Alumni Spotlight on Dawn McGowen; Two-Time Homestay Teacher in Spain & Thailand
After doing a homestay program in 2015, what inspired you to enroll again for 2016?
I had an unforgettable and phenomenal time teaching English in Spain. My eyes were opened to the joy of traveling, and just getting lost in a new city. Getting to completely immerse myself into a new culture was the greatest experience, and I was desperate to do that all over again. As a teacher, I knew I would have time to go abroad in the summertime, so I decided to make the leap again. As soon as I started reading about the opportunity to teach in a homestay in Thailand, and the experiences that alumni have had there, I had a strong gut feeling that it was the next place I needed to experience for myself.
Can you describe the two different families you lived with?
I am very fortunate to have been hosted by two generous and kind families. Each homestay experience was amazing and unique in its own way. My family in Spain was very social, as most Spaniards are, and very family oriented. As soon as homework was complete, the kids went outside to play until called in for dinner. Each night we gathered around the table snacking on olives and potato chips while my host mom finished up with dinner. Then we lingered over cookies and fruit when dinner was over just talking about our day.
Weekends were almost always spent away from the house. There are too many places to see and people to visit to just spend the weekend at home. In fact, my host family thought it was odd if I wanted to spend a few hours just relaxing at the house. The Spaniards like to get out as often as they can, and that’s definitely what my family did. I loved spending time with my host family and sometimes just observing them interact together. They really prioritized spending time with family and friends over anything else.
In Thailand, my host family was consumed by work and school. Their lives are preoccupied with a desire to better the lives of the kids and to be prepared for the future. My host dad worked extra hours/jobs whenever given the opportunity, and my host mom assisted him when she could. My two host sisters spent their every extra minute studying for school and taking extra classes and lessons to get ahead. Their weekends were filled with lessons at the language school or study sessions with tutors. The time for socializing was minimum. One weekend, the entire family and I spent a day at the beach in Pattaya. We all had a blast, but the kids were very concerned about the learning time they missed. They had extra tutorial sessions during the week after school to help make up for that.
While each family member was always busy with school or work, that’s not to say they didn’t spend any time together. They just did it differently. Since homes contain air-conditioning units in individual rooms, my family would often all gather in one room to do their work separately. My host parents would be on the computer while my host sisters sat at the table to complete homework. Occasionally they would all break at the same time to have a snack before resuming work. If everyone was home, we ate together. Every now and then, we all sat outside with extended family members snacking on fruits and treats bought at the market.While their lives were very much filled with work, my host family found time to be together whenever they could.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time abroad?
One of my favorite memories is when I took the metro into the city of Madrid for the first time. I remember stressing out at the possibility of getting lost and not being able to find my way home. After getting directions from another Greenheart Travel participant, I hopped on the metro and made my way into the city. I was skeptical that I had actually made it to my destination, so I just followed the crowd through the tunnels and up the stairs to street level. It was at that exact moment that I realized what I had done. I was in Spain! I had traveled abroad to a country I had always wanted to see, but never thought I would, and I couldn’t believe it.
Taking my first steps into the city, I took it all in: the crowded sidewalks, the architecture, people lounging in cafe terraces, bits of Spanish conversations, and the smell of freshly baked bread. I was hit with a sense of accomplishment that I wasn’t expecting. Never had I once thought I’d actually travel to another country. My life before that had been preoccupied with doing my best in school and then doing my best to pay off my school loans. At that moment though, I stood there in awe of the city of Madrid, and then I stood in awe of myself. I felt brave, my heart was happy, and my confidence skyrocketed. For the first time, I truly believed that I could do whatever I set out to do. Standing there in the middle of Madrid was proof of that.
With a huge smile on my face, I walked off in one direction to do some exploring, and then I continued to explore for the next two months. That one huge burst of confidence has done wonders for my self-esteem and personal development. I’ll never forget it, and I strive to bring that feeling back to the surface every chance I get.
What are some of the major lessons you’ll take away from these homestay experiences?
Keep an open mind. Be willing to learn. Be kind. Take chances. And be grateful for all you have. I fear I’ll ramble on for pages if I elaborate, so I’ll just keep it at that.
Have you caught the travel bug yet? Where is your next adventure?
Saying that I’ve caught the travel bug is a huge understatement. Traveling is like dying of thirst, and then only getting a single sip of water. You’re grateful for that one sip, but you really want the whole bottle. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I think it gets my point across. Going abroad once or twice is not enough. I could circle the globe twice, and it wouldn’t be enough. I want to see everything and experience new things as often as I can. To quote Susan Sontag, “I haven’t been everywhere, but I’m planning on it.”
Do you feel like your experience in Spain prepared you for Thailand?
I thought I would be more prepared for Thailand after going abroad the previous summer to Spain. Between my new carefree attitude, and all my learned travel hacks, I thought I was ready for Thailand. I was wrong. Short of being able to read/speak Thai, nothing could have prepared me for Thailand. That was a good thing and sometimes a frustrating thing. In Spain, I knew a moderate amount of the Spanish language. I could read it, speak it, understand a bit of it, and in the worst case, I could easily translate with an app. It was a breeze making my way around that country.
That was not the case in Thailand. Never had I felt such confusion in my life. I found myself confused about the language, what food I was eating, how to get around, etc. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t find myself confused (and sometimes frustrated) about something. After a while, I learned to embrace that feeling of confusion and look at those moments as learning experiences. In the first few weeks though, I easily became frustrated with simple tasks. In Spain, I experienced culture shock for about a split second, and then I just fell in love with the country. In Thailand, I experienced culture shock every day, and that’s not a bad thing! I learned a lot about not just the culture, but myself as well.
Ready for a sip of what it feels like to travel abroad, or for the whole bottle?