Friday, November 23, 2012

Giving Thanks

I started this blog several times and then deleted it.  Celebrating an American holiday in a foreign country can be a lonely day and I expected this one to turn out depressingly dull.  That was my mistake.

The school day came to an end on Thursday what would, in 14 hours, be Thanksgiving day in the US.  As I was getting ready to leave, one of the teachers asked if I would join her for dinner at a grilled pork restaurant in Mai Ai, a town about 20 kilometers from here.  I accepted and Nee and I waited for her to pick us up.  The evening was warm though the air was beginning to cool, making it quite comfortable.  My friend, Ganda, drove up a bit late with a car filled with two more teachers and their two daughters.  We had a pleasant drive  to Mai Ai until we came to a steak restaurant.  That wasn't our destination, though.  We turned right into the parking lot of a large place already filled with people.  Restaurants in the upcountry, as this area is referred to, are usually open-air affairs as was this one.  Tables were like American picnic tables only these were covered with tile.  Then I saw it.  An open buffet of raw seafood, pork, chicken, beef and more.

I was given the tray below and I went about filling it with all I could find.  Nee had her own and she added shrimp, squid and even a few vegetables.  Imagine that.  Our table had two clay pots filled with hot coals and a tin hat on top.  The center was for meats and the reservoir around the base was for boiling vegetables.  If something was too big, like the river shrimp, there was a larger grill in back.  One of the ladies came back with a tray filled with grilled shrimp.

Sorry for the poor photos.  I only brought my cell phone and the light was poor.

I spent the evening boiling, grilling, peeling (shrimp) and mostly eating.  The ladies spoke mainly Thai so I was in my own little world of meats and fish and shrimp.  I told them the story of Thanksgiving and thought of my friends and family in the US would soon be sitting down to turkey and such.  None of the American staples were here, other than jello, an Asian favorite, too, and I didn't really care.  The purpose of Thanksgiving is just that.  To give thanks for all we have and enjoy the company of friends and family.  I skipped the jello, by the way.

Last Thanksgiving, I was still living in Washington State, unemployed though training to do taxes.  I had lost count of the number of places I had applied to and of the number of agencies who interviewed me.  My career was supposed to be recession-proof and that turned out to not be true.  I hadn't worked since I had been laid off at the end of June and Nee and I were giving serious thought to moving to Thailand.  We had only been in Washington for a little over a year and had just moved to a nicer rental house the month before the layoff.  In June, life was a different picture.  We were active at the Thai temple, I was learning to ready Thai, and we were making friends.  Then everything changed.  Once Thanksgiving rolled around, I wasn't sure what there was to be thankful for.  What we were thankful for were friends.

Our friends invited us over for a potluck Thanksgiving feast.  I made turkey and stuffing, they made Vietnamese food as she is from there.  We ate and talked and ate some more and then finished the evening watching some Pixar films.  All in all, we had a wonderful time.

So I come back to Thailand now and think of future holidays and how they will be spent.  Perhaps someone from the US will venture out this way some time and I can treat them to a Thai Thanksgiving.

Next holiday...Christmas.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Grammar of Joy

When I moved to Thailand last January, I knew I was giving up what I had at home.  I sold my cars, sold or gave away my furniture and cancelled what lifestyle I had.  I didn't know how challenging Thailand would be and how much it would teach me, despite my resistance to change.  Everyone told me that I would be having so much fun when I got here.  Considering I have rarely been comfortable with having fun, I found such comments quite unlikely.

If Buddhists were to teach English, it would only be in the present tense.  The past tense is filled with guilt for sins committed and sorrow for losses. Future tense causes us to worry, lose sleep, get angry and even cry about things that haven't happened yet and probably never will.  The present tense is here and now and the most brief.  After all, now only lasts for this moment, and then it is past.  The one time I have always had difficulty with is the present.  Yet Buddhism tells us to live in the present.  After all, what can we really do about the past or future other than feel guilt and worry.  Living in the present tense does thing the other two won't do.  The present tense lets you have fun.  Thailand is a Buddhist country and I am beginning to understand what that really means.

Two weeks ago, we were told that the teachers were to come in on Friday for Sport Day or some such thing.  I had no idea what that meant.  The day turned out to be a day off for the students and an all day party for the teachers from our school as well as a dozen other schools in the area.  Even though it was a day off for the students, they still showed up in school uniform, ready to see the teachers be themselves.  The day started with a parade down the main street of Chaiprakarn, about 20 km from Fang.  I drove my car with another teacher so we could make an appointment later.  The parade took about an hour, walking in the hot sun and I felt myself melting.
Rangsee Teacher band

A few of my students

The band does a dance

More of my students
The party continued on to the evening with drinking and dancing, but, being the party pooper that I am, I left after lunch along with the other American teachers.  As much fun as everyone was having, I couldn't figure where I would fit.

The next week I was told that for the month of November, every day would be a short day to allow the high school students to play games with the elementary school students in preparation for a final Student Sport Day at the end of the month.  At first, I was annoyed to have to shorten all my classes by ten minutes and to expect an even lower attention span from the students, but gradually I started to get it.

My western mind keeps worrying about what they are missing by not being in school, yet I am missing the point.  This is why they are in school.  Many of the students have dysfunctional homes just like American families.  When they are at school, though, they are among friends.  You see them wandering from class to class, sometimes arm-in-arm, smiling and laughing.  The photos above are not poses.  That is how they always look.

The British accused their own of "going native" if they started to dress and act like the locals.  Since I have been here, I have had my first opportunity to sing in front of a live audience, I bought my first ukulele, and am enjoying the least most days.  Maybe, just maybe, if I stay here much longer, I might finally ignore past and future and finally get to enjoying the present.  Perhaps I will go native, as well.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Living in a Two-Light Town

I have been in Fang for about three months now, survived my first time teaching and am beginning to enjoy it.    Fang is a two-stoplight town north of Chiang Mai in the hill country.  The town itself is in a valley surrounded by mountains and each clear morning I enjoy the view of them.  Driving into town from the south, a turn in either direction will end up in rice fields.  I have walked in them and they are very peaceful and relaxing.

If you are the sort of person looking for an exciting night life, then you would be better off staying in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  Fang is more like a small town in Iowa or Nebraska or Texas.  When you get up high, you see green for miles and miles.

The people of Fang are a combination of farm workers, wealthy land owners and merchants.  My students come from all three, as far as I know.  Students come to school each day laughing and smiling, chatting with their friends as they would a beloved sibling.  They show up in uniform in the morning and continue to wear them when they go home.  I see them at the stores on weekends in uniform.

Friday we had Sport Day where all the local schools send their teachers to one school to play competitive games.  We foreign teachers went along to find ourselves in the middle of a parade.  Though the day was a holiday for the students, many showed up in their uniforms to cheer us on, take photos and be together.

When I teach, I put my western values in my head and realize I have to just throw them away.  These students already live in what they think is the best possible world.  Maybe they are right.