On Assignment in Thailand, Peace Corps changed his life

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By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, July 01, 2001 - 7:22 pm: Edit Post

On Assignment in Thailand, Peace Corps changed his life

On Assignment in Thailand, Peace Corps changed his life

On Assignment in Thailand, Peace Corps changed his life

by Jamie N. Hodge

Timing is everything.

Rex Dufour had applied and been accepted to the Peace Corps twice, but both times he declined to go for various reasons. Then in 1985, he accepted an invitation to work as one of the first four plant protection volunteers in Thailand.

The 31-year-old bachelor, who had always wanted to go overseas, sold his car and left his job working for the state of California. He stored his possessions, not much more than books, in his parents attic, the rest stashed with friends or sold at garage sales.

"It was a country next to Vietnam is about all I knew," recalls 45-year-old Dufour of his initial knowledge of Thailand. He now works as an associate project manager for the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Fayetteville, a nonprofit agency that focuses on sustainable use of natural resources, particularly helping low income Americans. "I didn't really have a good idea of what I was getting into. I thought I'd be out in the jungle without resources, but that wasn't the case."

Other than thinking he couldn't go that long without skiing, Dufour, who was raised in upstate New York, wasn't concerned about the two-year commitment. "Here's a government program that pays you to go overseas, learn new cultures and languages and meet foreign people."

He joined a group of 19 other Thai-bound volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps from 1985-87. Margaret Fong, one of those other volunteers, sat next to Dufour on the plane ride to Thailand. "We met and fell in love during my Peace Corps term," says Dufour about his wife of 12 years, who worked with tribes in the northern part of Thailand during her term. "It was just the plain adventure," Dufour says, that attracted him to Peace Corps.

When he first arrived at his work site, no one else spoke English, and he barely spoke Thai . The next three months were spent learning to get around those barriers; Dufour underwent culture and intensive language training provided by Peace Corps during those first three months. Everyday, he studied the language at a local Buddhist Temple along with other volunteers, including his future wife. Dufour, like all volunteers, stayed with a local family during his training period.

"What you get after three months is just enough to learn more," says Dufour about his Thai language training. He says because it is a tonal language, which means words have different meanings depending on their tone, it was difficult to learn. "By two years I could speak reasonably well, but I wasn't fluent until after three more years."

Dufour, who has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in "integrated pest management," talked with farmers about pesticide use and safety as an employee of the Royal Thai government during his assignment to the Department of Plant Protection. He did village training skits, a humorous foolish farmer thing, showing what not to do when spraying or dealing with pesticides. "Farmers never wore masks. They were usually barefoot or in sandals. They didn't understand the dangers of exposure to pesticides." He also did research on alternatives to pesticides.

Dufour rented a house in a pretty developed village during his Peace Corps stint. On the roof, he collected rainwater in a 2,000-liter jar to use as drinking water. He says he gained an appreciation for the good things Americans have while he was there. "We're just so rich. I don't think most Americans understand how much we have. We actually bathe in our drinking water. It's unusual to be able to do that."

The cultural differences between America and Thailand showed up in everything from privacy issues to food choices. "Thais thought, 'If he's by himself, he needs company, he's lonely,'" Dufour recalls about living spaces in Thailand. He says it was just a matter of explaining that he wasn't lonely. One difference he didn't mind so much was Thai insect cuisine - termites, giant water bugs, grasshoppers.

Dufour remembers being asked to do things he really didn't want to do. "At parties, as the lone foreigner, I was always asked to sing. I only knew 'Jingle Bells' and 'House of the Rising Sun.'" He once sang "Jingle Bells" at a co-worker's party while everyone danced.

The Peace Corps gives other foreign nationals a chance to see what Americans, or some of them at least, are really like. "Most people overseas only see Americans through films and television," he says. "While I was there it was Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the violent stuff."

For Dufour, his time as a volunteer changed his life. Peace Corps is an "education you can't get in any university in this country." He encourages young people today to consider the Peace Corps and to remember there's plenty of time to have a family and career too. "This world offers so much. Why not see some of that while you can? It's a great opportunity."

After coming back to America upon completion of his two-year Peace Corps term, Dufour returned to Thailand to work for the United Nations Border Relief Operation for three years. Next, Dufour spent another three years working at the State Department in Laos. Dufour has been with his current employer in Fayetteville since returning to the United States five years ago.

By clifcrain@sbcglobal.net (adsl-69-107-3-115.dsl.pltn13.pacbell.net - on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 11:37 am: Edit Post

Peace Corps Thailand (1967-70) also changed my life.
Now, at the age of 62, I am trying to locate volunteers from southern Thailand: Jan and Kay Orcini (sp?). Can you help?
Email = 4creativeliving@sbcglobal.net

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