The Noodle Ritual

Noodles. Everywhere. What do you have for lunch? Noodles. What do you have for dinner? Noodles. These noodles have been the staple of my diet for the past 3 months.

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You go up to one of the glass cases selling noodles, and you pick what type of noodles you want. There are thick yellow noodles, thin glass noodles, flat, wide rice noodles, and a bunch of other kinds of noodles. I feel like I’m saying the word noodles a lot. That’s good, because it’s a funny word.

 

You never really know what you’re going to get when you order a bowl of noodles. They put whatever they want in them, whatever they have around. But some common things are sliced or ground pork, fish or pork balls, wontons, a variety of chopped green veggies, dried garlic, and/or string beans. And then they fill your bowl with broth flavored with the same meats/vegetables. Then you take your little bowl to the table, where there are condiments– the signature sweet (sugar), sour (pickled chilies), spicy (ground chili), and salty (fish sauce). You are supposed to add some of all 4 flavors. Personally, I think the broth tastes good already.

 

I’d have to say this is probably the most common food in Thailand– all restaurants have it, and a good portion have nothing but. So if anyone wants to come here to live, they better frickin like noodles!

Typical Day in Song

I’ve settled into quite a routine here, and it goes like this:

7:20 Alarm goes off for the second time, and I stumble out of bed. Brush my teeth, change into my uniform.

7:30 Walk across the street to school, stop in the canteen to grab some breakfast foods.

7:40 Eat breakfast in my office while checking my emails.

8:00 Whole school assembly starts. They sing some songs, and the marching band plays. The marching band is really impressive– they are almost as good as my high school marching band. (and made of 3-6 graders)

8:25 The head of the kindergarten classrooms comes to my office to remind me (yes, on a daily basis) that I have class at 8:30 with the kindergarten students.

8:30 Go to my kindergarteners, I sing songs/try to play games with them, they don’t really pay attention much. I happily move on to my next class after about 20 minutes.

9:00- 11:00 Go to see two more classes, usually 2nd-3rd graders. In the mornings, the kids are pretty focused and well-behaved.

11:00 Planning hour. Usually, though, teachers keep walking past and “inviting” me to go outside and interact with the students. I don’t think they understand the purpose of a planning hour, and feel cheated out of their money that I don’t look very busy. (Meanwhile, they’re all chilling in the break room)

12:00 Lunch time. I eat noodles in the school canteen. Then I hurry home to take a nap.

1:00-4:00 Back to class. In the afternoons, the kids are usually way rowdy. They get all worked up running around at lunchtime. So, my afternoon classes involve a lot more drawing– that’s the one thing that will get everyone really focused and keep me from a massive headache.

4:00 Class is over, and I usually go outside to play games with the kids while they wait for their buses.

4:30 I walk across the street to buy Thai iced tea. I take it home and drink it while I practice the ukulele. Usually, I am so tired that I end up falling asleep again.

6:30 I am wide awake now, after napping so much. I hurry down to the market before it closes. I buy some rice and a portion of whatever looks the best. Usually there’s not a lot left by the time I get there. I take it home to eat while watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother.

7:00 play some more ukulele

8:00 I’m starting to get hyper. So I put on my ipod and dance around the basement of my house for an hour.

9:00 Start planning my lessons for the next day before it’s too late.

10:30 I’ve got the munchies again, so I go down to 7 eleven and buy way too much food. I get harassed by the super cool high school kids who are hanging out outside 7-11. They are the only other people who are still up at this time.

11:00 Watch a movie, fall asleep halfway through it. Keep having to backtrack to figure out what’s going on. Finally give up, read the synopsis online, and call it a night.

Things that Thai kids go nuts over

  1. Stickers. As soon as you whip out the stickers, the entire class swarms around the kid who is getting a sticker, to see which color he/she picks.

  2. Bingo. I made the mistake of answering one student’s question about a word that she couldn’t read, and then for the rest of the game the students would frantically wave their hands at me after every round to make me check every single card again.

  3. Hangman. They go insane every round, whether they get a letter right or wrong. You’ve never seen so much joy in one place when they get the word right. But you’d think the world had ended if they get the word wrong.

 

My advice to you about second graders

Dear readers,

I’ve always said that I wanted to teach second grade because the kids are still really cute, but they also have the capacity to pay attention and think in rational ways.

 

I must report that I was SOOOOO right.

 

My first graders are definitely the cutest, but all they want to do in class is come up and show me pictures they drew, or try to get me to play games with them, or fight over who gets to hold my hand. No real work is getting done in those classes, and I don’t think they really understand why they’re at school. But they’re so sweet.

 

The third graders are not really as cute, but I can be creative with them and design slightly intricate games that are always a lot of fun. These classes are a break from the headaches of the prathom 1 classes, where I spend the whole time trying to manage everyone’s needs for attention before someone ends up crying.

 

But right in that sweet spot, somewhere in between, is a little thing they call SECOND grade. And in such a class, not only are there adorable little ones, but there are adorable little ones who yell at each other to be quiet/cooperative, and who try their hardest to learn. Hands down, second grade wins!!!!!

 

So many pictures coming your way in the next week- it will be my last one at the school.

Lazy Thais?

It’s almost too common to hear the stereotype that Thais are lazy. Now I think stereotypes are a good, simple way to understand a majority of people (as long as they’re not taken as absolute truth). But after spending a lot of time here, I don’t know if I can agree with the statement that Thais are lazy. Or, at least, I think it’s way too simple.

 

I can see the behaviors that people are talking about– I can see it in the need for a separate person to ring up a customer and another to bag your purchases. Motorcycles going the wrong way down the highway for short trips instead of going around the block. People saying “I’ll get to it tomorrow” when right now they’re just sitting around chatting at work. And I can definitely see it in my co-teacher, who has almost never showed up to my class, and quickly walks in the other direction and hides whenever she sees me approaching her.

 

However, I read an interesting article that discusses the working lives of workers in several different industries:

 

http://www.thai-blogs.com/2009/08/24/lazy-thais/

 

The article argues that many people would “rather leave a decent job and start their own small shop doing little all day but waiting for customers.” I’ve seen this to be true– as you walk down the streets, there’s and endless parade of tiny shops, with shop owners chilling and watching tv/doing nothing until a customer comes around. Which seems to be rare, since there are so many different shops in a row selling the exact same things. I sometimes wonder how the economy of a small town like that stays afloat, when the majority of people are just trading money back and forth for the things they needed to purchase but didn’t have in their own shops. It seems like money would flow out of the town, but not in– there aren’t many visitors to Song, and not many services that the town offers to surrounding areas. At any rate, this seems like another vouch for the “lazy Thai” theory.

 

There’s one thing that’s clear from the article, and from experience– if Thai’s are “lazy”, it’s not because they don’t work a lot. Most people in this country have to work all day, every day, just to put food on the table. The example of the two sisters who work 7 days a week, 18 hours a day for 180 dollars a month was so sad. And regardless of whether people would rather own their own shops and sit around all day, or work some other job, there’s really no escaping it– they will basically be working their lives away.

 

If I had to work 6-7 days a week, 10-11 hours a day, just to survive, I think I would have the same attitude as many Thai workers. I would be really burnt out, and a bit frustrated that I was spending my life just providing something so basic for myself, not even able to get onto the interesting parts of life. So, I would bring the interesting parts into my work, incorporating more play time into the work day, and try to make it more pleasant and relaxing. And maybe lazy isn’t really lazy, it’s just a way of resigning to a bad situation. So I can’t blame some of the teachers for spending the afternoon drinking a bottle of whiskey at school the other day… if they are at school every single day, day and night even, when else would they have time to enjoy?

Laos Part 2- Vang Vieng

So, the next day, the fun was set aside long enough to visit the Thai consulate. The process there was much easier than I expected, considering the other headache-enducing experiences I’d had with Thai business. I just barely made the early bus to Vang Vieng!

 

Now, before I came to Laos, I had heard about Vang Vieng, but mostly my opinion was formed through this article:

 

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.guardian.co.uk%2Fworld%2F2012%2Fapr%2F07%2Fvang-vieng-laos-party-town&ei=vINTUPWtAYynrAfquIDIDA&usg=AFQjCNEWOyd1MAwbI8VFmpGr7CFlMXal3w&sig2=EdqWpXjjSQPowQfz0VuGLA

 

Basically, the article talks about how this sleepy little town has been turned into a party spot by tourists. It became famous for its tubing– you rent an intertube, and then you tube down the river all day to visit various riverside bars. There was said to be a lot of drinking, a lot of flashing, and general debauchery. There was also a dark side, in that its pretty dangerous to go tubing drunk– and it’s a frequent occurrence for tourists to die. I was kind of struck by this article, and how it says that the locals used to revere the river but now they feel that it’s cursed, since so many young tourists have died in it. I felt really outraged to read about the destruction of this town’s way of life.

 

But then, when I actually got to Laos, I was persuaded that it wasn’t really like that, and that I should just go see the place for myself. So, out of curiosity’s sake, I ended up going.

 

I’d have to agree to disagree with the article– the touristy area is really restricted to a small part of the town. Walking out only less than a half an hour away from the main tourist strip, people looked at me in a way that would suggest they’d never seen a foreigner before. And also, it wasn’t as if the whole town was full of drunk idiots like the article suggested. They are all on the river, in a kind of secluded area where none of the locals really live.

 

I didn’t get to go tubing because I got there too late, but the tubing was only the beginning of the party. Towards dusk, people started to pour into the main town area to continue the good times. In my hostel, there were plenty of notes from past tourists advising me to “not do too many shrooms” or to visit so and so’s “happy pizza” shop. And plenty of shops with specialty shots– alcohol mixed with the drug of your choice mixed in. I just stuck to my Lao moonshine for now.

 

The place really did have a good vibe. Never have I been to a hostel and ended up getting 20 or more people in on a drinking game. Then, we headed down to a bucket bar– a bungalow on the river where they sell literal buckets full of mixed drinks. The alcohol is so bad that it costs less than the ice/juice, so the buckets are mostly just moonshine. Man people were drunk. They were falling all over the multi-level wooden planks that constituted our “dance floor”… I have a suspicion that the owners made it such a confusing place on purpose. And boy, was it a real meat market. I must have been hit on by 20 different guys.

 

The two best parts of the night were coming up– fire limbo and cheeseburgers. There was a fire limbo stick that you could try to go under. A lot of guys kept trying to impress girls by making it through, but then their shirts would get lit on fire. Haha. I tried it too but whenever I would pass a bit close to the fire I would involuntarily collapse away from it. It’s harder than it looks, not physically, but mentally. And secondly, there was a stall selling cheeseburgers– now I’m not sure if this was because I hadn’t had familiar food in a long time, or because I was wasted, or because these cheeseburgers were actually something special, but they tasted AMAAAZING!!!!! So I finished out the night by eating to my heart’s content while looking out onto the raging rapids, glad that I hadn’t bothered to go out there drunk on an intertube but had instead lived to eat this cheeseburger.

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Laos Part 1– Vientiane

I finally had to do the dreaded thing that a lot of visitors to this area have to do– make the Laos visa run. The trip is usually avoided at all costs, because it costs more than it should, and involves a lot of waiting around and annoying bureaucracy. But, I decided to make the most of it by exploring the country a bit while I was there.

The trip there was arduous. Bussing it from town to town, crossing Thailand horizontally and then up into Laos, took me about 19 hours in total.

 

I just have to say that this was a very mixed trip, but my overall impression of Laos itself was not very good. I’ll try to keep my complaints succinct. I thought that Laos was very similar to Thailand in terms of scenery, food, language, and culture. The biggest differences were that people were cold and everything was dirty, less developed, less delicious/plentiful, and cost a fortune (comparatively, based on my Thai salary). I don’t think I could recommend visiting Laos, but for the experience of a new country.

 

All of these judgments could be summed up by one experience. I broke my flip flop on my last day in Laos, and was walking around with only one shoe because I couldn’t find replacements. People responded by pointing me out and sneering, and two tried to take advantage of my situation by selling me shoes at outrageous, unaffordable prices. Meanwhile, as soon as I made it back to Thailand, the first person who saw me walking down the street with one shoe immediately picked me up, gave me a ride home, and shared half of their breakfast with me.

 

Now that’s my official pitch in favor of giving Laos a miss, and it’s over. Other than those things, there were some real highlights to the trip. I really enjoyed the social aspect of the trip. The other travelers I met there were awesome. I’d compare the Laos hostel scene to that which I’ve seen in South America– really chill, with interesting people who do fun stuff together. That’s something I haven’t seen yet in SE-Asia. Let’s look at the full recap and some of the more positive aspects of Laos.

 

My first stop was Vientiane. I spent my first day wandering around here. I really liked the French feel of certain sections in this city. Many signs were in French, and a couple of people spoke French to me when I couldn’t understand their Lao. I stopped in at a nice French bakery and had a baguette topped with spinach and bechamel sauce- delish! There was a nice evening market by the Mekong river, which was nice to relax by before starting the night. I had the weirdest drink ever– I pointed to something that looked good, and then watched in horror as the vendor poured a bag half full of oil and half full of the drink I had pointed to. I wish I hadn’t seen how they made it…

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Back at the hostel, we drank Lao moonshine, which is probably the most potent alcohol I’ve ever tried. It was comparable in strength to those gasoline shots I mentioned before. There wasn’t much to do in terms of nightlife, but we kept ourselves busy dancing and playing cards in the hostel. It was all chill, except for the Scottish guy who was going around asking every girl to stay behind and sleep with him… there always has to be one of those guys. We ended by buying banana pancakes on the street. The pancakes here (and in Thailand) are thin, almost like crepes, but then they are folded up with egg and bananas inside, and then drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Now these were actually pretty cheap- the cheapest food I saw in Laos. I guess it’s no wonder, then, that the super thrifty backpacker’s route through SE-Asia is called the “banana pancake trail”.

 

Next day, more biking through the city. There are some interesting landmarks in the city, like a pretty, French monument (called Patouxay) and an all-gold temple (called That Luang).

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There’s also a section (near the all-gold wat) with a lot of dark, wooden buildings that makes it look kind of like an old western town. It was a bit eery, especially since there was a storm rolling in and the place was all but deserted.

 

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Back at the hostel after my day of biking, a very strange night was about to start. I and a group of people were sitting around drinking beer and playing cards, and eating a massive grilled fish we had got at the market. This old guy who was staying at the hostel decided to sit down at our table. Slowly, a throng of katoeys (transgender prostitutes) started to surround our group. They started massaging all the dudes, and trying to kiss their necks… it was getting really heated at that table. Even though everyone in our group made it clear that they weren’t interested, I guess there were no other takers in the area either, so they decided to stick around and hope someone here would change their mind. So there we were, stuck in our awkward stalemate with the katoeys for the rest of the night… it turns out that the old guy had hooked up with some of them before, and tonight would be no different. Thanks a lot for mentioning that sooner, old dude!

Farang

Another slightly ranty post coming your way. This one’s about the widespread use of the word “farang” here to describe anyone who’s not from these parts. I feel like of all of the ways that I’ve heard foreigners talked about in different languages, this is the most disrespectful one.

 

Whatever I do, I haven’t been able to shake being described as “that farang” by everyone I’ve talked to in Thailand. I hear the term thrown around wherever I go. I’ll go up to a stall and ask for apples, and the vendor will turn to tell the people sitting with her that “the farang wants some apples” At my school, I get labeled as “that farang teacher.” Can’t I just be the English teacher?

 

I’m not a woman, I’m not a person, I’m not a teacher, I’m not Renee; I’m just another farang. What does my foreignness have to do with anything? Why do I need to be labeled as a farang in every conversation? Can’t we all just be people?

 

I feel like while I’m here trying to absorb Thai culture, speak the language, do things as they do them, people could at least not dehumanize me by referring to me with their friends as “that farang.” To me, use of this term indicates a choice not to learn anything about me (or any other farang)– where I’m from, what I’m like, if I even resemble anyone else they label “farang.” The term cries out exclusion– you’re just a foreigner. I’d rather be labeled as American, tall, black, or any number of other things that make me stand out around here.

 

There are similar words in other languages– gringo in Spanish, for example. However, I feel that you only get labeled as a “gringo” if you are acting stupid. You have to earn your way into that slightly derogatory term. But here, all foreigners are automatically in the same category, although our diversity spans the entire world.

Chiang Rai

My childhood friend, Bryn, is here in Thailand volunteering for a rehab center in a city called Chiang Rai. So, a little homesick and anxious to spend some time in familiar company, I took a bus to see her.

 

Chiang Rai is in the very north of Thailand, within an hour’s reach of the Golden Triangle (the place where Laos, Burma, Thailand meet). It’s still in the same region of Thailand as I’m living in, so it’s surrounded by farmlands. There are also waterfalls and a large strawberry garden near the city. And plenty of temples, of course.

 

This being my first venture into a Thai “city” other than Bangkok, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know whether it would be an actual city, crowded and polluted like Bangkok, or closer to the quaint, small town that I’m living in. Reality was somewhere in between. It’s big, but it also has a lot of nice, shady trees and flowerbeds lining the streets. There certainly wasn’t a lot going on– I’ve come to find that Thai “cities” are often more of the same restaurants and family-run mini-stores that are found in smaller towns, but just a larger sprawl of them.

 

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Bryn and I decided to rent bikes for the day. I love how you can ride along the major roads here and no one gives you any hassle for it. That’s one upside of the “mai bpenrai” attitude I was so critical of last post.

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We decided to make the trip out to Rong Khun, the “white wat”, one of the major tourist attractions in the city. After being lost for almost the whole day, we finally made it. The place looked like something out of a fairy tale:

 

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I could almost expect to spot some trolls running around, flirtatiously peeking out from behind the bridge posts, pretending like they were trying not to be seen. Sadly, those dreams were dashed.

 

t took us the whole day to sort out the route/find the place, and by the time we were on our way back into the city, it was already getting dark. For me this was the highlight of the visit– riding into the city barefoot at dusk, and seeing all of the townspeople milling about, choosing their dinner. The city was just beginning to come alive. When we got back to the center of town, we found a huge night market that went on for blocks and blocks. Colorful lanterns lit the sky– it was like something out of a brochure. We got really invested in the shopping– a piece of trendy clothing cost only about 3 dollars! This was a new bottom line price, even for Thailand.

 

At the market, there were street performers that were taking swigs of gasoline and then spitting it into a fire baton, which caused the whole sky to erupt in fire. It was possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, being mesmerized by fire as I am. But those poor street performers– that must really mess with their health. I’ve taken shots of gasoline (on accident!) before in Brazil, and let me tell you– the next day was not pretty.

 

Another highlight of the market was the street food. There was some weird stuff there, like fried bugs. Bryn and I tried some crickets fried with basil. I’d have to say they weren’t very good… but they weren’t bad, either. I can’t see why someone would want to eat them as a junkfood, but different strokes for different folks. There were some crazier bugs available, like huge grasshopper looking things and praying mantises. I couldn’t get up the nerve to try those. I don’t think I could stomach a bug that was crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside.

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The nightlife was options were: various bars with old dudes hanging out with prostitutes, a reggae bar whose owner was way too aggressive about getting us to come there, and… that’s about it. We were busy trying to decide which was the least of the evils when out of nowhere, a group of Princeton students appeared. It’s a small world. I didn’t know them, but I recognized them. We joined them for some drinks, and a round of Kings with a bartender who had to have been on a couple of different kinds of drugs.

 

Fast forward through some guitar playing, an evil motorcycle ride, and a lot of whiskey, and that’s the end of the story!

 

 

You Never Know You’re Type A Until You Work in Thailand…

I had always considered myself to be a pretty laid-back person. A good friend of mine once said to me, “You know, Renee, the best thing about you is that you just don’t give a f***”. I felt like this was pretty true– I take most things as they come and it’s hard to get a strong reaction out of me.

Well, this was what I thought until I came to work here. You have not seen type B until you’ve tried to work in Thailand. I am seriously amazed that anything gets done around here, ever.

The thing is that there seems to be a mindset of inaction here. You can tell someone about something that needs to be done, or a problem that needs to fixed, and you will get no reaction other than “oh, okay. We’ll look into that” with a perfect poker face. You’re crazy if you think they are actually going to work on the problem.

A perfect example is the fact that, three weeks after my promised pay date, there is still no motion towards getting me that cash. Mind you, everyone involved is aware that my credit card was stolen about a month ago, and that I have had to borrow money twice already just to hold me over until I got paid. A week late was fine, but after that I started calling my agency every day to confirm that they’ll send the check TODAY. They say ok, sure. I call back the next day to confirm that it was sent, and they say “oh, I forgot.” or some other equally bogus response. I explain that my credit card was stolen, I have about 15 dollars left, and this is urgent. They say “ok, we’ll send it today.” Call back next day, and it’s the same exact dialogue.

I have tried to get my school involved, and they say they will talk to the agency. They don’t.

The fact that there is a problem here doesn’t seem apparent to anyone. No one has been surprised, or sympathetic, or thought, “that’s not right.” They just say, with no reaction, “Oh, ok. I’ll talk to so-and-so about that.” So-and-so talks to someone else, who talks to someone else, who tells me they’ll get back to me. They don’t.

I genuinely don’t think that they are acting like this because they don’t care. Well, I’m, sure some are. But above all, the attitude here is “mai bpenrai” or “it doesn’t matter.” Nothing phases anyone. There’s never a sense of urgency, nothing ever goes wrong, and nothing ever progresses as a result. It’s just chill, chill, chill, all day long. That’s all fine and well in the greater life setting, but in a professional environment it’s absolutely maddening. Especially when my expected working hours are extremely long, specifically because it takes people so long to do accomplish a normal day’s work.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the movie Office Space, getting talked to about my TPS reports. I’ll be trying to do my work, and colleague after colleague will come in to give me a spiel about x task that the administrative team needs to do, and ask me for the same list of information that the last person asked for. Fast forward a week, and x task has still not been accomplished. And there’s no record of the information I provided. I think that there’s just some sort of disconnect between knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it. There’s plenty of talking, but the action trigger never fires for some reason.

I really liked the “mai bpenrai” attitude when I got here, and it was one of the things that attracted me to Thailand. And in some ways it’s been great. I have never seen anyone get angry, and there are none of those ball-of-stress people who just suck the energy out of a room. Everyone is happy. The details aren’t important, and you can “wing it” as much as you want. Everyone just lives.

But COME ON… let’s not get TOO carried away with the idea, to the point of losing functionality.