In 1994 I was in my third year of my education degree at Deakin University in what some of you will remember was the old Rusden Campus on Blackburn Road. I was a single parent, studying fulltime, working part time, with the view to becoming a teacher so I could have school holidays free. Or so I thought.
During the latter part of the year, one of my lecturers stormed into class and demanded that each student tell him why they had not applied to the UMAP funded Exchange Program to attend a semester at Bangkok University. I had seen it advertised, but as a mature age, single parent – I didn’t think it applied to me. One by one, students a lot younger than me shifted in their seats. “I’ve got a part time job at Coles stacking shelves overnight – it pays really well”, “I can’t leave my girlfriend/boyfriend”, “I’m going overseas at the end of the year anyway” – I couldn’t believe the naïve responses to knocking back $2000 cash (in 1995 money!), plus an airfare, language classes and they still got to keep their Austudy allowances. I was last – “I’m probably too old” I ventured. “No age limit” was the response. “Well I’m not a media major” which was a further concern I’d had after seeing the advertisement – “doesn’t matter” came the reply. “I have an 8-year-old daughter” – of course the biggest issue. “Take her with you!” he almost yelled. “Are you serious?” I asked. “Why not?” he asked me. Really? Well, that’s me sold, and to this day I am forever grateful that Simon Wilmot, still teaching at Deakin, challenged that class. And I often wonder where the other ten students ended up…
Thailand! Here We come
In June 1995, at the ripe old age of 35, daughter in tow, myself and four young 20 somethings boarded a flight to complete our semester at Bangkok Uni. A further seven students were off to Payap University in Chiang Mai, all of us recipients of the first of the UMAP scholarships designed to facilitate student exchange into Asia. It was not easy to adjust to the brutal heat after leaving Melbourne in early June where the flight had been delayed due to ice on the runway! Our wonderful BU welcoming committee put us up in backpackers while they assisted us to find accommodation, and purchase the uniform of the university – long black skirts and crisp white shirts. And despite having visited Thailand previously, to engage as a student rather than a tourist required a whole new level of cultural understanding and survival skills.
Remember in 1995 there was no electronic banking, no email, no instant messaging, the internet had only just been released main stream. When we embarked on our journey to Thailand, we really were being sent out on our own! We were obsessed with the differences in the education system, that we were not being challenged enough, and I can remember our lecturer Dr Francis Treacey almost yelling at us when he came to visit early in the program “I don’t care – it’s not about the subjects. It’s about what else you will learn – it’s about the experience!” It took quite some getting used to the prescriptive formula of some classes (we were students of media arts at Rusden after all), the uniform we could not avoid, the food in the cafeteria (soup for lunch in that heat?) and the lack of engagement (shyness) of the students in our “international program”. The accommodation we chose, after being shown numerous places with shared Asian style bathrooms, each one sending us further into a panic, was a new condominium with a swimming pool – the deciding factor. The only furniture was a large king size bed and dressing table. No fridge, no table, no chairs, no cooking facilities, no TV. Letters home took 10 days to arrive, from home they arrived in 7, and to call was $3 per minute. To get to university we walked down to the bus stop and took the air-conditioned blue bus which cost substantially more than the red buses the other students took. We were stared at constantly, chased by stray dogs, had several bouts of food poisoning till we learned where NOT to eat, confounded daily at not being able to make ourselves understood, and were terribly homesick.
What did we learn?
We learnt that Francis Treacey was right – the classes mattered little and I can barely remember them. What I do remember was the girl in the cafeteria who came and introduced herself to us in our early days and in her best English, announced she would be our friend – she would practice her English and help us with Thai. And she still is a friend. I remember my practicum experience at Radio Thailand (like Radio National) where my friend Rachel and I, besides running around town and doing interviews with people because we had better English, were made to read the 1995 election results - in Thai - one long Saturday evening. Other students read advertisements on a more hip English language radio station! We also reported on the newly opened Australian Education Centre at the Australian High Commission (the first of its kind), where we met the Education Counsellor, who invited us to Friday night drinks at the High Commission, which became a regular occurrence.
I remember the staff at the university who bent over backwards to ensure we had the most amazing experience, and Dr Siriwan Rattanarkan is to this day a friend, and hopefully soon a program partner! I remember slowly understanding the Thai culture, learning to communicate in an Asian context with second language speakers, and discovering Buddhism. I remember long conversations and study sessions by the pool as we got to know each other, and assisted each other to adjust to the changes occurring around us and within us. Slowly we learned to eat spicy food, use a squat toilet, how to pile our plates at the Pizza Hut salad bar to take advantage of the cost for one plate, to wear jeans despite the heat, eat soup for lunch and to take the crowded red bus, or even a motorcycle taxi to university.
Hidden Truths, Inner Strengths
With a child in tow, the evenings were sometimes long and lonely, but they also provided an opportunity to read, and write, and discover some hidden truths about myself. The program provided the space to look deep within and find an inner strength, a courage to be who I wanted to be, to take the road less travelled, to carve out my own life and stop taking the easy route, hiding behind my status as a single parent. I understood the opportunity I had been given, an opportunity for deep cultural immersion that changed the way I viewed the world. I recognized how privileged I was as an Australian, and that there were many different lenses with which to view Asian culture and life’s experiences in general. I realized that not many people would have attempted what I had with my child, and that I needed to recognize that I had done something extraordinary, something that young unencumbered students were afraid to do, and that the hardest part of the journey was over. I would make sure I didn’t waste what I had discovered, and put my months of learning to good use.
To be continued.......