This is the kind of country where you can dare kids to eat hot peppers. And they eat more than you dare them to eat.
And they don’t react.
I've been compiling stories for this post, but they're not coherent. Just observations about the things people say and do here, plus an entire section on Karen-isms. Karen-isms, birthed by the Chinese guru herself, are the bedrock of my time here and wonderful insights into East Asian culture by someone I can actually more or less communicate with. So, in no particular order, organized by sections so you can bounce around, I give you some short observations from the 'Dit:
Crime and ‘Dit Students
Two students are sitting around drinking out of disposable plastic cups. I ask, in Thai, “Why aren’t we using the normal cups anymore?” “The boys used them in the bathroom,” they reply. [It took a long time for me to understand that the boys were peeing in them.] “So now,” they continued, “Only the teachers are allowed to use them.” Yeah, right. Thailand language confusion: 0, Rachel’s curiosity: 1.
On Friday morning, several hongs (this means a group of 40-50 students in the same grade and level who study everything together…they travel as a group between classrooms and teachers…kids are strongly tracked) were selected for drug testing. It took Eugene – who had come to chill and teach with me for the day – and me a while to understand. The boys were lined up with cups at a table. Teachers surrounded them. The little boxes of medical tests or whatever had 'meth' written on them. A teacher told us, “Oh, students, and the heroin and the methamphetamine. Some students bad.” We quickly left before the boys tested themselves in front of us. It's unclear why many women were officiating this activity. Sometimes, I think the Thai are so modest; then I run into a situation where I think, "Why are they doing this in public!!!????" As in, why do the boy's urinals outside my house not have walls? Why do the kids do incredibly suggestive dances but absolutely faint if girls wears skirts that don't cover their knees?
Last week, I walked past an office where a police officer was interrogating two of my 10th grade students. It’s like the inner city, only without a ‘city’, or an ‘inner.’ Everyone kept telling me nothing was going on, but then gossiping excitedly and acting really stressed out. When the police officer left, they conversed amongst themselves in low voices before turning to me and asking (oho! now I will get some info!), "Do you think the police officer is handsome?" Thank goodness for a few young girls around who were too innocent to know that they're supposed to hide all bad things about Thailand from me.
Thailand enjoys a brilliant hitting culture. Bamboo rods, brooms, hands, anything. Teacher to student, student to student, almost anything goes. And I can get on board with that. Just ask the woman who raised me – this was fated since the start. But you can’t hit people with books. Oops.
Thai people have a really morbid sense of humor. It’s hard to get across how unsettling this is. But once you walk past 1500 kids googling dead bodies, laughing at death, playing youtube videos of fatal accidents, posting incredibly sad pictures on their facebooks and getting hundreds of ‘likes’, tell teachers about a nearby shooting and only get chuckles in response, and see the front page photos on Thai newspapers day after day, you get an odd sense that something is really messed up. It’s not just a culture difference. It’s a deep gorge between Thai and western culture that severs our sensibilities. I can’t pretend to understand it. The revelry at funerals I can now at some level recognize the sentiment behind – finding joy in a life well lived – but the morbid fascination with pain and injury and finding hilarity in loss of life I cannot understand at all.
Karen-isms - on "why Asians are short," Thai men, and everything else.
Karen, my absolute bestie, heads back to China soon, leaving me kon-deow. When absolute bestie returns to China, I figure there’s no better time to visit that Eastern powerhouse, so I’m spending April there with her. We’ve got some sick adventure ideas, and furthermore, her hometown is Guilin, a popular destination due to its gorgeous landscape. It’ll be our last hurrah.
I will desperately miss all Karen's silliness [the following is slightly edited, though her English is on the whole quite impressive]:
Karen, on height: “The Asian people are the shortest because we forgot the milk. My mom told me to drink the milk but I forgot.”
Karen, on a boy: “I really liked his way, not his money. I saw him walking down the street. He’s like a lion. You know, he was like an eagle. I saw him every time.”
Karen, on planning a trip to China, clearly disbelieving the fact that I don’t have friends everywhere: “Do you have friends in Beijing? [Me: I don’t think so.] Well it would be better if you do. So can you email them? We need to stay with them.”
Karen, on Thai men: “If you have no boyfriend, why don’t you just marry the Thai men? They all want you, so it’s very suitable. You can pick the rich ones with motorcycles or shirts.” Excellent; I always wanted a man who owned a shirt. I apparently did not adequately convey the meaning of the word ‘suitable’.
Karen, on the observation that I am always on the move: “Now that I know you, I know it’s true what the people say: Americans don’t need rest like the Asians. I need the rest.”
Karen, on snacks: “When I was little, we were very poor. Absolutely. So we had no snacks. And so! We ate the peppers. Like ‘pop, pop, pop!’”
Karen, on saving money: “If you were a boy, no girl would marry you. But you are a girl, and you look for the cheap things so I think you are the stingy girl [I taught her the word ‘stingy’ earlier]. But stingy is the best wife so your husband will be the very happy one.” Granted, this was the day we waited 90 minutes for a songteow or bus to take us home. The bus came before the songteow and it cost 30 baht instead of 15, so we stepped right back off and waited another hour. But she was equally complicit.
Karen, on adventure: “Before we hung out, I was in the fake life, and I did not live in this real life, but now we hang out everyday in the real life.”
Me: “So do you think Chinese people are a lot less shy than Thai people?”
Karen: “Thai people are shy? Wow! I came here and I think Thai people are so – what do you say? – extroverted. But all my friends are like me. So I’m not real Asian. You will meet the real Asian and think, ‘Wow!’ because the women are the jai yen yen ones but don’t even talk at all but don’t worry all my friends are like me. I founded them because I like the talking ones.”
Me: “If your back is hurting, I think you should stretch.”
Karen: “What is the ‘stretch’?”
Me: “Like when you try to touch your toes and stuff.”
Karen: “Oh right, the left toe up, right arm up, left up, right up, then shake shake shake? [She shakes violently.] Yes, ok, I’ll do this and you read. But why?”
While I’m making Karen stretch so she’ll stop interrupting my reading (doomed from the start), Karen slaps mosquitoes and suddenly bursts out, “YOU CAN’T FEEL MY FEELINGS!” (She was once very sweet and listened to my quasi-scientific reasoning as to why mosquitoes don’t bite me.)
I show Karen a hip stretch where you cross your feet and lean to one side with a hand on your hip. “Can you feel it?” I ask as she gets into form and puts her hand on her hip. “Wow yes! The fat! Lots of fat. But I’m surprised you feel it!” Karen replies, surprised, as she looks down and pinches her fat. “What do you call this again [pointing at her fat]? Fatory?” Karen’s combination of ‘fat’ and ‘factory’…priceless.
Karen, watching me put in my retainer: “WOW! Let me see that [and she literally reaches into my mouth to pull out my retainer as I slap her away]. In the TV, the people always put those in the mouth too and I always think ‘why?’! [I explain.] So it’s made only for the one person? Wow, that’s very good, and I will tell them at the hospital next time that I will need one. Wow! Very healthy. [One of 2 situations where I’ve realized that the retainer is very much a first world thing.]”
Karen, upon cooking anything, “Wow! Veeeeery healthy!”
Karen, anytime she is frustrated or surprised, “What a joke!”
Karen, whenever I ask her a yes/no question, “Of course!”
Karen bought me a handcrafted wooden alligator.
And Karen did me the biggest favor in the world when she taught me how to use the squat toilet. Well, I’ve employed a lot of teachers on that front, hoping for the moment when someone tells me that there’s a secret normal toilet in every squat toilet if I only look a little harder.
'Dit students say.
A student, in English, when I ask him why a girl two years his senior is deigning to date him: “I [pointing at himself with both thumbs] perfect.”
A student, in Thai, a girl: “Teacher, can I kiss your hand?”
Nut, the boy who offered to get me pregnant (helpful dude), “Come back I [/to me]. I love you. I love you [and] you walk [away from me]." [He explains in Thai that he’s leaving to work in a different province.] [Mimes putting ring on his finger as his friends kneel down before me; he moves them aside and lowers himself in front of me as I’m sitting on the basketball hoop foundation; proposes; much ado/slapping in Thai between him and his friends; tells me he’s drunk but only so he can tell me he loves me.] [Rolls up his boxers inexplicably. Cries.]
A student, in Thai, when my friend Eugene came to chill out and teach with me, “Now we have two Americans and no Thai teachers in here??!! What’s happening around here?”
I taught 12 little ones aged 4-13 in a nearby village on Saturday. The neighborhood moms all sent their kiddies and pitched in to buy a whiteboard. Then all the kids and moms watched me in awe, mainly due to my finger puppets. (Thanks grandma.) They were my best students ever as their moms probably threatened them that I wouldn’t come back. Now I wish my students’ moms came to my classes at school.
Gecko Homeless Shelter
To the gecko population in my room:
Let’s be clear: I do not run a gecko hostel. I do not enjoy cleaning droppings off of every surface. I allow your presence because we engage in a give-and-take symbiotic relationship. I do not enjoy when you mate over my head. I do not enjoy when you sleep in my clothes. I enjoy when you eat the ants. And judging by the ant population, you are doing a very poor job. Work harder.
A great gift. A great compliment. A great gift.
If you tell people you like bananas, they will give you bananas. Up to 50-70 per week. You will have to eat 9 bananas a day in various forms. In Thailand, there are many forms of banana snacks – dried, fried, deep fried, roasted, smoothies, made into chips, made into sweet gelatin kanom, every possible variation. Furthermore, the variation in species is marvelous. But it’s hard to give bananas away because everyone already has them. You will have research plots all around your kitchen area because you are testing how long bananas last in the fridge, freezer, or table. With peel, without peel, etc. Your sample size will be very big. You can write a journal article on the decomposition of bananas.
I received a truly great compliment the other day: “You good English.”
Granted, the giver spoke hardly any English whatsoever. But how flattering!
I score up to three goals before any boy will even consider passing me the ball. Each time. Granted, I’m sometimes too chillaxed on the field, chasing babies off and befriending my peeps. But still, I don't play too badly.
My church gave me an orange jersey on Sunday. Why? I’m not sure. But I think I'll be totes in the gang now.
Combating stereotypes, one kilo at a time.
Nobody believes that Americans are fat anymore. It used to be the favorite go-to comment about Americans, and now peeps in the ‘Dit are just confused. I slowly get skinnier. I showed my kids a powerpoint on American food. [In Thai, of course:] "Teacher, why do you say Americans are fat? Americans get really skinny."