As a little girl in South Dakota, I would often steal away to a small bookcase in the living room of our farmhouse. Since I was supposed to be working, I would sit deep in the corner where I couldn’t be seen.
My family owned few books, but we did own a complete set of the Book of Knowledge. I’d rifle through the pages of each book looking for photographs of faraway places. Based on these photos, I decided there were four places I absolutely had to see: the cliff towns of the American Southwest, the pyramids of Egypt, Lapland with its herds of reindeer, and Angkor Wat.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, I was able to travel around the region and check off my first dream: Angkor Wat. But it was a difficult transition. After training I flew from South Dakota to Denver to Seattle hen to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and finally Bangkok. For the first night – after I hadn’t seen a bed in four days – the family that was supposed to host me couldn’t do it, so I moved to a house in the Bangkok slums with a host who didn’t speak English. I slept on a straw mat on a bumpy wooden floor, no mosquito net, in 100 degree heat and high humidity. My body stopped functioning: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go to the bathroom, I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until I was at my home school a week later that I recovered.
When I arrived at my school, the school superintendent was on an international sabbatical in Europe for ten weeks, learning how to teach English more effectively. The students were being taught by rote, reading and memorizing from outdated British grammar books. Only one or two of my students could say “Good morning” to me. I was teaching a large number of students from fourth grade through junior high into high school, plus local officials and teachers from my school in the evening. I did my best to teach the students to speak English, not just to memorize it.
As soon as the superintendent returned from her trip, she called me into her office. I was nervous. Did she disapprove of the changes I had made to the curriculum in her absence? She put me at ease right away, asking me to sit rather than kneel, as is the custom when a junior staff member speaks to a superior. “The news of your good work traveled to meet me,” she said. Initially I had trouble feeling close with some of the teachers, but over time and as my Thai (and their English) improved, we grew closer. They invited me to go on their long weekend trips. We went to the beach, we visited farmlands, we traveled to one of their relatives’ homes where I was able to pick papaya from the tree. One weekend, they invited me on a tour of the klongs (canals), where I saw how essential the waterways were for Thai families: they bathe, swim, and play in them, fish, and gather flowers. I also went to visit a colleague’s home on the border with Malaysia, where we explored the jungle but got caught in a vicious monsoon where we were pelted with heavy raindrops. We were forced to run all the way home.
As a farewell gift at the end of my service, my fellow teachers bought a bolt of beautiful lightweight pink Thai silk, and had a master seamstress make me a dress exactly like the one that Queen Sirikit had worn at a state function a few weeks earlier. With it, they included a beautiful traditional sterling silver necklace and belt.
The silk was made of the finest filament (from the youngest silkworms) delicate and flexible. My friends took me into Bangkok where I was measured for the dress.
I wore the gifted pink dress at an evening that honored the queen on her birthday. Standing in line to meet the queen, I prepared to do the traditional Thai wai, but was surprised when she put out her hand. I joined mine with hers briefly before she was hurried along.
It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw her glance at the pink dress, with its full silver regalia, and give a slight nod and smile in recognition.