Bui (on the right) playing games during an International Languages Festival with his students.

A Journey of Persistence and Learning

Kayden Hoang Bui '13 knew he wanted a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

“I didn’t want to just join any English teaching program,” he said, citing the Fulbright's 5-15 percent acceptance rate. So he applied in 2012. And again in 2013. It was in 2014 that his persistence and diligence paid off: He was placed in Thailand.

“It was one of the moments where I felt that persistence works, and that happiness comes to those who believe in the goodness of God,” Bui said.

Being a teacher

Bui, who graduated from St. Thomas with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Bachelor of Arts in Mandarin Chinese, is no stranger to following his own path. When he arrived at St. Thomas the university didn't have classes in Chinese, so he took them at Macalester, earned a Boren Scholarship to continue his Mandarin Chinese studies in Taiwan and became one of a handful of St. Thomas students to earn a degree in Mandarin Chinese.

Bui after finishing a sign language performance of “Let It Go” from "Frozen" with his seventh-grade students for the school Christmas celebration. (Photo provided)

Bui after finishing a sign language performance of “Let It Go” from "Frozen" with his seventh-grade students for the school Christmas celebration. (Photo provided)

These experiences strengthened his dedication to international relationships and cultural exchange. He was accepted into Yale University (with the intention of earning a master's degree in public health) and made short-term goals of learning more languages and “becoming Tumblr famous.”

His Thailand journey could certainly help him with the latter two. Bui arrived there in September 2014 and lives in Sawankhalok, a small provincial district. He said the area is comfortable for foreigners because everything is easily accessible.

“The entire town is very bike-able, and you can meet people everywhere you go,” Bui said. “They have a term here called jai dii, which means ‘has a good heart.’ And so because everyone is so jai dii it makes living here very easy.”

His two-story house is a two- or three-minute bike ride each day to the school where he teaches English. He teaches 18 hours a week, three or four classes a day and each class has at

least 30-35 students. Bui said there can be some variation in English skills, even across the same grade level. A class might consist of Bui providing his students with 250 common English words and having them make 10 sentences with at least two words in a sentence. He might round the class out with a game, such as Taboo.

At his school, Sawananan Wittaya, the Fulbright program has a great deal of hype, so the teachers have something of a “celebrity status.”

“The girls are just so fanatic about new male teachers,” Bui said, and also wrote in his blog about how he’s been told students will take pictures of him.

In the U.S. Bui goes by Hoang, but in Thailand he’s gone by Kayden or Kay.

“Most of the students will call me ‘Khruu Kay,’ which means ‘Teacher Kay.’ It’s easy to remember and it’s fun when they yell out my name across campus to say hello,” Bui said.

Bui said one of his favorite teaching experiences has been helping train three students for the Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Scholarship Program. The scholarship provides for five students from Thailand to attend a leadership program in the United States. Bui worked with each student for about three weeks on applications and building their confidence. One of his students was named an alternate and another was a finalist.

“The kids’ English improved dramatically because of preparing for the scholarship, and they have gained a valuable skill and self-confidence. That’s all a teacher can ask for,” Bui wrote in his blog.

Of course, not all the lessons that Bui shares with his students take place inside a classroom. He said one of the most valuable moments of interaction for him is when he’s able to break down stereotypes about what an American is or should look like.

“As a child of immigrant America who grew up in the Midwest, I am part of an unrepresented population on television. People from Thailand still often look at me with askance when I say I’m American. … I can proudly say I’m American, and that Americans come in many skin tones, hair color and ethnic backgrounds,” Bui said.

And being a student

Although Bui is there to teach, his time in Thailand is a learning experience for him as well. He arrived with what he described as a “weak” understanding of Thai, which was enough for him to get around without difficulty. His goal is to become proficient, and he has learned some Thai with a linguist from Bangkok.

The Sounds and Light show during the Loi Krathong Festival.

The Sounds and Light Show during the Loi Krathong festival. (Photo provided)

“Right now I can have simple conversations with people, and I can write and read a little, but I want to learn more advanced vocabulary and grammar patterns. I also want to get an internship in Bangkok and then have that lead into a job or career,” Bui said.

Bui has experienced a great breadth of Thai culture through his adoptive “Thai dad,” a school master in a tutorial school who also teaches at Sawananan Wittaya. Bui refers to him as “po,” which means “dad” in Thai. Bui’s po has taken him to two Thai weddings, several famous temples and cities around where they live.

To him, one of the more memorable events was a candle-water festival, Loi Krathong. Bui floated his own krathong, which he described as a boat made of banana trunk and leaves, decorated with flowers, in the Sawankhalok River. He also saw a Sound and Lights Show, which featured historical reenactments. (He particularly enjoyed the “dramatic elephant fights.”)

An obvious highlight of visiting any new place is food. Bui said he likes eating at restaurants around town and discovering new foods, such as egg noodles with red pork; thin noodles with duck; and fried rice with crispy pork.

“My favorite food so far has to be khao soi, which is a noodle soup with a rich and creamy curry broth with boiled chicken and crisps on the side,” Bui said.

Bui still has several weeks left in Thailand to continue teaching, learning and fostering relationships with his students, fellow teachers and the community around him. To follow the rest of his journey, visit his blog at www.kbuifulbright.wordpress.com.