Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the way

As usually happens, all the best intentions of writing in order to keep track of the whirlwind were dashed within it instead.

Tonight is our last night in Thailand, signalling the end of 27 long months as Peace Corps volunteers in our small village in Sukhothai province. Tomorrow morning, we'll find ourselves 30,000 feet above the country that has hosted us, fed us, loved us, and schooled us for the past two plus years.

It is difficult to say anything about how this feels, let alone attempt to remark on it in an accurate and meaningful way.

I am as confused as when we started this journey, and just as hopeful and scared, too. There is nothing to do but put one foot forward in front of the other and see where the path leads. And so we go on. On the way to somewhere.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Calling B*llsh*t (Updated)

At least in my level of tolerance for public confrontation, I’ve mellowed out quite a bit in the last years. So, it feels a little out of my current character, but I have to call bullshit on this article: The Mia Noi or Minor Wife in Thai Culture: Having a Mistress in Thailand is Actually Quite Common (Don't click yet; I posted the link a little further down so you can read it when I want you to.)

This title, which is true, is of an article that was posted on facebook by a friend and fellow Thailand PCV and it showed up in my newsfeed a couple of days ago. The link was accompanied by her assessment, “I absolutely don't agree with this woman but this article is worth a read.” Since I was on a facebook / Internet binge (i.e., between classes with nothing to do except pretend to study for that Stats MOOC I signed up for), I clicked the link. In a minute, I’ll tell you to do the same, but first, a brief note:

As anyone who writes about culture knows – and as anyone who has lived in a culture, especially one so diametrically opposed to their own has come to understand relatively quickly – representing, discussing, critiquing, and dissecting cultures other than our own is very tricky territory. As I see it, whether we engage with other cultures as peripheral observers, participant observers, community members, academics, journalists, or ex-pats, there are three major mistakes we can make, any of which severely curtailing our ability to represent the culture to others who don’t experience it like we do.

The first mistake is simply that of complete misunderstanding. There is always the possibility that we just completely don’t get something that’s going on. It can happen if we don’t have the language, miss the underlying cultural, religious, or personal significance of a moment or a monument. It can happen if we get our research wrong, misunderstand our history, or misinterpret our history. These mistakes can be great or small in magnitude, but they stem from a fundamental misalignment of our interpretation with the reality of the culture or practice that we’re trying to assess. Oops. In my own case, I’ve realized t hat more time in the culture helps to correct and shed light on earlier misunderstandings and egregious mischaracterizations.

The second mistake happens when we forget that we’re wearing our own cultural lenses, when we can’t put aside our biases, and when we simply judge an aspect of a culture to be WRONG because it doesn’t measure up to the morals or standards that we take for granted from our own culture.

The third mistake happens when we blissfully accept that just because a cultural practice exists, we shouldn’t judge it, and so it must therefore be good or RIGHT and acceptable.

Assuming that the first type of mistake is an honest mistake that we might all make, but that vigilance, keeping an open mind, heart, eyes, and ears, will help mitigate, most writers and others who study culture thus need to find a way to walk a middle path between the first and second mistakes, to find their way between absolute absolutism and absolute relativism, if you will. It is a difficult line to walk; how can you criticize a culture objectively, without your own biases getting in the way? Well, you can’t. But you can acknowledge your biases and the framework within which you’re working. And you can realize that making principled objections to certain cultural practices is a necessary step in progressing toward a world that is more equal, more just, and more peaceful.

So back to that link: The Mia Noi or Minor Wife in Thai Culture: Having a Mistress in Thailand is Actually Quite Common Go ahead. Read it. I’ll be here when you get back.

Back? You thought it was bullshit, right? Okay, great. Oh wait, you just thought it was interesting and neat to learn about another culture? Please read on.

The author of this piece seems to me to be a little far into the cultural relativism territory: Because it’s been around in Thai society for a long time, because some people think it’s either inevitable or acceptable, the author finds a way to normalize the “mia noi” or “minor wife” that is so common in this culture, even going so far as to call the widespread practice of men taking mistresses a “win-win” for everyone.

I am a liberal. A progressive, feminist liberal. I tend to agree with what another friend commented in response to this link, that I don’t have general a problem with any of the consensual, safe relationships into which adults enter knowingly and of their own free will. But my relatively open view toward adult sexual relationships is based on a couple of assumptions: that those relationships should be mutually beneficial, that those relationships should be consented to by all parties, that those relationships should be safe, and especially that they are not based on lopsided power dynamics and unequal social status.

Unfortunately, in Thailand, the mia noi relationship is a social institution that generally tends to preserve unequal gender dynamics and the greater power of men within familial and social relationships. Let’s just say that the acceptability of mistresses isn’t the product of a liberal progressive sexual revolution that allows men and women in equal numbers and with equal freedom to explore their own sexuality and identities in safe, judgment free zones. In a society in which public displays of affection like hand holding are frowned upon, teenage pregnancy is an issue in rural provinces, and sex education is still a little bit taboo, these and other extra-marital relationships that are also generally accepted can even be dangerous.

First, mia is a word that is used to describe an animal of the female sex. It is not, generally used to describe women. It’s an impolite, but it’s an acceptable way of referring to your wife, or to someone else’s wife. Pua is the equivalent term for a male animal. It is not often used to describe a man or even a husband, although it can be, in which case it is considered vulgar, though can be employed to comic effect in certain situations. If you want to get really hinky about it, you could argue that linguistically, on getting married, a woman loses some of her social status, while a man doesn’t.

So, then the mia noi. The author implies that sometimes the wives know about the women, and sometimes they don’t, and she’s willing to let it slide as a “win-win” that some women’s husbands are having sexual relationships outside their marriage without their knowledge. That’s gross. Even if the women do know about it, however, their knowledge is not derived from a few conversations with their husbands in which the couple mutually decides that it would be best if the man went elsewhere for sex. Sex-wise, mia noi aren’t the only game in town; geeks are described as being more like sex toys and flings. Whereas some men might stay with a mia noi for years, and perhaps create the intimate relationship that the author describes in her piece, the geeks fall into what in Thailand is a large gray area between consensual sex and prostitution. They exchange their bodies and their presence for trinkets of varying value, and are often casually tossed aside. In training, we were told that growing numbers of college girls regard this kind of relationship as a way to keep up with the consumerist culture that’s fast outpacing the incomes of the more rural populations.

So, how do women recognize that their husband has a mia noi or a geek if he doesn’t tell them? They usually start noticing some of the following signs: The man takes a lot more trips than usual; he gets a second cell phone; he starts spending more money on unnamed things that never end up in the house; he stops being attentive to his children; he starts drinking more or spending more time at parties to which she is not invited; he stops spending money on household items that are necessary; he stops having sex with her and distances himself. Or else she gets tested for an STD after a routine gynecological exam or as part of antenatal care, and discovers she’s got herpes. Or HIV. Some of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Thailand occur in populations of women in “monogamous” relationships. Hmmm. Oh, or else someone just tells her that they saw him at some place with some woman.

At this point, the woman has a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Most often, her friends already know, her family knows or suspects; often, the kids also know. She can stay with him either for financial reasons or in order to hold something together for the children; she can endure the gossip and the direct inquiries of her friends, neighbors, and family members; she can make ends meet with her own earnings so the household does not suffer from the dalliances of her husband. She can do all this and decide either to confront him or not to. Many women do, and they watch their marriages dissolve out from under them whether or not they instigate a discussion or confrontation. Or, she can leave him. Often, this means being the object of more gossip and shame, enduring great financial hardship to split up possessions, move back to her family home, fight for custody of her children.

I know a woman who left a job and a community she loved because her husband became abusive after she confronted him about his mia noi. He paid her tens of thousands of baht and gave her the car that was hers, but in his name, so that she would divorce him. She moved 6 hours away, back to her family home rather than be the object of pity and have to endure the pain as his girlfriend moved into the house and bore her husband of 20+ years his second child. The baby was born last month. All of the teachers, her former colleagues, say it’s very cute.

Another woman I work with had to confront her husband about the money he was spending on his minor wives, unenroll one of her children from a good school because they could no longer afford the costs of sending him there, and endure being the object of gossip for two years while her husband sowed his wild oats. Their marital strain affected her relationships at work, with her students, and with her family, and of course, with her children, who are old enough to know exactly what’s going on. Now, she says things are better, but I haven’t seen them together in over a year. Come to think of it, I’ve barely seen him around at all.

Another woman I know just divorced her husband of 14 years because his priorities changed. He’d had a mia noi for a couple of years; she described the end of their marriage as “not sad, because when you get to that point that you just can’t endure it anymore, what’s there to be sad about if it ends?”

Another woman, whose husband moved to a neighboring province to take a job he was assigned to for two years, is waiting out the separation, hoping that when his contract runs out, he’ll be able to come home and she can stop worrying about which of his female colleagues he’s doing extracurricular activities with.

Another woman we know reunited with her husband and the father of her children after he spend years courting a mia noi who also works in our community. The mistress slandered the woman in the community, confronted her at her house on a number of occasions, and had to be reprimanded by her boss before she stopped bothering the wife, who had insisted that her husband leave the mia noi or leave her.

One of our neighbors spends a few nights a week lonely while her husband takes his mia noi out for dinner or drinks or other diversions. He took her to a work function that my husband also attended.

Speaking of my husband: Married men have suggested stopping in at brothels on more than one occasion, assuring him that the girls are nak suksa (college girls) and not locals, as if to entice him. A teacher I work with, who still lives with her cheating husband and feels that their relationship is more or less over despite their continued co-habitation, propositioned my husband at a work function, saying yak len (I want to play) as she bid him goodbye, after telling him that she was more or less single now that her husband is with his mia noi.

More than once, I have been asked (sometimes directly, sometimes in more suggestive, annoying, and roundabout ways) whether or not my husband has a mia noi. When he has travelled without me, people have asked why I am not calling or texting him RIGHT NOW to find out what he is doing and where he is. They are alarmed when he does not call or text me every day, or when I do not know where he is at 6 p.m. Josh yang mai dai glap, lawww? (Josh hasn’t come back yet, huh?) my neighbor inquires, with mixed equal parts pity and curiosity. Josh bpen jao chuu mai?  (Is Josh a playboy / cheater?) is a question women I don’t know well have felt completely comfortable asking me.

The principal of the school I work at once told me that he had heard a rumor that Josh did have a mia noi in our village. I laughed. Mai huang giao gap rueang nii, ka. Chan mai bpen kon heung. I’m not worried about that. I’m not a jealous person. I tried explaining that men and women can have friendships, non-sexual relationships, that Josh works with a lot of women, that I also know them, and that I trust him. I thought I had dispelled the issue, but months later, a teacher I work closely with, a man, apparently felt the need to repeat the information to my host mother, who confronted me about it abruptly one evening as we made dinner. No, he’s not a jao chu, I said. No, he doesn’t have a mia noi. People don’t understand our relationship. I don’t know if she understood all of the same things I tried to explain to her, but she ended with a diatribe denouncing Thai women who try to steal other people’s husbands. At the end of that conversation, I don’t think she was entirely convinced.

She told me in snippets about her own marriage. I raised four kids on my own; he worked abroad for the better part of seventeen years, she said. And I never had anyone else. She never screwed around. Not brave enough to ask if she thought he had, I asked, and did anyone gossip about you while your husband was gone? She looked up sharply and the knife she’d been peeling the onion with seemed to hover in mid-air. I never gave them a reason to, she said sharply. Of course not.

A few weeks later, Josh spontaneously decided to pull out pictures of our wedding party and show them to our neighbors. Just then, our host mom walked up. After seeing a few of the pictures, including a few totally inappropriate kissing ones, she got my attention and asked me if I had told Josh about what she had said. Yes, I said. What did he say? she asked. He thought it was ridiculous, I said. She started laughing. Dton tii mee daai-yin kao nii, mee saao jai maak mai. Mai dtong yaek-gan. Di-jai maak man mai jing. When I heard that news, I was very said, she said. Don’t split up. I’m very happy it’s not true. Me too, I said.

Girls break up with their boyfriends because they are jao-chu; they get into long distance relationships and then these men conveniently find other girlfriends. The women feel deceived and cheated, and they also lose trust in all men. Or else lose trust in their ability to find a man who isn’t a jao-chu. A good friend, about my age, wants kids, but she doesn’t want a husband. I just need someone to get drunk and get me pregnant, she joked. (She’s just about the most conservative nearly-30 year old single woman I can imagine. Saying this out loud is about as risqué as she’ll ever get.) She doesn’t want a husband because all men are jao-chu in her mind. Even on her wedding day and in the weeks after, another woman asked Josh and I whether we thought her new husband was jao-chu or not. I’ve never heard discussed the stress that distance puts on relationships, never heard women talking aloud about working to alleviate situational stresses that might increase the likelihood of cheating (which isn’t to say that they don’t talk about this stuff when I’m not around, or in front of me, and I just don’t understand it!) Rather than seeing it in their power to discuss with their husbands the parameters that they find acceptable in a marriage, women seem to feel that all the power in the relationship rests with the man; their fate as a wife or girlfriend is determined by whether he has jao-chu predilections or not.

Update: Today, my male co-teacher and I were discussing the behavior of the boys in the sixth grade class. There is a contingent of boys in both the fifth and sixth grade whose behavior belies the fact that they are angry, in desperate need of attention and more care and love. In short, they are rude, mean, bully other kids, and are NOT interested in learning. They got in trouble on a recent field trip for smoking cigarettes. My teacher said, today, about three boys in particular, They come from broken families. This one lives with his father's new wife. This one and that one, their fathers have many wives and children with more than one wife. Their fathers are sometimes here and sometimes they are not. They do not have anyone to take care of them. Which reminds me, two weeks ago, one of the sweetest girls in my class completely spaced out for about two days. Wouldn't do work. Wouldn't look at anyone. Her mom came to school to talk with the teachers. It turned out her father had just left for another province, to go live with his mia noi, and he had left his actual wife and children in debt and without a vehicle. No wonder she couldn't concentrate.

I could keep going, but I hope what you’re seeing in these examples is that the mia noi system is hardly a win-win. It’s a vestige of a mentality that values men over women, that sees female sexuality as being at men’s service, rather than as a function of female pleasure, and of a society in which women’s fortunes were historically tied to whether or not she managed to remain tethered to the financial and social unit of her husband’s family. It is part of a cultural system that reveres wealth, status, and beauty, and in which the acquisition of a beautiful young female enhances a man’s estimation not only in his eyes but in the eyes of other men. It is a system in which mia noi or a geek can gain access to a man’s resources and time and status in exchange often for sex and public companionship.

Ultimately, I see that the acceptance of the mia noi in Thai society has far less to do with its supposed value as a cultural or social institution, and more to do with the value of kwam sammakkee, or social harmony and unity, that guides most of Thai life. I am not surprised that people would simply laugh at it, or just say that that’s the way it is, when discussing what is really an uncomfortable and enduring ossification of the different roles of men, women, and wives in Thai society with a foreigner. Thais don’t like to talk about uncomfortable subjects, and will often shrug something off before discussing its ramifications in their own lives, let alone to speak on a subject that might shed their culture in a poor light. It’s an understandable tendency that it leads a lot of systemic problems to be laughed off or swept under the rug.

Nevertheless, this discomfort around how relationships work and the lack of clarity about how they’re supposed to function, leads many young women I have talked with to more or less expect that their husbands or long term boyfriends will turn out to be jao-chu. They are predisposed toward jealousy and insecurity, and similarly predisposed not to respect the relationships between men they desire and other women. Men, meanwhile, don’t necessarily seek to build strong relationships with the women they eventually marry, or else let these relationships break down because it’s acceptable for them to find intimacy with other, more interesting prospects. In the end, this means that the foundations for building good intimate relationships between men and women are weak to begin with, and this is compounded in an economic climate that forces couples split up all over the country (and sometimes the world) for extended periods of time as they save for their weddings or raise their children and try to navigate the beginning stages of starting lives together—all at a vast distance, not only measured in kilometers, but also in experience and expectations. Relationships that could be intimate, loving, and meaningful may instead crumble because of suspicions, refusal to discuss problems, and the existence of an easy out for one party.

Perhaps there are women who have managed to successfully and happily navigate the position of the mia yai or the mia noi and situations in which the husband’s seeking his own pleasure and fulfillment outside the marriage has actually led to a net increase in happiness all around, but I haven’t seen it.

This isn’t to say that all men have mia noi or that all men are jao-chu, as many of my girlfriends here would claim. On the contrary, I have seen many examples of close, loving relationships between married men and women, and these relationships thrive with the support of friends, family, and extended communities. All relationships regardless of their cultural habitat are difficult, rocky, and scary at times. There are plenty of extramarital affairs wreaking havoc in my home country as well, and our views on sex and marriage and relationships could certainly use an update. But that doesn’t change the fact that this mia noi business just isn’t a win-win.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Moving forward

And just like that, it’s hot season again. (Note: all references to things being cool, cold, or otherwise not warm should be taken with a grain of salt by anyone not currently living in the tropics.)

Since mid-December, we’d been wearing long sleeved shirts to bed, snuggling down in long pants, and pulling a thick blanket up over our shoulders every night. No fan. No open windows. The world was a familiar winter one of head colds and hot tea, with the added bonus of biking to work in sweatshirts and wearing socks all day. Thais laughed at us as we donned clothes similar to what they were wearing, and we all sipped warm drinks and told each other, naao, naao (cold, cold) instead of the usual awkward-silence-filling rawn, rawn (hot, hot) usually uttered while waving an impotent hand across your face as if to create a breeze. Showers were torturous as we doused ourselves with water that had chilled all day, sometimes putting off bathing for a full 48 hours before we really felt compelled to brave the iciness and lather up. After all, we weren’t sweating, right?

Then, about a week ago, it all changed. Mornings that had been freezing excuses for staying in bed an extra hour melted away, and we started melting again as long afternoons filled up with sun and heat. Work became sweaty and uncomfortable again. Naao became rawn. Fans went on. Windows opened.

A year ago, we endured cold season with smirks and offhanded comments. This year, although even the Thais say it’s unusually cold, we are eating a little crow because we too seem to have acclimated to the shifted temperature range; our blood and skin must have thinned considerably. A teacher checked the mercury thermometer at school two weeks ago; it was near 9 a.m. and we were standing around shivering outside the office. Sip-jet ongsaa, he pronounced. Seventeen degrees. Celsius. I did the conversation on my phone, and became immediately ashamed of my purpling toes: 66 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm spring day by some standards. So, we’re fitting in a little here, to say the least.

Other signs we’re “fitting in” have multiplied as well. A couple of weeks ago, we were called to join a meeting in our village at which the villagers were going to be voting in a new water board (the old water board was being disbanded under charges of having done something other than maintaining the water tower and filter with the past five years’ worth of money). We sat quietly in the back and took notes. We waited patiently while the man conducting the meeting ensured that one person from every water-using household was present and accounted for. Josh was sent by some neighbors to add his name to the list in lieu of our absentee landlord. It turned our landlord’s name wasn’t on the list, anyway. We listened through the explanation of the voting procedures and watched those around us raise their hands to vote as the decision to kick out the old board was made final. After the votes were tallied, someone queried whether we’d voted or not; it seemed she wanted to make sure we had.  (We hadn’t. She asked why, didn’t we know what was going on? We said yes, but our residence wasn’t on the list. This was an acceptable excuse, I guess.)

Our neighbors have begun accepting food from us, even food that I claim is Thai food that I cooked myself, they seem willing to eat.

The kids I teach wave and yell hello, even when I’m not teaching them.

People I bike past on a daily basis and have spoken to at length only a few times say they’ll miss me.

Everyone’s starting to ask about when we’re going back home.

And that seems to be the one thing that everyone here and everyone at home seems to have in common.

Part of the reason we hadn’t been writing the blog (or that I hadn’t, anyway) during the cold season (aside from all the travelling and business that I laid out as an excuse in the last blog post) is that since about September, we’ve been mulling over—really, agonizing is a better word—the possibility of staying in Thailand for another year. And we didn’t want to agonize over it in public, or alarm anyone, or jinx anything, before we made up our minds one way or another. We were presented an opportunity to move out of our community and to a big city in Isaan (Northeast Thailand), to work with a university, and university students on some different projects that are more directly related to our experience (and we hope, our ambitions).

After the torturous process of changing our minds on an hourly basis, finding ourselves almost entirely out of sync with each other’s thought processes, negotiating the ups and downs of finalizing the details of the position – all those minor things about where will we live? who will we work with? what will we do? why would we want to go there? when will we move? – and generally realizing that what’s required in this instance, as in just about any other, is a leap of blind faith (in other people’s and our own good intentions, in the potential for everything to just work out, dammit), we’ve decided to go for it (with very few of the answers to the above questions entirely worked out).

What that means, exactly, we're not fully sure. As the details unfold, so will the stories. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

We're Safe + 1500 words on where we've been

Today is Election Day in Thailand. Where we are, it is proceeding without violence. And very little actual voting, it seems. More on that and the political situation in the next post. For now, here's why we've been MIA.

In November, we had just finished with our October bpit term (school break) vacations, which took us from SCUBA diving in the south near Koh Tao, which certifies the second-most divers in the world per year (behind Cairns, Australia) to rafting and admiring caves in Thailand’s wildest province, Mae Hong Son, with old and new friends. From there, we brought our trek-weary selves into Chiang Mai to meet with Josh’s aunt and uncle, and let them treat us to three days of unimaginable luxury, while we did our best to steer them toward the tastiest food and the best shopping.

Then we recovered at site for a few weeks while we anticipated:

Family Visit #1: Josh’s cousin and her boyfriend dropped in on us for a few days during their two-week tour of Thailand’s mountains and beaches. They (and the cheese and chocolate they brought) made it to Sukhothai in time for the Loy Krathong (lantern) festival, and met quite a few of our fellow volunteers at the same time. We also saw them again in Bangkok, where we dragged them to our favorite hole in the wall blues bar, and they got to see some legit Thai protest music issuing from a sinewy, white haired, sun-browned man who played his guitar as if it were an extra appendage. As he played, streams of protesters – the first waves of the now three month long anti-government protests – poured down the street, some of them spilling into the bar and crowding us even more tightly into our corner between the band and the barkeep. Blowing whistles and dancing through the otherwise mostly empty streets, they were apparently the harbingers of the current “shut down” that Bangkok has been experiencing since. That, our last night with the cousins, came on the heels of this minor interruption:

Continuation / Close of Service Conference: After a Thanksgiving Dinner at her house, we were all bused down from the Ambassador’s estate in Bangkok to Cha-am, a city just a couple hours south of Bangkok, on the beach, for three days that combined nuts and bolts logistics of finishing service with the more fuzzy mushy aspects of preparing to leave this crazy roller coaster and the friends we’ve made on it in just a few months.

And shortly after we bid Cali and Nicole goodbye, saw our friends off back to their sites, and also found out that I had a massive sinus infection and was prescribed a giant nose-syringe, saline solution, nasal spray, a ten day regimen of antibiotics, and hard-to-come-by pseudoephedrine, we gathered our strength and repacked our heavy bags to embark on these two things:

Family Visit # 2 and the Half Marathon:
We picked up Josh’s mom, aunt, and nephew from Suvarnabum airport near midnight on a Friday, and proceeded to spend nearly three hours driving around in a cab whose driver had clearly been greeng-jai-ing us (or kidding himself) when he said that he knew where to find our hotel. To his credit, it is not easy to find. Not to his credit, he was really bad at asking for directions. This does not need to be rehashed. The next morning, our guests’ jetlag had them up far earlier than our exhausted bodies would allow, so we spent the first 20 minutes after we got up thinking that we had a) lost them or b) they all took really powerful sleeping pills and weren’t responding to the pounding on the door. Finally all gathered together, we hopped in two cabs to the (other) airport, and boarded a plane to Cambodia, where they let us through customs without incident and did nothing with the passport photo I had spent hours (and dollars) procuring in Bangkok the week before. Those without photos were fined just one dollar.

The hospitality in Siam Reap was incredible. Our hosts were gracious, expeditious in accommodating requests, and overall delightful. We toured bits Angkor Wat at sunset on the first day, then ate, and readied ourselves for the race. Despite my massive sinus infection (and having left all of the sinus rinse at a friend’s apartment in Bangkok), I ran the race in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Josh, who may or may not have had bowel trouble, and whom I spotted exiting the woods around kilometer 14, finished in 2:07. Not a single decent race photo was taken. That afternoon, we toured more of Angkor Wat, the sheer size of which I was pretty sure was starting to make me feel sick to my stomach. It is a glorious, incomprehensible place. The stones are massive. The scope is massive. The trees are breathtaking. The vendors are young, adorable, and can count to ten and tell you the price of their wares in at least four languages. They also have ingenious sales pitches, and I should have purchase far more souvenirs from them than I was willing to at the time. I absolutely regret not handing over more dollars for trinkets and baubles, scarves, and paintings and am ashamed that my general reaction to someone trying to sell me something is to think that I’m being swindled. In the evening, I discovered that I had no energy, no appetite, and a general sense that up was down and left was right.

My antibiotic did not agree with me. I ate boiled rice and French bread compliments of the hotel where we stayed, and saw the inside of the bathroom more times than I care to remember. Josh went to Angkor Wat again, and he took good pictures, so I can pretend in later years when my memory is failing, that I was also there.

Then crossed over land back into Thailand, and traipsed around the southern portions for a while. Khao Sok National Park was a balm for body, mind and soul. Situated around a giant lake, which was created about 15 years ago when the _____ river was damned, Khao Sok is essentially a flooded mountain range, the guest houses of which are actually constructed on floating rafts spaced out of view from one another throughout the enormous flooded valley. It is perhaps the only place I’ve ever thought to describe as “serene.”

From there to Krabi and Railay Beach, which Josh loved, and which I thought was…. annoyingly full of people. The most annoying people were the ones attracting troupes of monkeys to themselves and handing them packaged food, water bottles, etc., and then bursting into tears when other monkeys swooped down and stole their other, unguarded packages and whisked them away. No need to further comment, I hope. Josh also pointed out that it was probably the first place in Thailand where the men were generally more attractive than the women – so that was a treat. ;)
Aside from that, though, we did some snorkeling, beaching walking, buried someone in the sand, jumped off a few cliffs, and got a few good runs, hikes, and meals in before making the long trek back to site. Three nights at site was enough to give a bit of an impression of our life, and to get Josh’s mom to meet our mee, to have a few conversations on the front porch of our host family’s house, and to stuff our American family full of delicious Thai treats and hospitality. For 20 dollars, we also took eight people to a gut-expanding hot-pot dinner.

Then back down to Bangkok to send off the family, pick up all the crap we’d left there during the preceding two weeks, and chill-out before settling back in at site, where we promptly did laundry, cleaned up, and then opened our doors to our good friends for the holiday season. Over the five day weekend that we got for New Year’s, we had no fewer than seven folks (including us) cooking, eating, drinking, playing cards, dancing, running, riding bikes, sleeping and generally filling our house with good cheer and holiday spirit. One friend even brought us a string of Christmas lights, which still adorn our front door and which I plug in every once in a while to bring back a bit of the glow with which those friends – now truly family – infused our house. Then they left, and we had quiet for a few boring days until another friend dropped in. More eating, drinking, philosophizing and music exchanging ensued.

And until it warmed up this past Monday, we’d been lonely, cold, and bored since he left.

So, that’s that. That takes us to about two weeks ago, and 1500 words. So, signing off, more soon.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Rainy Season. A poem.

“Thailand has three
Hot season, cold season, and __________”?
A test question asks my students.
Hot and cold they know already,
but rainy eludes them
even as they sit in a classroom the usual
kid noise of which is drowned out
by the drumming of torrential rain
on the school’s steel roof.
Sheets of water pour off the corrugated metal and
slide past the windows,
darkening the room.
Guiding them through the question
(this is a test of me as much as of them),
I ask, “What season is it now?”
and point out the window.
“Cold?” they ask.

Rainy season is sometimes cold
in the way it is always cold to be too wet
with no promise of drying anytime soon.

Mostly though, it’s cool and the days progress slowly.
It seems as though the sun has gotten lazy; it rarely
rises into perceptible view until early afternoon
when the clouds deign to share the stage with their brighter, more
ostentatious sibling.
But the clouds and the rain must depress the sun the same as they
depress me on some days,
because the sun slips away early, too,
letting the sky grow dark in late afternoon as the clouds gather for another
celestial game that the sun isn’t invited to join in.
Sometimes, they play long into the night,
a kind of heavenly match no mortal understands.
The scoring is too complicated, the object of it all elusive.
After long nights battering the ground below, the clouds look restful in the morning,
fluffy, white,
somehow satisfied with the damp they’ve wrought below.

In some weeks, the taa din daeng never dry out completely,
the muddy puddles in the red dirt only shrinking and growing
as if they’re breathing at some impossibly listless pace.
Sometimes the puddles become splayed ovals
taking their shapes from the ruts grooved out by
E-tans that pass through,
carrying farmers to their flooded fields,
bouncing over the less and less smoothly packed
dirt roads that criss-cross the paddies out behind the houses.

In rainy season there is always enough water
for dishes
and laundry
and bathing.
There’s no sense in restricting the flow from the reservoir to the houses when
the reservoir is threatening to overflow and flood the nearest ones.

In rainy season everything wet stays damp for days.
You can only do laundry as often as the laundry you’ve already done will dry.
Otherwise, everything mildews
and has to be washed again
swirled in the abundance of life (and chore) -sustaining liquid that
flows so easily from the tap
into the basin
and out the back into the yard
and from there under the fence
into the empty lot next door
which sits lower and has begun to serve an important purpose
as it collects the water that drains away
away from the houses
which for now
aren’t flooded.

In rainy season
the klong fills up to within inches of the level of the road.
Maybe sometimes it spills over
quietly, bringing mud and sand with it,
leaving the road that curves around the wat
full of red dirt and puddles that can’t be avoided by any form of wheeled transport.
Maybe sometimes it runs over,
but I haven’t seen it.
Near the bridge before the wat, upstream from it,
where the high school kids farm fish and spend their afternoons
jumping into the klong and swimming in its muddy sluggish current,
the school is constantly less than an inch away from imminent
But it hasn’t happened yet.
That road stays dry,
with the klong only lapping at the cement shore
quietly coming to meet it
and then sinking back as the water is called further downstream.
Someone is good
with the doors along the canal,
the locks that open and allow the water to flow into fields,
or further downstream
to other communities
that accept the water, or send it flowing
on back to its mother river.

A kilometer or so
past the wat
the road has straightened out and runs between fields
for a while.
No houses crowd the road or the rice.
If they did, they’d be sunk.
The paddies here have become local swimming holes.
A road between two villages carries an old man in a canoe
carefully putting bait on a hook
that’s attached to the end of a bamboo rod.
If these fields were planted,
they are now lost,
whatever rice had managed to sprout now trampled
by shrieking children
who are learning to swim for the first time.

“The children love the rain,” Kru Ning remarks,
as we pick our way back from the cafeteria,
across the flooded soccer field,
to the classrooms after lunch.
At lunch she had recited the old children’s rhyme,
“Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day,”
and now I thought about how few of my students,
given the chance,

would tell the rain to go away.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ice Cream Days

Dear America (and friends, family, various others whose names appear in my FB feed for some weird, algorithmic reason),

I miss you. A lot. Really a lot.

I miss the emails we exchanged when I first got here and it was all so interesting and new. I miss your cheese and your green chile (shout out to NM here). I miss our late night chats. I miss knowing what's going on within your borders. I miss the anticipation of the start of ski season. I miss ice cream not being some like, magical amazing expensive thing.

But sometimes, even in Thailand, we get ice cream, and also, we get what I'm starting to think of as Ice Cream Days. You know, days when it just seems like everything kind of goes right (oh, and there's coconut milk ice cream at school and your friends take you out for ice cream after work, too. Yeah, that happens).

This week, I've had two of those. First: Yesterday, there was coconut ice cream at school (and then our friends took us out for ice cream after work, too), and in the intervening two ours between ice cream and ice cream, there was this: my kids dancing (begging to dance) to a bastardized Macarena remix that some woman with a pretty weird accent sings the months of the year to:


And then today, while they begged to watch the videos of themselves dancing this song, one student read the following two books. From cover to cover. Aloud. For fun. 

So, today, there was no ice cream. But it definitely qualifies as an Ice Cream Day. 

America, I miss you, but this is pretty okay. 

Love, /e

Friday, August 16, 2013

This was actually last month, but here's the story

This week Erin and I completed a six day camp in Nakhon Ratchasima Thailand in support of the Thai/US NGO, Brighter Thailand Foundation (BTF). BTF’s charter is to develop leadership skills in Thai youth, and these camps work toward that end by bringing in adults from multiple backgrounds to facilitate student centered activities with high school kids for two days, after which the high school kids facilitate those activities themselves for elementary school kids the following 4 days. Day one and two, we had 16 high school aged kids “camp counselors” from two different schools, 7 Korean “foreign ambassadors”, 3 “Thai ambassadors” and 4 Peace Corps volunteers which were a sort of mutt mix between foreign and Thai ambassadors at this point. We also had the assistance of a Kenyan born American who has been teaching English at the host school in Korat for 3 years, can both read and write Thai and who gave me a bag of the best Vietnamese coffee, named Joel. Over the 6 days of the camp, we highlight five vocabulary words having to do with leadership: citizenship, responsibility, respect, honesty, and perseverance. Each activity is aimed at building these qualities in the youth and also having them synthesize in their own minds what they mean and how these concepts have to do with life.

I got to spend a lot of time with the Korean ambassadors during the day and evenings, then a couple days after when I travelled to Ko Chang (Elephant Island) for a short holiday with them in the gulf. All the Korean volunteers are current University students, mostly in Seoul. They came to Thailand on a month long trip which included working two Brighter Thailand Camps, the one I attended, and another in Nong Khai near the Laos border. After arriving Ko Chang, I received a call from my host father who has been working in a town 10 hours from our home in a province near Ko Chang, asking me where I was. Since he is working in Rayong, and that is right on the path back to Bangkok from Trat province, I decided I might try to go and see him. Since he left Sukhothai, Pa has not given me a straight answer on when he will be coming back, so I was beginning to be concerned I might not see him again! On Sunday, July 21st, I got up after 5 hours of sleep and a long evening of mechanical bull riding and went for a long run. I decided I wouldn’t hang with the PC girls who had come down for the rest of the weekend but would hit the road. Our BTF crew left Ko Chang by ferry boat to head back to Bangkok. The driver informed me after speaking with “pa”, that he knew where he was and that it was actually not out of the way for him to drop me off there at all. Four hours later, we arrived in Rayong and then spent another 35 minutes trying to straighten out the directions to where Pa’s house was. The van driver was very confused because neither Pa nor the individuals with him knew quite how to guide us in, even though it was obvious that we were very close. The address system can be pretty unreliable in Thailand, and often the location of temples is how people navigate. This is what we did. During this time, I am delaying a van full of 8 other people who are trying to get to Bangkok before the Korean restaurants close, and essentially driving all around a neighborhood in their chartered van, on their gas. Luckily we are in Thailand, where even if you are inconveniencing someone out of their mind, they will not mention word one to you. After a while we finally found the place, at which time I saw Pa standing by the side of the road looking half the age of last time I saw him and smiling when he recognized that it was me sitting shotgun in the silver van. At this point I departed the company of Koreans wealthy enough to afford to pay to come volunteer in a foreign country for a month and entered the company of Pa and his only co-worker, who would quickly become my first “Khamen” or Cambodian friend. He and Pa live at a tire repair shop on a large dirt lot, littered with various metal truck accessories for sale, and a concrete block and sheet metal constructed shack that covers a variety of automotive repair equipment and a TV from the rain and one room that has no door handle or lock. Pa sleeps in this room, which he shares with the inner tube stock and a large variety of old pieces of metal and used parts piled in the corners all around. His (our) bed consists of a raised particle board platform with two blankets on it, covered by a mosquito net. Pa has been working down here for close to 3 months now.

The first part of our conversation was to inform me that Lyn, Pa’s coworker and for all practical purposes current life-mate, is Cambodian. The next part of the conversation was a brief discussion about whose Thai was better, mine or Lyn’s where Lyn mentioned to Pa that mine definitely was but as I spent more time with him, very quickly came to disagree with. Lyn has been working in Thailand for 13 years, has a wife and daughter living on the coast near a town called Sattahip (who he visits on weekends), and spent the last couple of years selling stuff out of his wife’s store and the years prior to that on a sea going fishing boat as a chef. From what I could tell he is skilled in basic labor for automotive body work, which is what brought Pa to work in Rayong. Lyn does sanding and otherwise supports Pa who is a skilled welder and body man from his time working abroad for Korean firms in Libya and Taiwan. The work Pa and Lyn are doing right now is to turn a hunk of metal that was once a truck that had a devastating multiple roll-over accident, into a drive-able machine again. The truck has no glass, no seats, no carpet, no lights, no color. When I asked Pa if it the frame was bent, he said yeah, just a little bit, but the motor is still good. I stood there trying to imagine what Pa and Lyn had already done to this vehicle since it got there since basically I was looking at a truck body resembling one at a factory before it had anything but the metal. The roof was the only part that showed damage, but as if it had been pounded flat again, and put back on. For Pa and Lyn’s efforts on this truck, which is scheduled to take them a couple of months working almost every day, to repair or replace the metal surfaces, sand and paint them, the owner will pay 30,000 baht or $1,000 dollars. Other craftsmen will come to the shop to replace the glass as soon as the exterior work is done and all the interior paneling, headlights, etc. are replaced.

Since I bought a bottle of Beefeater gin on the island and because my coworker failed miserably to help me drink it, I arrived at the shop with over two thirds of that fine spirit remaining. I told Pa that I would need some ice and some limes and so he walked me across the busy street from the yard to unlock a store room, somewhere around 2000 square feet in size. We entered there and the room was full of shoes and jeans and jackets, in addition to big 50 kilo sacks of rice and as always a random assortment of other things that were for sale. Pa explained to me that all of this stuff came from Cambodia, is second hand, and that the people he is working for make a business out of selling it in quantities large and small. He further explained that almost all of it comes from factories or other companies in Korea; this was evident by the Korean writing on the fronts of the jackets. We did not have to pay for the ice, and Pa let me know that this is where the shower was as well. On returning to the lot, I made at least three rounds of gin and tonic for Lyn and another man who showed up just after I started mixing the drinks. Lyn commented on how the drink tastes so good that you just keep sipping and are drunker than you think before you know it. First time drinking it, Lyn described my favorite cocktail the G and T pretty well, I thought. We sat watching Thailand’s Got Talent together where I saw my first Thai beat boxer competing, and Pa and I took turns answering the standard questions about what I am doing in Thailand, whether or not I have a woman, and what the hell it was that lead me to be sitting there with them on what turned out to be Lyn’s bed (a thatched table, outdoors on a concrete patio with a plastic table cloth on it). Lyn commented that all his stuff had been stolen, pointing to the area around the “bed”, in the one display of negativity I observed in my time with him. Sleeping outside at the shop apparently does have some draw-backs.

After cocktail hour, it was time to go down to the night market and buy some dinner. We only had to walk a couple of hundred yards down the road to get to a typical Thai outdoor market that was just starting to close down. I procured a bag of “yam khaw mhu-yang” or grilled pigs neck salad (a barbeque pork dish made with mint and crushed red pepper) one of the most delicious foods in a country of many) and some sticky rice for dinner. Then I picked up some fried chicken just because they had some left. As we got to the end of the market everybody started laughing and asking each other “does father look like son?” We had come upon the owners of the shower/store room/ice place. They were selling all kinds of the Cambodia imported goods under a canvas tarpaulin. After a few minutes of looking at the various steel toed boots, and Korean, industry jackets, Pa told me he had to wait and drive the truck back to the store room because the woman could not do it. So I joined the five of them in stuffing this compact pick-up with an 8 foot high box on the back with shoes. I thought about how the Koreans I arrived with earlier in the day have parents that are probably high level officers at these very companies with which a chain of circumstance has lead their excess to be for sale in an outdoor Thai market in an industrial section of Thailand where I “worked” for a very brief moment in time. We packed up, went “home”, and Pa, Lyn and I ate dinner at the shop Thai style. I was pretty tired by then, so I called it a day.