Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dressing for Success

I headed over to school on Sunday around noon on the hunch that there would be lunch for the school staff doing unpaid overtime on the paperwork for the upcoming government site visit.  I scored.  Ubon pulled the rolling wheeled cart up about half an hour later with green curry with eggplant, rice and a large pan of laab, but her outfit really set the stage for a great lunch.  She wore a hip-length translucently sheer purple tunic and a golden bolero jacket with a large bow on the back.  In the light of Ubon's ever-present smile, I could see the trim on her bra and the ample muffin-top over her tight black jeans.   Her colleagues giggly teased her about "dressing for Boom Boom", but Ubon soldiered on in the outfit through a two-hour shopping trip for school food supplies later that afternoon. 
Perhaps now you understand why it’s been hard for me to find clothes that I like and that fit in this country.  Decorations such as pleats, ruffles, enormous appliques on T-shirts, bold and wild prints (animal prints are a favorite)  and chiffony fabrics figure prominently in this country.  I currently own items in sizes ranging from F (for Free) to LLL, XL, XXL, XXXL and XXXXL.    After 8 months living in Thailand, my clothing has clumped in three categories:  pieces from home worn to faded fabric with holes, the new purchases here and the items destined for gifts  I will leave behind. 

Fortunately, I wear a uniform to work.  Thai people wear different colors for each day.   Our school provided us with a shiny gold fabric button down for Monday’s shirt (usually yellow) and last semester provided custom tailoring in a  white and pink flowered material for Tuesday’s shirt.    I was dutifully measured at the school office, but when it was too small when I tried it on. The  shirt got passed onto director’s son, who towers about a foot above me but does not have American breasts.  

On Wednesday the entire school wears a scout uniform, but the color is green.  The female teachers wear a matching khaki short and skirt set with beige anklets and sturdy shoes, and in solidarity I wear a dowdy, now too big linen skirt and a traditional Thai public servant shirt with a large floral pattern around hems of the waist and the sleeves and breast pocket.  The style is dittoed on Thursday with an orange shirt and gray skirt although the other female teachers wear their Thai dresses of form fitting silks. 

Quick photo at the lunch table on Friday.  My good friend Tuaw is on the right. My friend Duan on the left is wearing a large white flower and feather pin at the V of her shirt, and she gave me the small beige rose that I'm wearing.
Quick photo at the lunch table on Friday.
 Last semester one of the teachers came by with a bundle of shiny green fabric and asked if I wanted to buy it.   Tuy helped me find a seamstress and I designed a shirt that I could wear back in the states on special occasions.  It turned out that the entire school had outfits in the same fabric with many of the teachers wearing a matching pencil skirt.  
 My good friend Tuaw is on the right. My friend Duan on the left is wearing a large white flower and feather pin at the V of her shirt, and she gave me the small beige rose that I'm wearing.
This is what we all wear on Fridays.  Unfortunately, this fabric feels like I’m wearing a plastic bag.   I’m often sweating through it by the end of morning assembly at 8:30.  I melted a small hole in it last week when the iron was too hot at 7am. 

My relationship with clothing here in Thailand is challenging.  I know I can’t dress like Thai women, slight and beautiful in their tiny dresses with polka dots and towering heels. I've seen two inch thong-style sandals in a leopard print, worn with shorts that reach the upper side of the mid-thigh.   Both men and women wear belts that have to be fastened with a binder clip in the small of their back because the leather is too long.  (Sidenote- doesn't it seem like someone in this country would have made smaller men’s belts? ) In this town and with my graying hair and larger size, I’m left to dress like a Thai grandmother on my weekends: capris, loose shirts and sensible shoes.

I hate shopping in general, but even more so when I’m confounded by sizes and styles. Most of the clothing is sold in a variety of outdoor markets here.  Last weekend, I went to the Sunday market across the river and near the bus station where many clothing vendors ply their wares in the morning.  The clothing hangs on outdoor racks under blue tarps, swaying in the gentle breezes overlooking the brilliant green rice fields to the west.  The Thai strategy is to put the clothing on over your existing clothes.   I found something I liked, did not try it on, took it home and promptly discovered that it was too small through the shoulders and chest.  This is not the first time I’ve had that problem. 

Earlier this month, I was both surprised and delighted when Pan, the power-cleaning kindergarten assistant, came by my classroom and meekly presented me with a gift.   Once I checked it out and smiled, she gushed (in Thai) that she found this big bra (size E) at the Big C Supercenter and bought it for me.  I glanced at the price tag and grimaced without reflecting any change in my smiling facial muscles.  “So, come on.” I think she said, “Try it on.” She promptly heaved the elastic to hook the clasps and adjusted the shoulder straps over my very large orange (because it was Thursday) button down shirt. “Sure. “ I said, “I will bring the money tomorrow.”   She literally skipped out of the classroom in delight.  Since then, I’ve seen her at the Big C a few other times.  I know she’s on the lookout for finds. 

However, there are moments of serendipity in the find that keep me looking.  I was in dire need of another work skirt and happened into a shop in downtown Kamphaneng Phet that had a nice pleats and a little bow on the waist.  I found lightweight capris that are a such a winner I bought a pair for my sister.  Those got paired with a cute little tunic that is now a bit frayed at the hem and the mid-waist ruffle.  What do you expect for $6?  

Throughout my professional career, clothing has been the bane of my existence.  The best part of being a river guide for many years was the simplicity in the uniform. I had a pair of stylish black wool pants that I wore in the Alaskan backcountry for many years, brilliant warm colors of fleece, the comfort of silk underthings and the  wool hats I knit for many people around me.   For every day I entered the office, I had to work my way through a gauntlet of compiling an outfit, and those memories have their own scars. I learned, as an example, that when you are menstruating you should never wear white khakis on a day trip to Barrow.  Or that you should never wear a skirt that's a bit too tight without a safety pin in your purse.  

With wacky rationalization,  one reason to extend my contract here at this small school is for the mere fact that I won’t need to buy too many clothes.   However, there are a couple of professional opportunities that may manifest into a transition in the next month or so.  We’ll have to see how the clothing factor figures into the equation of what emerges next.  No details yet! 

Ironing hell.
Ironing hell.

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