Monday, August 27, 2012


In the middle of torrential rain storms and searing sunlight that punctuate the rainy season,  I've been watching the coconut palm at the corner of the school assembly/basketball court  go through a growth spurt. The palm extends a single spear high into the sky and as the days progress, the frond will unfurl from its tightly wrapped javelin.      Since May, I’ve been bound up and agonizing over what would emerge after my contract at this rural school ended in late September. I’d applied for jobs on the internet, considered staying here and mulled over a return to Alaska.   There were questions from my mother, discussions with other American teachers here in Thailand and the deep dark questioning in the middle of the night.
Last week, Michael Dooley’s daily email from the Universe arrived in my email box:
“You'll know when you need to know, Ellen, and not a moment earlier.  That's how it works when the answer you're looking for depends on other events that must first settle, new players that need to be gathered, and serendipities that are still being calculated.”

I'd taught the vocabulary word "draw", but the student unwittingly added an e and switched the W upside down!
I'd taught the vocabulary word "draw",
but the student unwittingly added an e and switched the W upside down!
In the end, the answer emerged as many have others have over the years: by simply putting it out there. The night before my skype interview, a huge, five-inch long dragonfly came into the house.  Through a series of flipped  light switches in the bedroom and living room, he finally flew back outside.  I took this as a good omen.    

The process of uncovering the next step was a product of connections between new and old friends, initiative and following the golden thread.   A phone call and some emails later, I’m now making plans to move to Phnom Phen on the day my Thai work visa expires.

I’ll be dedicating a few months of pro-bono consulting work to Cord, a UK-based organization that works closely with local partners in Asia and Africa to create a context for peaceful co-existence.  Cord’s Asia office responds to invitations to build the capacity of local NGOs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to effectively manage at the program and institutional levels.  I’ll be doing a variety of projects relating to my previous efforts in fund development and grants management.

I am excited about offering service to this relatively small, diffuse and effective organization. Volunteering will give me some flexibility to learn more about the international development landscape join family and friends on forays this fall and provide something meaningful to do through the Christmas holidays.  I’ll have lots more English-speaking people around for connections and friendships. In a country where it doesn't cost too much to live, I’m making an investment in learning and growth. The hope exists that a job will emerge next.

This morning, while mulling over the myriad of details needed to be dealt with over the next six weeks, I thought about the millions of people who are unemployed in the US. Many of them are hanging on to the framework of their formerly employed lives, struggling to maintain the house and the normalcy of family life.  The young colleagues from October’s large teacher orientation have returned home to low-paid summer service jobs and living with their parents.  Are they attributing the months of unemployment and failed efforts to find work as all part of the Universe’s plan?

All I know is that my circumstance- traveling alone with an adventurous spirit and a chunk of savings to ameliorate the worries - has opened up opportunities. The feeling of going with the flow and tapping into the networks reinforces the purpose of this journey.  However, there are times when the sense of being adrift in a vast open sea is lonely and scary. At those moments, I'll try to  focus on the compass point on the horizon while also being  steadily steeped in the journey. Whatever I end up doing, I need to make sure it reinforces good health, builds a meaningful career, develops connected and heartfelt relations and fosters spirituality. I have enjoyed my time here in Thailand and am grateful for all the lessons, but it’s time to weigh the anchor and sail on.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Looking for Love
Way back in November when JeeJee picked me up at the hotel in Phitsanulok, one of the first things he mentions is his desire an American boyfriend. In the first week of my arrival, the teachers huddle around the photos of my family, looking at my brother-in-law with interest. 
 And throughout all of my travels in Thailand, the large white man is walking next to the petite Asian woman.  In the more pathetic instances the female is obviously much younger than the male.  But most frequently here, there are legions of aged, generally overweight white men following their Thai partners around.

They are seated amidst a group of Thai women and children eating market food and chatting on the shores of the Ping River at sunset, clutching a hotdog and silently looking absently to the other side of the river.   They are driving the motorbikes, gray-haired and self-absorbed. The white men frequent restaurants, with wife and light children in tow, and the beers stacked up on the beverage cart next to the table.  In some cases they hover around the pubs and bars in the urban centers, collected in small groups and waiting to see what kinds of bar girls approach.  They populate the message boards on the internet, referring to their partners as the “TW” (Thai Wife) or bemoaning the latest incidence of financial arrangements gone awry.  I’ve spent the past eight months mulling over the issues and reality of these arrangements and my own reactions to them.

There’s part of me that wonders what on earth these women would want with these guys.  Sometimes, they are heavily tattooed (something that isn’t perceived well in Thai culture) and visually unappealing to me.  But I’ve learned that Thai women are pursuing their own gateway to the Western Dream through an affiliation with the foreign male’s promise of life-long support of an entire extended family. Thai/Caucasian children are perceived to be extremely attractive, and if the mother plays her cards right the child could generate income as a model in the future, or at the least be the envy of all of her friends.  The power dynamics in these relationships are complicated, a mixture of perception on what Western culture represents to Thai women and the capacity for Western men to understand Thai women.  The phsyical size differential between the partners is quite disconcerting.
 Men of a certain age frequent Asia (the more reprehensible are known as “sexpats”) to find companionship on any number of levels.  There is an extensive network of web-based resources to help them find the right partner, including a website with a grid that outlines what men can expect of categories of Thai women that range from “Bar Girl” to “Professional”. 

 I have some empathy for the gentlemen whose retirement dollars are stretched a bit farther here in Asia.  I’m not a total skeptic on romance and love in cross-cultural situations, but the clich├ęs and prevalence on this particular cross-cultural pattern strikes a chord that resonates deeply into my own insecurities about being perpetually single, middle-aged and alone in this country.

It all became perfectly clear when I visited the Immigration office in April, getting a re-entry permit for my work visa before my Africa trip. The office is two hours south of here, so I decided to go alone on my back to Bangkok , getting the paperwork before the flight to Dar Es Salaam a couple of days later.   I had my form completed, passport photo in hand and my money ready.  My motorbike taxi driver offered to wait, but when I opened the door, the waiting room was packed with both Thais and farang (who have to report every 90 days). I knew it would be a wait and sent him on his way.

I dutifully picked up my number and found a seat, striking up a conversation with an Australian who was managing his wife’s farm in the outskirts of Kamphaeng Phet.  Another white guy walked in, grabbed a number and asked me how long I’d been waiting.  His lissome wife came in shortly after, looked around at the crowd, sat for a few minutes and made her way to the desks in the back, exchanged a few words with the clerk and in short order the guys passport was stamped.  That guy apologized on his way out, “You know how it is, it’s a cultural thing she can do.”  At that moment as they exited, I lost my reserve of self-control and wept discretely in my seat.   Emotions swelled in an exponential torrent of resentment, loneliness, anxiety about my upcoming travels and an unfathomable longing for a friend to help me through the process.  It turned out the office was short staffed, and as lunchtime approached the manager inventoried the numbers. She was apologetic and processed me quickly. Thus empowered to leave Thailand as often as I pleased, I couldn't find a motorbike to the bus station.  Fortunately,o the Tourist Police office was right next to immigration and I got a free ride in their cruiser to the bus station for the remaining three hour trip to Bangkok.

The loneliness of this experience, isolated by language and coupled with a shy personality has made me pine for my own TW to help with the myriad of details involved in life in a foreign country.  I’m sure I have unrealistic expectations of what companionship would entail. I have fantasies about being able to learn the language more easily, living out the rest of my life with the support of a local network and having most of my needs met.  But, in reality that won’t happen for me.  Asia is a notoriously difficult place for single women, let alone those that don’t conform to worldwide cultural standards for women (marriage or children). In this rural town, Thai people are generally very reserved with foreigners, mostly mired in their own insecurities about language abilities.  And, while I have a decent level of self-esteem, I’m probably not the type of woman that any Thai male would be romantically interested in. Likely, I’m too old and too fat.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a glimpse of the TW experience.  My neighbor Kongdej sent me a text with an invitation to go on an outing to the Klong Lan waterfall  just outside our town.  Kongdej’s wife works (illegally) in a Thai restaurant in Texas.  He’s a manager of a Government bank, which is a very good job.  His teenage daughter goes to boarding school in Chiang Mai, and he speaks very good English.   He drove, ordered, negotiated,interpreted and explained.  He provided insights, answered some questions and we conversed with ease.  I reveled in the ability to ask questions about many things and learned what the tapioca plant looks like and how Kamphaneng Phet’s building boom is related to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. We basked in the ionic mist of the rushing waterfall and the humid forest.  We sang along to Karen Carpenter songs, which he told me was a pivotal part of his language acquisition.  I got inspired to teach the first grader's the Seasame Street's iconic verse, "sing a song."

It was a seminal day in my experience in Thailand, having a nice day out with a Thai friend not connected with the school.  That day cemented my decision to leave Thailand when my work visa expires in late September.  I’ve always had a very broad but shallow social network, but my odds for making meaningful connections and gaining additional cultural acumen in this small rural province are so small that it felt like it was time to make a next step.   There’s more to come in the next post, but in the meantime I’ll share a quote from the Bea Arthur character in Golden Girls, “The bottom line is, if you take a chance in life, sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen.  But honey, if you don’t take a chance, nothing happens.”