When I was in tenth grade, my family hosted a girl my age, Kwan Tadadoltip, from Thailand for the year. We became very close and she taught my family a lot about Thai traditions and food. It would be several years until we met again, this time in her home country.
During my freshman year at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, I got an email from the study abroad center. They were starting a Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program in Thailand. Before the MSID semester there would be a three week language program in August.
I leapt at the idea of finally being able to see my Thai sister again and with my parents permission began the application process. I would only do three week stay for the language since the focuses they had for the semester trip didn’t match my major at the time. My dad also encourage me to go visit Bangkok for a week and try to meet up with Kwan.
When I finally arrived in Thailand, I was alone in the capitol city of Bangkok. I would mostly spend the time familiarizing myself with the cuisine and adjusting to the time zone (a twelve hour difference). Kwan had just started her college semester shortly before I arrived and wasn’t able to spend time with me while I was in Bangkok. However, we were planning on spending some time together when I was in Chiang Mai for the language program.
In Chiang Mai, I was greeted by one of the program directors. She explained a lot of the details for the upcoming week and brought me to a hotel where the other girl who came on the trip was waiting. We were free to explore the city for the day and in the morning would have orientation and meet our host families. So Sarah and I set out to explore the nearby market and learn more about each other. It was a calm, hot day so we eventually stopped to grab something cool to drink and relax for the rest of the day.
During orientation, we learned some introductory Thai phrases, discussed our worries for our time spent in Thailand, and were finally introduced to our host families. My host family was wonderful and had two young children. My host sister was quite shy but she and my host brother would use their English to help facilitate the conversation between myself and my host parents.
My time in Chiang Mai was very structured during the week. Each day we would have Thai class in the morning and afternoon. Then Sarah and I would take a taxi into the city to meet up with her host mom who taught at a school. When her host mom was done, we would carpool to her mom’s house and study until my host family was able to pick me up. Only on the weekends did we have free time that was usually filled something our host family had picked out.
One of the weekends my host family took me to an elephant camp to see the animals perform amazing tricks like playing soccer and painting. Another weekend they decided to wander around the street market and visit one of the gorgeous temples in the city. To this day, the street food of Thailand is still my favorite kind of food.
On one day, I finally got to meet up with my exchange sister. Kwan was at the University of Chiang Mai and finally had a break to meet up with me. She took me all over and explained the importance of certain sites. We traveled up Doi Suthep, a mountain, and toured the gardens of the royal family’s summer home and visited Wat Phra That further up the mountain. It was incredible to look out over the city that had become my home for the month.
Visiting Thailand was a dream come true for me. Not only did I get to see my exchange sister for the first time in years, but I even got to learn more about her culture and language during my time there. I earnestly believe a lot of cultural understanding is attached to experiences in a person’s home country and within their language. After that trip, I felt closer to Kwan and like I was able to understand her more.