I Am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand
Amy McGarry (Thailand 2003–05)
$14.95 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Jim Skelton (Ethiopia 1970-72)
In the opening paragraph of the Preface to Amy McGarry’s book about her Peace Corps service in Thailand, she declares that
As a foreigner [farang in Thai language], I was biased, and for that I apologize. My descriptions of Thai culture should always be read with that “grain of salt.”
That statement really caught my attention and made me wonder what kinds of prejudiced revelations could possibly be contained in her tome.
What I discovered is that Amy has written a very humorous, painfully honest and deeply insightful view of her service and life in Thailand from 2003 to 2005. She describes what could be characterized as a love/hate relationship with the Thai social culture, despite the fact that she clearly loves and respects the Thai people. Through her personal and emotional stories, Amy, perhaps unknowingly, conducts an informal examination of the differences between Thai and American social cultural norms. It is at times a sad, fascinating and occasionally hysterical tale of what happened to her and how she reacted while living and teaching English in the small town of Non Sung.
One of Amy’s main frustrations is her failure to learn the Thai language. Throughout the book, she refers to her worries about and agonizing inability to understand and speak the language well enough. As a result, she invariably resorts to the English language in order to get by in both social and work related situations. Consequently, she feels the need to be understood and, as she writes in Chapter 38, “to make contact with people who speak my language and understand my culture.”
In Chapter 26, Amy writes about “Why Thais Need Glasses,” which became an issue for her as a result of the injuries she suffered when she was hit from behind and knocked off her bicycle by a woman driving a motor scooter on a flat, straight stretch of road in Non Sung. The woman who was driving the motor scooter follows her to the hospital, stands beside her bed and admits that she “didn’t see” Amy riding along the road. Amy initially refers to the woman, who consoles her and tries to explain the accident, as a stranger and then, when she gets used to her being there, renames her as “No-Longer-A-Stranger” and uses the name repeatedly in the development of her theory that many Thai people who need glasses don’t wear them.
Amy’s Thai fellow teacher and closest friend, Somjai, who is fluent in English, is simultaneously a joy and a pain in the neck, as well as the only Thai person with whom she has a very close relationship. Amy depends on Somjai and her ability to translate Thai into English in virtually every circumstance, especially when she is taken to the hospital after the bicycle accident debacle. In her own Thai approach, Somjai is both too nice and very demanding because she is somewhat of a know-it-all and has absolutely no idea how important personal privacy is to Amy. Time and time again, Somjai oversteps Amy’s personal boundaries and forces Amy to choose between giving in to the extreme, but well-intentioned, Thai hospitality and standing her ground. Amy gives in to her dear friend’s aggressive kindheartedness almost every time.
Even though there are numerous ways in which Peace Corps Volunteers may experience culture shock, Amy appears to have found a special niche of her own. In the passage of a few hours she can feel utterly frustrated and angry about a negative cultural or Thai language event, consider buying an airplane ticket home, and then find a way to accept the slight or embarrassment she suffered. Near the end of the book, she describes herself as “an ambassador for America,” and states, “I am warm and friendly, all the while seething and sick on the inside, thinking maybe today will be the day the tears come.” Luckily, she is able to overcome this type of emotional conflict by the end of her first year of service.
Amy bears her soul in this book about her life in Thailand, and I salute her for having the courage to share such a truthful and emotional journey with the reader. Her conversational style of writing made me laugh out loud many times, as well as feel her pain when things went wrong. I highly recommend Amy’s book, and I hope she will write another one for us to enjoy.
Reviewer Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970-72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He is the lead editor and a coauthor of a book entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which will be published by Peace Corps Writers in 2019. He has also published a memoir about his life as a PCV in Ethiopia, Volunteering In Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey.
Jim has practiced law for more than 43 years, specializing in upstream international petroleum transactions in emerging markets. His work has taken him to over 35 countries in Europe, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. He served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016, teaching the course in “Energy Law: Doing Business in Emerging Markets.” He is coauthor of the second edition of the textbook Doing Business in Emerging Markets: A Transactional Course.