Stories that Shaped Us: A Culture of Good Food and Kindness
Bailee Esposito is a TEAN Bangkok alumna and current ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador at University of Colorado Boulder whose experience abroad during Spring 2022 introduced her to Thai culture and cuisine, leaving her mouth watering along with her heart melting.
We reached out to learn more about why she chose to go abroad with TEAN Thailand and how her experience abroad has impacted her long-term. Check out her unique story below and hear her advice for others wanting to follow a similar path!
What inspired you to study abroad and why did you choose Bangkok?
BE: As I’ve gotten older and more aware of my role models I realized that they all have something in common: they’re all very well traveled. Each person I look up to has seen vast stretches of the world and the people and things in it. I admired them and their fondly relayed travel stories so much that I knew I needed to travel myself at some point. From there, I asked all these people where I absolutely must go, and most said Thailand. Everyone assured me it would be the greatest place with the best food and kindest people I’ll ever encounter. They were right!
They say the food in Thailand is like nothing else. Tell us one of your favorite meals you ate while you were there!
BE: The food in Thailand is irrefutably the freshest and tastiest food I’ve ever had. Professionally, I’m a line cook and food writer, so clearly my meals are important to me. I learned quickly that just about everyone in Thailand who’s selling food is a phenomenal cook. Every single meal, without exaggeration, was a spiritual experience. Street carts are the way to go over restaurants, and anything coming off of one of those hot oil skillets attached to the back of a motorbike is going to be tear-jerkingly delicious. My top three must haves for anyone stepping foot in the country are green curry (it’s inherently spicy but so, so good), pork krapow with a fried egg, and tom yum. Though I tried my best, my Thai never got past the beginner’s level, so there were tons of times I’d just go up to a street food stand, smile at the nice people behind the counter, and point at a random thing on the menu. Never failed me.
The best meal I had in Bangkok is a memory I relive frequently. My friends from school and I went to dinner at a street food market, which are very common all over Thailand. Some are in permanent structures, but this market was just an aggregation of small stalls and attached-grill-motorbike-sidecar situations strung together in an open lot between buildings. It was my first day in Thailand so I had no knowledge of the language and was quite frankly incredibly overwhelmed and lost. This is when the menu roulette technique really began. I circled the market a few times, afraid to go up and speak to anyone as it was rather clear English was not a common interest between us. I chose one stand with no line and tried my best to mime to the kind lady for one bowl of noodles. It sort of worked and she motioned for me to go sit down. What she brought me was beyond words. I now know it’s called kuay jap yuan, a Thai Vietnamese fusion noodle soup, similar to pho but far better in my opinion. You would be hard pressed to find better textured noodles than this. The broth was salty and fatty and warm and perfect. I wanted to just bathe in that soup and give the lady that made it a great big hug. If there was a religion that worshiped that soup I would take a vow of silence and devote my life to its cause. For the next few weeks I would not shut up about the soup. I tried to get it at other places after this, but none were ever the same. It was angelic.
What was a favorite memory from your time abroad?
BE: I was always sure I was a beach over mountains fan, so I wasn’t particularly jazzed to take a trip to northern Thailand, which is known for its mountainous landscape. My friends I’d met in the other abroad programs wanted to visit Chiang Rai, a city a few hours northeast of the more famous Chiang Mai, so I went along. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. This trip was by far my favorite of all that I went on.
The best memory I have from this trip was one night when we were lazily walking through the poorly lit winding streets of the town and we stopped at a Chinese donut stand. These are different from the sugar hardened American donuts I usually avoid. They’re fried x-shaped pieces of dough with a small container of custard on the side. The dough isn’t sweet at all, but buttery and crispy on the outside with a soft interior that craters to giant air pockets when you bite into it. The custard is thick like frosting and incredibly rich and creamy, often a pale green from pandan leaves added mostly for color. Every bite you can choose how much sweet custard you’d like to dip your donut in.
We stood there for about five minutes with our mouths and eyes open, forgetting it’s impolite to drool in public, just basking in the beautiful buttery smell and light sizzling sound of the dough in oil. We each got five donuts. After biting into one we knew this was a grave mistake. It was insane of us to even consider getting less than ten per person. We walked back to our hostel, a donut in one hand, the jar of custard in the other, the bag of extras under one arm, completely unable to discuss anything besides the godly nature of this dessert. We laughed at how good they were because really it was just ridiculous. That was a great moment.
Sometimes students are hesitant to study abroad out of lack of having friends in a foreign country. What was your personal experience making friends while abroad?
BE: I didn’t know a single person in my program before I went. In all fairness, this is what I wanted. I wanted a very different and uncomfortable experience that would push me. When I got there and started making friends, it was so natural and easy. No one else knew each other either, which created a very close bond between all of us right from the start. We were all on the same plane, in it together, no one to hold us back with preconceived notions about our personalities. We all later admitted that we did tons of things we never would have done with people that already knew us because it would have felt out of character. We were truly all free to do whatever and be whoever we wanted. Since we were in such a foreign place, we stuck together and this brought us incredibly close. Even now after the program has ended we still talk and visit each other whenever possible. I feel incredibly lucky to have met such amazing people, but I know it wouldn’t have happened unless I took that initially uncomfortable leap into something I wasn’t familiar with. High risk, high reward. It also helped that the general feeling of most people in Thailand was so open, genuine, and kind. This motivated all of us to be caring and patient with one another.
What is the biggest lesson you learned while abroad? How has your abroad experience affected the trajectory of your life?
BE: The biggest lesson I learned while abroad that I’ll undoubtedly carry with me for the rest of my life is that it’s important to care for other people, even if they’re strangers. I’ve never experienced kindness like I did in Thailand, in the entire country no matter where we traveled. More than kindness even, people were just generally in tune with other’s feelings. Everyone was hyper aware of their surroundings and had an intuitive sense of what other people needed. I found myself in several situations where I needed help but was too timid or confused to ask, and every time without fail, someone came up to me and helped me instantly. Even if they didn’t speak English, even if they were in a rush, even if they didn’t know how to help, they always offered their hand. I don’t think they knew what it meant to me to receive this kindness. I was never scammed, tricked, or put in any sort of danger the entire time I was there. Thai people are incredibly honest and genuine, always putting forth extra effort to help foreigners or even just show us something new. My friends and I found ourselves laughing and feeling comfortable with total strangers, each of us only knowing enough of each other’s language to ask for a name or direction. Kindness is Thailand’s most valuable and abundant asset (aside from the food). I try to be kind to others now the way people were kind to me when I was abroad, being extra patient and understanding with those I encounter.
Curious to hear more from ISA/TEAN alumni? Read more blogs from Thailand alumni or explore how other alumni experienced the cuisine from the country where they studied abroad.
Inspired by Bailee’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!