It came as no surprise when the time came for me to purchase uniforms for school. The email that followed my acceptance clearly stated a dress code – black skirt, white button down shirt, a pin to be worn on the right side of my shirt with the university’s crest, and a belt which was also branded with the university’s crest. The words that circled the picture were unknown to me because I am not fluent in Thai.
It was hot on the first floor of the university’s old building. That’s what everyone called the international building since a newer and bigger building was built, which is called the new building. Dozens of international students from around the world were lining up to receive their uniform, or being measured. After putting down my things, I was measured also and waited in line. I decided to purchase two; it seemed like the smartest option. Then, I walked a short distance to the school store to purchase my pin and belt.
I quickly learned that walking to and from campus was not the smartest option. Thailand’s tropical climate managed to squeeze the sweat from my pores even when I was wearing shorts and a tank top. The university provided shuttles that routinely came to and from the university from eight in the morning, and the last shuttle ran at seven thirty in the evening. After that, students were on their own. It wasn’t completely uncommon to take taxis to class either, if there wasn’t a shuttle around. There was a taxi stand directly outside of the bundit housing and the drivers would sit under a shed and wait for students to approach them. It cost roughly fifty baht (less than two USD) to get from the apartments to Mahidol University.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, I had my first class in the old building. I would go in through the side entrance, on opposite sides of me were the most beautiful lawns, where vibrant flowers sprouted and stone benches were firmly planted. I would walk up the stairs to the cafeteria, where the coffee and tea stands were located, to buy a matcha green tea. I was so addicted to them the first couple of weeks of school. I bought another one during lunch to wash down my food. The food provided in the cafeteria was limited for me, as a non-meat eater. I ate the same thing nearly every day because most dishes were made with pork or beef, and substitutions weren’t much of a thing. I didn’t mind because the egg noodles, with fish balls, shrimp, and other vegetables that marinated in a steaming broth, which hit a spot on my palette that I didn’t know was there. As time progressed, I found restaurants outside of school to have lunch. I wasn’t afraid to try new foods, so eventually the possibilities were endless.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had my first class in the new building. My professor was blunt, yet eccentric. A short, very skinny, Asian woman with dark and wavy brown hair that hung at her neck. Every day she wore long pencil skirts and high heels, accessorized with jewelry that appeared as if it were too big for her bony wrists. Her lips were small and tight, but her voice was light and possessed a heavy accent whose origin I could not guess and didn’t dare ask. From the first day she warned her students of the rigorous syllabus that contained many readings. After the first week, most of the Americans dropped her course and suddenly, the class was half empty. The rest of us learned later on that she kept to her word. We read several different books throughout the semester – The Woman in the Dunes, The Republic of Wine, The Madman’s Diary, and so on. On the first day, she introduced the class to Hindu verses, Vedas. I knew then that this would be my hardest, but most interesting course. When I was able to accurately translate some of the Vedas we discussed, I knew that I would be okay. The classroom was full of light – the windows formed a giant L that enveloped the classroom. Since the climate was so hot and humid, the air conditioner was always on, and the cool temperature of the classroom always made me drowsy. Before class, I would go to Seven (locals call the franchise 7-11, Seven) to buy a bottle of green tea, and if I had time, I would run over to the new building where the fruit stand was located to buy watermelon, pineapples or pears to eat before class to keep myself awake.
I looked forward to my Monday and Wednesday, ten a.m. class, creative non-fiction. I was one of two Americans and the rest of my classmates were Thai. The course was taught by an energetic Australian man with a round belly and brown hair. We quickly bonded over our mutual appreciation for George Orwell, the author we would read and learn about first. He lent me other books, such as Animal Farm, also written by George Orwell. He introduced the class to the genre of creative non-fiction, commonly known as, true crime. We read different authors – Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, etc. The classroom was small, and the windows were always covered by shades because the sun beamed directly into the classroom, and there wasn’t much of a view. The desks were so close together; I always had to arrive early to ensure my seat wouldn’t be taken by someone else. The projector screen took up nearly a third of the professor’s walk space, which restricted his movements to an L shape.
In the afternoons of those same days, at four p.m., was my topics in comparative literature. This poetry class was taught by a Thai woman. She had messy, dark black curls that framed her round face, was heavy set and with the sweetest voice, but there was sternness there too. We bonded as well over our mutual love of poetry. She often lent me different poetry books written by Japanese and Chinese poets after I expressed an interest in reading more eastern poetry. As I returned books, she gave me new ones to read. The first half of the class she introduced us to different poems of various styles – villanelles, sonnets, tercets, etc. In the second half, we wrote poems on a weekly basis and shared them among one another in a workshop setting. We moved our desks until they formed a semi-circle with a gap to open and close the door. I tried to encourage my classmates to speak up and give critique by doing so myself, but it was mostly silent. The only two voices that could be heard were mine and my professor’s.
The landscape of the campus was also very different than what I was used to. First, it was the biggest campus I have ever stepped foot on. There were palm trees that lined every street, regularly watered grass was everywhere, and shrubs with bold colored flowers far and between. There wasn’t a single place on campus where I could avoid the heavy glare of the sun. It seemed as though the sprinklers would run all day and turn off only at night. I never saw them spraying water on top of the grass on my nightly runs with my teammates. Huge billboards promoting Mahidol University as a top tier medical school were posted at every entrance of the university.
Although I spent three months studying at Mahidol, I have only been in three or four of its buildings. Many of the buildings on campus and what went on inside of them were foreign to me. Sometimes I would see water lizards roaming about the university grounds. They would crawl from the pond near one of the entrances. Different species of birds flew hovered about and walked everywhere. I was grateful for never having the misfortune of running into snakes. Mosquitoes were everywhere and I was eaten alive the first couple weeks of living in Thailand. Eventually, I bought mosquito repellent, bottled in a clear container and bright pink top with a picture of a mosquito on the front. Everyone carried the same one because it was the only kind sold in stores, but the sizes varied from tiny to small.
There was a lot of school spirit to breathe life into the enormous campus. Students hosted events, and made sure to include international students, and that made us feel welcome. They hosted a club fair to draw more people into the different programs. There were such a variety that everyone could find a club to fit into – scuba diving, photography, gaming, cheerleading, dance, debate team, science club, and so much more. The cheerleaders performed at the fair. When I walked in, I was handed a card covered in squares, and after receiving stamps from ten different clubs, I was able to hand in my stamped card to get free ice cream and toppings on my way out. It was events such as these that made me feel included and thought of. The students who attend Mahidol University full time, pride themselves in attending the number one university in Thailand, and after a while, it rubbed off on me too.