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Archive for the ‘AFS Year’ Category

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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Just “being” with friends

Our bus trip to Roi Et in August 1980 took eight hours but cost us only 76 baht (about US$3). There was, needless to say, no air-conditioning, and the seats were crammed in, suitable for Thai sized persons, but not for me; my diary notes simply that it was “very uncomfortable.” Perhaps these things are easier to deal with when you are 17.

We arrived at 5.30 am, and went straight to Sharon’s house, bathing off the bus sweat and then collapsing, all four of us, for a few hours. We – two American girls and two Kiwi girls – spent the rest of the day just hanging out in this small town in the northeast of Thailand. Later, after school finished, another American AFS student joined us, and we went out to eat ice-cream together, finding a real joy in simply being together, talking, laughing, being kids, without the ever-present pressure to be the polite, interested or engaged exchange student, to make an effort to speak Thai, to always be happy, to represent our countries.

A few afternoons later, after we had returned from our overnight trip to the neighbouring town of Kalasin to celebrate another AFSer’s birthday, Sharon put on her James Taylor tape and we collapsed again on her bed. Now, whenever I hear “You’ve got a friend” or “Fire and Rain,” I think of that trip, and remember Sharon B, Sharon M, Nicki (no longer with us), Peter and Rusty, and I smile.

 

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35 years ago today

I came home from school to find the house strangely silent, my parents uncharacteristically sitting in the sitting room in the middle of the afternoon. It was mid-summer. February 13th 1980. I remember the sun streaming through the windows, Mum and Dad sitting still, like statues.

The letter on the kitchen table was from AFS New Zealand.  It told me I would be going to live in Bangkok, Thailand, for a year.  It told me I would be leaving in just a few weeks.

And so, in the wink of an eye, in the opening of an envelope, the direction of my life changed forever.

I didn’t know then that as a result, I’d change all plans of what I’d study at university. I didn’t know then that my parents and sister would host a girl from Thailand for a year in 1982. I didn’t know then that ten years later I’d take my husband to live in Thailand, as I worked at the New Zealand Embassy for three years. I didn’t know that my husband and I would adopt Thai as our secret language. I didn’t know that I’d enjoy learning Thai, and would attempt two other Asian languages as a result. I didn’t know that much of my career would be focused on south-east Asia. I didn’t know that one day the favourite compliment I’ve ever received would be, “you must have been a Thai in a former life.” I didn’t know that 35 years later, I’d still be in touch with the friends I made that year, and the family I lived with.

I just knew that I was off on an adventure. Excited and terrified at the same time.

(With a nod to my first post on Mali’s A to Z – Alphablog, back in 2007.)

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It was early May.  The weather was turning, and mornings were getting cold.  I was lying in bed, no motivation to get up into the cold air, and lacking energy (not realising it at the time, but later that day I would be whisked into hospital for a blood transfusion).  There was a knock at the front door, and a few minutes later, my husband appears with a large package.

“Do you know a Maria from Maryland?” he asked puzzled.

“Oh yes!” as I leapt up, remembering that we were partners in a project on FB where – back in December – we had rashly promised that we would make things for each other – and three other people.  The recipients of my gifts would be “the first three people who respond to my status.”  They were then asked in turn to post this and make something for the first three who commented on their status.  I hope they did!  Reflective of my internet life, I had taken the idea from an English friend in Devon, who I first met on the internet.  My first three responders were 1) a friend I first met 34 years ago when we were exchange students in Thailand but now from Maryland, USA, b) my niece’s cousin from Malaysia (though she had stayed with us a year or two earlier), and c) a blogger friend also from the US (Missouri) who I have yet to meet.

The gifts could be anything, as long as they were home-made.  If my friends lived closer I’d make them my Ras al Hanout mix and give them some baking, but those things are a little hard to post!  But that’s okay, I committed to the project knowing what I was going to do. Sort of.  I sent off the first gift at Christmas, via my sister-in-law who would deliver it to her niece who stayed with us last year. That was gift number one, and I was impressed how quickly I made it, and sent it off. Free postage is a great motivator.  Although my haste meant that it wasn’t quite the quality I would have liked.

The second and third recipients are still waiting. I am procrastinating you see, indecisive about which angle I should take. I like personalising gifts you see, and I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times. I’m wondering if I should appeal to the exotic, or the familiar, or the things we have in common.   I have until the end of 2014 to deliver, but now there is some urgency.   The bar has been set very high.

I opened the box, and pulled out an amazing quilt.  Quilting isn’t really a big thing in New Zealand, but I know a couple of my US friends are keen quilters.  This is a beautiful one, and the first one I’ve ever owned, let alone been given.  It was appropriately lined with a wine bottle print!  (I’m wondering what kind of impression my FB friends have of me.)  And some squares were definitely related to my wanderlust in particularly.  It was a wonderful personal gift, and I can’t imagine how long it took to make.  And if that wasn’t enough, there were knitted socks too.  And they fit!  They were warm and comfy.  The timing was perfect, as winter arrived, and a few days later I had surgery.  In my recovery, I have reclined on my couch with the quilt keeping me warm.  But even better was the warmth and comfort from a friendship that has endured over 34 years, and across a planet.  Thanks Fe!

 

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We met at 16. She was the foreigner, the stranger from Buffalo, New York, USA. She’d crossed the world and ended up in our little town. I was the enthusiastic sixth former, hoping for (but at the time unaware of) the opportunity to go on a similar adventure of my own. We became friends, and shared a great year. I remember the day Betsy left. Another friend and I got up early, and headed to the airport of the nearest city, ready to farewell her. January 1980: It was a gloomy morning, reflective of all our moods. It took 20 years for us to meet again, this time in Florida, in February 2000. I met her husband, and we found again we had a lot in common.

We didn’t have to wait so long for our most recent reunion. This last week, a mere 12 years since our last meeting, Betsy returned to New Zealand for the first time in 32 years. It was her husband’s first visit here. They arrived in time to sit down, with a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and check the US election results. They were happy, we were happy, and we proceeded to have a good couple of days together. I showed them Wellington, and besides the bitter chill in the air (freezing to Floridians), the harbour city put on a good day. Yesterday we ventured over the hill to the Martinborough wine village, and tasted some wine and ate lunch amongst the vines. We laughed at the occasional linguistic difficulties – accents, and terminology. Translating rocket to arugula, and explaining fritters, learning about hush puppies (I thought they were shoes). The sky was blue, unmarred by clouds, and the sun – thankfully –warmed the bones of the travellers and residents alike. Today we said good-bye, making plans to meet again – perhaps in five years or so, and perhaps somewhere like Napa Valley, where we could indulge our shared interest in wine. Before we get out the Zimmer frames at least!

It was wrong that we had both turned 50 this year. We still felt like the teenagers we were when we had met. She at least still looks like the teenager I knew. My first US friendship. Not my last. And now there’s Craig too. But I am counting on my friendship with Betsy being the longest.

At times though I feel I have too many far-flung relationships. They take a toll; missing people who were, no … are, an important part of my life (whether I’ve met them yet or not). Yet they bring great joy too. I hope you all know that.

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It’s that year.  The year of a significant birthday. I haven’t reached it just yet, but it is closing in on me fast.  September has arrived with unseemly haste, and October is just a few turns of the clock away.  The year began at quite a leisurely pace, when friends like IB* celebrated their birthdays at the beginning of the year. They all seemed so much older than me at the time. I had so long to wait.  It was cool.

At first, there were intermittent announcements only. But since June, the announcements, the photos of parties or trips to mark the occasion are coming more regularly. I only have two school friends on that well-known social networking site, and most of my real life friends are either a few years older or younger than I am. Age after all isn’t a pre-requisite to friendship. But I have reconnected with many AFS friends – those people from far-off lands who shared such an amazing experience back in 1980 in Thailand, another far-off land – and of course, they’re all my age. And lately, they’re dropping like flies.

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These days, the closest I get to foraging for food is wandering up and down the lanes at the supermarket without a shopping list.  Even growing up on our farm, we never foraged.  Food was farmed or hunted, whether it was meat, fish or the vegetables grown in our large garden.  And so I was intrigued with Lali’s experience of foraging for mushrooms and lambs’ quarters.

And then I remembered.  Next to my host family’s house in Thailand was a large vacant section, one of only a few in the wealthy, gated community.  As with any vacant space in Thailand, it was lush and green.  The plants grew profusely – but looked like (and probably were) weeds.  One day I looked out my bedroom window and saw my Thai mother, and one of the drivers, wandering through the section looking for something.  I called in my sister, and asked her what they were doing.

“Getting dinner,” Dao said, matter-of-factly.  I was appalled.  What on earth did she mean?  The lot was full of weeds that to my foreign mind all looked as if they’d be poisonous.  The only other things out there would be some impossibly large and creepy insects – not appetising at all – snakes (argh!), and maybe even some ubiquitous rats.  “Vegetables,” said Dao, sighing at the ignorant farang.

Yes, my Thai mother and a helper would regularly forage through this area to find greenery to be thrown into the wok.  I have no idea what she found.  I never knew whether the vegetables I was eating came from the market, or the vacant lot.  So even upper-class wives of senators in a gated community in Thailand forage.  With some Help, of course.

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