Thursday, December 16, 2010
On the Road with Rita and Heata'
Just think. You could be down at the bar with all the other ancient falangs, but instead you are up here with us, totally having fun. Rita to me as I bedded down on the nice concrete floor at the foot of the bed she and Heater were occupying. And it is true. I totally did have fun. We journeyed north this past long weekend, Constitution Day on Friday, to the city of Nong Khai, where there was indeed a sizable cadre of 60-something British, French, and German fellows, gathered in bars and on the sidewalks, some with their young Thai wives, some with young, half Thai children, some just sitting around drinking together. One old geezer getting his white beard fashioned to look like Santa by his Laotian houseboy. Yet here was I, spending my time with three young twenty year olds. What is the matter with me? Well there is the fact that most of those grey falangs fall into two categories: one; successful types and retirees who have cashed in and are here reaping the multiplying factor of the relatively cheap Baht (and its impact on the native women), and two; the working types who are dealing in international business and just happen to love Thailand (I cotton to these more). -I am an English teacher but I have no idea how to correctly punctuate that last sentence. Forgive me the error of my ways, Buddy Montgomery. I fall into a wholly different category- that of a footloose fool and his paltry earnings, soon separated, leaving me literally on the verge of bankruptcy. Silly me, I came here with next to no money to try to help the kids with even less! Yet the real reason I found myself with this crew is I genuinely enjoy their company. They keep me grounded by reminding me what an immature jackass I can be, and they laugh at my jokes, which, since I make it a consistent practice to laugh at them also, helps me feel I am not completely insane. Believe me, this is a necessity in Thailand. There are days when an old white dude could come completely unglued. Yesterday, for instance, after teaching my first class I was informed that our school was canceled so we could attend the party for the nearby school's departing director. Thirty minutes later I was drinking brandy at the head table with a crew of retired army majors, nodding my head endlessly, pretending I could hear them (never mind understand what they were saying), over the raucous and horribly flat karaoke blasting us. It was 11 am and in each window was a primary student staring in. Not a surprise since we were in their primary school cafeteria. Ahhh Mondays! I doubt a show like The Office would fly here. People would watch and think, What is funny about regular, everyday life?
The Thais have a very different sense of what is embarrassing and what is appropriate. They ask you your age within the first fifteen minutes of meeting you, man or woman, 18 or 80, and they freely comment on your physical features. They don't mean it in a bullying way. Like the hitting I see constantly on the playground or the laughing at mistakes made in the classroom. Today I wiped my hand on my face and it was covered in dry erase blue, so my face afterward was too, and the whole class laughed their asses off at my expense. These are kids who bow when they go by me to show deference, and I know they love me. They are laughing because they are not pc in the way we are. This makes me consider how socially, as opposed to morally, constructed what is pc truly is. My face blue is funny. Why pretend otherwise? I am 51. Why pretend I am not or that it is a secret and be afraid to ask? It may be how close and different the Thai relationship is with matters of life and death. Today at breakfast I marveled at Boom when she dug the eyeballs out of all the small fish on the communal plate. She looked at me watching her and explained, I like the eyes. She is not proving anything and her stomach does not have anything to overcome when her fingernails pop out those fish eyes at 8 am. But point your feet at the Buddha image? No way. They say that Thailand is the land of contradictions as well as the land of smiles, and I think I may have to rename this blog the land of digressions.That is what happens when I go so long between posts. Too much happens!
So here is a photo of Rita I snapped at Jes' the morning before we left:
You can imagine that being stared at is not such a delight for Rita, since it is nothing new for her. In a country of dark-skinned and black-haired citizens she stands out as if she glowed in the dark. The Thais are highly enamored of light skin, roman noses, and blond hair. In Isan, I am not a totally remarkable phenomenon. Rita is. So what is for me a flattering change is for Rita an overload of what she has experienced most of her life- being judged by her outward appearance. Hers is the icon of desired beauty the world over. Hence the toy I snapped a photo of in the Nakhon bus station on our way out:
This is both a blessing and a curse, obviously. It opens certain doors, but it comes with many potentially constrictive costs. When I think of Rita's potential to derive comfort, security, and power in the US or any other western nation, I am left in awe of the fact that she was brave enough to venture to the wilds of Thailand. She had one warm up in a semester in South Africa while in college- so many fortunate young people now complete similar semesters. In my day people dropped out to make money or to take a break from studying, but I can't think of anyone, with the exception of those majoring in a foreign language, who just went to Chile, or Greece, or South Africa. Hopefully all those experiences will help make the US less insular in the future. I think it has made a universally positive impact on the 20 somethings I know. Like Rita and Heather. The fact that at 23 these two pearly toothed blonds had the chutzpah to set out to Southeast Asia on their own for a year is directly related to their success at navigating a prior long-term foreign experience ( Heather was in Greece). The reason they are here on a voluntary basis rather than as simple travel bums (that was de rigeur in my day- the backpack bum your way across Europe after college- a time of lesser college debt!) may be due to the fact that both went to Catholic colleges. Say what you will about the politics and gender issues of that institution, I do admire their sense of duty towards helping the less fortunate. But unlike the drab nuns of yesterday ( I know if they read this they will both find the analogy of themselves with nuns onerous- which is why I am leaving it in! I don't even think Heather is Catholic come to think of it), these two emissaries are colorful, vibrant, independent, and outgoing. They are far from sticks in the mud, but they have no use for the sort of debauched drinking or life draining experiences of some of their American peers. They spend exactly zero time trying prove they are hip or fashionable or blase. Rita is from Colorado, my birthplace, so when she talks about missing the mountains, skinning up the back country for private night skiing, the crisp high altitude air (she's from Snowmass at 8000 ft), the aspens turning their special golden yellow as the winter's breath threatens the fall air, I can fully appreciate what she yearns for. There is something particular about a Westerner I won't bother trying to wrap my words around here, but I recognized it in Rita right away. In her frankness and lack of guile, the way she extends an open hand to a stranger. In her teaching placement, Rita was stuck out the farthest of all of us, with me the next down the line, so we helped each other through some of the initial acclimation struggles. Then we spent an extra week together as our schools vied against each other during "Sports Week". This meant spending long days as a "fan" at elementary school volleyball, soccer, and tug of war, which can be a hoot for about 2 hours, but by the third or forth day in a row, under the hot sun, sucking down dust and the smokey haze of fall burning, wears a bit thin. So it was great having Rita to bet against and commiserate with. My friendship with Rita enhanced my already stellar status with my students. Here she is with my faves, who clearly adored her, especially after she got into a tickle war with them.
Nong Khai is like the first class version of poor Nakhom Phanom. The river walk is not bordered by a road but by restaurants and shops so it is much lovelier and quieter to tour. Besides being greener in general, the land from the river path down is terraced with gardens instead of trash. What they call their Indochine Market is not housed in one large building as in NKP, but instead snakes a narrow lane for many blocks between the first and second set of buildings off the river, setting the first automotive path even further from the river. As a way station from Thailand and Lao, and the most direct route to Lao from Bangkok, it is also markedly more prosperous, so the stores stock more and better inventory. A great contingent of tourists flocking the town were Thais on holiday, a cheery sight after the somewhat downtrodden and hardscrabble views we are used to seeing. By far the highlight of our trip was the sculpture park on the outskirts of town. The vision of a single, untrained artist and completed mostly by unskilled laborers; it was a gas. For a mere 20 baht entry (Thais were only charged 10), the four of us were delighted, impressed, and entranced by every piece.