Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is there cheese in Thailand?

The culture shock began the moment I joined the first group of students who were waiting for the plane at JFK.  I knew it would happen.  Just after I joined the “OEG Teach in Thailand” Facebook group, I was was moderately entertained by a discussion about the availability of cheese in Thailand and the drama resulting from the realization that it would be difficult to find. 
 As the first days progressed, I was mistaken (more than once) for a group leader or teacher. I got some traction on the Alaska factor.   I was perturbed by a participant whose girlfriend needed to borrow a shirt to visit the grand palace despite the fact that considerable orientation material that stated that tank tops were unacceptable, and the tall lanky bearded participant who needed to clarify that, indeed, shorts were unacceptable teaching attire.

I am finding small glimpses of insights into personality in the masses of these young people: two women in their early 30’s who left existing careers, a former Americorps volunteer, a rugby playing student of Buddhism from Denver, the multi-lingual recent college graduate.   Many of these young people are exceptionally well-traveled and others are coming to the country for the first time. They are all extraordinarily connected to their devices: phones, music players, cameras.   The Americans are more prone to this, with some participants skypeing  their friends in the states every night.  (I admit to being guilty of this during the one night I bought internet service  and Carrie happened to call from Tanzania to discuss our scheme for climbing Kilimanjaro for our 50th birthdays.)

During the orientation sessions, we are free for dinner on our own. The Louis Tavern hotel, located north Bangkok, is in a residential area and also hosts a flight attendant academy.  There’s a busting market district a block away, with street vendors, 7-11s and street dogs.  On the third night and in the default position of having not made prearranged plans for dinner, I muster courage to venture out for food on my own.    I approach a well -lit outdoor restaurant with a lighted deli cases facing the street.  I point to a dish and wave my hand in front of my mouth with a questioning look on my face.    I’ve forgotten the word for spicy, but I know this is gaeng (curry).  The shopkeeper responds in perfect English (what a surprise!) and with that I decide to sit and take it all in.  I take a seat close to the sidewalk and wait for her to prepare a plate.

You can’t understand the complexity of smells until you’ve lived in a tropical country.  My nose sifts through the laden aroma of pungent spices, hot oils and the smoky exhaust of the propane burners. There’s a base note of fetid waste combined with the lingering bouquet of poverty.    It’s an urban smell of human development and activity: not pleasant to me.  I eat in relative isolation, noting the other program participants winding their way up the street and not noticing me.   After being sated in both food and the adventure quotient, I head back to the hotel and am happy to have my own room.

We’ve been attending a variety of training sessions each day with classes on teaching methods and Thai language, broken out into levels of education. I’m in A group, intended to group those that should be teaching primary school.  Some students in our smaller group are experienced teachers with focus areas in math and science, others have never taught a class in their lives and performing their first job.

The teaching method class is taught by Paul, a middle aged British expat of nineteen years, who shares some of the realities of teaching in Thailand:
1)     You must smell good and look clean and fresh at all times; use powder and deodorant liberally.
2)      Always start with a warmer as the students will often arrive late. There is no time between classes.
3)      Thai students help each other on tests.  In the states, this is called cheating.
4)      You may not find out the expectations of grading or materials covered until midway through the semester.
5)      Over prepare your lesson plans at first, remain flexible and don’t worry too much.  Mai bpen rai. (It doesn’t matter, it will be okay)

As we head into this last stage of orientation, the level of babbling hubbub within the group maintains steady with the incessant sharing that fuels this age group.   After the early departure from Bangkok yesterday to avoid the floods, the four bus loads arrived at a small coastal beach restaurant at Pattaya.

The air was languid and humid, and after dinner the conversation at my table became tiresome in the midst of the music and overall scene.  I asked a few participants to not smoke right next to our table where we were eating.    I was desperate for some fresh air and some meaningful conversation, obviously tuned into a different channel than the rest of the group who were consuming extensive amounts of beer.   I went off to the jetty in the harbor and sat next to the group of Thai folks eating take out, surrounded by a pack of hungry, patient and hopeful street dogs.

In that melancholy moment, I realized that I was on this journey alone.  Perhaps I had failed in the goal of connecting with other people for travels during this week, despite the special dispensation for my differences of age and lack of roommate.   When I sold everything I owned and headed out to work my way around the country in 1989, I did that by myself.    And, as selfish as it may be, I find myself most comfortable moving as a planet with no moons.

However, all this went out the window at the moment nearly 24 hours later.   When I strode down to the beach to watch the sunset at the fancy beach resort hotel, I stepped on a wooden step which collapsed under me, fell onto my knee which broke my fall on the corner of a sharp piece of granite.  Profuse bleeding, stunned realizations and survival instincts resulted.    I asked a not so drunk fellow participant to bring me some napkins as I washed the knee off in the faucet for rinsing feet, got first aid from the pool guys (that blue antiseptic hurts like old school) and eventually getting driven to the hospital for a proper washout and dressing, antibiotics and bandaging supplies for the next two weeks.  The owner/director of the Thai program partner invited me to the end of orientation celebration dinner with her staff.  I am now back in my room with internet.

I am grateful for the support of this agency that set up my school placement and is now available to help ensure that I continue to heal.   Secure that I have someone covering my back in my new home, I am headed to the airport where I will fly to Kampaeng Phet, my  base camp until early September 2012.   I am remembering vocabulary and starting to get my legs under me, headed out of the harbor and underway. 

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