go to the North! It is so beautiful, is slower paced, and has delicious food! Also, I went to Krabi in the South with my family and it has picturesque beaches, and cool limestone outcroppings (a great place to go climbing, if you’re into that!) Three things to keep in mind when you visit Thailand: 1) Not all of Thailand is Full Moon parties on the beach. 2) A little bit of Thai language goes a long way. 3) Always compliment the food.
On Expat Life: I definitely felt in limbo at times. Being abroad felt like being in a dream state and I kept waiting to wake up. In some ways it felt like my life in the US was on hold while I was having these crazy adventures out in the world. I loved aspects of both Botswana (where I studied abroad) and Thailand, but I’m pretty attached to my home and so I wouldn’t say I fell in love the same way some of the others did. I also purposely picked places completely different from where I grew up and where I would stand out (a tall, blonde, white girl certainly stands out in Botswana and Thailand).
On Independence and the Benefits of Expat Employment: I found it difficult to feel like an independent adult in Thailand because of the language barrier, and also because my host teachers were amazingly caring. This meant I had several elected Thai moms, dads, sisters, and brothers, which was both wonderful and challenging, as you might imagine. I wanted to pursue something in my field that would challenge me while also feeling like more of an adult. It didn’t really seem doable in Thailand. My Thailand experience helped me grow and learn more about what I want in life. I don’t think I want to be a high school teacher, but I do like working with people and not sitting at a computer all day. So much of getting a job you like is trying things out and being abroad gave me lots of opportunities to try things out in low-pressure situations.
Thank you so much for your insights, Caitlin! Thanks to you I’ve started looking into Fulbright opportunities :)
Have you ever been to Thailand? Would you consider teaching English or doing research through a Fulbright scholarship? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!