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Rotary: the Thai that binds

For one young man recently returned from Thailand and one young woman returning to Thailand from Canada, the Rotary student exchange program has been a life-altering experience.

For one young man recently returned from Thailand and one young woman returning to Thailand from Canada, the Rotary student exchange program has been a life-altering experience.

Kai Nestman, who turned 19 this year, began his experience in spring 2004 when he was chosen to represent the Sechelt Rotary Club in the youth exchange. After a busy spring and summer that included his high school graduation, Nestman left on the trip of a lifetime on Aug. 4 last year.

While he was in Thailand, Nestman was the guest of three host families. The first was a single mother, a teacher with three daughters and a grandmother at home. Ironically, the eldest of the three girls left for an exchange of her own to New York shortly after Nestman's arrival.

This family was the poorest of the three hosts. The mother earned about 7,000 baht, the equivalent of about $250 Canadian, monthly.

The second host family was Thai-Chinese, a common ethnic combination in Thailand.

"They were very frugal but very rich. The mother worked at home and the dad was an insurance agent," Nestman said.The family had three sons, ages eight, 10 and 12. "The father was never home," Nestman added.

This was the only family the Sunshine Coast man travelled with while in Thailand.

"We went to Bangkok for Chinese New Year," Nestman said. That holiday is celebrated much the same way the world over. The highlight is gifts of money for young people.

Nestman's third family was a "very affluent, rich, Thai-Chinese family." And although he doesn't say so, it's apparent from the warmth in his voice this was his favourite home away from home.

"They ran the biggest foreign restaurant in the town (in the extreme north of the country). They spent all their time running the restaurant and they also catered," Nestman explained.

But these parents with their family of two boys and four girls all under the age of eight were also the most outgoing."They would do anything for you - anything you want," he said.

Nestman singled out the pride of the Thai people in their country, region and towns as the biggest difference between the Asian country and Canada.

"There is a sense of nationalism, pride for their king and queen. They are the founders of democracy in Thailand. The Thai people idolize them," he noted.

And the other characteristic of the people he appreciated was their loyalty. "If you have a good Thai friend they'll do anything for you," he said.

Nestman had several tours of the country, including the area devastated by the tsunami. He was proud to spend hours at a Rotary building site where 250 low-cost housing units were being built.

Along with fellow Rotary exchange students, Nestman poured cement and painted steel pillars. And while he said it was difficult to determine what was tsunami devastation and what was demolition, the sight of the countryside had a huge impact on him.

One of the pictures he saw was of a navy boat pushed inland two kilometres. It was the watch boat for the young Thai royal killed in the tsunami.

After his eye-opening year, Nestman had planned to go to the University of Victoria, but that plan is on hold while he campaigns for federal Liberal candidate Blair Wilson on the Sunshine Coast. While Nestman was away, the Rotary Club of the Sunshine Coast hosted a student from Thailand Am Arayacheeppreecha. Am, who turned 18 this past spring, chuckles at the Canadian reaction to her surname with its 17 letters.

She has enjoyed the freedom young people in Canada have compared to her home country. She marvels at the differences in the school systems between the two countries. At her home in Bangkok, Am attends school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. And after school she goes to tutors for even more schooling. The young woman leaves her home at 6:30 each morning and is seldom back before 12 hours are up.Thai schools are strict with students. "Here you can wear what you want. There it is ponytail, no earrings, no jewellery. Hair has no [dyed] colour and not too long," she explained.

And the Thai children don't have the same kind of weekend ours do. "On Saturday I go to learn math in the morning and English in the afternoon," Am said. And Sunday is more of the same.

Am has studied English since Grade 1 in her native country. The youngest of four, her older sister is a flight attendant with Japan Airlines. Her youngest brother is in university and the other works in a food-testing lab.

Her long-range goals include studying Mandarin and going to China for an exchange. As with many exchange students, she will repeat her Grade 12 next year.

And while Am has missed her mother fiercely, she loves many things about Canada.

"I want to bring Tim Hortons," she says with a grin. Her other favourites include our many parties for special occasions and snow.

Her main dislike is English grammar. "Write it is not good" is her succinct take on the subject.

For both young people, memories made will last a lifetime.

As Nestman says, "It's totally worth it."