As a one-year AFS exchange student to Denmark in 1988, Watinee Kharnwong was supposed to speak English to facilitate communication there, but after three short months she found herself speaking fluent Danish instead. Sometimes when talking or joking in Danish, it occurred to her that she may even have forgotten her English language skills.
“When I was in Ans City in Jylland I found that the Danes there were mostly bilingual and they were all kind enough to talk to me in English. But sometimes I felt excluded when they talked to each other in their own language and I thought to myself that it would be good to understand and speak Danish,” Watinee recalls fondly.
Thus Watinee decided to learn Danish at evening school where she was joined by other international AFS students from America, Korea and Africa.
“I got an outstanding result in the class because I was so eager to speak Danish, but I have forgotten most of it since I came back home,” she laughs.
When the language programme stopped, Watinee enjoyed activities such as horse riding, canoeing, diving and doing part time work, most of which she had never done before.
“You could say that my experience in Denmark encouraged me to do many things I had never expected to do before,” Watinee says.
Watinee reckons that her experience in Denmark opened her eyes to the world and helped her understand and accept people from different backgrounds, races and nationalities.
“When people are different, adaptability is required,” and Watinee reckons at the very least she gained this quality from her time in Denmark.
But it was not all one-sided. While trying to understand the Danes, Watinee at the same time tried to help the Danes understand her and her Thai ways of thinking.
“I realized that it was my duty to act as an ambassador for Thailand and to let people know more about Thailand. There were questions such as: ‘Are Thailand and Taiwan the same?’ and ‘Are Thai people like Chinese or Laotians?’
“I soon realised that there were lots of questions to be answered and some clarification required about our unique culture. To teach my new friends about Thailand, I showed them my Thai traditional dancing. It was fun and also made me proud of my country,”Watinee recalls.
Watinee received a lot of support from her Danish host family during her time in Denmark and the family showed Watinee, by their example, that Denmark was a peaceful country with a rich culture too.
“Although the two countries are far apart, I found that Denmark and Thailand share many connections. We have our royal families both loved by their people. We have our own cultures to preserve and maintain and we are truly kind peoples. These things surprised and impressed me at the same time,” Watinee smiles.
“My Danish family especially were really warm and an artistic family too. They loved to play piano and write poems. It was a peaceful and happy time for me in Denmark,” Watinee recalls.
Ms.Watinee is now working with the Australian Embassy in Thailand as Deputy Director of Australian Education International (AEI). She is responsible for educational projects sponsored by the Australian government, providing scholarships to students and teachers, as well as providing training courses for Thai teachers.
Ms. Watinee said that Thailand and Australia have an excellent relationship in the field of tertiary education and this is based on the fact that Australia has a high standard of education, a high level of security and low costs of living compared to the United States and Europe, and for decades, many Thai students have chosen to study in Australia.
“I also finished my master’s degree in Australia so I understand what students want to know when they decide to study abroad. There are plenty of questions which arise when you plan to live outside your own country. Our duty here is to be a reliable information provider,” notes Ms. Watinee.
Apart from her career at the Australian Embassy, Watinee took part in establishing the Danish Alumni Society seeing an excellent opportunity to gather the alumni together and identifying the benefits of the alumni sharing their experiences. There was also the added benefit of helping recruit the right people for Danish companies based or operating in Thailand.
Preparing to Visit Her Second Home
“I am preparing to go back to Denmark – possibly next year – and there is a saying that the first country that you visit abroad will take first place in your heart and Denmark certainly affects me in that way,” says Ms. Watinee, adding that she would love to see her many Danish friends again and also to see how things have changed in the city, if at all.
To see and be re-united with her Danish host family is of course central to her purpose in returning to Denmark and Watinee has always kept in touch, writing letters in Danish regularly to the family she left behind in 1989.
“They made me feel so much at home when I lived there,” she recalls.
“Tak for sidst” is how Watinee will greet her family in Denmark – Svend and Eva Simonsen when she finally makes it ‘home’ again.
“And I’ve got some Danish friends who have come to visit me in Thailand already so it is definitely time for me to pay them a visit,” says Watinee.