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.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Country Mouse, City Mouse

In one episode of Sex in the City,  Carrie Bradshaw is in a bar and spots a woman wearing a scrunchie securing her hair in a perky ponytail.  Carrie says to her friend, “That woman doesn't live in New York.  No New Yorker would wear that.”  After Carrie starts a brief conversation, the truth is revealed- the hair offender is a tourist from the Midwest.   A couple of nights in Bangkok and I’m a small country mouse in the big city, embodying Aesop's fable and the differences between urban and rural living. 

This is a representative photo from greatbalancingact.wordpress. com.  Someone has not sent me the actual photo yet.
This is a representative photo from
greatbalancingact.wordpress. com.

On Saturday night last weekend, in the midst of a weekend trip to celebrate Rachael’s 23rd birthday in Bangkok, the 6 of us moved on from dinner and karaoke to a gay disco packed with swaying 20-something Asian men.  When the drag show commenced and the MC, wearing a sequined green apple headband, booty shorts and fishnet tights, invited  me on stage for my improvised part in her performance, I was acutely self-conscious of my flowered cotton tunic, graying hair and hot pink croc maryjanes.  After a few interminable minutes, my cheering friends in the audience were duly identified by the transgender hostess and were hauled to the stage to join me in an impromptu dance-off.  I was told that I danced like a penguin.

I asked for Friday afternoons off from teaching so I could have better bus schedules for travel around Thailand.  Shortly after my students finished their mandated “learn to spell English by copying words off the board” exercise (which incidentally took the most deliberate child TWO HOURS), I was changed out of my uniform and headed to the bus station.

One of the great things about traveling in Thailand is that you never know exactly what kind of experience you will have on the bus.  This trip featured a pink uniformed ladyboy attendant who announced stops and distributed small plastic cups of sodas and straws amidst a loud DVD about a battle between a dreadlocked alien and a Sigourney/Alien knockoff alien.  Six hours later, I was deposited at Mo Chit bus terminal in Bangkok in the middle of rush hour.  Unfortunately, the location of the peaceful Chatuchak Park  impeded a smooth public transport transition in the development of the Bangkok Sky Train, so everyone takes car or motorcycle taxis between the two transport hubs.  The motorcycle guys besiege the imcoming buses, so I negotiated a ride and climbed on.  The driver had to stop and use my fifty baht for gas, then peeled out,  took me on a couple of shortcuts across sidewalks, nearly sideswiped a taxi and barely squeezed through two cars.  I had arrived in the city.

When Rachael invited me to join her in the birthday celebration and connect with some other English teachers from our placement agency, I piled up some  Bangkok ideas and started doing research about what and where.    I headed directly to one of Bangkok’s shopping high rises to  get the iphone’s backlight fixed.  You have to take a few minutes to walk around, observe the scene and trust your intuition on what small kiosk to approach.  I hit the jackpot with a friendly, English speaking female technician who fixed the it and discounted the final price to a reasonable 850 baht/ $25.  I then checked into the boutique hostel to wait for the other arrivals who came in very late.

I had a couple of hours to myself the next morning and was delighted to find that the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center was free of charge and scored at Green Thai Products with a silver fabric passport cover.

Razor fish swim with their bodies perpendicular to the sea floor!
Razor fish swim with their bodies
perpendicular to the sea floor!

Margaret arrived a couple hours later; we decided to explore the Siam World aquarium, where I got another deep discount with my work permit and passively chided someone  who thoughtlessly rapped on the glass-walled home of a white python.

While Margaret and I were out watching sharks swim overhead and Suzy was resting her travel-weary  tummy in the hostel, Rachael had a fantastic time at the bb gun paintball park with her gay male friends.   We met up with everyone later at a Lebanese restaurant and continued Rachael’s party vision to an evening of  karaoke.  This activity in Thailand is very popular, particularly when performed at ear-splitting volume at local bars.   At my neighbor’s housewarming party last month, his friends brought over a computer, music stand, speaker and mic just for something to do after a few beers.  We found a club, were presented with a directory of songs and a menu of options, ordered a bottle of tequila at the birthday girl’s request and filled out the little slips for songs.    When the karaoke MC’s played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by mistake, it was all the more entertaining accompanied by our eager but pathetic singing juxtaposed against late 70’s footage of various people skiing down hills and riding up lifts.

After a few Thai songs in a row (we were outnumbered in the club), it was time to move on.  The sky train was closed just before midnight and thus we carried on to the now intoxicated Birthday girl’s next idea.  When we first entered the disco’s packed throngs of Asian gay male humanity, I went back to 1978.  I’d had a gay friend in High School and on select nights a group of us would drive 30 miles across the Hudson river to party in the only club in the area.  The men were huffing poppers and writhing to Donna Summer singing “and it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again.”  My friends were dressed in the flowy Quiana skirts and clingy tops that looked great on the dance floor.   I felt like a dork in my less than sexy outfit- both then and now.

When the music felt too loud and the crowds were oppressive, I hid out in the corner for a while for look out on the scene.  I watched with interest as statuesque transgender performers emerged from the lower level to the stage across the room.  I marveled at the sequins, makeup and gender re-assigned voluptuousness as the performers made their way through the crowds to finish their numbers just in front of me.  I found the bright red glitter lipstick enchanting. And thus my unintended performance ensued...  Who could resist an invitation to be wholly, unabashedly oneself under the glare of a spotlight?  I was simultaneously laughing and being laughed at, but who really cared?

The Jade Buddha of Universal Peace.
The Jade Buddha
of Universal Peace.
After my free drink and a rousing mashup of the Southeast Asian party anthem “I want to dance” by LMAO, it was time to go back for some rest.  Sleep was fitful but in the morning I was ready for another discovery of Bangkok’s retail malls, this time focusing on clothing. 

On the way through Central World's expansive entrance, I ran into the world tour of the Buddha of Universal Peace  (honed from a huge gem-quality jade specimen discovered in the Canadian arctic), and inside discovered the department store that stocks Burt’s Bees products. Across a river canal  I found my way to  Platinum Fashion Mall,  a collage of small shops in a crowded grid of “neighborhoods”, numbered “streets” and booth numbers. The  information desk was able to print out a list of shops that stocked XL sizes and from there I went on an urban orienteering experience for a couple of hours.  I scored an outfit, stopped for a Baskin-Robbins ice cream afterwards and called it a trip.   

 On the kilometers of elevated walkways that traverse the connections between retail establishments in Siam, I made my way back to the Northern Bus Terminal.   A young woman was buskering with her violin.  A boy with a severely burned scalp pulled out his flute as he prepared to play for money.  A man with the weighty disfigurement of ounces of droopy forehead, cheeks and nose flesh that obscured his entire face simply extended a plastic cup to ask for offerings.  There was a police man directing pedestrian traffic, complete with white baton and safety vest.  I caught a second-class bus that stopped in Kamphaeng Phet on it’s way to Sukothai.  I was home by 8:30 pm.

The Bangkok Arts and Culture Center’s exhibitions include one entitled, “Good to Walk.” This featured designers who created spaces in the curving hallways of the building that encouraged walking.  One installation featured large, four foot wide and 5 feet tall black and grey sequined bells hanging from the ceiling. The artist encourages one to step under and into the bells and thus I was rewarded with a brilliant colors and designs of sequins that bedazzled and surprised me. This is the rich sensory experience that comes from venturing into a new zone, drinkiing in the imput from all sources.

As a country mouse, whose most recent observation has been a recent proliferation of large bodied black butterflies fluttering about, life in the city is enriching, stimulating and expensive.  I’ll also admit that Bangkok is a lot more fun after I got the lay of the land and understood how to get around.  I’m reassured that I can purchase my favorite lipstick and find some non-whitening skin care products without conducting international commerce.  Bangkok, as the major urban hub for much of northern Southeast Asia,  is a nice place to know exists but I am escatic that I don't live there.