Monday, August 27, 2012

After a while

I believe that I made a lot of promises in my last posts, to tell you more about Reconnect, the 50th anniversary, the trip to the beach... but, in the intervening weeks, a lot more stuff has happened. It always does, here, life just sliding along until, after a while, certain stories fade and others seem more important.

Like for example, the fact that in the past week, I've made brownies, not once, but twice. (No pictures, sorry, they got gobbled up too fast.) I also made homemade yogurt with the help of Pii Gai, a neighbor from our home-stay family's house, who mentioned once that she knew how to make it. On Saturday, we finally got around to doing it - a trip to the city to buy milk, yogurt (you know, like a sourdough starter, only it's a yogurt starter), and a few other items ended with us warming milk over a gas stove while Pii Gai confessed she'd only ever made yogurt once. I decided it wasn't worth it to be worried, so I just smiled and said, well, I've never made it. I transported a batch of yogurt stock about 3 km back in a plastic bag in my backpack, having a few stray thoughts about how terrible it would be if it burst (that smell would never come out!) and becoming moderately worried about what the outcome would be. As instructed, I left the concoction out for 8 hours (!) before putting it in the fridge and turning in to bed. On Sunday morning, the yogurt was edible. Delicious even, although it had a somewhat grainy texture. Nothing that couldn't be fixed with a little experimentation. So, there's gonna be a lot of yogurt in my future now. :)

Or how 'bout this: Yesterday, after eating the yogurt for breakfast and taking a trip to the internet (local health station across the street, where the employees are gracious enough to tell us to "tam sabai" - make ourselves at home - and use the internet and computers) I came home to see several neighbors cutting down banana leaves from the trees that stand in an empty lot next to our house. People use banana leaves for lots of things here, so it's not really that strange to see a 60-some-odd year old woman hacking them down with a scythe tied to a giant pole. It is weird that people turn around and give you a guilty look as they're doing it, though, so I took note of that as I walked back into the house. Josh was already cleaning up the kitchen in preparation for two bpas (aunts; older women) to come over and teach us to cook two of his favorite dishes: geeng nommai (bamboo curry) and pakana muu krop (crispy pork with chinese kale). I didn't say anything about the banana leaves. What is there to say when you have no idea what's going on?

When the bpas appeared, laden with baskets full of fresh produce and meat - lemongrass, kaffier limes, galangal, bamboo, coconuts, dried chiles, onions, garlic, pork - we sat on our front porch and watched and took notes while they unloaded everything and began turning it into delicious looking ingredients. One of the banana cutting neighbors came and sat down - then got up again to drag another large leaf off the tree from our side of the fence. "What have they done to those trees?" said Josh, looking up at the pretty mutilated forms. "I know," I said, telling him the story. Then the neighbor explained to the bpas (in Thai, so I only caught part of it, although Josh understood more) that they'd been cutting down the trees because they couldn't see our house from theirs, or from the road. Josh responded that we don't want to see the road! Or hear the cars! But that explained the guilty look. I guess now, if we're so inclined, we can spy on them too.

Or maybe bring them some yogurt, brownies, and geeng nommai.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

To be, or not to be, me.

I didn't think this would happen to me, but it has: I just don't feel like myself anymore. Or my self, whichever you prefer. 

In the past, when pressed--think resumes, job interviews, bad icebreakers--I have consistently described myself with a few of the following words: smart, honest, irreverent, caring, silly, hardworking, articulate, detail-oriented, goal-driven, compassionate, empathetic, more or less patient.

Timeworn as these words are, they just don't all seem to apply anymore. Thailand has turned me into a high-strung, worried, inarticulate, frustrated person. Ironically, that's precisely because I'm still detail-oriented, goal-driven, and hardworking. Fortunately, I'm becoming more patient--with people, buses, weather, and dogs, if not myself.

During our PST, I got along pretty well. I felt comfortable in the schedule- and assignment-driven environment (even though I thought plenty of it was banal and annoying). It fit with my understanding of how things get done, and with those aspects of my personality. I could play by the rules of dress and conduct, give the right answers in the cultural sessions, and imagine that life was going to be pretty dandy because I'm just so damn culturally sensitive

Fast forward to site, and things aren't quite like that. The truth is, I like rules. So, I'm still dressing riap roi ("appropriate" i.e., long skirts, high collared shirts--things that don't show thighs or shoulders), smiling at everything whether I understand it or not, trying to bring gifts or food to people on a regular basis so they don't think I'm stingy (a word that translates as "sticky shit"), being the PDA police and not letting Josh hug me in public, and, well, you get the idea. I'm trying to be proper. All the time. Sorry, not enough emphasis. "Proper." ALL the time. 

Turns out that that pretty much sucks. In a lecture from Dr. Klaussner (a resident and expert on Thai culture) during our Reconnect (which Josh largely glossed over in the last blog - more stories forthcoming after I get this off my chest, I guess), we were told that no matter what, we will be judged by the Thais in our villages for how strictly and consistently we adhere to traditional Thai values. This even though Thai values are rapidly modernizing and changing, and also in spite of the fact that plenty of Thais engage in behavior that doesn't epitomize those supposed standards at all, anyway. Not so different from how immigrants in America are often the most gung-ho Americans you can imagine, we can't fit in, or even be accepted here unless we go super-Thai. 

Dr. Klaussner, who's been here something like 40+ years, seemed to think that there's a way to do this without losing yourself. As you might imagine, he said that you just have to remember that you're wearing a mask, you're acting, you're doing what you have to do in order to do the work you came here to do. I can dig that, in theory, I really can. But in practice, the image I've constructed of what it means to be "Thai"--the one I'm trying to wear, daily, is suffocating and burdensome. I have to breathe a little easier, or I won't get anything done here. 

There's a silver lining to this, however, and that lies in what's probably my greatest and most enduring personality trait: I'm really good at being wrong. In fact, sometimes, I love being wrong, because it's exciting and somewhat titillating to be forced into a new perspective, to try on new ways of thinking and being that might just be better.

And right now, I think that many of the rules I've learned and tried to internalize, the notions that I have about what it means to be Thai, what it means to act correctly and be appropriate in this cultural context, well, they might just be wrong. Maybe not entirely (don't expect to see me in booty shorts and midriff baring tanktops outside of the annual PCV 124 fashion show--more on that later), but wrong enough that it's time to start looking at things differently.

So today, I'm just happy to be wrong, even if I'm not sure what it means to be me.