Friday, March 29, 2013

And the seasons, they go round and round...

In January, we noted our "year in Thailand" mark with little fanfare. A few Facebook posts and a couple of conversations marked the day for Josh and I. That was it. Then, sometime in February, we passed our official "half way point" in Thailand. Someone else was counting the days, and I didn't question them when the posted it on Facebook, just noted down the date - I think it was Valentine's Day, which is the only reason I now remember it - and moved on. Nothing much seemed to have changed; our language skills improve gradually every day, as do our cultural comprehension and relationships. (Well, most days, anyway.) 

But this last month, the effects of time have come into sharper relief for me. My mom used to sing me that Joni Mitchell song, 

... and the painted ponies go up and down. 
We're captive on this carousel of time. 
We can't go back; we can only look
behind from where we came, 
and go round and round and round, 
in the circle game...

and it's be drifting in and out of my head as the events of last year start to repeat themselves in this one. As the Thais might say, "Same, same. But different."

The first event that was the same, but different happened on March 20. I don't know if the Muu-Baan (village) party was the same date last year, but the purpose of the party we attended last Wednesday was certainly the same. Every year, the village pools a fund of money, which they give to the village leader (puyaibaan). With that money, the puyaibaan purchases food (which is usually prepared by members of the village) to serve to the monks, a collective tamboon (merit-making) activity. Then, they use the rest of the money to throw a huge party, to which everyone in the village (and the bigwigs from neighboring villages, and the Nayoke) are all invited. People give to the puyaibaan what they can. They don't have to give, but no matter what, they're invited to partake in the feasting, drinking, dancing, and festivities (which of course include karaoke and coyotees - young women dancing in skimpy outfits). This year, we missed the tamboon, as it took place in the morning, but we made it to the party, which was held at the puyaibaan's house, right outside the house where we lived with our host family last year. This year, the food was delicious and familiar, and the people were friends, neighbors, and familiar faces. This year it rained. This year, we weren't afraid to pipe up when we were ready to go, and our Paw fetched our host-brother to drive us back to our house right away. 

Last year, we didn't know who organized the party or why. We followed Mee out the door at about 5 pm and made it to the tamboon, sitting on the floor in the open-air village meeting area, embarrassed and self-conscious that people we barely knew were serving us cokes, sending us to the best seats in the house, and generally whispering about us instead of paying attention to the chanting of the monks. We didn't know how to react, but tried to sit up straight and pretend we didn't notice, when one of the monks pulled a cam-corder from his flowing orange robes and trained it on the crowd, spending a suspicious amount of time on us. Of course, this was made even more awkward (and hilarious) by the fact that the video camera was connected to a projector that was simulcasting the video recording onto a screen mounted behind the seven or so seated monks who were variously chanting and sitting throughout the ceremony in which our village donated uncooked rice and other non (immediately) perishables. Then we went to the party, which was held in an empty lot where the weekly market is also held, and close to a hundred tables were set up to accommodate the guests. We sat near the back with our family, in a bit of shock, and wishing we could hide, when of course we were called up to the stage to be introduced to the crowd by the Nayoke. A few minutes later Josh was belting out Hotel California and I was laughing and making my way back to my seat. (Karaoke isn't in my repertoire. Wasn't then. Isn't now.)

This week marks several more iterations that bring into sharp relief just how much really has changed here. It was the last week of school when I arrived last year. The students were already out, but the teachers were still coming in to work and grading and sending their final student reports, etc., to the central state government. I came a few days to one school and then to another, sitting around, mostly, eating mangoes with a few female teachers I didn't really know that well because my co-teacher wasn't around for one reason or another. We spoke broken Thai and English to each other, as necessary, alternately playing on Facebook and doing work. We sat downstairs, cooled by fans, and on a Wednesday night, four teachers kidnapped me for a ride to "Hot Pot" a restaurant about an hour and a half away for an overpriced, but silly and fun, meal. Last year I planned for about two days with my primary co-teacher before she promptly disappeared to deal with family matters and preparations for the Thai New Year (fast approaching on April 13). I only interacted with my secondary co-teacher for one day, when I came to the school to celebrate the graduation of the sixth grade. I sat with the teachers, eating hot-pot at our table while the kids reveled in their special meal at their own tables. I was appalled and confused by the consumption of alcohol at the teachers' table, right in front of the students, and especially put off by the level of intoxication some of them reached. I worried what it meant for the next year. I was asked to say a few words to the students, and I spoke in Thai, using my dictionary to prepare the speech and checking it with a teacher who has since moved on to another school in another province. 

This year, when I spoke to the graduating sixth grade students, I spoke to a group that I had taught, a group that, as I told them, is truly wonderful. I spoke to students that I will truly miss, some of whom I will teach again next year at the other school, and some I will likely never see again. I didn't shed the tears they did, but I felt the sadness of the passing of time, time that can never be gotten back. This year, I expected the alcohol and was pleasantly surprised that few teachers partook of the opportunity to get drunk at school in the middle of the day. (As I will have to explain another time, my fears about the alcohol at school have turned out to be both overblown and completely founded.) This year, I end the school year, sitting among new friends, who are grading papers, eating mangoes, and cursing their computers - upstairs, in an air conditioned room that was installed several months ago. We are speaking Thai to one another as I write this. I brought the mangoes. I know what's going on. 

This morning, I came to school after stopping by the preschool graduation that was hosted by the aubautau, yet another repetition of something that happened last year, and this time, like the Muu-baan party, it was smaller and less overwhelming. But there were still overly made up girls (and boys) dancing with wildly inappropriate (to our still unaccustomed eyes) moves to songs that we find barely listenable. There were still long speeches to preschoolers, the presentation of certificates and teddy bears by the highest ranking government officials in our town, and of course, a large, catered lunch (which I skipped to come to school and sit with the teachers). But this year, I knew some of the kids dancing their hearts out on the stage. I decided at the last minute to come so the teachers I know would know that I care, that I find their kids and these events worthwhile, and important in some way. 

I have no idea what else this year will bring. Certainly it will be different. Certainly it will be over before we know it. Right now, we approach another holiday, Song Kran (Thai New Year), that will again be the same, but different. The differences are startling reminders of how many, many things have changed, how different we are, how little time we in fact have left. Each day is both a repeat and a new day. Who knows what each of these days will reveal, either about the present or the past?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Nung bpi

This week marks one year of living in the little village we have called home since breaking company with the other 50 volunteers we came to Thailand with, last March. Group 123 is going/gone home, group 125 is finishing training, and 124 is down to 45 members from 52. We have a thriving garden on one side of the house, planted by our landlord, and a failing one on the other, planted by us. We have our Thai eating habits and weekend routines. I read more books last year than any in my life. Finally, the same events have arrived on my calendar as the one's that were there when we dropped into this cute little village.

On the 29th, there is the graduation ceremony for the pre-school students. Some of you probably remember those photographs. Toward the middle of next month will be the massive new years water festival, Sonkran. We know this not just by meetings going on in our SAOs, but by the multiple warnings issued by PC regarding drunk driving and careful passengering when traveling around Thailand this time of year.

"One year in, and one to go" I tried to explain to my nayoke over the lunch table today using the language of what I know to be 1/2 and the word for time. The concept of a halfway point was more difficult to communicate than I thought it would be, and after going through it with 3 different people, I have concluded that Thai's just do not think in "halves". Once I did get the point got across however, the nayoke immediately mentioned the project that I began working on in February and started yelling at the officer around us about when that was going to happen (I have been waiting on SAO support). Not in a mean way, but in an authoritative "what is going on with this?" kind of way. He immediately thought of this project because while Thai's may not think in halves, they certainly do think in subtext. My comment about half my time being over was immediately understood by the nayoke as a question about why my work involvement at the SAO is still fairly non-existent. Even I did not realize this when I initially brought it up today, but on reflection it is stupidly obvious. The nayoke repeated to the staff several times that "Josh wants to work" to which of course I could not appreciate any meaningful reply. So I opened another line of questioning on how exactly it came to be that I wound up in this community. Essentially asking the nayoke, what he had to do, and whether it was difficult. Every time I broach this topic with someone, I am surprised about what I find out. As my language continues to improve, what appeared to be conflicting information before seems to gain clarity. Not become clear, but gain clarity. Enough on that for now.

One year in of course, is a time of questions. For the two volunteers living in Sukhothai for sure, and I assume also for everyone else out here trying to do something meaningful with their lives under the banner of this organization. These questions may include what have I done in the last year? Why have I not been able to do more? How is my second year going to be different from the first? And also a lot of much more critical and indicting questions that one should be careful about posting on a blog. Thinking these things over, and discussing them with the "old lady" late into the night, we realize we don't really have any answers. It's hard not to feel like you are failing a lot of the time out here. Especially for those who are used to achieving in a more conventional setting. It is hard not to have animosity for hosts whose national government has requested your presence, whose local government has facilitated it, but who do not seem all too concerned with making much use of your time while you are here. Also, we often have the opportunity to compare ourselves to other volunteers whose situations at times appear to be going so much more smoothly than our own.

For the most part, the country of Thailand has been so generous and so welcoming that it is hard for me to hold hard feelings about any of our hosts...for the most part. People really are happy that we are here. As a friend mentioned to me earlier today, "[the Thais] seem to be happy just to be your friend." And I am happy to have made such wonderful Thai friends as well. The hitch is, Erin and I are Americans, and as such we measure ourselves by our work. We know that we will return to a world that focuses on productivity and compete with peers there who have spent their lives trying to master that, whatever it is. This is a stark contrast to what appears to be the general attitude in rural Thailand. So while we struggle to find ways to make a contribution in Thailand, many here cannot imagine what it is we are so concerned with doing. That, in short, is our 1 year dilemma, through this farang's eyes anyway.

It's not that we have not done anything at all in a year living in the rice fields. Erin's co-teachers now use some teaching methods she introduced. I never hear the end of how "geng maak" she is from other teachers at the schools. I have seen several peoples' faces light up when using certain IT tools for the first time that I showed them how to use. We are now building good relationships with our jointly taught life-skills activities on Friday's. For all else I could list out here, for a year's work, it does not seem like enough. We think daily on how we can be more effective. We discuss nightly how we can be more effective. We mentally bash our heads against a wall at work, on the weekends, and sometimes in our sleep. The volunteer's situation is complex, and for all the well wishers back home who have said how proud they are that we are out here helping people in need, you are not looking at the same picture we are. We are not out here helping people who need our help. We are not out here helping people who cannot help themselves. We are out here learning about life, humanity, and elusive concepts like "better" and "developed". We are learning about causes of happiness, and the framework of beliefs. We are out here trying to communicate what skills and knowledge we bring as Americans in a way that might improve the lives of Thai people, but at the same time we are being confronted with great cultural strengths of Thailand that our own way of life decidedly lacks.

Can a job be hard without having an abundance of work to do? Yes.
Does it still drive an American a little crazy? For most of us, the answer there is yes too.

The noodle stand where I ate on Saturday

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What did you do this weekend? Peace Corps Week parade

Last week was Peace Corps week - a week in which PC was concentrating on it's "Third Goal," which is where we PCVs, and Returned PCVs are supposed to be sharing other cultures with Americans. And obviously, that's what we try to do here, every time we write. But, sometimes it's hard to know what to write here, because, for the most part, the stories we tell can be summed up like this:

And we rode our bikes to the school, and everyone was late, and the materials weren't available, so then we went to the health center and they made us eat a lot of fruit even though we said we weren't hungry, and then just as we were going home, someone yelled at us and we ended up going over to someone's house and refusing several offers of whiskey. Then we went home, where we watered our plants and tried unsuccessfully to convince the neighbors that they don't need to sweep our porch. After that, we went inside and poured buckets of cold water on our heads since the water stopped running, and then we sat in front of the fan and complained about the heat. And then we went to bed.

There's no story line. There's no arc. There's no transformational moments. There's just a whole lot of stuff that seems to happen, one thing right after the other. And it usually involves food.

And, see, this is pretty normal to us now. It's so normal that sometimes I kid myself into thinking that all you delightful readers back home probably  have similar days and that this kind of bouncing from here to there without much control doesn't sound stressful or even particularly strange.

But then sometimes, we have weekends like this one, in which our Amphur (county, roughly), is in the midst of celebrating it's "Kong Dii" or "Good things" and people from all of the Tambons (subdistricts within the county, small farming communities, roughly) come together to share their OTOP products and compete in various contests. (OTOP stands for one tambon one product, which is English, and I don't know why it's English, but it is. To be actual OTOPs, products have to meet certain standards and they somehow get certified. Anyway, a lot of Tambons have groups that create crafts, food products, clothing, or other wares, and then sell them to the larger community. We don't have an OTOP product here, but we soon might if the school that Josh helped briefly with a dental project is able to turn their natural-herbal based mouthwash into an actual OTOP venture.)

For over a week, we'd been hearing about this weekend, and people had been asking us if we were going to walk in the parade. We said, at first, "probably" and then increasingly, as we didn't hear anything explicit from anyone who actual has the power to coerce us into walking in a parade, "we don't know." And then finally, "no one tells us anything."

Sometime on Friday morning, approximately 8 hours before the event was going to start, Josh got a call from the Balat (government official appointed by the central government to work in our Tambon) instructing him (and me, by proxy) to arrive at the SAO to dteeng dtua (get dressed up) by 3 p.m. Unfortunately, 3 p.m. is right in the middle of the 2:30-3:30 p.m. time slot in which Josh and I were to be teaching about handwashing and soapmaking to my sixth grade students. So of course, I got mad at Josh for agreeing to a time-conflicting issue, and then we met for lunch. As would happen in Thailand, the two teachers with whom we are working on the soap/handwashing project also came to eat lunch at the restaurant we'd picked. So we had lunch with them, explained that we had to walk in a parade, and they agreed (or rather, suggested and then insisted), that we change the timing of our project to 12:30 so we had time to go back to the SAO to get dressed.

So then, we did this.
Students present what they remember about germs and handwashing from first lesson.
Students present.
Choosing the best poster.
Starting the soapmaking process with ash and water.

Washing hands, the right way!

And then we hurried on our way to the SAO, where when we arrived, I had a momentary freakout because the place was packed with people and it was clear that something terrible was about to happen to my face. That is, I was about to be dressed for a parade. So, they gave Josh this:

And they promptly took away the rice, the rice harvesting tool, the hat, and the woman.

And then they delivered me into the capable hands of a gatuey (man dressed as a woman with varying levels of body-modification to complete the sometimes disconcerting transformation) in order to transform my face into something nice enough to sit atop a "chuut Thai" - Thai wedding dress, like the ones I'd worn in the last two parades.
Getting made up at the SAO. All make up artists were gatueys, far more comfortable with blush, eyeliner and power than I am!

Then a lot of the SAO workers, all young, pretty women like you see above, made a lot of phone calls attempting to track down such a "chuut."
Unfortunately, they failed, because the one chuut they produced was about 12 sizes too small. Which is how I ended up wearing this:

Just like your average Thai farmer. 
 By 8:30 pm, we were wiped out, and caught a ride home.

But then, on Saturday, we rode our bikes to the second day of the celebration of Good Things (back for more!) and spent close to 5 hours watching a singing contest. I'll let you judge for yourself, but I don't think there's a county fair in America that could outdo this production quality. The sequins! The lights! The seriously smokey smoke machines. (Oh... they're supposed to be fog machines, you say?)


And, just in case you were wondering what other PC volunteers are up to, you can read Acting Director  of Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet's piece on the Huffington Post about Peace Corps week.