I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Wang Thong, Thailand from
January 8, 2004 through March 10, 2006.
Below are my email correspondences.
January 10, 2004 – Hello
ok, so I have to be fast because there is a long line here. They got us a bus to come down to the town’s email place but there are about 7 PCVs (that means peace corps volunteers) behind me waiting for this computer.
So I am ok. Actually, I am pretty fucking great if truth be told. Seattle was great except for this terrible cold I got on the flight there. My fears that everyone would be a snotty little 22 year old were not really valid. Just half of them. The people are actually great. A few of them I am beginning to like a lot. A pretty impressive bunch too. My roommate in Seattle and here in Ban Pong spent a year in India studying Buddhism. Everyone else is very well traveled. A year in Chile. Two years in Dubai. And everyone is nice, and funny, and smart, and just all around fun and supportive. I think we are all bonding at a rapid pace here, which is to be expected.
So arriving in Bangkok, wow. They have all the current PCVs now in Thailand meet you at the airport. Well, first the PC Thailand director met us at the freaking plane and takes us to a special line for customs and they basically handle everything. Then when we walk out it is like we are Bono or Madonna or something. About 100 current Thai PCVs screaming, taking out pictures, welcoming us. Bus was waiting with fresh fruit and while we boarded all the PCVs chatted with us and it was incredible. We were all pretty exhausted from the flights, especially the last one from Tokyo, but this arrival got all of us pumped.
Bam Pong is about 100 km from Bangkok, west. Small sized city, nice hotel. There is so much to tell about the first 2 days I can’t really do it. We got so much information. Got a small lesson in “wai” (traditional Thai greeting, a bow and a greeting) for our dinner with the district governor next week! We will be in the hotel till Thursday and then the host families for 9 weeks. Basically we have a little schedule, 4 basic classes: language, health, technical (about our jobs) and culture. There are about 15 language instructors and TAs and they all love to go out for dinner and lunch and just teach. The thai is going to be a challenge, but I think I am going to love it. The culture stuff is also amazing and I think being in the family’s house I will learn more than in the classroom.
I really can’t say enough about how special the staff is. John is the director and the assistants and staff members all made the arrival so easy. They take care of everything. They were great to talk to. They answer questions. The doctor is great too. Two shots yesterday and Japanese Encephalitis today. He was just totally cool.
So today it is 930am and they bused us to this town for email. Back to town at 10 and then classes start at 1030.
So that is that. I love it. One thing that is very clear is that training is going to be VERY hard and I am a little nervous about all the work and papers and studying. But I am still confident. The staff and my fellow PCVs are cool. I am going to make quite a few friends I think.
I may not email for days at a time but rest assured I am safe and happy and very very very busy.
LOVE YOU ALL
January 14, 2004 – Sah Wah Dee Khap
I am here. It is incredible. The fellow PC trainees are a pretty cool bunch, very smart, from all over America. The staff is really something else. And the Thai staff are my favorite. We are about 100km west of Bangkok, in the Rachaburi Province, near the border of Burma, but very very safe. For the first week we have been staying in a hotel but tomorrow we meet and move in with our host families. They will divide the 36 of us up into 6 groups and we will be living in 6 villages all around the hotel (we get our bikes tomorrow for transportation to the villages and to the hotel). Once a week we come back to the hotel but otherwise, in the villages, we have four classes. Language, technical (which is in the beginning a lot of info about the current Thai educational system and will move on to how we will integrate ourselves into it), Cultural (my favorite, learning so much I never knew) and finally safety, and medical. I now consider myself an expert on dog bites and the Big D, aka Diarrhea. I expect my case of the Big D to be any day now. Yes, this is all we talk about.
We will go to Bangkok in 5 weeks and visit the PC office bur for now we are confined to Ratchaburi. The city our hotel is in is called Ban Pong, City of Nice People. Everyone smiles as they see 20 phrangs (white people) walk down the street dressed riap roy (this is what they say all the time, riap roy. Khakis. Belt. Button down. We have to dress riap roy whenever we meet people, like the governor of Rachaburi whom we met two days ago, but also in class. Thai children dress up for school and we must as well) and speaking our elementary Thai. But I must say, after 5 days of language, I have a feeling I will get it in time. Lots of time perhaps, but time. Being with the host family is a huge part of it. They picked traditional Thai families, and the picked families that do not speak english so I will be forced to learn. I like this approach. And this is why they picked Ratchaburi. Bangkok is too western and there are so many tourists and KFCs that it would be hard to learn Thai when English is so readily available and hard to adjust to rural culture when so may in Bangkok live like westerners. I do really want to head into the city and check it out but I understand why they are doing it. Makes sense. Although I personally am going right to KFC when we get there.
Ok, so I love my fellow volunteers. Great group of people. Derek is my roommate, from Alaska. We roomed together in Seattle and hit it off so rooming here too. We all hang out in someone’s room at night and then Derek and I usually stay up late talking. It is like that first month in college, as freahman. He reminds me of my freshman year roommate Matt. Anyway, there are 36 of us everyone is pretty cool.
So the big move day is tomorrow and I am hoping I love my new mother and father. Apparently we are to call them mom and dad. I may even get some new brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. weird right. My one hope is that my new mom will do my laundry. Is that bad?? I feel bad thinking it. Not too bad though.
Did I mention that Thai teachers use corporal punishment. The tech teacher was all “did you all bring your paddles?” She was kidding. I think.
Ok, so now I live in Thailand. I have a cell phone and an address and a full schedule. Very strange. Very very strange. But there is a saying: mai pen rai. No problem. It’s all good. I want to get it tattooed on my arm. That or CORP 116, which is our unit here in Thailand. We may all get the same tattoo. We did all get the same cell phone.
Oh, and I didn’t change my name here to a Thai name as they suggested, but I did as that everyone call me “Ice Cold” which is now my nickname.
I wish I could see my mom’s face now. I mean my old mom. Not my new mom. She wouldn’t understand.
Oh yeah and this guy Jason and I are getting tailored silk suits like the ones Bruce Lee wears for our swearing in ceremony, where the US ambassador will be attending.
ok, that should do it.
Seth (aka Ice Cold)
January 17, 2004 – My New Family
Ok, so I now have a new family. The best part of my new family is that they have a bathroom that has a toilet that flushes, so I don’t have to wipe myself with a hose and my hand, unless of course I want to. The other good thing about my family is that I love them. My new mom and my new dad and my new brother and sister and the other girl who is always there and some old woman and these three people from I think down the street, well, they like to sit there and touch me and stare at me and then I say something and they laugh. They think it is the funniest thing when I talk, or eat, or just sit there. Sometimes these women pinch me and I smile and say “ooookaaaayyyy” and then they all say “ooookkkkaaaayyy” and then they say a few things in Thai and look and me and then we all have a big laugh. Often, this is followed by me and my new dad drinking a whiskey and soda. They also think this is funny. They also know the English word for fat, which apparently I am.
at least they don’t wipe themselves with their hands, which is the case in many of my fellow volunteers new homes. And with my imminent Big D (this stands for Diarrhea) I feel like this is a VERY good thing. The Big D, an epidemic now afflicting most of the volunteers, will not come as a surprise since one of the other favorite activities of my family is to put weird food, mostly food with faces, in front of me and watch me eat it. And when I gag, well, let me tell you, they think this is the funniest thing EVER. I can’t wait to see how hysterical they think my Big D is. They may never recover.
They tell me when to eat. They tell me when to sleep and shower. In fact, I need to rush home soon and I think we are doing aerobics. I am not quite sure. This morning my language group (about 6 of us) traveled around to each other’s houses and mapped the area. We are to present this map Monday when we go to the Hub Site (this is the hotel where we stayed the first week, we go there once a week for big classes). Anyway, the last house was mine and then my dad, or Paw, took the whole class out for fried chicken and a fish with a big face and I think eyeball soup or something. My paw apparently loves me (my teacher translated) and he is taking me to the capital tomorrow. What we will do there I don’t know but I will tell you when I find out.
Ok, another funny thing is that I am supposed to call my new mom and dad Meh and Paw, which is how you say M & D in Thai, but I keep forgetting Meh, so I say Ma, like we do in the states, but Ma in Thai is Dog, and needless to say the whole family was on the floor with that one, and then I did it again, but by the 20th time my meh was pissed, so she sent me to bed. I think she may have grounded me.
Other than that, thinks are still incredible. Oh yeah, my address during training is
Peace Corps Thailand
242 Rajvithi Road
Dusit, Bangkok 10300 THAILAND
(my phone number, when dialed from USA is 011 66 7 169 0567)
If you mail me anything, please include a blank postcard or just anything from the USA that I can give to my host family. Anything American. Fashion magazine. Little Statue of Liberty. Something for a 15 yr old girl or 8 yr old boy. They love the US and they want anything from the US, and not JUST the chocolate covered cherries I got them from the Seattle Int’l Airport.
One last thing. I have been at the internet cafe for about 1.6 hours and read all 12 emails I had and wrote this email. That should give you an idea of how long it takes this computer to load. So until I get to Bangkok or find a faster computer I pretty much can write 1-3 emails each time I come here, which is 3 times a week or so. BUT I read each one and if they let me, which they did once, I print them out and read them a few times at home and keep them. So please keep writing, and write about what you are doing.
January 24, 2004 – Delicious Fried Chicken
First things first, my new Thai name. In English, it is spelled Guy Taut Arroy. Translated to Delicious Fried Chicken (First name is Chicken, middle name fried, last name delicious). This name was given to me by my Meh (AKA Ma) because I always reach for the friend chicken when given the choice of fried chicken, roasted grasshoppers, chunks of pork in a fishy soup, and various other things, mostly with faces. Then she asks me how it is and I say ‘Arroy’ which means delicious. Thus the nickname. The funny thing is, people in the village whom I have never met have begun calling out to me “Hallo Guy” so word has spread through my village (aka Intersection).
Things my family continues to find hysterical include but are not limited to me yawning, me eating, me speaking Thai, me speaking English, and me doing homework. I must say, I always suspected I was a little funny. Indeed, I have been known to tell a joke or fire off a humorous email now and again. But who could ever have known that the simple act of yawning could bring about such a reaction. First, I try to hide it. Last night my Meh, brother, sister, aunt and some mysterious woman and (I think) her daughter were out for dinner and I felt exhausted. So I went to the bathroom (cue laughing from sister and mother) and yawned twice. When I came back and I had to do it again, I tried to hide it. But this is not so easy when 6 people are partaking in their favorite pastime of watching me eat. Once they see the yawn there is no going back. They erupt. The brother sometimes falls on the floor is so funny. I smile. Then they quiet down and put what looks like an eyeball (they say it is pork, but they say EVERYTHING is pork!) on my plate and said “Nut noi pet” (“Just a little spicy”) and wait. They know it is coming. They have seen it many times before with me. I reach for it with my fork, I put it in my mouth, I gag, I reach for water, and they all die from laughter. Doesn’t get much better than this my friends.
So family life has settled down. Language classes are going well and every day I have a small triumph, usually at 7-11 or a food stand when I can do the whole transaction in Thai. Tomorrow I go back to the hotel and we spend the night. The peace Corps has planned a Thai Night where we all dress up and do skits and sing songs about bananas and such things. Every time I run into one of the other Volunteers or see them in class I am filled with complete joy, because as much as I love my family, it is hard always having to struggle to communicate. Although I must say the immersion is helping me pick things up faster than if I was just in school learning, I think.
I started working with a teacher at a local school. An English teacher, mind you, who speaks NO English. I taught one of her classes and they all call me Mr. Seth (pronounces “Sess”). I won’t really be teaching alone after this week, rather, I’ll be working with her and some of the others to figure out a way to implement this new curriculum with a staff of non English speaking teachers. It is all rather comical. I mean, not a funny as yawning, but still rather funny.
So that is that. Still healthy. Still happy. Haven’t been bitten by a dog yet, but I have been chased. Almost every day actually. You would think zooming along on my bike the dogs would get it that they can’t catch me, but they try. One of them, this one really big one that hangs out along the route from my house to the hotel, has taking a liking to me. When I ride by, I try to avoid eye contact and usually it just sits there for a few seconds and just when I think he hasn’t notices he gives a big RUFFFF and goes right for me. Once I knocked him away with my tire pump and the other times I have been able to outrun him. My Pa told me to carry some meat around in my pocket with me but I said that would just be giving him what he wants and rewarding bad behavior. I couldn’t really say this in Thai so I don’t think he understood what I was saying but now every time I get on my bike he laughs a little and says something, which I assume is “go get some meat” but he and I sometimes don’t communicate very well, like last week when he told me (rather, I THOUGHT he told me) we were going on an excursion to Rachaburi, the capital of the province, but what we really did is go to his school at 6 AM (he is going for some degree) and I sat through a 3 hours MATH CLASS!!!!!!, ALL in Thai, and then sat around with his friends and drank whiskey for about 4 hours, and then came home at 5pm to Meh who seemed a little pissed at Pa, but that is their business and I don’t really want to get involved. Regardless, she said I can’t go to Math class anymore, and that is just fine with me.
OK, so now I am going home. For dinner Mom is serving Cat Face and Cow Feet and Fish Eye Soup, and fried chicken for me, and as always I will provide the entertainment.
-S (aka chicken)
January 30, 2004 – Seth Again
Just when I settle on the name Delicious Fried Chicken it turns out there is this disease going around afflicting Thai chicken. I know you all have heard about it from the many emails warning me to not eat chicken. So now they are back to calling me Seth because they think it is bad luck to call me Chicken. Not quite Seth, more like Sess. Anyway, the peace corps doctor said we can only get it if a chicken sneezes on you, so now I watch my family’s 4 chickens to see what exactly a chicken sneeze sounds like. I hear it is more subtle than a duck sneeze but louder than a hens’. I will keep you all posted and as soon as I hear one I will email.
Big events this week. I cut my lip shaving and the whole extended family came to look (not as funny as me yawning but funnier than me eating). Now I know lip blood is fascinating, but did Grandma really need to scooter over and inspect first hand. Honestly, they could have just told her about it.
We are getting placed in our permanent sites in two weeks and everyone is nervous. Seems like the group of 36 will be divided into thirds, 1/3 in the north, 1/3 in the north east, and 1/3 in the south (not the bad south, the good south for those following the news from the Thai-Malasia border). I asked for the north but I don’t really care. I would actually prefer not to be in the south because on the whole the places they are putting us will be more expensive down there because there are tons of beaches and tourists and we have to all survive on the same monthly budget, which is about $80 US a month not counting rent. I was worried about being put on the other side of the country as my closer friends, but it turns out that while at site we all are going to run camps throughout the years. Camps are HUGE here, and if Jessica runs an English camp I am allowed to take time off and go without using vacation time. Basically we are all going to be camp counselors on the weekends for the next two years.
What else. Oh if anyone wants to send me something for gift for my thai family and the students can you throw in a one dollar bill. They love that here. I had about 6 bills and I use them in class for the students that win the games we play. This week we played “What is Seth wearing” to teach clothes and the only one in the class who could say “Belt” got the bill. He was estatic.
So that is that. Lots of language classes. Almost halfway through training believe it or not.
February 6, 2004 – Thank You For Being a Friend
Monday I was chased out of the hotel by a pack of rabid dogs and just when I got away from them I was chased by bats. Tuesday my friend Julie and I were riding home from Language class and were overrun by a herd of cows (you wouldn’t think they were that fast). When we got away from them, Julie was chased by a goose. I watched, tried not to laugh, failed, started laughing, and she got angry and said I should have helped her, and I told her that I don’t fight with geese what with the Bird Flu and that the goose looked a little feverish.
As a community project, two other volunteers and I started a chorus class for English songs at my school. Our first two songs, which I must say they sing beautifully, are the Girl Scouts song (“Make New Friends, but keep the old….”) and the Golden Girls theme song (this was my handiwork, and I hope one day you all will know the pleasure of seeing 60 beautiful Thai children singing “Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road an back again….”). My co-teacher asked me if this was an American Folk Song, and I said “well, sort of.” I mean, honestly, how do I explain Bea Arthur to Thais?
Next Tuesday the PC tells us where we are going for our permanent site. I have asked for the North but I really don’t care. I just want a toilet that flushes. I don’t mind the showering with a bucket every day, but the squatter frightens me. I want to be culturally aware and I want to grow as an individual and learn about how other people live and examine my own preconceived notions about house and home, but I also have a strong love of toilet paper, and I miss it. I really miss it. (this is not a plea for TP. Indeed they have it here. They just don’t use it in the bathroom. I went to Bangkok last week and while I was mostly excited for Pizza Hut, I was second most excited for being able to use toilet paper and to be able to just throw it in the toilet when I am done with it!).
Heat Rash is slowing attempting a takeover of my body. I have been able to hold a defensive line at my thighs, but there are incursions in the chest and neck areas. If I am able to stop the downward front at the knees, perhaps the feet will be saved. The battle for Middle Seth has begun!
To sum up: mosquitoes suck, the dogs are evil, bats are scary, heat rash is itchy, toilet paper is wonderful, Pizza is glorious, the Golden Girls truly are universal, cows are fast, and geese are mean. Still deliriously happy though. Yesterday as I was biking home it started to downpour and so I biked for 45 minutes in torrential rains and I thought to myself this is funnest thing I have ever done in my whole life, and then I started singing (I believe it was a little ditty called “I Can See Clearly Now The Rain is Gone”) but then I had to stop singing because I almost ran off the road, but you get the point.
February 11, 2004 – Placement
I am moving to Wang Thong!!!
You have never heard of it?
Oh, it is only 20 Km east of Phitsanulok!!!
You have never heard of Phitsanulok??? Have you been living under a rock?
Well, from what I hear Phitsanulok is a rather large city by Thai standards and if has several thousand people living there. Wang Thong is small, about 2000 people.
This is a good map. Phitsanulok is right in the center of Thailand, although every Thai tells me they consider it “The North.” 6 hour bus ride north from Bangkok and 5 hours south from Chiang Mai.
I will find out on Monday when I go for 3 days (from where I am now, which on that map is about 50 km west from the city of Ratchaburi, is about 8 hrs by bus through Bangkok).
February 25, 2004 – Everybody Wang Thong Tonight
I got an apartment…er….dorm room, in the heart of bustling Wang Thong, Thailand. It is on the campus of a Dental College. I have a western “style” toilet, a fridge, and basically everything else you would find in a dorm room. The campus is sort of beautiful, with little lakes and benches everywhere and food carts and a computer lab and….dentists. Everywhere you look there are Thai dentists. And of course me. Well not yet, but soon. There are little mountains all around and I was told not to worry about anything; that if there was a flood I could move right away.
On to language. Basically all my host Pa knows how to say in English is “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Go to my home,” and “I like drinking in my car.” And it is true. He loves it. When he and I go out for a night on the town, about once a week, he drinks beer. It is usually only a 5 minute drive down a deserted road, but here it is not only legal but common. You can’t be drunk, but you can drink and drive. That’s my pa.
I am learning thai in leaps and bounds. For example, to say, “Four weeks ago I ate a lot of squash” you simple say “See a tit ti lao, pom gin fuck boy boy.” I say it every day, and I hate squash. But it makes me smile.
We have two more weeks of training and I will be doing a sort of bamboo dance for the US Ambassador at the swearing in ceremony. I will have pictures taken and send them to everyone. I have yet to learn this banboo dance, but I am assured that it is easy and rarely are there serious injuries, and if there are, mostly broken feet and such. No biggie.
So those are the essentials. Basically we are finishing up training, most of us have apartments lined up, and this phase will be over soon. It is all pretty exciting still and I am finding that even the dogs don’t give me the chase they did in the beginning. The cows and the goats and the bats don’t even seem to notice me anymore. I’ll be very sad to leave this area, but I promised my host family that I will visit often. Perhaps every other month or so.
March 14, 2004 – PCV Finally
Here is the thing about the Peace Corps: They bring you to this wonderful country, they bring you to some totally out-of-the-way-city (From my observation, Ban Pong is the Trenton, New Jersey of Thailand. Actually, not even Trenton. Maybe Camden. A mix of Camden and Bridgeport, CT with a little Utica, NY in it. Not quite Gary, Indiana. More like Scranton, PA) where you are the only white people, help you to become part of a Thai family that loves you and feeds you lets you drink beer in their Toyota, they help you adjust to the dogs, the geese, the bats, and then one day they say “Congratulations, you passed” and then they get you on the next bus to wherever. In my case, Wang Thong in the province Phitsanulok. Picture Camden, but with little mountains.
Ok so the big news is that I am now officially a Peace Corps. volunteer. The under-sub-vice-assistant Ambassador from the United States to Thailand asked me if I swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and protect it from all enemies both foreign and domestic, and I said gladly, and I’ll teach English too. We gave a big party for our host families and I got to do a Thai version of a loud yodel in front of about 300 people. We had a big party in Ban Pong. Said goodbye to my host mother and she did her very best attempt at a hug. Bless her heart, she lifted her arms this time, though at no point did she actually touch me. It was perhaps the most awkward hug I have ever been a part of and I think we were both happy when it was over. I have been in Wang Thong for 24 hours and she has called me 3 times. This whole Mother-calling-all-the-time-thing is universal.
And then there are the dentists…er, scratch that, Dental Assistants. My apartment…er, dorm room, as you all know, is situated right in the heart of the bustling campus of Sirin Dhorn University. Here, students from all across Thailand come to study how to Assist Dentists, how to be Pharmacists, and how to give Thai massages. These Dental Assistants et. al. have welcomed me into their hearts and dorm rooms and I am promised there are activities whenever I want to participate. Rest assured I will never be short of friends or floss during the 2 years. The school’s director also said I can learn Thai massage in exchange for English lessons, so that should be fun. Of course I will be in compliance with all Peace Corps. regulations with these messages, as I am assured they are not the kind of massages you can get in Bangkok or Phuket, rather actual Massages (they actually felt the need to tell me this). They also want me to coach Basketball. Yeah. Um. I don’t know about that one. I said yes. so if one of you could just shoot me an email explaining the rules I (and the dentist’s assistants) will be forever grateful.
In other news, my 35 other volunteers in Group #116 elected me and another volunteer Gary to be members of the VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee). Basically I am on the student government so if we want a change in administration policy or training classes or if we want recess extended or soda in the caf I am supposed to bring these issues before Dr. John Williams, the country director. It also means that they bring me into Bangkok 4 times a year for a meeting which is cool. But it really was an honor to get it so I am proud of it.
I must add, I am also very proud of those 35 other volunteers and myself for making it to this point. We are a rarity in the Peace Corps, to go through the entire training and have everyone pass and everyone decide to stay. We really have bonded, everyone, and we could not be more diverse. From ages 22 to 72, from Florida to Alaska and everywhere in between, but we have really become friends. Even though it was so much fun and so exciting, it was not always an easy training. It was like living in a fish bowl and more than once I felt I just wanted to go somewhere and not have everyone stare at me. I was annoyed at times because I could not decide when to take a shower, what to eat, when to go to bed and wake up.
But the dentist’s assistants don’t care when I got to bed, so all is well, albeit very different. Today I am going to buy a lamp and a rice cooker and a chair for reading. School is out for the summer in two weeks and starts again in May when it cools off, so I will have a few weeks to get adjusted and enjoy the wonderful Wang Thongians. Of course I will keep everyone posted as to the goings and comings and intrigue of campus life.
Seth Spiro, D.D.S.
March 24, 2004 – And Then There Was
Like a cavity waiting to be filled, I sit here in my dorm room at Sirin Dorn Pubic Heath College and wonder. You see, wondering takes up so many precious minutes, minutes that I have in abundance. After wondering, I ponder, I consider, I imagine then I think, and followed by several hours on contemplating.
Then I eat lunch.
After lunch, I fill my days with strolling, meandering, wandering, checking email, writing letters, reading, walking, and alas, laying, sitting, resting and sleeping.
Ahh, the life of a newly-sworn in Peace Corps Volunteer, who has arrived at his site just as school breaks for summer, just as the entire office staff begins to leave for vacation (“So where are you going to go for April,” one of them asks me my first day. “Um….here” I answer as the entire office falls into hysterics), and just as the Dentist’s Assistants-in- Training graduate and become full fledged Dentist’s Assistants. The Peace Corps. in its infinite wisdom wanted us to arrive here at the beginning of summer so we could use the seven weeks to meet people, explore, I.R.B. (This popular Peace Corps acronym means “Intentional Relationship Building” which includes smiling at the Post Office clerks, saying hello to the 7-11 staff, and sitting in my schools during meeting conducted exclusively in Thai and answering their questions with a smile. “Yes I speak a little Thai.” “Yes I like spicy food.” “No I don’t have or want a girlfriend, regardless of how old your daughter is.” The Peace Corps will, on occasion, call and ask me who I am IRBing with, and through trial and error, I have learned that Johnnie Walker is not an acceptable answer, even if it is true.) and get our housing in order.
Like the gum disease gingivitis, it may pain some of you to know that my days at the Dental College are numbered. It turns out that is simply is too far from town, the one room was too small, the dentists too…I don’t know, dental, and the whole community too isolated. So I am currently looking for a house here in Wang Thong, which basically consists of me and my co-teacher driving around and asking people if they have a house for rent, and them pointing at some shack behind their house, and me saying “um, no.” My only requirement is that the “toilet” be “inside” the “shack.” I ask so little, and yet.
So I got sick too. A little cold. And wouldn’t you know, the Thai people have a wonderful cure. Porridge (Milky Rick with Pork) and some exercise. “You should go for a long bike ride,” says my co-teacher to me and I reach for another tissue. “Or, do you like jogging? Maybe you should jog.” I stare at her blankly, not sure if this is a joke, not sure if a hidden camera crew was recoding my face as it changes from exhaustion to despair. “Um, in America, when we have a cold, we usually just rest and sleep.” “Ohhh,” she says, as if I just explained to her some simple but incredibly profound concept, like gravity. In the end we compromised. I promised to bike with her daughter for a few minutes this weekend and take up jogging and then got the rest of the day to sleep. One successful cultural exchange and I have only been at site one week!
Of course, as always, I will keep everyone posted on all the “events” and make sure you are kept aware of anything that “happens” here. Rest assured that nothing will go unrecorded in these emails, even if I have to write 5 whole paragraphs to make sure you are all aware of every minor detail, I’ll do it! Feel free to email me at any time, and I promise I will read each email three times and comment extensively. If anyone writes me a letter I’ll buy you a pony. And if go so far as to phone me, I promise you my first born child.
My new address:
Phitsanulok Educational Service Area 2
Phitsanulok – Lomsak Road
Wang Thong, Phitsanulok 65130 THAILAND
Phone, once again, from the United States, dial
011 66 7 169 0567
April 3, 2004 – Chronicle of a Seth Foretold
I am no longer with the dentist’s assistants. I know we will all miss them and their crazy ways, but I had to end it. I just couldn’t give them the commitment they were looking for. I wanted to meet other people. Periodontists’s Assistants. Orthodontist’s Assistants. I felt I was limiting myself, I felt confined to their campus. It is like you are in a pool filled with Colgate, and colgate is great, you love colgate, but you really really like to try others, like Crest, or Aim, or that organic one, Tom’s something.
So I have moved into the most beautiful house in the center of Wang Thong. 3 bedrooms, AC, huge living room and nice outside table. It really is incredible and there is an extra bedroom with furniture and air for anyone who wants to visits. I can actually walk to the town and I can actually be friends with people in the community now, so it really was all for the best.
So how to NOT make a good impression on your neighbors, by Seth Spiro.
(1) Move into your new house where you are the only white person in the whole town and everyone thinks you are weird and crazy anyway, and the first thing you do is Lock yourself IN your house. Yes, 5 minutes after my landlord left me I closed the side door too fast and the pad lock folded in on itself preventing me from re-opening it. The front door was padlocked from the outside and all the windows have bars. After a few moments of laughing about how insane the predicament was, I actually had to sit by the window and bang on it until my neighbor, completely in awe that there was (a) a white person in the house next to him and (b) the white person was motioning him to the side door. He, being a soldier in the Royal Thai Army and used to problem solving, quickly saw what I had done and saved the day. Now we are friends and yesterday he gave me a watermelon.
(2) The Peace Corps recommended that we befriend the neighboring dogs by giving them a little meat now and again. So my second night around 11pm I am having a beer with a friend on the front table, safe behind my fence, when the dog from the house across the street starts barking at me and will not stop. So, remembering my training, I rush inside to grab a bag of pork (OK, honestly, I had a bag of pork. 100% true. That day there was a food festival and I went on a pork buying spree and there was this one booth where you could buy cooked pork right out of the pig so I got 2 kilos worth, which I divided up into baggies that I was going to take to work) and I begin slowly and methodically throwing the pork at the dog. But this dog was stupid, so each time I throw the pork he sort of backs off. But I think he just doesn’t realize what I am doing, and I know dogs like pork, so I keep throwing pork until the baggie is empty, whereupon the dog just runs away. OK, does anyone know how to say “Sorry I spent 20 minutes throwing chunks of pork on your yard last night” in Thai, cause I sure as hell don’t! But the next morning, when I saw my neighbor picking up the pieces, I had to improvise. So I think she thinks I have mental problems and she asked me to kindly refrain from throwing any meats in the general direction of her house. This was actually told to my co-teacher in Thai and was passed on to me later. I said “Done and Done” because Pork is expensive with that whole Chicken Flu thing so I don’t really want to waste. I just wanted the dog to like me.
Have I told you about the Porn? Specifically, Nipaporn and Suporntip? Well, those are my co-teachers. Actually, here, having porn in your name is more common than having porn in your closet, as the word means “Wish,” which when you really think about it is not too far from what it means in English.
My town is starting to grow on me. Everyone is really friendly and they are beginning to get used to me. Now people stop me on the street and ask me where I am going. “You Go Where!!” they shout, from cars, porches, bikes. This morning when I was buying some chicken, the chicken woman knew that I am allergic to nuts. I think she may be a sister or cousin of the woman who works at the restaurant next door to the Kodak store which is owned by my landlord, who asked me what I can and cannot eat, but one never really knows about these things. Basically everyone is nice and they want to be my friend. So much less shy than the dental assistants, but you know how they can be.
I am not going to be able to email as much anymore because with saying goodbye to the dorm I am also saying goodbye to their computer lab. Phitsanulok has email shops, but now it is 45 minutes away and I am told that eventually I am going to have to start working so who knows how often I will come here. As it is I am going to Bangkok on Thursday and the week after is SongKran, Thai new years. It is described as a three day, nation wide water fight. I’ll let you know.
April 17, 2004 – Happy New Year
Thai New Year, “Song Kran,” April 13-15. More like April 12-?? cause it certainly is not over here in Phitsanulok. A nation-wide water fight that refuses to end.
I arrive back at my homestay on Monday and was immediately grabbed by 5 men from my Pa’s Metal-Thingie Factory, dragged out into the driveway, soaked, and then completely covered in mud. They did this by wetting the dirt driveway and rubbing the mud over my face, hair, and clothes. They told me say “thank you,” which I did. Then I was ordered to the river where we swam, drank beer, and had a good old fashioned Mud throwing fight followed by a good old fashioned beer throwing fight and topped off with yet another mud throwing fight. When mud throwing didn’t strike their fancy, they simply walked over to me and gently placed the big pile of mud on my head. After, I said to my Ma that I was expecting the water fight, but the mud thing was a surprise.
“That isn’t really normal,” she said. “They’re just insane.”
Okaaaay. So the next day we began the festivities by hiding beside the road and attacking everyone who drove past by dumping buckets of water all over them. Then to we got on the back of a pick up and drove around doing pretty much the same thing. Actually, that really hasn’t stopped and today is Saturday. On Wednesday I returned to Bangkok and Cow San Road, the big backpacker district, was wall to wall people, all of them wet, all of them with water guns and water balloons and buckets and water bottles. Another big thing is to walk over to people and run a mixture of water and baby power on their face. Another thing to do is to throw this mixture at people as they walk by. Another thing to do is to hide in alleys and in your car with the window opened a crack and sneak attack people as they are walking home. Another thing is to dump water out of the second floor of a building as people walk by.
And to all this you say “Khap Khun Khap.” Thank you.
I am back at site now and basically I never want to be wet again. I am sure that will change as it averages 100 degrees here every day. It was great to see my homestay family again, and to live it up in Bangkok, but it felt great to come back to my perfect little house in Wang Thong Ta-Nee and lock my gate (and every single door in my house. These people like nothing more than to get the “Falang”, “Westerner” and I saw a group of 9 year olds waiting for me last night with their buckets ready) and sleep for an entire day.
So Happy and Healthy New Year to everyone! My new year’s wishes include but are not limited to making friends, eating less pork, the Red Sox finishing in last place, the heat rash on my arm to go away, W Bush to begin unemployment, and for every single one of my friends and family to get on a plane for Phitsanulok. The airport code for that one is PHS.
April 28, 2004 – What If The Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about
Ah the theater.
I have been called from my Wang Thong slumber to direct 40 beautiful young active eager Thai Thespians in the Random Classroom-in-the-Random Building Production of “Cinderella,” all in rhyme! (Susan and Jeff Spiro, please refer to the December 1995 argument regarding the usefullness of that semester in acting school and email me your apologies as soon as possible).
Of course, I tried to go in with few expectations, knowing the junior-actors would know little if any English. I though I would start by running through a little history, talking about Stanislavsky and the Group Theater and its influences from early Vaudeville, and how we could use some of their methods in our own little piece. I wanted to stay flexible though, no knowing how much theater they had already been exposed to, so I would let them decide if they wanted to use a Strasbourg approach incorporating sensory memory or perhaps Stanford Meisner’s later works using repetition exercises. Either way, I was sure to draw from my own work with Stella Adler’s technique, using exercises in movement and voice.
Alas my preliminary ideas were useless. They prefer the “Hokey Pokey Turn Yourself Around” and “I’m Going On a Picnic and I’m bringing an Apple” approach to acting. The first day, getting them to say “Look there at Cinderella / Crying cause she’s got no fella” takes about one hour. I just don’t know the Thai word for “fella” and these children can’t sit still for even a second.
But we’re moving along, and Friday we open in the aforementioned random classroom in the random building in front of parents and others curious passerbys, and then after that, who knows. We may be going to Broad-Way!
Phitsanulok Wat Tama-Jah Tesseban School, where Whit and DD (other PC Volunteers) teach.
So I am enjoying having something to do. Before this my main activity was watching my finger nail grow. No joke. It is common practice for Thai men to have a really long pinkie nail, so a few of us PC Volunteers entered into a contest where by our 3 Month Training retreat in July, the person with the longest and best groomed finger nail wins. I literally spend hours watching my finger nail grow.
I have been working very hard to make friends and I have some progress to report. I’ve decided to keep everyone up-to-date on all my friends here so when/if you visit you have a good idea who everyone is.
1. The Chicken Lady – she sell chicken on the main road in Wang Thong. I literally will be walking down the street and here “Hey You Seth” and I’ll know without looking it is the chicken lady. She’s calls me over. She tells me which chicken I should buy (I guess I should mention these chicken’s are cooked, and happen to be delicious), and then she asks me question like “Where you Go” and “Why you here.” She asks me Why I am Here every day, and since “To Teach English” doesn’t seem to satisfy her, I keep making stuff up. Yesterday I told her I was here to help Build a new Railroad to connect Wang Thong with China. She just smiles and tells me I am handsome and puts the chicken and sticky rice in a bag. I am absolutely in love with the Chicken Lady.
2. The Two Drunk Ladies at the Mini Mart – So I am walking down the street from town to my house and I hear, like I hear a million times a day, “Where you go!!” It gets annoying sometimes hearing this and I can’t help but think “Mind you Own Business You Nosy Thai People,” so frustration got the better of me and I turned and see two women sitting on a bed frame. I say “The correct English is, ‘Excuse Me, but might I inquire as to where you are going Sir?” So they repeat it after to me, and I make them memorize it, and then they tell me to sit down and drink beer, which I do, since I was basically just walking home to watch my nail grow and eat chicken. We sit, shoot the shit for a while. They ask me what I do (“Volunteer, here to teach English”). I ask them what they do (“WE SIT HERE DRINK BEER EVERY DAY”). We come to a mutual understanding that I will come and drink beer with them sometimes, but not all day. I leave happy, having made two new friends.
3. The Little Girl on the Bike – So every day I sit in front of my house and drink and eat and the whole nail business. This one little girl bikes back and forth in front of my house and every day, she asks me questions. She is a little kid, so I can understand her Thai. “What are you eating?” I say “Chicken” or “Pork” and she squeals in delight and bikes away. “What are you doing?” and I say “eating” and she shrieks and bikes away. Yesterday, she asks “Where do you sleep?” so I pointed to the house and said “In the house” and I though she was going to have a heart attack. Basically, she freaked out, screaming and yelling and laughing and repeating “In the House.” Then she biked away. Now it may not seem like she and I are really friends, but I like her a lot and I see potential. Plus she lives in the area.
So that is all from Wang Thong. The play goes up Friday. Sorry we can’t film it, but the “budget” has to be “allocated” to other things that we don’t have, like “a stage” or “a set” or “any costumes whatsoever.” As it is, most of the budget is eaten up by the snacks and drinks we provide during rehearsal breaks, and I am sure if we ask the kids if they would rather have a stage or Oreos, the Oreos who win by a huge margin.
May 30, 2004 – um…Excuse Me?
Not too much to report from Thailand. My access to email gives new definition to the word Sporadic. Sometimes the priority goes to the office staff and their pursuit of victory in solitaire.
Just to update info from previous emails: Chicken Lady is missing. She no longer has a stand next to the bank, but I have found the only Muslim woman in my town who also sells chicken and she, on the second day, said I was handsome-which I didn’t think Muslim woman were allowed to say, and her chicken is just as good, so she is now the new chicken lady. My nail is really long, and the contest in June 28th where I will have PST Training 2, in a beach resort called Cha-am.
On My BAD Thai:
I have been very busy learning the nuances of the Thai language, but at times I am slowed by my difficulty with tones. Thai is a tonal language, so using a rising tone or a falling tone with the same word can drastically alter the meaning. So when I sat with the director of the Chyiapum Education Service Area at a recent English Camp I was helping with and explained to him about America, I said in my best Thai “Dio nee Brate America me He Ma” which I though meant “Now America has snow” what I was really saying was “Now America has Dog Vaginas” except it wasn’t quite the word “vagina” but a word that means the same thing but is less polite.
On Their BAD English:
Last week during lunch one of the directors of my school put down his spoon, looked me straight in the eye, and said with a slight smile “You are like fat woman.” Now, I may have gained some weight here (rice 3 times a day. HELLO PEOPLE!!! What do you expect!) but that is going a little too far so I just said “excuse me” to which he replied, “Yes or No. You are like fat woman.” I said “NO. I am not like fat woman.” My co-teacher interrupted, seeing what was happening, and asked him in Thai what he meant and when he told her she started laughing. “No no no” she said, “He means, do you like fat women.” Ahhhh, clarification. Thanks. “Yes, I like fat women” I said. And we all had a good laugh at that one. Very disturbing lunch.
I don’t know what to say about my schools. The bad: one of my school directors is always drunk, WHEN he decides to come; one of the teachers at a school told me 2 weeks ago decent in English “I want to show you my Mangos. You will see my mangos. They are in my car. You and me will go to the car-no English-and I will show you my mangoes” and I somehow doubted that she was still talking about fruit; the schools themselves have holes in the desks, out of date books, and at one of my schools most of the little children’s teeth are all black; sometimes we don’t have class and I have no idea why, only to find out that the students are cleaning the cafeteria/the teacher is drunk and therefore late/the supervisor is visiting to its time to pick mangoes/no one knows/the teachers have a meeting/the teacher has to take the director to the bank. The good: the children love to smile, to laugh, the younger ones love to learn, my co-teachers are incredible and decent and smart and one in particular is really intelligent, the weather is not so hot anymore, everyone is excited about me being here.
So the first few weeks have been a little frustrating and a little rewarding. That is how it goes. I fled to Bangkok last weekend because I wanted to see KILL BILL 2 and to get away from Wang Thong. Needed to NOT be watched everywhere I went and needed Pizza and Burger King. Going on a little Peace Corps sponsored trip to visit another volunteer at her sight (sort of a “see how other PCVs are living” thing) so I will be in a place called Nan and then a few days relaxing in Chaing Mai for a week starting tomorrow so I really am only back at site for a layover. It sort of reminds me of New York, coming back to my apartment for a change of clothes.
Today is Memorial Day in America and the week of the Buddha’s birthday here. Class is over for the day and we are all going to the cafeteria to pray for an hour, which wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to sit on our knees. I don’t actually bow to the Buddha images but I use that time to meditate and reflect, as opposed to when I am home alone every night, where the time is used to ponder and contemplate. Two very different things, as one involves Monks and Incense and one involves Whiskey and Chicken.
June 18, 2004 – The Invasion of Wang Thong
Saturday morning. I am sitting on my front porch, my favorite spot in this entire country, reading Kerouac’s “On The Road,” wondering if I should write a poem or start smoking again, when what to my wandering eyes appears but an entire regiment of the Thai Royal Army, in fatigues, marching past.
I don’t know how much more I can explain about this. It was one of those things you just need to see, like, oh, I don’t know, like 500 Soldiers walking down your street! About five meters to the left of my house is an intersection, and I am told that 20 kilometers down the road, away from town, is a small army base. I’ve seen soldiers on and off in the market or at the bank, but there are soldiers everywhere here in Phitsanulok because this province borders Laos. One by one, they marched by, not rushing but staying in line. Many of them, seeing me and giving a look like “How strange to see a white person sitting on a chair way out here,” were kind enough to wave their machine gun at me and give a friendly “Helloooo.” You know those Thais….so friendly.
Last week it rained for 4 straight days on account of a monsoon in Vietnam. Wang Thong was mostly flooded, the walk to the bus station was an adventure, and my clothes were not able to dry which led to some interesting outfits. My co-teacher Nippaporn likes to say with a big smile on her face “Maybe if you are lucky your house will be flood.” I don’t know if she is being sarcastic, as in I will be lucky if the worst thing that happens is a flood, or if she thinks floods are a good thing. I think my house will be OK because it is higher than the road, but who knows. The Wang Thong River, which all summer I thought should be called the Wang Thong Creek, is now Lake Wang Thong. The Peace Corps when very smart to bring us here in January, the best month weather-wise.
Still hard at work learning the correct tones. “Key” with a flat tone is added to a word to make it a personality characteristic (“Mao” is drunk, “Key Mao” is a person who is always drunk). “Key” with a rising tone means shit. “Kuey” flat tone makes a verb past-tense. “Kuey” rising tone means Penis, but again, a less polite version of the word. A highlight of my week was when my co-teacher, that would be Suporntip, was teaching about Personal Data and she was using a mock registration form. She turns to me and says ‘Seth, would you please explain Sex to my children.” (she meant Male/Female) I couldn’t stop laughing, and it took her a few seconds to figure out what she had said, and I told her in the future we can say “Gender.”
On Wednesday I head to Northeastern Thailand for an English camp in a Swiss Resort in the Mountains. After that, a two week training course in Cha-Am, a famous beach resort in the south. Peace Corps: the toughest job you’ll ever love…. ahem…. Anyway, here the Pinkie Nail contest will finally take place as well as the Dumbest T-shirt contest (anyone who has been to southeast Asia can attest to the fact that everyone here wears shirts with English words and logos and that 9 times out of 10 the phrases make absolutely no sense. My favorite I’ve seen so far has the picture of a woman with an afro on it and it says “Indian Giver She’s My Sister.” ??????). The best part of the training, called PST 2, will be seeing all 35 members of Group 116 and most of the teachers from Ban Pong. We get two more weeks of Thai lessons, which will be invaluable. We also get to start talking about our secondary project, which for me is shaping up to be a drunk-driving awareness campaign. I happen to believe that this is the biggest problem in Wang Thong, so I am going to meet with this monk who has been working on educating people about the dangers and see if I can help.
I’ve learned to sing the Thai national anthem. Feel free to pick up your telephone and dial 011 66 7 169 0567 to hear my rendition, slightly more jazzy and sultry than the official version.
Seth (or my new Thai name: Watchaporn)
July 15, 2004 – Come Hell Or More High Water
Yesterday morning I had two choices. One was to swim to school through the river that used to be my street. The other—as I assumed what I was witnessing was a sign from God—was to build and ark and start collecting two of every species.
Good Afternoon from Lake Thailand. I returned from my Training Part 2 in Cha-Am (the first southern province), where it barely rained, to my precious little Wang Thong, or at least Wang Thong is here somewhere underneath the water. It’s not so bad during the day when it is still in the upper 90s, but between the hours of 5 and 7 everything changes. It can be so beautiful during the sunset watching the dark ominous clouds sweep in. It can be horrifying when it doesn’t stop for three days.
But now is not a time to drown myself in weather worries. It is time for reflection. I’ve made it 1/2 a year as of last week! Returning to site on Sunday really felt like I was coming home. As I waded through the market, more people than not actually called out my name instead of just “Falang Falang” (means: westerner or foreigner). People said they missed me, people commented that I was gone for too long. My chicken lady had a grin from ear to ear (maybe because I am her only customer since chicken flu came back). My noodle shop lady picked out the least fatty pieces of pork for my noodles. It felt nice to be back and to feel like I live here and that people noticed when I leave.
And of course, a day like yesterday reminds me why I love it here. Went to school expecting the same old schedule only to find out that it was Drug, AIDS and Voting awareness day. No teaching today. Must remind people to vote and avoid drugs. And in case you are wondering, Drug and AIDS Awareness Day starts with a midget doing karaoke followed by a “parade” with a “marching band.” Of course I use the word “parade” loosely, because having the whole school march down the highway with two drums in the front is not what I would call a parade necessarily, but it went on for about three hours and it seemed that fun was had by all….and maybe, just maybe, we stopped some little kid from doing drugs.
As for the weeks down south at training, the highlights:
* A hamburger eating contest in which I ate four in twenty minutes, which tied me for last place. But I said it then and I will say it now: I was in it for the love of hamburgers and not for bragging rights, so I consider myself a winner.
* I lost my pinkie nail in a freak banana boat accident. I still contend that the second to the last seat is the hardest one to stay on, and just because I fell off three times when everyone else managed to stay on does not make me some sort of moron, thank you very much. Anyway, donations for my pinkie nail can be made to a charity of your choice or just send me a $20 bill and I’ll spend it on my other nails because they are in mourning and they need a pick-me-up
* The Peace Corps makes people a little crazy, especially Group 116. We are getting a very strong reputation with the other groups here in Thailand for being…well….funny. About twenty of us played Chicken Fight and Marco Polo in the pool just about every night. Sure, the average age was in the upper twenties, but come on….Chicken Fight!!! So fun.
* I wrote a really cool (as in cold) song called “Yo Ho You An Eskimo” and I was inspired by the plight of all the Native Alaskans (they prefer the term “Northernmost Americans” or “Artic Americans”) who can’t even afford igloos and have to sleep in the snow ghettos of Barrow and Nome. If you would like to here this song, please dial 011 66 7 169 0567.
* Sometimes I miss being cold. I mean, sure, it gets cold here once in a while. Like, down to 90 degrees. When it is 90 degrees Thai people wear sweaters and when they go to the beach they wear jeans and t-shirts. This is because they are insane.
* I was able to pick up some cool Thai slang. To say “choke wow” in Thai literally means to fly a kite but is most commonly used to describe onanism (Want to make a Thai person die laughing just explain the common English idiom “go fly a kite”). If you say “Lang Nah Guy” it means literally “wash the face of a chicken” but usually refers to intercourse in the morning.
I am in Phitsanulok right now and will be leaving shortly to meet my sister and brother-in-law in Chiang Mai. I can’t believe it has been half a year since I have seen anyone in my family or any of my friends so I am pretty excited right now. My mom and dad come next week too, so it’s a good time for me right now.
Hope everyone is well too and enjoying the summer.
July 19, 2004 – Lazy Seth
Let me start off by telling you all that I have spent the last seven hours of the day (it is 5pm now) in bed. My co-teacher sent me home because (a) she said I looked tired & (b) I told her that I forgot my house keys in Chiang Mai this weekend and subsequently had to leave my door unlocked. She said that in all likelihood everything I owned was already stolen and she could not let me stay at school with my house so vulnerable. So I protested for about 1/2 a second and then went home, and of course nothing was stolen
I then spend the entire day, along with my new laptop, confined to the bed…. resting…reconnection with things like Friendster and the New York Times website, stuff I haven’t been able to do in those god-forsaken Internet shops with the noise and the yelling and the kids eating chips and drinking soda pop and all that nonsense.
So can everyone email me their Instant Messenger IDs if they have one. I am using Yahoo and AOL. Now that I have email at the house it would be cool to chat. For Yahoo, I am “sbspiro” and for AOL I am “thespoonone”
I want to tell you all about the best club in Thailand. Great food. Fantastic music. Cool people. Good lighting And best of all, anyone in central or northern Thailand can get to it easily. It is the restaurant car on the 4pm Sprinter from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Yesterday I was returning from meeting my sister and brother in law up in C Mai and after four very boring hours, a fun looking ketuey came over and said I might find it more fun back in the restaurant car. So I went. They had darkened all the windows and doors, put little lights all around the wall,s a disco ball right in the middle, set up a karaoke machine, and were serving beer and whiskey. So check it out if you can.
Andy, when you bit Jessica was she cold like snow or freezing like ice??? I have always wondered what an Alaskan tastes like….
OK time to go and…. oh who am I kidding. Time to continue sitting on my ass.
Anyone who is going to be in Bangkok next weekend let me know.
August 11, 2004 – Baby Steps
All the busses from Chiang Mai that pass my site do the same thing. Right after entering Phitsanulok province, they stop at a rest stop for thirty minutes. Phitsanulok happens to be the halfway point on their trip: from Chiang Mai in the north to Kourat in the Northeast. I’ve taken this bus eight times so far, and it doesn’t matter if it is 6pm or, as it was last night, 2 in the morning, they always stop at the same rest stop. After the break, they make an immediate right turn, the exact opposite direction of Wang Thong, and enter the provincial capital, also called Phitsanulok. It takes about ten minutes to get to the bus station and then the bus stops again, this time for about twenty minutes. After that, it re-traces the path and passes right near the rest stop again before going another ten minutes and passing Wang Thong.
So this usually drives me insane. Last night, I crossed the border into my province—the border being a scant ten kilometers from my bed–at 1:30 AM. I crawled into the bed at 2:45 AM.
But last night I got philosophical (over noodles with grilled pork) at this rest stop. I began thinking about this class I took freshman year of college, my first semester at the Gallatin School, called “The Journey.” Basically the class was about exploring the various paths and pilgrimages of major literary characters. We read the usual freshman year cannon (Homer, Saul Bellow, Salinger) and talked about the evolutions of the characters and in true NYU-Gallatin fashion we were encouraged to delve into our personal stories and discuss ourselves within the context of our own voyage into adulthood. It was the kind of class that that would make my Grandpa Morris scream “WHAT are they teaching you at that Me-shug-eh-nah College!!”
But I kept thinking about this class last night…thinking about my own journey here. I wondered why I was so furious to be stopped at this rest stop when I was so close to home, then to be so annoyed that the bus would then go the opposite direction, and then so dreading waiting there. Didn’t I know this was going to happen? Hadn’t it happened ten times before? If I know the bus is going to do this, doesn’t that just make these stops part of the journey, the same as if Wang Thong were really another 100 kilometers away instead of 10? So why couldn’t I just relax and see the delay not really as a delay but as part of the process of getting home.
So that is where I am after almost eight months here in Thailand: feeling like I am so close to the destination that I can see it, but I’m not going to get there for a while. Some days I feel so exasperated at Thai people, at my students, at the police officers and neighbors. This week three students came in all bruised and bloodied, cuts up and down their arms, because these twelve year olds piled on one motorcycle and went for a ride and got in an accident. Of course the law says they have to be sixteen, but no one stops them. It seems so simple: Do what you need to do to get these kids to stop driving the fucking motorcycle!!! Get a police officer to come in a talk about consequences. Have the woman who works at my noodle shop come in and talk about how irresponsible driving cost the life of her child. It seems so simple! Like the ten minutes it would take to get from the rest stop to my bed. But it doesn’t take minutes. It takes hours.
My co-teacher says,”Oh yes. They know all about the rules. I try to teach them.” But why, the day after the accident, does she send two 14 year old girls out, during school, on a motorcycle, to have some photocopies made?
So there are all sorts of lessons here, though I am not sure what they are yet. I’m sure it has to do with patience. I don’t think I am supposed to know the answers right now, so I am trying to be ok with simple being on the journey.
This is a different culture and I need to go slow. So I have contacted the friendly folks at Toyota and Honda here in P-lok who have established programs where their staff visit communities and go over safety on motorcycles. My co-teacher, who swears that the kids know all this already, has agreed to let them come.
And to make myself feel better, I wrote a song about it (to the tune of “Big Rock Candy Mountain”).
“You can drive in Wang Thong, If you’re Age is 8 /
You can also drive in Wang Thong if you had seven beers while you ate /
And you can drive in Wang Thong, With a whiskey in your hand /
You can drive all day /
When it’s never ever cold /
You can drive at night /
If you’re three years old /
Then you can drive in Wang Thong”
Moving on, it’s been raining a lot here in the Thong but I’ve been up north for most of August. My parents and sister and brother-in-law visited and had a great time. I was all high on my Thai ability while they were here and was quickly humbled when they left. I’ve been helping out at a few English camps all over the country so last week I had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the meeting of Burma, Laos, and Thailand.
Language continues to be my biggest source of amusement. Two weeks ago my very female co-teacher Suporntip stood in front of the class and said to me, “You know Seth, I have a little cock.” Of course I just stood there with my mouth opened. “Excuse me??” I said. “You know Seth, a cock in my throat.” That did it, and I fell on the floor. Then we had a little review over the correct pronunciation of the letters “gh,” NOT pronounced like a “g” or “k” as she thought, rather, as an “f” as in “enough” or as in “COUGH.”
So with teaching days like that I’m never serious for too long. But then, as they say, shit happens.
Going back to Chiang Mai tomorrow to say goodbye to the first member of Group 116 who is being sent home. He broke a rule, a harshly enforced rule, regarding which modes of transportation volunteers are forbidden to take. Today felt like a funeral. It has made me realize how close I have grown to these 35 people, seeing the passion this has evoked. We’re going to spend the weekend for the last time as 36 Members of Group 116. No one thought it was going to last forever, but this is just a little too quick. The guy who is going home is a good friend and a great volunteer. I’m sad to see him go.
PS…I have a laptop now, and can often be found on Instand Messenger. AOL: <thespoonone> MSN: firstname.lastname@example.org Yahoo: <sbspiro>
PPS – Hapy Mother’s Day!! Here in Thailand, the country will stop business as usual to honor the Queen’s birthday and all the mothers. So I’d like to send a special shout out to a little lady I like to call Susie Jo and thank her for giving me life, giving me a family, and giving me ten boxes of Annie’s Mac’n’Cheese.
PPS – As always, to hear a live version of my Wang Thong Song, dial 011 66 7 169 0567
August 24, 2004 – Nice Thong
Crime wave hits Wang Thong!
My co-teacher Suporntip is freaking out because 6 students were in a fight last Friday. Something about Boy #1 hit Boy #2 and so Boy #2 hit him back and then, well, Boys #3-6 felt left out. Not too complicated. The whole time she told me the details I was thinking, “well…one fight for an entire school all semester…not so bad.” But she and the other teachers are taking it pretty hard. She keeps telling me how “tired” and “bored” she is with her students, how “ashamed” she is of her school. Then, add to that the two girls who got caught trying to take money out of a teacher’s purse today. On top of that, she reminded me I had my umbrella taken two weeks ago (if truth be told, it was stolen OR I left it somewhere. Something got lost in translation when I explained it). So we were all in a big tizzy about this.
Then, I tell all this to Nipaporn, my other co-teacher, who tells me that my favorite student in 4th Grade stole some CDs from the teacher’s room. Well, we are at our wits ends here. An assembly has been called for tomorrow and at one of my schools, the offending children are being taken to the Wat to make merit. I told both of my co-teachers that students in America bring knives and guns to school hoping that would cheer them up, which it did a little.
But we must carry on with the business of improving education in the Kingdom of Thailand. Today in English class we were going over as many words as I could think of that have to do with Weight Lifting. Thailand now has two gold medals from Athens, the first two golds ever for Thai women, both of them in weight lifting. So I am trying to fill three 55 minute classes talking about weight lifting. I am using vocabulary like “weights,” and “lifting,” which—you know—comes from the verb “to lift.” I am teaching words like “strength” and “muscles” and “gold.” So basically these are the dumbest lessons in the history of teaching and the classes ended with the students calling out the names of sports in the Olympics in Thai and my co-teacher translating them and me writing them on the board.
In other school-related news, Nipaporn has finally been granted permission to change schools which means I am leaving Bankokmaidaeng and moving to Pinpolat, the biggest school in the educational service area and also the closest to my house. She’s been trying to transfer for quite some time because it is closer to her house too and the school director at our school is always “very busy” (between you, me and the lamppost, he is absent all the time because he is a drunk, lazy asshole and she has to do all the paperwork for him because she has a work ethic). The move should take place in November.
One more little thing on Nipaporn, bless her heart: today she asked me if I had a Talking Dick. You would think I am used to these things coming out of my counterpart’s mouths and I would just be polite and ask her to explain what she meant, but honestly, do you blame me for falling on the floor in hysterics? As I tried to contain the tears of laughter, she pulled out her own Talking Dick, which is actually spelled Dict, and is what Thai people call English Dictionaries. I told her I had a dict, but it was quiet. She asked me why I was laughing, and I said that Dicts are funny, especially if they talk.
Found the best hang out spot in Wang Thong. It is called The Sidewalk in Front of 7-11, where Lalo, Jessica (two fellow PC Volunteers) and I parked ourselves between the hours of 11pm and 3 in the morning last Thursday. We drank beer and talked to the various people coming and going at that late hour (about 10 people in 4 hours). I may have made some actually friends who do not teach with me or sell me chicken. Of course, one of my 9th grade students came by and says “Ajan (Mr.) Seth, why you sit in front of 7-11 and drink beer?” This kid never says a word in class, looks at me like I am from Mars when I say “How are you?”, but all of a sudden he is Mr. English!! I told him this was a custom in America to sit in front of convenient stores and as a Peace Corps Volunteer I felt it was my duty to share American culture.
Saturday I found a “hip hop” club in Phitsanulok. Unreal how I think I know this area after 5 months living here and yet I am still discovering things. I am constantly humbled by how much I don’t know here, in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, with Thai culture and language, etc. Anyway, this club, called “The Phit Club,” is perhaps the coolest place in town. Overflowing with cigarette smoking college kids and playing some serious hip hop from 1994, (is it me, or do you just NEVER get tired of “Lyrical Gangster”??!!) if I forget myself for a moment and look around, I think I could be sitting in a cafe on Bleecker Street. Well, maybe Canal Street, but a really cool part of Canal Street.
Today marks Day 8 of my I’m Not Going to Leave Site for a While period. I’ve been away every week for something since late June so I am making a real effort to stick around. Sunday, this involved me sitting on my front porch and reading all day, but also talking to everyone who stopped at my gate, and I noticed that there were more people stopping and less people just staring. I call that progress so I treated myself to a dinner of grilled chicken and sticky rice.
All is actually quite good in the Thong.
September 24, 2004 – Spiderman
So my big moment meeting Mr. Big Time World Wide Peace Corps director Gaddy Vasquez, who drops sentences like “so when I was testifying before congress the other day” and “President Bush told me he just loves the Peace Corps” was ruined when, during the lunch, I noticed an enormous spider crawling up my leg. It was slightly smaller than my fist. So I freaked out and jumped up, had what can best be described as a little seizure which stopped when the PCV next to me had to knock it off. Mr. Vasquez’s press secretary screamed, three waiters came running, and general chaos ensured for a minute or so until it was killed. Two minutes later, when I had to give my “Why I joined the Peace Corps” speech, Mr. Vasquez said “Becha didn’t know there would be so many spiders!!!” He winks, everyone laughs, his press secretary snaps a picture. Everyone’s happy. I feel like a moron.
That was my weekend in Bangkok. The only other highlight was that I discovered the salad bar at The Sizzler is only 99 Bhat ($2.50) and is the best deal in town. I went twice. It is all-you-can-eat and they have croutons.
The last few weeks I’ve been staying pretty close to home. The term ends at the end of the month so school is pretty “busy” right now. I’m not sure about the difference between the School Year and School Vacation here. Today at school, technically within the “school year,” I taught for 20 minutes. My principal said we couldn’t teach because the students had to have blood tests. I asked Nipaporn why we couldn’t teach the students who weren’t having blood taken, and she smiled. I smiled. The principal smiled. We all smiled. That was the end of that.
With term break coming, PCVs keep calling me. They want to know the best bus company to use for Ubon Ratchathani to Chiang Mai. They want to know which of Bangkok’s five main train stations has the easiest connection to the subway. They want to know the best airline to fly to Phuket. And I seem to know the answers. They say “Has anyone ever told you that you know too much about bus, train and plane schedules?” and I say, “actually, yes.”
The weather is getting better. It had been raining so much but this morning I woke up to a bright blue sky and a cool breeze, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am told the cool season won’t really start until the end of November, but they say it won’t rain every day anymore. Right now my noodle shop had become an island.
I was interviewed on cable TV at the English Camp my co-teacher and I had two weeks ago. It was a grueling interview, and I had to come up with on-the-spot answers to such tough questions like “Why is English important?” and “Do the students like to speak English?” I had to obtain special permission from the Peace Corps for this. They are worried about safety and security, and the country director told me the concern is that al queda operatives will see me on television talking about student centered learning and decide that I represent the evil west and thus a good target. My response was “You think al queda can find Wang Thong?” We agreed I could be interviewed, but Nipaporn and I had a frank discussion with the reporter about what information about me she could divulge. It was all very exciting. I certainly understand how Barbara Streisand feels.
Otherwise, things are quiet. Another member of our group has decided to leave, this time because she visited the states recently and got engaged. We’re having a big BBQ in the north in October to say goodbye. So we are down to 34.
Equally surreal is that I am 1/3 of the way through this….
The photo is me and my co-teachers at a recent retirement party. It captures a typical moment from the evening. You can see the profile of my co-teacher Suporntip in the way back on the right. I could search my whole life and not find anything as fun as dancing with a dozen 40 year old Thai women and drinking wine coolers until the wee hours of the morning (9pm).
September 28, 2004 – Mai Sabai
I don’t usually group email twice in one week, but desperate (read: boring) times call for desperate measures. I want to share with you my experiences being sick for the past five days and the reaction of my Thai friends and co-workers.
Friday (Day One): I’m laying in my bed at about 7pm, ready to watch a movie on the laptop or just go to sleep. I feel a little run down so I’m taking it easy. Then the phone rings. “Seth where are you now,” says Suporntip, out of breath. “Um, I am in bed” I say. “Oh but the party. The retirement party.” “The one from last week?” I ask. “YES. But we have it again. I will pick you in ten minutes.”
Ok, I think, no biggie. I wasn’t doing anything special. So I go. It is a typical Thai party, with lots of tables and fish and speeches and dancing. I only drink one glass of whiskey because I feel a cold coming. A very drunk man who is the husband of one of the teachers keeps grabbing me and making me dance. It gets very annoying but I have to be polite. The former principal of my schools sits down next to me and puts his hand on my thigh and says “I like English” and I say “I do too” and he just stares at me with his hand there (I assure you he was not making a pass. This is typical of Thai men. They like to touch. My home stay father used to hold my hand when we walked through the market.) By the end of the night, I really can’t stop sneezing, so I go home and go to bed.
Saturday (Day 2): I wake up and I have a full blown cold. But I promised Nipaporn I would do a session on student centered learning at her Teacher’s Workshop. So I go, and somehow manage to get through the two hours. I’m sneezing and coughing and all kinds of stuff is happening to my face, but we go over the different learning styles and classroom management techniques and in the end it goes well. So I sort of collapse in the back when it is over, dreading what comes next at 2:00pm when I am supposed to help Nipaporn tutor the school district’s superintendent. Somehow I agreed to do this on a Saturday. Nipaporn comes over and I ask her what she thought of the session, and she says “Very good, but everyone says you are not handsome today.”
“Well I’m sick” I say, clenching my fist under the table. “Oh” she says. “Will you better by 2?” she asks. “Well, since that is in two hours, I’m gonna say no.” She accepts my answer and takes me home, where I lay in bed and basically wallow in self pity. At 6pm, there is a knock at the door. Nipaporn has sent over a fish. I eat half of it and give the rest to the pack of dogs in front of my house.
Sunday (Day 3): In bed all morning. Around noon I go to 7-11 to buy soda and the staff there, who know me from my days of drinking beer on the sidewalk, ask me if I am sick. “Yes” I say. They want to know how to say “sick” in English. They want to know how to say ‘Cough” in English. I spend ten minutes there while we review “Sneeze,” “Puke,” “Fever,” and a few others. I go home and get back into bed. The rest of the day is a blur. Suporntip calls me and says she heard I was sick. She tells me she thinks it was the whiskey. I tell her I had one glass. She tells me it was because the man made me dance. I tell her I doubt it.
Monday (Day 4): In bed all day again. Call in sick to school. Nipaporn calls a few hours later me and asks me when I will get better. I tell her “Wednesday at 2:23pm” but I think she doesn’t understand my sarcasm. She tells me she will come over in an hour. Five minutes later she pulls up with pork and rice and we sit outside and discuss what to do about my cold. “I think you need to exercise” she says. I remember this was her suggestion when I lived at the dental college too. I tell her that in America, when we are sick, we stay in bed and drink liquids. She says she thinks the reason I am sick is because I am in bed all day. It is like a “what came first the chicken or the egg” discussion. I tell her she’ll just have to trust me and I am going to use the American “resting and liquids” method. She says in the least I need to rest outside, so I sit outside until she drives away and then go back to bed.
Tuesday (Day 5, today): Force myself to go to school because if I stay home again I will commit suicide from boredom. When I get there all the teachers are in a state about my illness. They all say I need to have my blood checked, and I tell them I am pretty sure it is still there. They too do not get my sarcasm. I sit through two classes, but I am still sneezing and I feel crummy. Suporntip sits me down and tells me she must take me to the hospital. I tell her all I have is a cold, and I just need to sleep. We compromise and she lets me come back here and go to bed.
So that has been my five days. Honestly, I feel better, and I think maybe a day or two more I should be back to normal. Now it is Tuesday at 3:30pm and I am going to stay in bed until tomorrow. I’m screening my calls for fear that one of these Porns will make me run a marathon or have a bone marrow transplant. They both say they are my mothers (Thanks Susan for telling them to take care of me. Perhaps we should have defined “take care”), which brings my totally number of mothers here in Thailand to three.
PS – Mai Sabai technically means “Not Happy” and is what they say when they have a cold.
PPS – The picture is of the plastic chicken I recently adopted. As you all know, there are many long lonely nights here in Wang Thong. Big Red (in thai: si dam yai), as I have named him, keeps me company. He enjoys hanging out, practicing his wai, watching movies, drinking Spey Royal whiskey with ice, and listening to me practice Thai. Although, as you can see from the photo, he’s developed some bad habits, but what can you do. As parents, we try the best we can, but eventually we have to let them make their own choices.
November 11, 2004 – Wangsgiving
O blessed cold season, you have come at last. You bring nights when it drops down to 37 degrees. It is almost unbearable. I find I can’t get anything done, rather, I sit in my room with my book and my cell phone and what?….wait it out I suppose. Wait, perchance to dream. If only, oh if only, it was 37 Fahrenheit.
I’ve been busy working on some actual projects that do not involve singing “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.” I asked co-teacher Suporntip, who I still think is a wonderful and very intelligent teacher, what she had done to teach the kids about HIV/AIDS and she told me, “Seth, I do teach them. I teach them that the people with HIV are bad.”
Okaaaaayyyy. So let’s start there. We have started planning a 2-day life skills camp for December, which will include health, nutrition and the environment. We’re going to talk about how the virus is passed and how to act towards people who have it. We are going to have an open and frank discussion about the plusses and minuses of burning plastic. We are going to talk about food groups, and see where Pepsi and Hot Dogs fit into a balanced diet. And as with everything I do these days, we’ll talk at length about wearing helmets while on a motorcycle. Another girl’s mom was killed in front of the school two weeks ago which brings to three the number of fatalities within ½ a kilometer of the school.
Anyway, like I said, it is nice to be working on the community development aspect of my assignment here (the program is called Teacher Collaboration and Community Outreach, or T.C.C.O.). They really drilled into us during training that we needed to wait it out and see what the needs of the community were before we decided what secondary projects to pursue. The Peace Corps does not want volunteers going into these communities with the attitude “The problem here is ABC and these people must need XYZ.” My goal here is something sustainable, and the only way to achieve that is to have the support and enthusiasm of the community before starting.
So I waited (see the summer emails). Oh did I wait. I said “If I have to sit here on this porch and drink whiskey for six months and wait for a project to reveal itself, well dammit, I will.”
And honestly, as I become more integrated into the community, I am finally being told about the serious problems here. Not the “They are so scared to speak English” or “Everyone has problems with past tense” problems. Not the “There is no AIDS here. Just Bangkok” statements. My co-teachers and friends are actually telling me the truth and they want to do something to help.
“Ma Ma Sans” or “Meh Lao”, women who live in the community and negotiate young girls off to older Thai or Foreign men as their wives or girlfriends, are working in this area. Basically they are pimps. These girls, as young at 14, who, like most normal 14 year olds, get bored with school and are promised exciting lives in the cities and are basically sent there and used for sex. We had two girls from M3 (7th Grade) leave in the last three months for this reason.
Another girl I taught got married to an 18 year old boy in the village just so she wouldn’t have to come to school anymore. Now she stays home all day and watches TV. She is 15.
Then there are the two girls in M3 (9th Grade) who have become involved with an much older Tum (Woman who dresses and acts like a man, as opposed to guitey, a man who dresses and acts like a woman). These girls are 15 years old and now are skipping school and when they do show up, look exhausted. The tum met them when they were working one school vacation in Bangkok and apparently gives them money in exchange for their company.
Basically there is a whole industry preying on these children. They are lured away from school with money and since most of them come from poverty, it is appealing. But thank god they have the teachers there to help them, right? One of the teachers, who I call The Mango (you may remember from previous emails back in the first weeks I arrived here when she cornered me and said, with a knowing wink and smile, I was to “come to her car – no speak English – just mangos” and when I finally did go to her car—with my co- teacher watching from a window—she actually produced a bag of delicious mangos) was to attend a seminar yesterday at the Public Heath College where I was once a resident about how to teach HIV/AIDS prevention to the kids. My co-teacher Nipaporn’s husband, who is the Vice-Director there, also attended and said the mango never showed up. Turns out that she just took the day as a free day. So what, I asked, is she going to teach???
We are going to start with this camp and a few guest speakers. I am lucky to have two co- teachers who actually see these things as problems and have tremendous hearts and a strong desire to help the children. They are willing to listen to me and what I have to say about sex and health education, and they teach me a lot about how these things can be taught in Thai culture.
Incidentally, both of them have husbands who have only them as their wife, not as normal as you’d think. I went to a funeral in the beginning of October for the husband of a wonderful science teacher from one of my schools, and sitting in the back row was the Minor Wife, looking every bit distraught, but with just a handful of people who would even look at her. Suporntip told me everyone hates her, but I couldn’t stop thinking, “Is it her fault, or the man who just died that couldn’t be satisfied with just one wife. Who is the victim here?” I like to tell my co-teachers the story of Lorenna Bobbitt and I tell them that is what some American women do to cheating husbands. I think Thailand needs its own Lorenna Bobbitt.
On to happier topics. October was wonderful. I spent it in the south of Thailand where I ate western food every day, where no one noticed what I bought at 7-11, and where I spoke English to everyone I saw. I forgot I was in Thailand. Did they even have rice there? I ate hamburgers and pizza and steak and spent the days swimming and looking at coral and just enjoying being a traveler. I went to the island where they filmed “The Beach” and as far as I can tell, everyone who goes there comes back and says “I went to the island where they filmed “The Beach.’” It is a nice thing to say and it makes me feel famous.
For Thanksgiving I am having most of the teachers and supervisors I have been working with over for authentic American food, which I will prepare myself. Judging my past experience, like watching Suporntip eat a hamburger at McDonalds in Bangkok with a spoon and fork and asking for rice, it should be wonderful. I can’t wait to see what they do with Kraft Mac’n’Cheese.
PS – I am attaching a picture of me at the place where they filmed “The Beach” and a copy of my Thanksgiving Invitation. It may not open correctly because half of it is in Thai. If anyone wants to come, let me know your flight and I’ll gladly pick you up at the airport… J
December 15, 2004 – ThaksIn the Thong
His black Mercedes approaches, surrounded by SUVs and police on motorcycles. Women scream, waving pictures and running to great him. Police look alert, watching for trouble. On the stage, men are getting the crowd excited, shouting slogans as patriotic music blares. The car slows…. A door opens… A figure appears….
Is it Bono? Is it Britney?
Or, even better, is it Taksin Shinawatra!!
That’s right. On Sunday, right here in the heart of humble Wang Thong we got a visit from Thailand’s Prime Minister.
Saturday I am in Phitsanulok on errands (let’s just say I was not not at KFC). Co-teacher Suporntip calls and asks me if everything is ready for our life skills camp, scheduled for this Thursday. We talk for ten minutes about nametags, snacks and other pressing camp issues. As I am about to say goodbye, she says “Ok Seth, I have to go. Mr. Prime Minister is coming to school tomorrow.”
Normally when she says things that sound a little weird, I smile and let them go. She could be talking about the Mr. Prime Minister of Wangthong, after all.
“Which Prime Minister would that be?” I ask.
“Dr. Taksin” she says.
Now, I know she has been busy getting ready for this camp. I know she has her full teaching schedule. I know she has a son and a husband and a father to care for. But I just can’t help thinking that once, during the eight or nine times we were together this week, she could have mentioned this little tidbit.
“Do you want to come?” she asks innocently.
Sunday I show up to a school I don’t recognize. Over a thousand people, banners and signs and police and army everywhere. Lots of people in suits talking on cell phones and looking very important. I had assumed he was coming to take a tour of an up-country school, but it turns out to be a campaign stop for Taksin’s political party tai rak tai (Thai Loves Thai). Peace Corps has strict rules about volunteers attending political rallies, so I call the country director to make sure it is kosher for me to be there. He tells me that as long as I don’t wave any political signs or endorse any specific candidate I’m fine. I tell him that the Prime Minster hadn’t asked me to speak but if he does I will politely decline.
So….this is a campaign stop…at a school….. where every student and teacher was required to attend…. Where free Tai Rak Rai t-shirts are given out to people who do not really have extra money for t-shirts. A little weird.
Anyway, he came, he spoke and as he was leaving I got close enough for him to see me (the only white person among a thousand, except for one serious looking security person) and he called me over. He asked me my name and why I was there, so I told him I was a Peace Corps volunteer and he said “Thank you for your compassion” to which I said “you are very welcome.” He shook my hand and then it was over.
So for now on when someone tells me I am being an ass or cruel, I can say, “Well, I happen to know one Asian Prime Minister who would disagree with that.”
So before I could make my vow to never wash my hand again, I read in the Bangkok Post the next day that Taksin said he “understood” why the Burmese Junta has detained Aung San Suu Kyi for over a year and that he though it was “necessary.” Soooo compassionate. Maybe Ms. Suu Kyi should come over here to Wangthong and teach English instead of fighting for democracy and equality over there in Rangoon if she wants Dr. Taksin’s support.
The most exciting thing about Mr. Prime Minster’s visit happened right after he left. There was a HUGE traffic jam!!! The ride from school to town always takes five minutes by song tow (pick-up truck with seats in the back). Sunday it took twenty! Very exciting.
Tomorrow begins the Life Skills camp I told you about. We’ve been working on it for about a month. Finally a chance to do something that may actually help these kids. We’re focusing on health/nutrition, the environment, and safety on the roads and the kids seem genuinely excited.
Thanksgiving was great. Everyone sat on the floor. They loved the bruchetta, deviled eggs and beef stew but were scared of the mashed potatoes and mac’n’cheese. I saw one lady put the gravy on her salad. They seemed to like my music (Missy Elliott, Nina Simone, Madonna) but no one danced. All in all it was really fun, though exhausting. For Christmas and New Years I may forgo the insanity of Wangthong and head to the beach.
Finally, although I spent my birthday sick in bed with some mysterious illness that lasted from the night of the 4th until the morning of the 6th, I wound up getting the best birthday present one could ask for: My first nephew, Lev Spiro.
Happy Holidays and New Year everyone!
January 21, 2005 – On Life and Pork
Bits of advice, things I have learned and general nonsense after one year in Peace Corps Thailand:
1. There is no part of the pig that cannot be eaten
2. Language is 1% words and grammar and 99% culture
3. Cows are fast
4. Magic Shows are a perfectly acceptable reason to cancel class for the entire day
5. Going to the Post Office to mail a letter leaves one with a satisfied and accomplished feeling that can sustain one through an otherwise event-less week
6. Seeing a monk on the back of a motorcycle talking on a cell phone while smoking a cigarette is cool. Seeing a pregnant woman doing the same is not.
7. Growing a nail constitutes a hobby
8. It is possible to have a friend who lives 5 hours away by bus and consider him close
9. The difference between a river and a street depends on what side of 6 P.M. you are on.
10. Don’t know if I am even having children, but if I do, you can be sure that the word “Porn” will appear somewhere in his/her name.
11. Drinking then driving is bad. Drinking while driving is worse. Walking along the side of a road while scores of drunk guys zoom by on motorcycles is the worst.
12. Using the wrong tone with a Thai word can result in unintentionally profanity. However, purposely repeating the mistake because you think it is hilarious can actually make a four day teacher’s workshop more interesting.
13. Dogs can eat chicken bones
14. Eggs do not have to be sold from refrigerated shelves
15. If someone who does not speak English really infuriates you, it is totally cool to respond by hurling insults and profanity at him in English as long as you do it whilst smiling (it helps, while speaking these profanities, to pretend you are reading a child a nursery rhyme. Also, make SURE the person really does not speak English.)
16. Frogs are delicious.
17. Having everyone you meet, work with, or teach tell you that you are handsome does not give everyone you meet, work with, or teach the right to tell you that you are fat.
18. If you meet, work with, or teach someone who does not tell you that you are handsome, it is ok to not like them.
19. Saying “I have diarrhea” is a great way to get out of uncomfortable social interactions
20. There are hospitals that do not carry bandaids. If you encounter one of these hospitals and the nurse tells you to go to 7-11 to find them, please see #15.
21. Pork is totally underappreciated in the United States
22. People replying to your group emails to tell you how funny you are never gets old.
23. Every morning I go to the noodle shop around the corner from my house and I get the same thing: yellow noodles (made from egg) with moo dang (translated it means “red pork.” Basically it is grilled and she adds something to it to make it red. It is the most delicious thing in the world.) So the first day I ever went to the shop, Goong (translated means Shrimp) who owns the stand, was very nervous and afraid to talk to me. I was in a bad mood myself, and when she served me noodles loaded with pork that was only fat, I was in an even worse mood. I left without saying anything, vowing never to go back again. It was just one of many annoying things that frustrated me that day. But the next day I felt better, and I decided to go back, but not before calling my co-teacher and asking her how to ask for no fat on my pork. Armed with this essential vocabulary, I walked into the noodle shop and before I could say anything, she said it for me. “You don’t like pork fat” she said in unusually clear Thai. “No” I replied, grateful she had picked up on this. She smiled this huge, heart-warming smile, and I knew we were going to be friends.
And as fuzzy feelings came over me and I reveled in thoughts of how rewarding my peace corps experience would be, she continued, in painfully crystal clear Thai, “Farangs (foreigners) don’t like fat on pork but you are so fat and Thai people love fat on pork and they are skinny.” She then fell over laughing, thinking this the funniest thing that has ever been said, and proceeded to serve me the first of many fantastic bowls of noodles.
Now, every morning when I come, before she brings me my bowls, she says one of two things: “Moo suey” which means “The pork is beautiful” or “Moo mai suey” which means “The pork is not beautiful.” The pork’s beauty is determined by how much fat is has. So when the pork is lean, it is beautiful. When it is all fatty, it is not beautiful.
Now, my point here, this wonderful lesson I learn from Goong every day, is that there is a direct correlation between the beauty of the pork in my morning bowl of noodles and the quality of my day. The days when the pork is beautiful, I have a great day, the students and co-teachers listen and seem to retain what I share with them, people miraculously understand my Thai, the sun is shinier and the flowers smell sweeter. The days when it is not beautiful, a motorcycle always seems to just miss me and dogs come out of nowhere to chase me and my bike tire is flat and class is canceled because it is National Grass Planting day or some such thing like that.
Now I know it can’t be proven scientifically, but I swear it is true.
So Happy New Year to everyone. I wish everyone a healthy 2548 (2005) and most of all, I wish you the leanest pork that life has to offer.
February 20, 2005 – Are you up for a Wang? Are you down with the Thong?
Recently, I helped out with a camp at the main school in Wang Thong. Yesterday I was walking by with co-teacher Nipaporn and the teacher there, Rosaline, called me over to show me some of the short stories the students were working on. I thought I would share my favorite one with you, so you can get an idea of the great strides in the teaching of our beautiful and expressive language. This story, appropriately titled “A Turtle and An Eagle,” was written by a group of sixth graders.
“There are a lot of animals in the forest. A slow turtle watches birds. It shouts to the birds. ‘Can you bring me? Can you make me fly? If you can make me fly, I’ll give you my treasure.’ An eagle can hear its voice. It flies to the turtle and says, ‘OK, I can help you to fly in they sky.’ Now the turtle is very happy. The eagle takes the turtle in the sky. Then he takes the turtle back to the earth and asks about the treasure. The turtle refuses, ‘No I have no treasure. I tell you a lie.’ The eagle is very angry, he takes him to the sky and releases him to the earth. The turtle is dead. Remember our friends: If you tell a lie, it makes you die.”
I think we can all learn a less here, no? I asked Rosaline if she thought that was a rather harsh punishment, but she told me lying is very very bad. Indeed. I agreed by nodding my head and looking very very serious. Then Nipaporn asked me if I wanted to run a camp for the kids in her neighborhood during the summer break in April and I told her I thought I would be very very busy. Lucky for my health Nipaporns can’t fly.
Summer is coming. I know this because I am getting a little rash-y. The days are topping off at 100F and at night it’s not really cooling down. School lets out mid-March, a joyous event when I will begin napping in earnest. During the break I may do a little theater project in town with a bunch of schools just to keep busy. You may recall my foray into the theatre last summer with a little production of Cinderella. But that wasn’t in my town and those weren’t my students. This production promised to be grander and more daring. Already we are talking about have a set and costumes.
I’ll also be following a nurse from the public health college around to the little villages in Wangthong district. She visits these villages on a regular basis to check in on the poorest in this community, those without motorcycles or access to the hospital and market. I’ll mostly be observing, but should the help of a non-fluent thai speaking Lit major with 5 years of publishing experience arise, I’ll be ready to get my hands dirty.
I was asked to go to the training of the new Peace Corps group, 117, as a trainer. My charge was to enlighten them on the subtleties of Thai culture. It was surreal being there, realizing that it was not so long ago when I was a trainee, knowing they were all looking to me for answers to this strange new culture, and aware that I don’t really have a fucking clue how to deal with Thai culture. So I began my talk with “I don’t have a clue how to deal with Thai culture.” And with that, I was able to fill an hour detailing the highlights from the past year when I was rendered speechless by the events and people around me. In the end, the trainees wound up sharing all their crazy stories with their host families. I got a little nostalgic listening to their stories about their home stays and I think the session was helpful just by giving them the opportunity to talk about everything that is happening. I ended by wishing them good luck and tolling them to stay away from cows, because they’ll chase you. And they’re fast.
Last weekend, in the mountains just east of Wang Thong, I ran my biggest project to date: a teacher training for 50 English teachers in the educational service area. Our (7 PC volunteers came to help) purpose was to introduce them to the wonderful world of student centered learning, discuss teaching ESL to different learning styles, and give them ideas for starting junior ambassador programs (having their students become tour guides) in their districts. Their purpose was to take photographs of us and drink wine coolers and singing karaoke. Somehow we found common ground, and the training was either a resounding success or an abysmal failure, depending on what time of day you ask me. I am sure some of them walked away with new knowledge, but most of them were in it for the singing. So I need to keep everything in perspective, not have such high expectations, and see the training in a positive light. So my accomplishments included getting everybody excited about teaching English to students of every learning style, demonstrating effective classroom management techniques, introducing unique ideas to promote tourist in the various districts of Phitsanulok, and killer versions of La Bamba and Achy Breaky Heart.
I am coming to New York/Boston June 30 through July 17. I am overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of reuniting with my loved ones, those who have never left my thoughts during these long, hot Wang Thong days and those lonely, hot Wang Thong nights. I’ll see you soon Pastrami. Remember the dates Sesame Bagel. And Pizza, I am counting the days.
Seth “never tells a lie” spiro
April 18, 2005 – Summer Days
I was recently given a present of a brand new thermometer and my favorite thing to do is carry it around my house to the various rooms and see the actual degree of my misery. Sometimes I think is must be broken, because how is it possible for me to sleep in my bedroom when it is 91 degrees. Right now I am in my kitchen and it is 95 at exactly 9:50am. So I expect by 1 in the afternoon the little red line will be at the top, at 120. I’ve had a lot of guests this summer break, and when we sit on my porch, this is the basic conversation.
Me: Oh my god, it is 120!
Guest: No way!
Me: Yes way!
Guest: No f***ing way, let me see (I give it to him/her) Wow. You’re right. [insert appropriate curses]!”
This scene replays itself for each movement of the little red line on the thermometer between the hours of 9am and 6pm.
I haven’t written in a while. It has been the hardest two months of my time here. Back in training, the Peace Corps gave us a little time-line of what most volunteers would feel at the various stages of their two year service. Right now I am starting my 16th month, so I am supposed to be comfortable and I should be coasting towards the end. The second year is supposed to go by very fast. But I’ve veered from the time-line and I’ve been spending the summer questioning my peace corps project here. I could go on and on about the good: the incredible friendships with my fellow volunteers; the bonds I have formed with my Thai counterparts; those beautiful smiling Thai children; the conversations I have every single morning with Pi Goong over noodles; the sunsets and the karaoke and the bike rides and all those insane things I see when I sit on my porch. There is still more good than bad in my life.
But this doesn’t change the fact that I have developed deep reservations about the Peace Corps’s mission in Thailand and the organization itself. I think I was a little naïve thinking the Peace Corps wasn’t a business. When I was dreaming about coming over here, images of paperwork, out-of-site request forms that require three signatures, and kissing the ass of the most deplorable and useless school principals just so they’ll let me run a life skills workshop never came into my head. I never thought my school district’s superintendent would drive a BMW. I never thought I would be so annoyed that the internet in my house isn’t working. I never though I’d have membership at three DVD-rental shops.
And the biggest “I never thought” of them all: Recently one of my best friends got kicked out for going down south to work on Tsunami relief, picking up trash and digging ditches for villagers in Phuket. It was summer, so a lot of volunteers who work in the schools find their very long hot days empty of any sort of activities. Our teachers leave us, but we’re required to stay in our sites. So my friend left, like so many had in the past, thinking if she got caught she’d get written up, like so many had in the past. And given what she was doing, she never imagined they’d kick her out. But they did, and she’s back in the states telling everyone “I got kicked out of the peace corps for helping with tsunami relief without permission.” I told her that no one would believe her, that they’d think she was covering up for something really egregious. I said if I was home and someone came back from the Peace Corps and said she got kicked out for helping the Tsunami aftermath, I’d say “Come on, how many cars did you really steal?”
And of course, not a week goes by when another one gets kicked out for actually doing something wrong—teaching on the side for money, a big no no—but he gets caught in a really sketchy way. He emails someone he thought was his friend, someone who had been on PC staff, who then forwards the email to the country director. It leaves one with a rotten taste in your mouth, and yet another lesson about the lack of privacy with email (also a good time to ask everyone who receives my emails to NOT fwd it around please).
Add to this a volunteer getting violently attacked in her home, a volunteer’s father dying, me getting my passport and bank book pick-pocketed, and all of this happening while it is 120 degrees, and you get a volunteer who is doing anything other than coasting. More like treading water, waiting to see what wave is coming next.
The next wave was song kran, Thai new year. A three day nation-wide water fight. A time to put the past behind and find a way to deal with another year in Thailand without feeling negative, bitter and angry. Literally, a time to wash away the crap.
I went north where the celebration is famed, to the cities of Lumphun and Chaing Mai. Can you picture pick-up trucks with 15-200 Thai people hanging out the back throwing buckets of water on everyone they see and everyone who gets wet bowing and saying khaup khun khap (thank you). Can you picture little old Thai ladies waddling down the sidewalk with small cups of water and gently pouring it down your back saying “Sa Wah Dee Bea Mai” (happy new year). Can you picture parades of Thai dressed in traditional costume dancing down the street and dragging you along. Now picture me, Hawaiian shirt and straw hat, enormous water gun in one hand, beer in the other, shooting every single Thai person I see with an ear-to-ear grin and saying “you are very welcome.” It was catharsis.
I also spend a weekend in April in Mae Sot, near the Thai-Burma border. With my disillusionment with the Peace Corps, I wanted to check out what other volunteers are doing in Thailand. I have a friend who is a development worker with refugees and she took me to this orphanage of Burmese children whose parents are either dead or in Burmese prisons and who can’t go back to Burma or move further into Thailand. These were children caught in the middle, and the man who runs the school of 50+ does so with the aid of two teachers and $1,500 a month. The school has two rooms and some land around it and everyone lives and learns in the same space. Basically it made my schools in Wang Thong look like they were in Beverly Hills. Of course the Peace Corps would never let me work with this school as part of my project because it is outside my assigned community, but I am allowed to go there on my own time—weekends—so when the semester starts I am going to spend a few days a month there working with the teachers and, well, basically playing with the kids. And there is nothing like an orphanage of Burmese refugees to make one kick oneself for complaining at all. Sure, I can’t leave Phitsanulok without three signatures, but these kids can’t walk past the end of their street. I left there feeling like a big asshole and vowed never to complain again (almost immediately I recanted during a four hour van ride with no AC in 120+ heat and a driver who kept pulling over for beer and cigarette breaks).
So now I want to dwell on the positive. Wang thong has again proven a refuge, with my porch-sitting reaching a fevered pitch. Lately I like to see how long I can go without moving at all. My other favorite activity is to lay on my couch at around 2pm and try to read without falling asleep. I make it a contest, but sleep has an undefeated record.
School ended with the M.3 (grade 9) kids graduating. I had a funny experience at one school where they were all set to vote for the next class president. All five candidates, each from M.2, had given their speeches and the voting booths were set up, the children had their ballots. Excitement was in the air and they were about to start when my co-teachers announced the unexpected entry of a sixth candidate. Seth Spiro. Aka Teacher Set. Mr. Sess.
You see, upon hearing that the teachers were going to vote alongside their students, and after hearing each of the candidates explain where they stood on the issues (more sports days was the major theme of the campaign), I decided I could, no MUST, enter. So my platform was a follows: more homework, 2 hours of English every day, expanding the school day for all students and teachers (but exceptions for any volunteers working in the school during the hot season, who have important appointments every day with Mr. Nap at 15:30 sharp), school on Saturday, removing soda and candy from the canteen, and sending students who skip school to prison for each day they fail to come.
My speech went well, if having every single student stare at me with a look of complete horror counts for “well.” At least, I though, I had the votes of the other teachers.
I received zero votes. I didn’t even vote for myself because I thought it was inappropriate for teachers to vote and show favoritism. I am not going to point fingers here, but I am convinced my views were distorted when told to the younger kids, and since they were too scared to come within a meter of me, I was unable to better articulate my positions. Don’t worry. I am going to be just fine. I can handle rejection. And as it happens, one teacher did tell me after she wants to redo the menu for the canteen and replace the junk food with healthier items. So the message lives on.
It was a good year with these kids, but not without its share of drama. One M.3 student was killed in a motorcycle accident in February. She was a passenger and a truck hit her (and then sped away). Also, several students dropped out right before graduation, apparently convinced they could learn more in the computer game shops than in school. But I feel close to a lot of the students at my two schools, as well as with my co-teachers and I have several ideas for next year to keep it interesting and new. We want to do something called “The World Map Project” which combines English, Geography and Art. Pi Jim and I plan on writing a curriculum for M1-M3 students that incorporates the Thai national standards with the new techniques we’ve been using in the classroom all year.
On Thursday I go to Bangkok for our Mid-Service Conference. No idea what they are going to say to us, but I can’t tell you how important my friendship with fellow volunteers have been during these past few months. Though I am dreading those sessions where Peace Corps reminds of things we already know (but with PowerPoint) and guest speakers who have no discernable pulse, I relish my time with group 116 (see photo). They are my family here, and even those 6 members who have left already and the 3 more that seem likely to follow will stay good friends for the rest of my life.
So that is my summer update. Today I am going to finish Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and listen to some Nina Simone, I’m going to try and stay awake in the afternoon, I’m going to eat noodles and chicken, I’m going to have my cell phone fixed (unfortunate accident with a bucket of water), and I’ll finish out the day with some good old fashioned porch sitting.
June 7, 2005 – old school
Two Mondays ago summer ended and school started. I guess you could call this autumn, and the temperature did dip from 106 to 105. For a minute. Walking to town in the morning of the first day of school, the air felt crisp and fresh like a stroll in a sauna with someone pointing a hair dryer at your face.
The rains have also come, but irregularly. I seem to remember last year one day being in the middle of the hot season and the next day my street was flooded, but this year the seasons seem to be changing slowly. I’m enjoying the evenings it does rain, when it is cooler and I can watch the ominous-looking clouds roll in from the safety of my porch. Last week, I was jogging behind my house on a road the goes through a rice field when the thunder started. The area is totally flat, with scarcely a tree or building as far as the mountains, maybe 5 km away on either side. I thought to myself, “Ok Seth, this is one of those times you hear about when a person gets hit by lighting.” I was the tallest thing around, so I ran as fast as I could back home, thinking how ridiculous it would be if I die from something as stupid as getting hit by lighting. (Should it have happened, the blame lies entirely with Thai culture for making me think I am fat which was the reason I was jogging even though I knew it was going to rain) But the storms are magnificent. Especially from inside.
In other Seth-weight and Seth-porch related news, recently I was on the porch reading and my neighbor, Anjalean, called out from her yard “Thin. Seth Thin” (pronounced “Tean”). Please remember, Thais have been remarkably consistent with their observations about my size, limiting their comments to “very fat” or “you fat” or if their English is exceptional, “seth very fat.” So Anjalean completely floored me. I was overwhelmed by feelings of love for this woman so the next day I agreed to teach at her school on Fridays for a few weeks (she’s been asking me since I got here to do this). I also agreed to help her adorable son with English, and if she asked, I think I would have paid his university tuition. So last Friday I go to her school up in the mountains just east of here. We drive down a familiar road for about 20km, turn off onto a road I’ve been down once, drive another 20k, the road ends, we keep going. A half hour later, after not passing much, we arrive at this little village where Anjalean teaches. These kids, who think Wang Thong is the big city, surrounded me from the second I got out of the car until we left a few hours later. They have no English teacher, over 90% live with grandparents (because parents are dead or in Bangkok or both) and in my entire time in Thailand I have never seen students more eager to learn. I taught the secondary students all morning, and had one of those “This is why I signed up for the Peace Corps moments.” I gave myself a big pat on the back and later that evening, treated myself to some chicken and sticky rice and watched a movie.
Speaking of chicken, the chicken lady and I are on the outs. I go to her all the time and always ask for a breast, but lately her chicken looks nasty, and sometimes she tries to push these thighs and wings on me, so I don’t want to buy it, because hey, I mean, I know we’re friends and all, but I’m very particular about my chicken. Plus I consider First Dinner to be one of the most important of the 7 daily meals (Second Lunch and First Breakfast are also extremely important). So chicken lady scowls at me when I don’t buy from her, and frankly I don’t need her bad attitude. So I’ve been going to a woman I call “Smiley Chicken Lady,” who offers a much better chicken-buying atmosphere. This woman just lights up when I come, and I remember how it used to be with the original chicken lady. But one must move on and not live in the past.
I worry sometimes with these emails that everyone is going to think that all I do here is eat and go to the market and sit on my porch. Those things are very important and special, but I should write a little about the school projects. When they don’t cancel school for meetings, teacher appreciate day, teacher retirement day, sport day, or stop smoking day (last week. Seriously. Not making this up. A whole day to stop smoking, where the kids that have been seen smoking were made to stand in front of the entire school and swear they wouldn’t do it again.), we are actually doing some things at school. At Ban Khaosamorklaeng School we’ve started a mural, called World Map Project, which is a project, where we draw a map of the world. Suporntip and I are using it as a starting place to teach research, so the students must choose a country and use the library and internet to write a report. It is also a way to teach geography, which hasn’t been happening at this school. It’s going well so far and should be done before the end of the month. At Ban Kokmaidaeng School, Nipaporn and I have started an English club, which hopefully will fill in some of the dead time during the day where the kids just sit around. Our aim is to get the kids to do some creative writing, in English and in Thai.
Besides the big projects, I’ve been feeling encouraged by my co-teachers and our work in the classrooms. I feel very comfortable at the two schools, with the faculty and the kids, and I like going to work in the morning. The kids aren’t scared anymore. They don’t run and scream “falang” (foreigner) when I walk in nearly as much. They’re used to the new techniques and some of them are surprising me with their confidence. I’ve been with the kids for a while and I’ve grown pretty fond of some of them. Of course, this is why I can never be a teacher, because I pick favorites and basically let them get away with anything, but you should see these kids. Absolutely adorable.
I haven’t traveled beyond Wangthong District, with the exception of going just beyond the border into Phitsanulok to the department store to rent VCDs, in 24 days. During this time, I’ve also abstained from alcohol. So basically I wake up at 5:45am, write a little, eat noodles, go to school (when available), go to the market, come home, jog, read, maybe a movie, and asleep by 9. I feel like I am living like a monk (except I wear underwear). I also feel like I am going a little insane.
The Thais say when you spend a lot of time alone like this you can become “goap nai kahlah,” or “a frog in a coconut shell” Can’t think of a better description. I am a frog, and wang thong is my coconut shell. But I will hop on out of here to New York on June 29th and arrive on June 30th where I expect I will burst into tears in front of Terminal 4 at JFK and then promptly put on a sweater. See you all then.
August 18, 2005 – These Are the People in My Neighborhood
It is widespread knowledge among the volunteers that Thais make the exact same grammar, tense and word-choice mistakes nationwide. They ask if you feel “freshie,” if what you’re eating is “suit for you” and my personal favorite, “are you delicious?” Thai people believe everything you do should be sanook (fun), so they constantly want to know if you are bored. With all this in mind, I didn’t even think twice when I arrived back in Wang Thong after three weeks in the states and everyone at school asked, “Seth, I am afraid now you will be boring.”
I think they mean bored, but I don’t press it. Adjusting back to rainy Thailand wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The states gave me perspective. I realized how slow life is here, and how accustomed I’ve become. I realized I like being able to say “Nipaporn, I need to sit down and rest because the weather makes me tired” and having her take me seriously. I like the thrill of not knowing if school will be canceled for one of those mysterious “meetings” that seem to crop up with a moments notice. I like my evening whiskey on the porch, watching the motorcycles and pick-ups and cows and kids on bicycles and packs of wild dogs go by. Slowly. Sure, New York has incredible pizza and pastrami, but can you eat watching water buffalos?
So after 18 months here, should I be concerned that the only thing people wanted to talk about back home was the chicken lady? Well I have a story for you. Approximately one hour ago, I ventured towards her stand after weeks of avoiding her. She was looking the other way filling plastic bags with sticky rice, and I wanted to see if her selection had improved (ok, honestly, I went to Smiley Chicken Lady and Chicken Man and they weren’t there, so I was a little desperate). Again, the same old nasty looking thighs and wings, so I turned around to sneak off, but the woman who sells Pork and Chicken Balls (like American meatballs; NOT a part of the chicken’s or pig’s anatomy) next to her spotted me and called out. So she turned, and I turned, and I was confronted with her for the first time in months. She grunted, I said hello, it was sufficiently awkward for the both of us, and I got on my bike and quickly rode away.
Ending a relationship is never easy. There are always lingering issues that you can’t seem to resolve. How does one say goodbye? What happens when one of you moves on before the other? One can feel betrayed and bitter and these are totally natural reactions, so why should I care when she scowls as me. She should remember that life goes. I’ve taken this advice to heart, and I’ve already discovered there are other fish (chicken ladies) in the sea (market). The chicken lady will always be a precious memory for me, but our time together is over.
Maybe it is time to write about the other people I see every day, lest everyone think Wang Thong is home to only a 7-11, a porch and a chicken stand.
My closest neighbor is a teacher, Anjalean, and her son, whose name has been very easy to remember for me. Booklin is 4 and for the first year I lived here, he loved standing on the fence that separates our houses and screaming out my name until I came outside. Then he would ask me whatever burning questions he had, such as "where is your mother," "why are you white" and the best one, "where do you live?" Now, I'm old news, and he isn't as interested anymore. A few times I’ve stood at the fence and called out to him, but he doesn't like to talk to me anymore. I just can't compete with his bicycle and toy trucks. Anjalean and I remain friends, and I feel bad for her because her husband is a soldier (stationed in the far south fighting an insurgency) and is only home for a short time every three months. She leaves fruit for me on my porch and I am working on getting a Peace Corps volunteers from the upcoming group to work in her school (a very rural and poor school, in the mountains to the east of here).
I've written a lot about Pi Goong, the owner and operator of what I believe to be the best noodle stand in Asia. She is my best friend here, and every morning I come partly for my breakfast but mostly for the time together: sitting and chatting, practicing Thai, learning about her past and about the people in Wang Thong. I get all my information about my neighbors from Goong, who seems to know everyone's back story. When the people who lived across the street from me suddenly disappeared, she told me where they went (evicted because of "bad habits"). Last week, when the smell from a dead chicken in front of my house prevented me from doing anything, it was Goong who came up with the solution ("burn it"). Goong is from the south of Thailand, a province called Nakhon si Tammarat, and has lived in Wang Thong for only 10 years. I like to call her a "farang" (foreigner, the word everyone calls me) because she is southern, and has a different language and no close friends in town. In June when I complained that I was homesick because I hadn't seen my friends or family for 17 months, she said "me too" and I realized that we were in the same boat. Another thing about Goong is that, because of the fact that most of my visitors are in the Peace Corps and can speak Thai, she is convinced that every single Americans can speak Thai. I don't want to tell her otherwise.
My landlord’s name is Mart, and she owns the "Film Mart" in town, and her daughter’s name is Film. She is the one I call when I need the "shit truck" to come (that is a direct translation) to empty my tank (6 times already!! She's flabbergasted. She told me normally it is emptied once a year!) or when I lock myself out or when I lock myself in. She has a 3 year old son Gop who is a fat little boy and loves to play in the streets of Wang Thong totally naked. When I have visitors, I treat Gop like a town attraction, making sure everyone meets him. Another thing about Pi Mart is she keeps her pick-up truck in my driveway because of all the “traffic” in Wangthong. One might think a town with a single traffic light (which works from 6am until 9pm) and exactly 5 streets wouldn't have a traffic problem, but I don't ask questions anymore. Regardless, I like it when she comes for or with the truck because we can chat a little.
The road from my house to the town brings me past a person I like to call "Naked Man on Bed Frame." He's always naked (mostly naked….he wears “boxers”). He's always on the bed frame. And he ALWAYS needs to know where I am going. In the beginning, I didn't always answer him. But one day recently I was at the hospital in Phitsanulok and some man came over to me, talking and gesturing excitedly, and grinning from ear to ear. I humored him, having no idea who he was. He wanted to know why I was there (sprained toe) and he wanted to tell me all about his medical problems (absolutely no idea what he said). The next day, when I walked past naked man on bed frame, he got off the bed frame and ran over to me and it was then I realized it was him in the hospital (I guess I didn't recognize him standing or with clothes on). Now we’re good friends and I always tell him where I am going and I sometimes stop and chat. The funny thing about naked man on bed frame is that when I am walking towards my house, he STILL asks me where I am going. Imagine Wang Thong, then a 1/2 km walk to my house on the outskirts of town, and beyond my house absolutely nothing but rice fields and mountains, and eventually—50 km later—Laos. So, unless I am going to the farm or Laos, the times when I am walking in the direction away from Wang Thong, odds are I am going home. This fact eludes him, and he still must ask. He just needs to know. I respect that, so I always answer him. Yup. Going home. There’s a porch down this road with my name on it…
Noodle man in front of 7-11 is convinced I am a pimp. He just cannot fathom that I can have this many female visitors and am not running a brothel. Each time he sees someone new, he asks, "You're girlfriend, yes?" I wink and give him a knowing smile, and he says something like "oye!" or "wow." I like to ask him if he wants me to find him an American girlfriend, and he lets out a little squeal. The thing about noodle man in front of 7-11 is that his noodles give me diarrhea so I always have to make excuses why I never eat there (apparently it is common knowledge in town I love noodles).
Next to noodle man is the Muslim woman who sells fried chicken. She likes keeping me informed as to the comings and goings of any foreigner around the market. Monday she told me an old foreign man got out of a car and bought chicken from her. She told me she looked for me because she couldn't talk to him. I though this was hysterical because the idea of her looking for me (I don't keep regular hours in front of 7-11) made me smile. I like being aware of all foreigners in Wang Thong thought, and it sheds some light on how everyone seemed to know everything I did when I first got to Wang Thong. I’d go to school, and Suporntip would ask “How was the chicken last night?” and I’d say “How did you know?” (this was before it was just assumed chicken was all I ate). People watch everything, and everyone knows where everyone is going, and if they don’t know, they ask.
I guess I can know who is a friend by seeing who totally freaks out when I am away for too long. Last Christmas, I was at a beach during the Tsunami (totally different side of the country), and I couldn't believe how many "You're not dead!"s I got when I came back. Pi Anjalean and Pi Goong demanded my cell number after that, having spent the week convinced I washed away and determined not to spend another week worrying when the next tsunami comes (which they are convinced will happen). When I came back from America, I was astounded by how many people thought I had gone for good. People I rarely talk to along with my good friends! My co-teacher Nipaporn told me she was afraid she would never see me again. I said “Don’t you think I would have said goodbye!” and then added, “I even emailed you from New York to remind you to pick me up at the airport! That means I am coming back.” She just smiled. She does that when she doesn’t really understand what I am saying. It doesn’t matter though. She and I, and Suporntip too, have been getting along so well lately. We’re “busy” and doing all kinds of projects at the school, so we’re all happy I’m back. Sure, I am a little boring, but only a little. It’s still good to be home.
Incidentally, she didn’t pick me up at the airport.
There was a meeting.
December 12, 2005 – Three Months
At 2am last night, I was walking on the road from town to my house. I had just finished a twelve hour bus ride from Rayong, the site of my COS (Close of Service) conference. So this road, which I’ve assigned various names to over the course of two years (from Bai Nai Road—which mean “where are you going?” since I’ve never walked down the road in the day with this being shouted at me—to Dead Frog Street or the Wang Thong Canal during the rainy season), is the road I walk down every day half a dozen times. In the distance you can see the beginning of the mountain range that separates northern Thailand with Issan, the northeast. In the middle of the road is Pi Goong’s house and her noodle shop. And last night, as with every night, pack of dogs howling as I walk by, hidden in the absolute darkness. And I started to feel a little nostalgic.
OK, a lot.
Less than three months left of walking down this road. Less than three months of my porch, of my co-teachers, of my students, of meandering through the market and giving the “WHY!??!” look to the woman who sells fried grasshoppers, of my on-again off –again relationship with the chicken lady (currently on), of sitting at Pi Goong’s shop for hours chatting and watching her make noodles, of waking up to the sound of roosters and the National Anthem being played on the loudspeaker, of that incredible sweet and sour fish at the gas station restaurant, of remembering to bike with my mouth closed when I come home from the market at 6 because of all the bugs, of every month going to a different corner of this country, of listening in on Thai people’s conversations and then letting them know I understand what they are saying when I hear them talk about me (and of course, then lecturing them that foreigners are not fat. We’re just different!), of feeling as sense of accomplishment for the day because I took a long bus ride.
Three more months. The conference was incredible really. Reflection. Looking back and looking forward. Working on our resumes. They showed us copies of these “Aspiration Statements” we wrote back when they first told us we would be going to Thailand. I wrote mine in November 2003 and the line that struck me was “I want this to be the best thing I have done in my life up to this point.” So what I am realizing, what I was thinking about as I walked down the road last night—when I wasn’t scared of the wild dogs, when I could look at every house I passed and know who lived there and a little bit about their story, when I thought about how I am in a town in Thailand that isn’t on most maps walking on a country road in the middle of the night and just around the corner is MY house—is that this IS the best thing I have done in my life up to this point. The best, and the scariest, and the most frustrating, and the most rewarding, and the most boring and depressing thing too. And usually I feel all those emotions before I’ve had my morning bowl of noodles. Not a day has gone by when I didn’t think I want to get on a plane and get the hell out of here or when I want to extend and stay another year.
Those Peace Corps staff members are a clever bunch. They designed this conference so it had to be love-fest and capped it off with a poignant and hilarious goodbye party where we had a variety show, thank you speeches, and karaoke. I don’t think anyone in my group is leaving more unhappy than happy. “You’re pissed we kicked out your friend for working on Tsunami relief?? We understand and we should talk about it, but while you’re thinking about it, let’s have some wine and salmon.” God I will basically do anything if someone offers me wine and salmon (although I thought it was a little dry). In a year I don’t think I’ll remember how many night I sat on that porch at 7pm, when Wang Thong feels the same as it does at 3am, staring at the shack across the street, watching the dogs running by, wondering if the phone will ring, deciding if I should bike over to 7-11 and get a beer, and getting into bed, exhausted, by 9. In a year it will all seem wonderful, won’t it. And it was wonderful. And it sucked. And it was lonely and it was exhilarating and it was boring and it was, well, mostly it was hot. Everyone agreed on that.
One of the highlights of the conference was when our beloved medical officer Ritt told us he couldn’t remember another PC group that had been through as many pandemics as 116 Thailand, which is always a nice thing to hear. As it turns out, having one group in-country during widespread devastating flooding in southeast Asia, a little-known problem called avian influenza, and a tsunami isn’t normal. And we still have three months!
They told us we’re going to have a hard time adjusting when we get back to the United States. It took us a while to learn Thai culture, they said, so it may take some time to re-learn American culture. Who knows. I know then I went home in July I had to remind myself of certain American customs that I had put aside. I can’t just say what comes to mind because everyone can understand English. It isn’t polite to point and stare. What happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom and does not get discussed at dinner. We went over all this so when I come back you don’t have to worry about having me over. I’ve been trained to deal with all kinds of circumstances. If someone asks me “How was Taiwan?” I am going to smile and say “It was just great! I especially liked the sushi.” We had a little role playing game about this.
We ended the conference by forming a circle, passing around string and tying it to our wrists while saying any last words we felt needed to be expressed to the group. Most of us were crying. I told my group they were by far the weirdest people I have ever met, and over the course of two years, they had all grown weirder (myself included). But when I go home, won’t it all seem so boring after knowing them. There are 35 people in this world who know exactly what this particular experience was like. One is a nun. Five are married. One is 74 years old. One is black. One is from Barrow, Alaska. Two are lawyers. One taught Spanish at a university. I could go on and on with this but my point is that I was proud to have served with these people and I took my time to speak to tell them as much. Everyone spoke well, everyone spoke from the heart, and as I looked around I couldn’t believe this was the same group of people I met in the basement of the Holiday Inn Seattle two Januarys ago. It went by fast. Everyone said it would. I knew it would. Then, what do you know, it did.
But it is not in this group’s character to end on a sappy, feel-good note. That night, a few volunteers were having a beer at the little restaurant next to the hotel. We were staying in a fairly isolated coastal town, surrounded by an industrial park and near an enormous air force base. As a result, there were several older foreigners staying there. At the restaurant, the volunteers watched at seven older Russian men tried to negotiate with the owner to “rent” this little 12 year old boy and several girls who were older for the evening. The volunteers saw the Russian kissing the kid and rubbing his stomach and watched as money was exchanged. There were heated words, and my friend Derek wound up calling those of use still at the hotel to come down. He wanted us all there so we could physically prevent these men from taking the kid. So all 26 Peace Corps volunteers marched down to the beach. The owner of the shop tried to tell us that he was only selling the girls (which apparently was ok since they were 18…), who were prostitutes, and he wasn’t selling the kid, but then he said some things in Thai to the kid which we understood that contradicted everything he was saying to us. So some of us went to the boy’s house to tell his parents (No parents. No house really. A tin shack and a grandma who had no idea what was happening, or why 5 white people who spoke Thai were on her porch.). Some went to the police (they acted concerned, then said the volunteers spoke good Thai and asked if they liked spicy food). The Russians eventually left. They were vile men, and completely drunk. They stood around the beach for a while and when it became obvious we weren’t going anywhere, they gave up. The hotel staff got concerned we were causing a scene and asked that we stay in the hotel, the Peace Corps said it was dangerous and to go to our rooms, so we went back too.
We know this is happening every day all around us. It has happened at my schools, where 15 year old girls go off to Bangkok or Pattaya to work at the bars. We hear stories, but it doesn’t usually happen in plain sight. In my group we have a variety of opinions on prostitution a no discussion of the sex industry in Thailand can be summed up in black and white terms. Living here you are forced to confront it all the time, with so many Thai men and foreign tourists engaging in the industry. So many Thai prostitutes do it willingly because it is easier than working at the market or in farming. They can earn a little money, then come back up-country to their families and live well. But then, so many of the foreigners who come here meet a prostitute and wind up marrying her, moving up-country, and living happily ever after, supporting the women and their families. These are things we’ve been talking about for two years. These are why we do the life skills work in the villages. We are united in our feelings on human trafficking and child exploitation, and I bet there isn’t a volunteer in the group who hasn’t had at least one student drop out for this reason. It was a long night and we went back and forth between the “We really haven’t helped anyone here” conversations to the “we helped one person and that is good enough” responses. We all felt so helpless. I don’t entirely know why I am writing about it here in this email, sandwiched between writing about the genuine peace I’ve made with Thailand and my feelings about starting over in America. Partly, I think, because so many times I hear how there doesn’t need to be peace Corps volunteers in Thailand. How can a country with a skytrain and so many KFCs really justify having so many volunteers. I’ve been fairly vocal about this myself, often staying that the Peace Corps would be more useful in poorer countries. And didn’t that brochure show volunteers living in huts? Where are the huts?? It certainly wasn’t the experience I though I’d have; I have an air conditioner and internet connection in my house and a 7-11 half a kilometer away. But then something like this happens in a little village similar to Wang Thong and I start thinking how wrong I have been. I know as well as anyone that volunteers cannot stop this. But maybe they can do more good than bad. I guess I am writing about this to express how it feels here, so many times over my time here. One night we are singing and celebrating ourselves for a job well done and the next night we’re sitting around the same room wondering if anything can be done about 70 year old Russian men buying 12 year old Thai boys. One day we’re having a life skills camp playing a little game about how to be careful on the roads and the next day we’re at the funeral of a 9th grader who got it down the street from school by a truck driver who didn’t even stop after he hit her.
So this is how the conference ended. A little happy. A little sad. A lot hung over. Back on the bus. Back to the Thong. Start packing. Finish up my work at the schools. In November we had our final Life Skills camp at both schools which went as well as I could have wanted. We had some of the kids practice being tour guides for the local attractions and had some role playing exercises about dealing with peer pressure. We talked a lot about drinking and driving, which I consider the biggest threat here. I had the kids run a relay race wearing goggles covered in vaseline to simulate the effects of alcohol. For most of them I think I convinced them not to drive a motorcycle wearing goggles covered in vaseline. Maybe we reached a few of them. After the camp I had another Thanksgiving party. This year they sent over a huge pot of rice without asking me and everyone sat on the floor pretending to enjoy my beef stew and tacos but secretly sneaking bites of pig skin or grilled frog of whatever it was they snuck in. We had a nice little ceremony where the principal of one of my school’s presented me with a bottle of whiskey (with a little bow on it and a sign that read “Happy Day Thanksgiving”). I think they all had a good time (I also bought a lot a red wine which may have helped) and felt good that they had had an authentic American experience. Rest assured none of them rushed out to the American embassy for a Visa application. They were positively petrified of the chicken parmesan.
The next three months should go by quickly (so said the Peace Corps in a powerpoint presentation entitled “The Last Three Months.”) I suppose I must decide what to do next (more on that some other time). Shockingly, there is some paperwork. I need to find a way to explain to Pi Goong that I am leaving. Find a way to get my stuff home. I don’t know exactly how many pictures of the king and Buddha images I will need back in the states but right now I don’t want to part with any of them. And of course I am hoping I have no problems with customs bringing Mr. Guy (my plastic chicken) back with all this bird flu hysteria. Three months is the amount of time I spend with my home stay family but I can’t imagine this will feel as long as that did. I think I need to start treasuring every moment or something like that, because all those people who told me it was going to go by so fast are going to start telling me I am really going to miss it.
Which is true.
I already do.
March 10, 2006 – The End
There are shirts sold everywhere on the main backpacker streets of Bangkok that read “same same but different.” Though there is no similar Thai expression, tourists seem to think this shirt is the must-have souvenir from here and they’re ubiquitous on the islands and anywhere else tourists congregate.
Friday morning, I decided I love that phrase. I woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of the roosters. At 6 came the PA system and what I like to call “Morning Announcements.” At 7 I started to hear the pick-up trucks pass by blasting advertisements for brooms or chicken or whatever else they’re selling. At 8 the national anthem was played. After that, it was quiet.
Just like every single day without fail for two years.
Except now I’m no longer a volunteer.
Thursday night the teachers from Bankokmaidaeng School and I sang Karaoke from 4 in the afternoon until nearly 11 to celebrate the occasion. This was after I gave a speech to the entire school and afterwards, each student filed past me to pay their respect by bowing and placing their hands into my palm. It was pretty incredible and I basically just stood there dumb-struck by the moment. At the party they put on a big show of thanking me by having each teacher hand me a bouquet of flowers. The funny thing was it was the same bouquet each time. One teacher would come up and hand it to me, we’d turn towards the camera, they’d snap a picture as everyone would “ooohhh” and “ahhhh” and then that teacher would hand the bouquet off to the next teacher to repeat. It was a nice evening, and I am now the proud owner of about 3042 Buddha images and 1203 pictures of former Thai kings, all of which promise to bring me good luck.
Friday we had the goodbye part at Bankhaosamorklaeng School. It was a combined end-of-the-year party for everyone and a retirement-party-for-one-teacher and a welcome-to-the-school party for a new teacher and last but not least, a final-chance-to-grab-Seth’s-ass-while-we-take-pictures party for me. It was open season, and everyone took the opportunity to remind me about their daughters, remind me how fat I’ve become, and say in English “I am your mother.” But this is a great group of ladies, and ass-grabbing aside, we partied like rock starts from 1pm until 5pm. There is just something so beautiful and unique about 14 middle-aged Thai women squeezed into teal or pink silk dresses dancing around a room drinking wine coolers and acting like they are at a rock concert.
They did what can best be described as a roast for me, but I could only catch about 80% of it since they like to use slang when they’re at parties. Wimon, the Thai language teachers, said she was so sorry I was leaving because how would she know if it was hot anymore, which elicited the biggest laughs of the evening. Apparently every single day I answer her greeting by saying “It’s hot!” But I was, you know. The best part was the school janitor who informed me had he known I spoke Thai, we would have been great friends. Unbeknownst to me, his sister lives behind my house and he has apparently been watching me for two years. A little creepy, but they guy was all smiles as he said “I will come to your house tonight.” This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as much anymore.
Last week I was sitting in class with Suporntip and Brian, a volunteer with the new PC group (118) who was in town to get a feel for “volunteer life,” As she finished up she told me “Seth this is the last time you will teach M.3 (grade 9).” I responded that this was probably the last time I would teach….ever. We just looked at each other and I thought I would cry, which would have been awful given that these people do not even cry at funerals. When I sneeze the room erupts into hysterics, so I can just imagine what would happen if I cry. I looked away but I got pit in my stomach as the realization hit me for the first time that it’s all over. It was the same feeling I had all of November and December of 2003 when I said good bye to everyone in the states.
I loved this guy Brian, though, because everything we did for the three day visit, everything he saw and everyone he met, he was so positive and enthusiastic. “I want a porch just like this one” he beamed. And you shall have one Brian. You shall have one. Brian was amazed at my Thai and in awe of the fact that I know so many people when we walked through the market. I told him all of that was the result of hours and hours wandering around aimlessly through the five streets that make up Wang Thong. If he wanders aimless for hours, he too can know all the random people lying around his town. It was a nice ending to my years here to spend time with him and see Thailand through his eyes. Ahh the joys of getting excited about a 4pm beer on the porch and waiting for the buffalos to meander by.
Thai people don’t, as best I can tell, suffer from this intense and immediate nostalgia that seems to afflict all the volunteers. I remember when I said goodbye to my home stay family and my mother’s attempt at a hug left us both standing there awkwardly with our arms linked but both facing the same direction. I’ve hugged my co-teachers before, but for the people around my house, I am curious to see how our last moments play out. The old man who lies on the bed frame at the end of my street asks me if I am going to America if he sees me carrying anything bigger than a backpack. Everyone has been saying goodbye by saying “you’ll come again right? You’ll come and teach here again?”
The one person I am most dreading saying goodbye to is Pi Goong at the noodle shop. I really love this woman, and I am still trying to find a way to get her to a spot on the street around the corner from my future apartment. I don’t see how I am going to start my days without her conversation, her jokes, and her pork balls.
Luckily there are many things distracting me these days. We’re back to 100 degree weather, which makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to move, stand or walk. The prime minister decided to dissolve parliament. Apparently, selling your share in a company for 2 billion dollars – tax free – after changing the tax laws to allow this to happen can really piss people off. So we’re due for another election, which promises to be loud. The way you get votes in upcountry Thailand is by having pick-up trucks drive around the villages blasting campaign slogans and songs.
Also I am attempting to pack and scolding myself hourly for accumulating this much junk.
So the plan now is to travel. Cambodia, Laos, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croquetia, Shlubovenia, Tacovakia, Molevanistan, and Spain. This itinerary is absolutely finalized unless it is changed.
I expect to be back in the states June 7th and Luke and I will move to Washington D.C. by July. I had planned to apply to business school, but will put it off until next year. I have narrowed my job search to include marketing for an NGO, taxi driver, or using all my time and energy getting Luke a really good job with a high salary and then spending the rest of my time sitting on a porch in D.C.
What else can I write? It seems I have been sending out these dispatches from Thailand forever and now this is the last one. Where are all those people who said it was going to go by so quickly? I want to tell them how right and how wrong they were. But of course now that it is really finished I can’t help but dwell on how much has happened, how there were so many things I wanted to do and never got to, how exhilarating and new it was in the beginning and how lonely and endless the days were in the middle and how comfortable and routine it has become at the end. I’ve had so many visitors and made so many new and incredible friends. Sometimes I sit with Pi Goong and I start babbling off and I have to stop and think, “Is that me?” I listen to her go on and on about this that and the other thing every single day and pipe in with my comments and it will occur to me how absolutely beautiful it is that this woman and I—from such different worlds—trust and love and know each other so well. Or my co-teacher Nipaporn will pick me up and the second I get in the car I’ll start ranting about the insufferable fruit seller or bus driver or local kid who screamed “farang” (foreigner) at me while I was on my very own porch or whoever I’m furious at on a given day and she’ll listen and nod and smile and I know that she is thinking “Seth, jai yen yen”—cool your heart—everything is going to be just fine….so you paid one extra bhat for mangos…it will all be ok.” Or I’ll be in class with Suporntip and something will be going right and the children are all smiles and the kid in the corner who never talks chimes in with the right answer and Suporntip will start dancing around the classroom. This kills me, the dancing. She’s always dancing. She dances to the fridge to get me yogurt and she dances to the blackboard to write vocabulary and she dances when I sing “La Bamba” at karaoke. She is so genuinely happy, positive and hopeful, and it is infectious, and no matter what problems I bring to her, or to any of them, they have in the past two years managed to help me through it. “Seth, yaa kit mak” (Don’t think so much). “Seth, arrai ja gurd gaw dang gurd” (Whatever happens is supposed to happen). “Seth, do you want me to take you to KFC?”
I am in their debt for carrying me though but also for experiencing it all with me. Pi Goong once told me she had never spoken with a farang until the day I walked into her stand because she was petrified of them. I guess I didn’t help matters by getting annoyed at her for giving me a bowl of noodles full of fatty pork. How could I know then that she did so because Thai people love pork fat and she wanted to give me the best bowl possible. Now her favorite joke is “Seth doesn’t like fat (on pork) but he is fat and Thai people love fat but they are skinny.” This has her rolling on the floor in hysterics. I just sit there and smile.
I guess it is normal to be so nostalgic and sentimental at a time like this. It is hard not to think back to my anxiety and fears before coming here and know that everything I was so worried about was overcome and I am still fundamentally the same person I was when I joined. I didn’t want to reinvent myself. I wanted to experience a different way of life in a completely foreign culture and challenge myself by giving up everything I had in New York. Done and done.
I don’t know if it is common to have so many people in your life affect you so much and in such a short amount of time. And for all that the people of Wang Thong have taught me, for all the times they have listened, for allowing me into their lives and their hearts, for selling me so much chicken, for buying me beers and offering me rides and stopping as I sat on my porch to ask me if I had enough rice, I am profoundly grateful.
I’m still the same. But certainly different.
(See how I did that…using my analogy at the beginning and again at the end… It all comes full circle here in Seth’s emails…extra points if you knew it was coming.)
Ok, thank you for reading and responding for the past twenty seven months.