The odd one out
“Tere hommikust! Vabandust, ma otsin Hertta Pirkkalainen” I say politely. (Excuse me, I’m looking for Hertta.) Of course, I face a common problem with learning a new language right there and then: Often, you are able to ask a question, but your skills are not sufficient to understand the answer. My additional lesson: not speaking that language with a noticeable accent increases the problem, for people don’t realize that you might not understand them.
So I admit to being the foreigner who will be on a placement here for the next three weeks. The vets take a look at their board. Yes, there’s my name, I’m allowed to be here.
The second time I went abroad to learn at another university’s large animal hospital, I knew nothing of the language except of “Hello” and Thank you” – and while at the end I was able to order my own food, due to the phonetic nature of Thai, I would never get past these few words.
Over the next four months, I see the different approaches to hoof care, animal handling, workplace safety, and improvised treatment techniques of the two countries. And of course, a lot more.
The first and hardest thing I have to get used to is the names. After reaching the point where not only Sarah, Christina, Max and Tobias were common, but also Margit, Els, Alar and Andres had become normal names to me (let alone the last names), I now had to figure out if Pui, Saw, Fon, Pet and Nott were male or female and remember them.
Every time you get to a new country, you have to wrap your mind around the sounds of the names there, get a feeling for them.
Then there are some things interns in every occupation have to deal with: the hierarchy within the place , who is most interested in explaining stuff to the students (and speaks the best English), where to find things, where to best stand out of the way, and the work ethics.
This last one gave me a new perspective on German work ethics: if work starts at eight (as it usually does), you want to be there before, in order to get an overview, and change into your work garments. Then you get things done, and only afterwards you can take a break – sometimes it means lunch at three, or even no lunch.
In December, I find myself at the Estonian University of Life Sciences (EMÜ), Tartu, Estonia. It’s eight twenty-five. I was told to be here at eight thirty, but I’ve already changed into work clothes. One of the teachers passes me, coffee in hand. We won’t leave until nine to go to the farm, he says. On most days, it will even be later than that.
In January, I sit on the other side of the world, in a similar chair in front of a similar office with a similar board that has my name on it (although not spelled correctly), my view, again, being an examination chute for horses. Mahanakorn University of Technology (MUT), Bangkok, Thailand. Although we do take a quick look at the patients in the morning (we start at nine), normally everybody has breakfast first. And everybody is granted a one-hour lunch break. At twelve. If you don’t eat, you can’t do your best at work, is what I’m told. Makes sense.
Here, we already arrive in the clothes we will work in, we are going wear them during lunch break, and often at the place we go to for dinner.
For the hygiene concept of an animal clinic is, as my boyfriend puts it, as unique as a finger print. So you have to figure out where the hand sanitizer is, when to wash hands and when to disinfect them with what, if you are wearing gloves to protect yourself or to protect the patient, where and when to clean your shoes, and which gauze swabs to use for what.
In Germany, if I am asked “have you done this before”, it essentially means: If you already know how to do this, you may, if not, l’d better do it myself.”
One of my contact persons at MUT politely phrases it this way: “If you do it for the first time when you already have a job, and have all the responsibility, then you really, really learn it.”
I prefer this question with the subtext it has in Estonia and Thailand: “Have you done this before?”
“No, but I’ve seen it.”
“Ok, look, you go like this… yes, very good, now go ahead!”
I prefer to do things for the first time when somebody could potentially prevent serious damage to an animal’s life.
That is how, on my very first day at EMÜ, I administer an epidural anesthesia to the cow with the bleeding tail that I spotted in the stable. One of the tail bones is fractured, open, it will get infected. The best way to deal with this is to amputate. Margit and Els (yes, first name basis) show me how to do this, and I get to do it. And it is why after seeing two caesarian sections in Thailand, I get to assist in the third.
A lot of things are very different from the German way both in Estonia and in Thailand. But Estonia is still Europe, and the cows look fairly similar.
In Thailand, everything is actually different. The currency, the way people treat each other (no hugging, but touching arms and hands, for example, and everybody sharing food, drinking from the same straws, riding scooters with three people on them…), the cows. The shoes (steel cap wellies here, but sneakers in the best case, but often only sandals). The breakfast. And so on.
The first thing I learn in Thailand is to trust.
The vets trust the students to handle the horses and too perform rectal examinations, to change wound dressings and to assist in a C-section. So we trust in ourselves, too. There is someone right there who could jump in. We can do this.
But also, that things will work out. If you’re stranded somewhere, you will be saved and brought back to a place you know. Opportunities will arise. If things look incredibly dark – Thailand is a sunny country, just wait a minute and the problem will solve itself. Believe me. Somebody is putting things in motion for you. It may be a person, it may be a divine power.
Then I learn acceptance.
We don’t have a lot of patients. Not in Estonia, which may be because it’s winter, and certainly not in Thailand. So here we are, ten students, ten vets, two patients in a day. And then we sit. And relax. As a German, this may be hard. And why wait with the other thing until afternoon? Well, because if we did it now, what would we do in the afternoon? Accept it. Accept things as they are. Accept the fact that you are sweating every day, even as you don’t move at all, accept that most of the day, you are all just sitting around, swiping and scrolling on your phones.
But most of all, accept the kindness of the Thai people. I was not used to people asking me if I’d had breakfast. I was not used to people organizing food for me. Accompanying me everywhere. Insisting they drive me home in the evening. Or drive me to the Cambodian border as my visa runs out (long story).
Sometimes I didn’t know what to think of it, sometimes it was overwhelming. But this is just the way they are.
So I accepted it. The Thai are incredibly kind and warm people, and a smile is enough of a thank you to them.
I am incredibly grateful.
So after three weeks in a cold, snowy Estonia with thick-haired Highland cattle, I have now completed three months in 34-degree sunny Thailand, with its Brahman cows and buffaloes and polluted air. After four weeks in the large animal hospital that covers horses, Cattle, goats and sheep, but also some exotic pets, I continued in the Khao Kheow Open Zoo, where my main work was to prepare the medicine in the mornings and to monitor the anesthesia. For obvious reasons, most zoo animals have to be anesthetized for treatments and examinations. I learn to be really quick, I get very good at multitasking, and finally, I learn the numbers in Thai, so I can draw the drugs that somebody shouts the dosage for.
I also learn patience.
I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t understand it when the vets discuss their plan, but I have prepared the box with all the drugs we might need and have everything else in my pockets. Whichever species our next patient will be – I can wait for it and handle it. But of course, I also have to be patient when someone who is explaining things to me is struggling with the English vocabulary. I have to be patient (with my ever over-punctual German mentality) until everyone else is ready to go, and I have to be patient when we wait for the animal to be in a good position to be darted with the sedative.
Then we wait again. The patient falls. We run. We treat. We wait for it to get better.
Five weeks and one visa-extension-adventure later, I’m at my last station of this internship: the Premier Pet Hospital. We do have some cats here, and I get to see a dog, but the focus is clearly (and fortunately for me) on exotic pets: rabbits, birds, reptiles, marmosets, prairie dogs, even a squirrel monkey.
This is a world I not only enjoy like the cattle and zoo animals, but also am more familiar with – after all, I’ve worked in a clinic like this. But the vets don’t know how much I know and what I can do, and methods and approaches are different than in Germany.
Plus, obviously, I can’t speak to the owners.
So I stand in the back and watch. Often, my questions can’t be fully answered. And while the people, again, are the kindest and nicest and I love life in the hospital – my learning experience is limited.
As a foreign student, you will most likely be that invisible person in the back, who gets to watch, but not do things herself. Unless you ask.
So ask, ask, ask. This is another lesson I learned.
Going abroad will never be the way you expected. And never will you learn as much about yourself and the world, let’s call it “the bigger picture”, than when you get out of your comfort zone and into a new place, with a different philosophy, culture, and language. If just for a second you wonder if you should – do it.
I did not come to Thailand to “find myself”, I came to gain experience with animals that are exotic in Germany but common here. I came to finally fulfil my dream of visiting Thailand, getting to know its nature and culture.
But in a way, my perspective has shifted, and things have changed.
I had a lot of time at hand to focus on other things than vet school, and this has been so rewarding.
I’ve had the best time in the zoo, surrounded by nature, with monkeys on the roof of my house, and geckos on the windows, with tigers for neighbors and getting onto the hospital’s routine.
And after some time, I felt worse and worse in the city, with the smog and the noise of the traffic and the ACs and artificial lights.
I felt cheated by bad planning that caused me to pay three months’ worth of rent for a room in which I lived four and a half weeks.
But I also felt taken care of more than ever before.
And I remembered why I chose a job that would let me spend the majority of my time outdoors.
If you choose to do a placement abroad, I can only encourage you. It will teach you so much.
But be prepared to be the odd one out. You will always be the person nobody knows where to put. No-one knows how much you know and how much you understand. And you will always be the one who has no idea what’s going on.
Would I do it again? Estonia, for sure. When I came back from there, I felt confident. Had a farmer asked me about his lame cows, I would have handled it.
Thailand? Overall, I’d say probably not. Don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful for the time I could spend here, and all the experiences that I will never forget.
But did I increase my veterinary knowledge? Not really.
Did I learn other things?
That if you want to really gain something from it professionally, you shouldn’t do a placement in a country whose language you don’t speak is just the end of a long list.
And these skills are going to make me a better vet – and a better person.