You hear about it all the time from ex-pats. “I really don’t have any close Thai friends;” or “I’ve lived here for years but still feel like an outsider”. If that’s the way you feel, living on the outside looking in then I have a suggestion for your consideration. Become a volunteer!
Volunteering has been a part of my life long before I moved to Thailand. It continues to be here in The Land of Smiles. It’s always just been part of my nature to lend a helping hand. I can honestly say that in the short three years I’ve been living here, not only has doing volunteer work brought me tremendous personal satisfaction, but it has opened door after door that might have remained closed.
I suppose the value of doing volunteer work started as a Boy Scout. Yes I am of a certain age when Scouting was a common rite of passage. In addition to hiking hundreds of miles along the Appalachian Trail, learning camp craft, first aid and dozens of other fun things; I learned the value of community service. I helped serve Thanksgiving Day dinner to families who were going through hard times. I helped the local Red Cross with a blood drive. I helped to raise money for our area’s animal shelter. Nobody “made me” sign up to do these things. Even as a young boy I saw the value in ‘helping out”. Having this kind of outlook on life has served me well though the years.
I spent eight years as a manager at a Barnes & Noble. One of my more enjoyable duties was community outreach. I held “Story Times” at many local elementary schools. I began a literacy program for women at an area correctional facility. I read to patients at an AIDS hospice. But probably the most rewarding association was with RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. This group was made up of hundreds of “Senior Citizens” who weren’t content to sit around. These fine folks, many of whom were highly educated, were eager to “give something back” to their community. These guys and gals had an energy level that I as a mere “youngster” in my forties was hard pressed to keep up with! Apparently my modest efforts were appreciated, and I was asked to serve as President. I did so proudly for two years, before my tee-rak and I decided to move permanently to Thailand.
We were barely settled in our rented home when the word got out that a farang was living in the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before folks were knocking at our front door. “Can you teach English to my children?” I was surprised at how many parents were practically begging me to help their kids. Before coming here I had no idea how extensive after school English programs were. Although I was qualified to teach, it had never entered my mind that this was a real possibility. My “master plan” was to open up a restaurant. I wanted to have a 50’s retro-style dinner or ice cream parlor. Who knows, some day I might actually get around to doing it!
Anyway, here were all these young kids whose parents wanted them to learn English with me. So I said yes to about a dozen of them…and I offered to do it for free! These parents were not affluent by any means. Our bank account was full. So why not volunteer to help these kids out? So for a couple of hours on the weekend our living room served as a makeshift classroom. It was my first experience at teaching EFL (English as a foreign language). I had a ball! These kids were real sweetie-pies, and SO eager to learn. It was a good way to start off my new life in Thailand. These kids’ parents may not have had cash to give us, but they always brought heaps of food, baskets of fruit and vegetables etc. And I was making friends. True my Thai was (and is) not brilliant by any means, but friendship transcends language. Before we moved to Lampang I wondered how we would be received. (In my wife’s village in Buriram I was still made to feel like an alien.)
It was heart warming to feel genuinely welcome. It wasn’t long before I was asked by a nearby elementary school if I would like to come by for a few hours a week and help out in some English classes. Again, since I wasn’t working, I happily agreed. In retrospect, without the slightest ulterior motive, this turned out to be a smart decision. Not only did I makes some good friends (including folks who remain my best friends in Lampang), but I was introduced to many important civic and business leaders in the community, including some high ranking police officers. Hey, it never hurts to be in good with “the boys in brown”! In fact later on when I was being harassed by “The Monkey”, it was one of them who took him aside for “a little chat”. From that time on The Monkey scurries away whenever he sees me coming. (Note: If you don’t know who The Monkey is you’ll simply have to wade through “How it All Began”.)
The point is that I was making a good impression on my Thai neighbors. Here was a farang who had just moved to their town, but was already giving his time, just to help out, without any anticipation of reward. From that time on my life here has been smooth sailing. I rarely have to look for work. It comes looking for me. By work I mean paid work. Volunteering is all well and good, but a guy’s got to eat!
My schedule is pretty damned full these days. After my recent cardiac adventures I’m working 7 days a week to help keep us a float. But even within my work day I still enjoy volunteering whenever possible. I’ve invited students to my office for Scrabble during lunch hour. I’m doing story telling during mid-morning break for some of the younger kids. (Cat in the Hat and other easy to read children’s books) These are not assigned “duties.” I simply thought the students would enjoy these activities. I certainly do!
So if you have some free time on your hands, you might want to consider donating a little of it wherever you see fit. It is a great opportunity to meet Thais in your community. Whether it’s in a large city like Bangkok, or a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, you will be amazed at the response you will receive. You just may make some good friends of your own. You may just wind up having a few doors open up for you as well.
I have done voluntary work in Thailand and it was rewarding. However, what I found was that it wasn't long before it was "hijacked" and all and sundry who had little or nothing to do with it wanted in to gain face or gain something, somehow. But for sure, conducting voluntary work, especially assisting those who need help or may be less privileged, is to be admired.