It was sultry Friday morning a few days ago. When I’d decided to be ecofriendly and put the A/C on a timer the night before, I hadn’t anticipated that I would be listening to the 6:30 alarm and feeling my skin stick to the sheets. There was a bit of a breeze on the porch. The rooster strutted around just outside the front gate with a few chickens in tow. The air is loaded with heat and moisture even as the sun is low in the sky.
Kae, one of two Thai teachers that shares our house, blow dries her long black hair with the floor fan. Dah is ironing her shirt. I plug in the kettle and make an executive decision to not wear the beautiful green satin shirt that was made for me last semester. When I wore it for the first time last week, I had 6 inch sweat pools under each armpit by 3pm. I got to school that week, the teachers commented about my rebellion at the morning assembly, to which I responded in Thai, “Hey--I’m a foreigner (farang). It’s too hot. I don’t want to look like him.” I point to the Man Who Loves the Microphone, who is wearing his fancy shirt and shows sweat across the entire front and back of his chest. The teachers giggle. They don’t seem to sweat much. Apparently I have the same problem as large men.
The past couple of weeks have been fraught with familiarity and difference, things breaking and others forming. Over the past week or so, I’ve lost my keys, had two flat tires on the motorbike followed by a dead battery, no internet service at home, painfully slow service at school, an iphone with the screen now so dim I can’t use it and a computer that appears to be malfunctioning at times. (There’s a footnote at the bottom of this piece for those inclined to suggest some fixes.) All of these events that seem to compound and confound my capacity to feel comfortable here and I’ve reached a new level of cross-cultural fatigue. What seemed like a grand new adventure in November 2011 is now just a series of belabored attempts to solve my increasingly sophisticated problems.
It came to me most forcefully last weekend. I’d made some plans to go see Rachael, my young teacher friend in the next big town up the road. While the school had made an effort to repair the motorbike Saturday, (needed to make the big trip across the bridge to the bus station) it appeared that the repairman simply put air in the tires instead of repairing the leak. (I was a bit too conservative to drive the motorbike to the shop with a flat tire.) “We’ll get someone to fix that tomorrow Ellen.” Kim said. But as it became clear that no action was being taken on Sunday, I went into Plan B.
With the sun hat, extra cash and list in hand, I just had my feet on the pedals of the bike when Kae’s entire family pulled up in a truck. Mom, Dad, Grandma, sisters, aunt, cousins, nearly ten in all, made the trip from Sukhothai. I helped the grandmother find a seat in the house and realized things looked a little messy, then dodged around picking up a few of my things. The team unloaded a brand new red and pink bicycle, sheets of dried mango, a stacked metal container of various lunch fixings and Thai dresses for Dah and Kae, which they promptly modeled over their existing clothes. I was starting to feel trapped; if I stayed too much longer I'd be on the hook for watching a family reunion as a clueless bystander.
I went into Dah and Kae’s room and tried to explain that I wanted to go out. As I made preparations to finally embark, the visitors bemoaned the culturally inappropriate declined invitation. The girls fibbed to the family about a mysterious friend to cover my absence. With a few strong pushes on the pedals and a wave, I was headed off to do my own thing.
I biked hard for the first kilometer when an incident from high school came to mind. I’d been drinking before a school dance in my freshman year. Music by the Bay City Rollers wafted through the barrier of tables set up for admission, the gray money boxes resting in front of an adult with a hand stamp. “You can’t come in Ellen. You’ve been drinking.” In some kind of rapid-fire and misguided decision about my destiny, I pushed my way through the adult and student volunteers, made a dash for the girl’s bathroom just outside the gymnasium doors and slammed the stall door shut behind me. A diminutive, acne scarred, first year female teacher was sent into negotiate. We discussed my limited options, other girls pleaded with me that they needed to use the toilet and before long I was escorted into Assistant Principal Mosconi’s office for the call home to my parents.
On my current escape, the raw emotions of flight, desire for self-determination and a longing for a meaningful conversation were all jumbled up in the tears that finally got released under the big old fig tree on the outskirts of the old city walls near the city shrine. Once recovered, I went out on errands for the rest of the day and returned home accomplished and ready for Monday. On the way down the back road short cut from the Big C on the final stretch to home, Kae’s younger sisters waved goodbye from the open bed of the departing truck.
I finally got up to see Rachael a week later, yesterday. In our relaxed conversation on the front porch of her friend’s unused family homestead overlooking the Ping River, we talked about what’s changed since last semester. Not only did the teacher’s uniform schedule shift from wearing green on Wednesdays to Fridays, I also have my new class of fourteen first graders, a slew of new young teachers that are clogging up the school’s internet speed and three of us sharing the small house.
With my new-found power, I’m committing a few actions of revolt: putting the desks in a U-shape instead of rows, using songs and games as the primary vehicle English education using a curriculum the school bought at my request and nurturing the students to speak their own English instead of repeating after me. I’m creating a rich and fun environment for learning. The school and the parents are happy and I’m developing my own confidence and realistic expectations for what I can accomplish in the classroom. I witness the kids thinking and forming, gaining confidence and vocabulary words for basic action in the classroom. Generally, it’s a blast getting to know the students in more depth than I was able to do last semester. There’s a lot to do.
As this morning draws to a close at the Riverside House and our ride appears for the trip back to town, I point out the heron standing on a large branch of the tree close to the river’s edge, wings outstretched perpendicular to the branch. Whether he is drying his wings or simply trying to cool off, I am not sure. Like him, I am waiting my way through this semester to see where my next flight will take me. Who knows what fish are swimming below the surface, what new challenge will emerge in the season of rain and thunder? The problems are sure to resolve in one way or another. The heron is ready to shift his perspective and weight to mount a new journey aloft; I also must focus on what’s needed to ensure my resilience to overcome the magnitude of the everyday in a different culture and keep my attitude focused on the power of what can become.
Technology footnote: I turned up the screen resolution and that didn’t help. There was a morning when I picked it up from the charging station on the top of the fridge and there was water on the bottom of the case. I put it in a bag of rice afterwards. I did some research and discovered that I may need to update iTunes before I can update the iPhone operating system and then do a restore. However, the iTunes installation has generated a couple of error messages on each try; a manual installation causes the entire computer to freeze up. For the times that I’ve tried to upgrade the operating system first, the network connection says it will take 15 hours and then “times out” after about two hours. It’s backed up, but the 13 “notes” won’t transfer over despite my efforts to email them to myself. Blech. I miss Words with Friends, the world clock, my Thai dictionary and the Huffington Post app. At least the home internet is working.