The thought of going abroad was never cross my mind before I started high school. It was the first time I ever learned about student exchange program. The thought of living in a new place and learning a new culture made me excited to join such program. I believe, it would give me a new value in life. However, I didn’t know that it wasn’t easy to get accepted. I remember my first application to student exchange: I wasn’t prepared at all and I failed.
Long after that, I joined a MUN (Model United Nation) program held by NTU Singapore. It was not an exchange program, however, it was my first experience ever of going abroad. I felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know that a very sophisticated culture does exist, lying in a very close distance to our country (not as far as New York or London!). My mind was blown. Ever since then, my desire for learning a new culture grows bigger.
During my fourth year in college, a friend from NTU MUN informed me about AISEF (Art Immersion & Student Exchange Fieldtrip) Program. I decided to apply and got accepted. This program was held by ASEAN Youth Friendship Network (a Yogyakarta-based of independent youth community), established by Indonesian Committee, in association with Language Institute of Chiang Mai University. I was so excited because my dream is to have a cultural exchange: not only to learn a new culture but also to share mine. Even though it was only a 7-days program, I was very eager to join.
The first thing that came to my mind before I departed was, I didn’t know any of the participants. No one from my university joined me on that batch. I was nervous thinking that I wouldn’t enjoy the program because there will be no one I could share the fun with. Of course, my thought was totally wrong. I met new people from different universities and different cities: each one of them has a very bright personality and they gave me the most unforgettable memories during the program. It was in April 2013, however, I could still feel like it was just last year.
I remember there was no direct flight from Jakarta to Chiang Mai. We need to have a transit flight either from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Since I never visited Kuala Lumpur before, I and some of the participants from Jakarta & Bandung decided to have a short visit there and took the earliest flight to meet with the rest of participants at Chiang Mai.
Arriving at Chiang Mai, I was so excited to find out what is Chiang Mai actually look like. I imagined a busy city like Jakarta or Singapore, but what greeted me on the actual was a kind of city that reminded me of Yogyakarta: a friendly and humble city. I remember our first Thai buddy, Nuk, welcomed us at the airport. He totally looked like an Indonesian! I was a bit shocked because he actually could speak Bahasa Indonesia a little, well enough for a foreigner.
After settling down at the hotel, we met with the other Thai Buddies, which are the representative students from Chiang Mai University. They took us to the famous Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market Walking Street, where we rode a red-colored public transportation called ‘Song Thaew’. The experience was similar to riding ‘Angkot’ in Jakarta. I got mesmerized by the familiarity, it felt like I was still in Indonesia. Moreover, there is no time difference between Chiang Mai and Jakarta. During our trip, our Thai Buddies always helped us, even though we were still awkward with each other at that time. However, we got along better after getting to know each other in the class on the next day.
We learned Thai Language in a classroom the next day, taught by a teacher from Chiang Mai University, Ajahn Tum. ‘Ajahn’ is how we addressed a teacher in Thai Language. It’s similar with ‘Pak Guru’ in Bahasa or ‘Sensei’ in Japanese. Unexpectedly, learning Thai Language was quite fun! However, don’t expect too much. I still didn’t know how to read Thai Alphabet because we couldn’t learn that in a very short lesson. What we learned was a basic introduction & conversation in Thai Language.
We learned that actually Thai Language has a particle word each for a man and a woman. For example, the way of saying thank you is different for a man & a woman. Men would say ‘Khob khun kraap’ while women would say ‘Khob khun kha’. We also learned how to compliment each other and say ‘just kidding’ afterward. Ajahn Tum was a very fun teacher. The whole class was having fun during the lesson. I remember he didn’t teach us the phrase ‘I don’t know’ in Thai Language, because He didn’t want us to use that as an answer when he asked us a question.
Not only learning Thai Language, we also learned how to dance The Lana Dance. It was a Thai traditional dance. Firstly, two Thai dancers performed in front of us. We were amazed; the dance was a bit different with ours, however it was beautiful. After the performance, they showed us the choreography, step by step, and instructed us to do the same. I did perform The Lana Dance together with some of the other participants and it was an amazing feeling. After our performance, our participant from Bali performed Bali Dance and taught the Thai dancers how to do it. They performed together afterward.
Somehow, it made me think that no matter different we are as a nation, separated by law borders and oceans, we’re actually not so different. The culture may be different, but inside, we’re just the same human beings. We enjoy dancing and singing, even when it’s not in an understandable language. Somehow, we are connected.
One experience that I can’t forget is when we helped to teach in Bahasa Indonesia class. I’ve been waiting for this session because I couldn’t wait to share my love towards our culture to foreigners. When the time finally came, I was surprised. Language Institute of Chiang Mai University actually had Bahasa Indonesia class and it was available for all students as an optional module. This module was taught by Indonesian teacher named Mrs. Hesty. She was called ‘Guru Hesty’ by the students.
What surprised me the most was, the classroom was full of students! There were about 40 students joining the class at that time. Can you believe that there were many students with different background majors interested in learning our language? It was an incredible feeling. We helped them to learn numbers in Bahasa Indonesia, sing Indonesian song, even taught them how to dance The Saman Dance.
Our activities were not limited inside the classroom. We also had a chance to have a campus tour and went to Indonesia Corner, a room full of traditional stuff from Indonesia such as angklung, gamelan, folklore books, wayang, and many other books contained information about our culture. The room was located inside the Language Institute of Chiang Mai University.
Outside the campus, we went to visit Doi Suthep, a beautiful holy temple located on a hill and also Maetaman Elephant Camp where we saw elephant attraction show and rode elephants all the way through a river. Once the activities were finished each day, Thai buddies didn’t leave us and even scouted us to hang out around Chiang Mai. We visited the local night market to shop, experienced buying Thai tea in Thailand, ate ice cream and laughed together just like we’ve been friends for a long time. In a very short time, we were bounded in a new kind of friendship.
Not only learning the language and the dance, we also learned how to cook Thai food from a real Chef. We experienced a Masterchef show on that day. In the morning we went to a traditional market to learn about basic spices and common vegetables that were used daily in cooking Thai foods. We were then taken to our Ajahn’s house (unfortunately, I forget the name of our Chef-teacher) facing our own stoves and cooking wares. All the tools and raw materials needed were already prepared for us. We started to chop some spices and vegetables, learned how to do safe fire tricks in cooking, and of course cooked together with Our Ajahn performing how to do it right. We cooked Pad Thai & Som Tum, and then we ate it together.
It was during Thai New Year celebration week when we visited Chiang Mai. Thai people celebrate their New Year every April 13th by joining Songkran Festival. It was a water festival held on April 13th~15th. On these days, people came to the street together, brought their water gun, splashed water at each other while laughing and wished a happy new year to everyone. It was definitely a new experience for me. Even though the sun was high, we were still drowned in fun and forgot the fact that our skin was burnt. Many foreigners were also in sight. I bet they also had fun just like us. After that, I promised myself to come back to Chiang Mai and celebrate Songkran Festival again one day.
The time finally came for us to finish the program. We had a ceremonial event at Language Institute of Chiang Mai University where we were given certificates and then we went to have Kantoke Dinner. There were Lana Dance performances during this dinner. It was a farewell dinner for us. We said thanks to each other and wished for a next meeting after the program together with our Thai buddies. We exchanged souvenirs, not only from the Indonesians to the Thai buddies, but also among the Indonesian participants as well. We were sad to finally say goodbye. We cried and laughed at the same time, promised each other we will meet again when we visit each other’s country.
Now that we are back in Indonesia, we are still in touch. Indonesian participants hang out together sometimes. Some of our Thai buddies even got a chance to finally visit Yogyakarta for a similar program, and at that opportunity, the 2013 participants finally gathered again. One of the Thai buddies, Gig, even visited Indonesia for the second time and stayed at my place in Bandung and Bekasi.
AISEF program not only gave me one of the best experiences that I would never forget in my life. It also gave me new friends and family across the ocean. I didn’t have much expectation at first, but I ended up feeling overwhelmed with happiness and pride. I visited a country to learn and make friends, and also shared our country’s best.
For those out there who want to experience a new value in life, try to join an exchange program. Those who are interested in joining AISEF program, please kindly visit AYFN website and learn about their programs. They actually have many programs with different country destinations and activities. Choose which program that you like and prepare to experience the fun yourself!