Thai Youth Returning Home

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Justin Hogenauer | 11/06/2022

My overall trip to Thailand this summer [2019] was short but incredibly eye-opening as it gave me a special opportunity to become more in hone my Thai culture. It taught me to think as a global citizen and reminded me to value my unique story and where my family comes from. This experience allowed me to interact with other young minds and engage in a supportive setting that encouraged me to discover and advance my interests at a global level.

This past summer, I had the honor and privilege to travel to Bangkok, Thailand to participate in a cultural immersion program called “Thai Youth Returning Home.” Sponsored by the Thai government in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, this annual program invites young students with Thai-ancestry from around the world to engage with their Thai culture through an immersive, in-person learning experience. This year’s program theme was specifically focused on the performing arts and traditional arts and crafts. This unique opportunity let me explore my Thai heritage through a fresh perspective while teaching me the significance of embracing my culture and the values of promoting diversity as an
Asian-American in spaces of privilege.

When my mother encouraged me to apply for this unique program, I had little to no idea of what I was getting myself into—not yet realizing the lifelong connections I would soon make or the amazing arts and crafts activities I would learn to create by hand. For starters, the entire application process was written in Thai, which posed an issue for someone who’s proficiency in the language does not exceed far beyond counting numbers and pronouncing food items on a menu. Nevertheless, I reached out for support from my Thai-speaking peers and poured my best into the application, knowing that I was in my last year of eligibility (as I was turning nineteen soon) and would not be able to apply again. After a few weeks of remaining patient, I heard back and the news was positive! I was set to travel to Bangkok where I would spend five days between July 11th to July 16th, completely immersed in the Thai culture.

This trip to Thailand was not my first time visiting the country but it was one of the more memorable experiences I have had abroad. On the first day, as I checked in to a room filled with dozens of other international students speaking Thai, I recall thinking to myself, “what did I just sign myself up for?” As someone with minimal Thai-speaking abilities, it was daunting to walk into an auditorium filled with Thai speakers, and it did not help that I was one of the oldest student participants in the program. In previous similar situations where I was the eldest, I have considered myself a leader amongst my peers and the nature of my responsibilities has required me to assume that type of role. However, in this new setting, I felt entirely out of my comfort zone, yet at the same time motivated to take on the challenge. Additionally, I realized that as one of the only continuing university students, I was also in a unique position to advocate for higher education and attending college—a topic of concern for many who were attending the program with me. I remained open-minded and optimistic about what lied ahead for my week in Thailand and carried on with a bright smile. This mentality followed me throughout the trip and contributed largely to the reasons why I got so much out of the program.

The purpose of the program was focused on connecting international Thai students and strengthening the Thai cultural network abroad. As a group, we engaged in numerous activities that were centered around historical values, rooted in Thai history and heritage. For the opening kickoff, we were warmly welcomed by a traditional Thai dance performance that depicted a dramatic scene between two star-crossed lovers doomed by the fact that they came from separate kingdoms. Dressed in ornate garbs adorned with locally-sourced jewels, each dancer performed an act that portrayed their sophisticated style of dance that represented the different regions of Thailand. Following the performance, we were taught some of the hand gestures that are commonly used in Thai-style dance. Additionally, I was given the offer to use a trapeze and attempted my best effort to complete a series of flips (which I will say were quite successful). These performances were very entertaining but more importantly, depicted the cultural value that mediums, like dance, have in preserving century-old traditions.

Throughout the trip, we explored the various traditional styles used to create hand-made artisanal crafts and cook authentic Southeast Asian cuisine that makes the Thai culture so renowned. We learned to make salted duck eggs—a delicacy in Southeast Asian cuisine—by using our bare hands to dip uncooked duck eggs in a series of different liquids and soils. Additionally, we learned to fold origami flowers out of blades of grass, and then used flowers from the same plant to brew a delicious tea. Later in the week, we also visited an institution that taught puppeteering and after watching a spectacular live puppet show, we learned to paint hand-held puppets of our own. The various activities we participated in were nothing short of amazing and wildly fun. However, they also represented a larger purpose which was recognizing the value of quality work. Whether it was with food or arts and crafts, each shop owner or performer cared about their craft and the quality of work they were producing. While appreciating good quality is nothing new to me, this value towards caring for the little details in life was enlightening and allowed me to take pride in where my family came from.

As for food, it was always deliciously fresh and served in a customary family-style setting. We would pass around bowls of rice, pile on spoonfuls of various curries and soups, and serve one another delectable plates filled with Thai Kanom desserts (if we even had room in our stomachs by then). It was in these group-oriented settings where we socialized and shared stories that I bonded most with my team. International programs like this are unique but genuinely special in their ability to strengthen ties to our ancestral heritage and promote a willingness to share our culture upon returning home.

From a global prosperity view, collaborative settings like this—where young individuals from around the world can gather together and relate to a shared identity—are vital in one’s professional development towards becoming citizens of the world. On this trip alone, I made dozens of new friendships with other Thai students who came as far away as New Zealand, Austria, Bahrain, and many other countries. These types of diverse interactions are precious as they allow members of society to better understand the world around them, whether it is being exposed to a new way of life or hearing about the hardships that others face due to forces beyond their control. While the focus of this program was based on better understanding my own Thai culture and promoting that knowledge upon my return home, it largely was a learning experience that exposed me to cultural practices I had never before known about. This immersive form of education brought me across the globe, but more significantly connected me back to the cultural values that I had lost.

Group Photo

Group photo after practicing traditional male dancing.