Interview With Judie Donaldson

retired educator, recently returned from a year in Thailand
Photo by Malcolm Slight

Judie Donaldson’s adventure began with a radical thought.

While reading women’s memoirs, she said to herself, “Wouldn’t it be great to get your head out of a book and go and learn firsthand about women in other places in the world?”

A retired educator, Judie is drawn to understanding women’s status around the world. She’s read about 125 women’s memoirs so far and plans to continue to read even more.

But in the fall of 2011, a different way of learning captured her imagination. Get out in the world. Go see how women live in other places. The pull of this idea convinced her to put aside her normally cautious ways.

She decided to spend a year living on her own in Thailand. A little research and a certain amount of serendipity lead to the choice of destinations.

She wanted to volunteer with an organization serving women, and found one in Chiang Mai, a city of about 175,000 in Thailand. She read online that many world travelers said Thailand was their favorite country. She also wanted to expand her Buddhist practices. And one of her daughter’s friends offered Judie a sublet in Chiang Mai.

“The stars all seemed to align,” she says. “There was nothing analytical about my decision. It was all intuitive.” She left in June, 2012 and returned this summer. While overseas, she also visited Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Nepal.

Judie, 75, lived in Pennsylvania for 10 years before moving to Benicia almost four years ago to be near family here. She served on the city Arts and Culture Commission before leaving for Thailand and is looking for the right volunteer opportunity now that she is home.

Before retiring, she taught and was an administrator at New York University and the University of San Francisco in programs designed for adult learners. “I believe good education is transformative,” she says.

Did you get to work with the women’s group in Chiang Mai? The books I read told me I probably could volunteer with the nonprofit, but what I learned was I couldn’t. My visa wouldn’t let me work for pay or as a volunteer. That was a disappointment. …

So I interviewed people at nonprofits serving Thai women. Most were founded and run by expats. There were many groups helping women who are homeless, who want to learn English, or need educational support, both scholarships and tutoring.

How did you prepare for leaving your home for a year? The big deal was getting a visa. I was on a one-year retirement visa. I also wanted a visa to visit Burma, and that was a big deal because they were just beginning to welcome people into the country.

I had all kinds of questions: How will I handle money? Do they have ATMs? What kind of insurance do I need? Am I going to rent out my place here? What all do I need to do before I go? The post office will only forward your mail for 60 days, so I had to file change-of-address forms to send my mail to my daughter. What shots do I need? How will I deal with medical care over there?

I read and read and read, trying to learn every detail of preparation needed. I learned Thailand is a developing country, so there are ATMs there. I learned that in Burma, they won’t take credit cards, only crisp American dollar bills.

Did you meet your goal of strengthening your Buddhist practice? Yes, but not in the ways I thought I would. I thought I would get someone to teach me more about Buddhism, but it turns out that not many Thai Buddhists are good at being able to teach people from other cultures. I did find one, but I didn’t find a personal teacher. Instead, I went to meetings – they are called Sangha. I went to the Green Papaya Sangha in Chiang Mai, and I attended five Buddhist meditation retreats that ranged from five to 10 days each. Most of them were silent. One was in Nepal.

How did the year abroad change the way you see the world? I think that my worldview is expanded in a very generalized way. Our way is not a better way. Our whole culture teaches us that, but it’s not a better way. It’s just a different way.

I could see an alternative value system at work. The difference between being a tourist and living there is immense. 

Has it changed your everyday life here in Benicia? I’m embarrassed to say how easily I slipped back into my life of privilege. But it changed my way of thinking. I see the world differently. I’m careful about making assumptions, making judgments because of one little bit of info in the media.

What do you see as your role as a citizen of Benicia? I definitely believe it takes a village. It takes every citizen to make a quality community that serves everyone. I’m ready to organize my life here in Benicia and find volunteer opportunities because community service is important to me. I want to find something that’s a good fit.

What was your transition to Thailand like? The first thing that came to me when I got to Chiang Mai was that it was hot. I turned on the air conditioning in the bedroom and thought, “How am I going to survive this?” But after the first couple of days, I just used fans.

Learning my neighborhood was my number one priority—that and learning to get around on the red trucks. They are like a group taxi. I walked a lot. I had flashcards that I carried to communicate with people.

What’s next for you? I want to go to a Muslim country, though I may not spend a full year there. Maybe three months. That would work for me. Maybe next year.

I’d like to find a volunteer opportunity working with immigrants or refugees. I want to continue to learn and read more memoirs.

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