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Archive for the ‘AFS Year’ Category

I shared my post  about my AFS year a few weeks ago with those very students who were such an important part of my year, and remain an important part of my life. 33 of us are on a Fbk group, and we’re individually in touch with one or two others who don’t “do” Fbk. There are a few who continue to be elusive, having lost touch in the intervening years before the internet reunited so many of us.

As it was our 40-year anniversary, we had talked previously talked about whether there was a possibility of a reunion there. I’d been planning a trip, another person was waiting for a wedding date there before she could commit, but the likelihood of more than one or two of us getting together there was slim. I was sad about that, but resigned to it. It is 2020, after all, and there’s a global pandemic, so travel is pretty much impossible, and if not impossible, then it is definitely unadvisable. But then Sharon B had the brilliant idea to do what lots of people are doing during this pandemic.

“Let’s have an online reunion!” she suggested.

After a little organisation – mostly because the Kiwis complained about getting up at 3 am – we fixed a time. Cocktail hour for many of the Americans on  Friday night, and early afternoon for the Kiwis the next day worked perfectly. Those of us who had never used Zoom downloaded it. We tried to link in a few who weren’t part of the Fbk group too – at the last minute I realised Madeline wasn’t in the group, and linked her into it just in time.

At the appointed time, we logged on. It was fantastic, watching each person sign in to the meeting, seeing their face for maybe the first time in 39 years. Exclamations of delight, helloes, waves, and big grins all round. It took quite a while for everyone to get on, especially as many of us had learning curves. A few didn’t quite realise their discussions with the families would be heard (Jane putting in a crucial beer order, for example), but we all figured it out eventually. And at least we weren’t like the young woman I read about last week, who was on a Zoom meeting with her workplace, took her laptop into the bathroom, placed it on the floor, and sat on the toilet, before she realised they could all see her! We may almost be boomers, but we’re technologically capable, thank you very much.

Fifteen of us signed in, which is not a bad turnout given the circumstances. We had a great catch-up, finding out where people lived and what they’ve been doing the last 39 years, who had been back to Thailand, were still in touch with their Thai families, etc. Of course, we indulged in some reminiscing. Some of us drank tea or coffee or water, others enjoyed wine or cocktails, one fell asleep on the couch after a busy work week, Jen dialled in briefly from her car (when she wasn’t driving) in Australia, and right at the end, Cee cooked her dinner. Gradually people started signing off, all with commitments to do this again, sending love and safe wishes.

When it got down to the last six or so of us, it was a more manageable conversation, and my goodbyes when it got down to three of us were lengthy, as we chatted easily, and didn’t want to sign off, but after three hours, figured it was time.

Technology makes life so much easier, so much richer. Even in times that are hard, when people might feel isolated from others, when people were already feeling divided, technology allowed us to come together. I’m still smiling now as I think about it.

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Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?

 

 

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When I was 17 and left home to live with a host family in a country that was about as foreign to us at the time as it was possible to be, my parents had to trust – in me, in the host family, in the school I was attending, and the AFS exchange programme that had arranged it all.

In 1980, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia a year or two earlier, had ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh, but there were still regular battles as the Khmer Rouge fiercely fought for their territory along the Thai-Cambodian border. Removed from English-language media, I knew there was fighting, but felt safe in Thailand – even when I visited villages close to the border – which just proves ignorance truly is bliss! It turned out that several times during my year away, my parents received updates from AFS reassuring them that I was safe, given the inevitable media reports of the fighting. I wonder if those updates were, in fact, reassuring to my parents, or whether they were alarmist.

I’m thinking of this because, as you may know by now, one of the students killed in the Texas school shooting was an exchange student, looking forward to getting home after what was surely a fascinating year, and I think about the trust that was placed in that school and community by her and her family. I think about how that community (and the state and federal governments) in particular failed this family, and I weep for her, her siblings and her family back home, and for her host family who were also betrayed, as well as for the others who suffered loss and trauma in this and other similar incidents.

I simply don’t understand how a nation can be so wilfully, criminally, negligent on behalf of their children …  and, it seems, other people’s children … spurning, almost mocking, the trust that has been so sadly, it seems now, misplaced.

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