Hannah Stowers at the Anuban Phayao school pool in Thailand July 2016.
By Susan Bromley
When Hannah Stowers moved to Thailand more than a year ago, she didn’t speak a word of the language, nor did she have a job or know anyone.
What the 2010 Brandon High School graduate did have was confidence, a thirst for adventure, and fluency in English— a sought after commodity by Asian schools.
She bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and flew into Bangkok at the end of March 2016 knowing only the hostel she would be staying at for the next few days.
“I didn’t have a job set up, my mom was like, ‘What are you doing??’” recalls Stowers, the daughter of Holly and Russ. “I had read online that the best time to find a job in Thailand is the end of March. Their school year starts in May, so I read you should go the end of March because the peak hiring period is April and you just go and walk into schools. That was the scariest part. I thought, ‘Guess I’ll figure it out when I get there.’”
What she knew already was that the job she’d had since graduating in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in diatetics and psychology from Central Michigan University wasn’t working for her. After several months of working in a nursing home, Stowers, who has a love of traveling, began researching how she could live overseas and still support herself and learned about an 8-week online course she could take to become certified to teach English as a foreign language. She completed the course, which required volunteering some hours in a classroom and writing a paper at the end, as well as answering some “common sense” questions.
She was now certified. All that was left was to decide where in the world she wanted to go.
She wanted a country in which she could make enough money for her car payment, and one that was also “nice.” She was gravitating toward Asian countries which besides Thailand included Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines, although Spain was also being considered. Ultimately, she discarded Spain and Vietnam from the list for the 1-year contract she would have to sign when she wasn’t sure if she was going to like teaching or if she wanted to be away from home that long.
Ultimately, her brother Ben, who had studied abroad in Asia, persuaded her to choose Thailand, which he called “the best.” She would soon learn why.
“The people are amazing, so sweet,” said Stowers. “Thailand is known as the land of smiles. They live up to their name, that is for sure.”
After sight-seeing alone in the country for about a month, she landed a job teaching English to kindergarteners at a school in Phaoyo, a town in northern Thailand.
“I was so happy, I didn’t know what grade I would be teaching and when they told me 3- and 4-year-olds, I was like, ‘YES,’” recalls Stowers, who acknowledged that 3-year-olds in kindergarten is “intense.”
“They are learning Thai still, they’re learning English, and they’re learning Chinese,” she continued, and laughs, “I was barely speaking English at 3. They are so smart.”
During a three-day orientation with “Media Kids,” the company that placed her at the school, she learned some very basic Thai, including numbers and the words for “thank you” and “hello,” as well as how to order chicken and rice, basic staples. She and her fellow teachers-to-be, who besides the U.S. hailed from the UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa, also learned about the Thai culture and how to be respectful as far as attire and behavior outside of school.
On her first day, she found 34 kids in the classroom that was led by two Thai teachers, one who spoke limited English and the other not at all, but both were helpful to the new English teacher.For the first two weeks, Stowers hated teaching.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing here, standing in front of the classroom, I don’t know how to teach kids back home, let alone in Thailand,’” she said.
Stowers followed the curriculum at first, but found some of it too difficult for the kids and also boring, so she detoured from it in favor of more fun activities. When she lightened up and wasn’t too serious, Stowers found herself enjoying her new teaching career.
Most days, she would teach for an hour or two in the morning and another hour or two in the afternoon. On Mondays, the Thai teacher would pick a topic such as flowers or animals and teach about the subject in the children’s native language, and Stowers would teach the same in English. On other days, Teacher Hannah as the students called her, instructed her charges in English about science, health, math, and the alphabet.
During her first semester in Thailand, Stowers lived in an apartment that was paid for by her company and she was also compensated 30,000 baht, which equated to $850 per month.
“The apartment was pretty bad, the wifi didn’t work, there were ants everywhere, the walls were cement, it wasn’t homey,” said Stowers. “The second semester, I moved into a house and got a roommate.”
The house was nicer, with a small kitchen, but Stowers said in Thailand, there were no stoves, not even for the wealthier families for whom she tutored— they buy food at the market, usually pad Thai, and take it home to eat. She also tried scorpions, which she said tasted like crunchy chicken; crickets, which didn’t taste like anything; and before she knew what it was, blood soup— which consists of dried blood chunks from every part of an animal.
Stowers only gained five pounds during her time in Thailand, maintaining her weight by running about five days per week. She ran her first marathon, the Chiang Mai Marathon, in December in intense heat. The race began at 5 a.m. and when she crossed the finish line 3 hours and 47 minutes later, it was already 85 degrees.
November through February is considered the cool season in Thailand, however, and even with the typical high temp reaching 80 during that time, the natives wear jackets and say it’s freezing, recalled Stowers. From March through May, temperatures can reach up to 108 degrees, accompanied by high humidity. Stowers often ran late at night to avoid the heat, but never felt unsafe. Roads weren’t busy, but there are no speed limits and stop signs seemed to be optional in Thailand. Mopeds are a common mode of transportation, and Stowers and the roommate she was matched with her second semester, shared one. She was also able to walk to the market right around the corner and her school was only a three-minute walk.
Stowers found Thai people to be very laid-back and kind. Whereever she went, people would want to stop and talk to her.
“They are on Thai time,” said Stowers. “There is no rush.”
She laughs as she recounts that she would go to the theater about once a week to watch American movies with Thai subtitles, and on her way, regardless of what time the film started, she would be stopped for 20-minute conversations on the street.
While Stowers was in Thailand, the country lost their king of 70 years, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Oct. 13, 2016 at the age of 88 following a long illness. The country is currently observing a year of mourning, and Stowers, along with her fellow teachers, wore black everyday after the king’s death until she returned to the U.S. at the end of March. In the movie theaters, videos paid tribute to the king before he died about his accomplishments, and after his death, the video was changed to black and white, with theater-goers expected to stand. Additionally, every day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. in Thailand, the king’s song was played over speakers, with everyone expected to stop where they were to listen and pay respects.
“They worshipped the king,” said Stowers. “People went to jail if they bad-mouthed him.”
In the month immediately following the king’s death, the country’s citizens were asked to refrain from “joyful events,” but on Nov. 14, the Loi Krathong Festival was observed, albeit as a somewhat toned-down celebration. Stowers participated in the tradition which has Buddhist roots and takes place annually on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai lunar calendar, usually November.
“You release lanterns in the sky with little basket things and make a wish and clear your mind and set things free,” said Stowers. “It used to be demons, but now it is more wishing for something.”
Her next traveling wish is to visit South America, followed by Antarctica in a quest to travel to every continent before she turns 30. While Stowers was on the other side of the world in Asia teaching Thai, she checked off Australia by vacationing there in October and also visited the Asian countries of Cambodia and Vietnam. She already traveled extensively through Europe following her graduation from CMU, with stops in Norway, Sweden, Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary. She has also visited Africa.
For now she is back in North America, changed by her year-long experience living overseas, having been the educator and the educated in Thailand.
“I think I learned how to appreciate the small things and to slow down and relax a little bit,” said Stowers. “When you travel, you don’t learn as much as when you live there about their culture and beliefs. It helps to live there and throw yourself into it… I just loved my kids and my town. I feel like I got so lucky. It opens you to other perspectives.”