By Stephanie Choate
The raw edge of winter is stubbornly clinging to Vermont, but it’s the hottest time of the year in Chalinee Samutphong’s native Bangkok.
Wearing a t-shirt depicting Thailand’s famed Muay Thai boxing, Samutphong described Thailand’s Songkran Festival—where the nation’s sweltering inhabitants douse each other with water to celebrate the Thai New Year—to a group of Williston Central School students earlier this month.
“It’s very hot,” she told the third- and fourth-grade students, seated cross-legged on the floor. “We need to do something to make you feel cold and refreshed.”
Samutphong—the head of the English Department at Wattana Wittays Academy, a prestigious all-girls school in Bangkok—is wrapping up a school year spent in Vermont, organized through the University of Vermont Asian Studies Outreach Program. After spending the earlier part of the school year at Hinesburg and Shelburne schools, she has been at WCS since February.
Known to students as Nina, Samutphong teaches about Thai culture, ceremonies, traditional games, arts, crafts and cooking—as well as taking in a bit of American culture.
“I had never been to the U.S. before,” she said. “It is my opportunity to learn about new cultures and new things and live in cold weather.”
WCS teacher Marybeth Morrissey, who is acting as Samutphong’s mentor, said students love having Samutphong in the classroom.
“They learn a lot of information about other places but it’s very different when you can connect with an actual person,” Morrissey said. “It’s interesting to hear all the things that are different and also I think in many ways more powerful to start to learn all the ways in which we’re similar.”
Last year, students got to engage with a scholar from China, Tao Ye, who also visited Vermont through the UVM Asian Studies Outreach Program.
“Asia is just so important in our world and the kids in Vermont don’t have as much exposure to other cultures as they do in some other parts of our country,” Morrissey said.
Last week, Samutphong and the three other Thai teachers placed throughout the state visited Allen Brook School, performing traditional Thai dances and songs. The teachers also led students in a simple Muay Thai demonstration, much to the delight of a few exuberant students in the back who were especially enthusiastic about the high kicks.
Samutphong said she has spent time in Canada, but this is her first visit to the U.S.
She got her first glimpse of snow this winter, and said the pictures and descriptions she sent to her friends back home did not do it justice.
“I cannot explain how beautiful it is. You have to see it with your own eyes…the way it sparkles,” she said.
One of her host families also took her skiing at Bolton Valley Resort—an activity she said was fun and “very cold.”
During her stay, Samutphong also visited New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, Maine and Florida.
“The ocean here, the color is different from Thailand,” she said. “It’s like a very dark blue.”
Samutphong said a big difference from her home is Vermont’s vast tracts of empty land, something the city-dweller is not used to seeing.
“I like the country,” she said. “Everything here is bigger than in my country.”
Although she thought the weather was going to be the most difficult thing to get used to, she said the trickiest part was trying to get around. Used to taking public transportation at home, in Vermont she had to ask her host family for a ride if she wanted to go anywhere.
Her visit also highlighted some of the differences between Thai schools and American ones. In Thailand, her school day runs from 8 a.m. to just after 4 p.m., and the school year goes from May to February. Samutphong’s class in Thailand is about 50 students, who all wear uniforms and are typically more reserved in the classroom.
“Thai students are taught to be respectful to their elders,” she said. “When a student walks past teachers, (they) have to bow to them… they have to be lower than the teacher.”
She said the students in Williston are always excited to see her in the classroom, and ask her a lot of questions.
Samutphong will get to take a look at another Vermont specialty—mud season—before she heads back to hotter climates on May 10.
“I have enjoyed it and it’s fun, but now that it’s almost time to go home, I miss home,” she said.