The Essence of Chicken: A Hasty Rundown of My Life in Thailand

Arm, Cartoon, Gun, Friend: what do all of these words have in common? Not much, you’d think, but I counter-punch with a hint dropped: I am currently teaching in Thailand. Yes, indeed these are all nicknames of my students out here, just a quick sketch of the titles most entertaining to me, more obviously where that came from. It appears that when a child is born in Thailand, they are blessed with myriad names, among them a short, simple, English word, often something that the father likes or enjoys. Interesting, then, not the flurry of “Beer” I have in so many classes, but more the peculiar presence of personal nomenclature like “Arm” and the like. Imagine having been christened with the ugly name of, say, George. Then picture yourself walking around in your own country, having friends and foreigners alike calling you by your other given name, “Horchata”, and imagine people taking you seriously. Invite a newly arrived Mexican into your life, and see if he or she can actually refrain from laughing in your face, and then excuse me for often wanting to do so. This country is really weird, even after four months, and I’ll tell you why:

1) The people are really nice. Walking through the market of Sena today, I encountered a beautiful display of desserts, a vibrant green banana leaf cradling neon yellow corn meal dusted with a little toupee of shaved coconut. Sounds good, no? I thought so, and after having asked the lipstick-smeared merchant of her bargaining price, I was greeted with a handful of sweet, a tornado of smiling Thai, and, having reached for my wallet, face flushed, tongue stammering thank yous, a number of friendly shoves back into the street. These people, even (or especially) in the smallest, poorest of towns, give everything to you, having little, as if you were anything but the perfect stranger you represent. Everyone stares, shouts, smiles, offers, photographs, touches, thanks, apologizes, offers more, and, above all, reveres me because of nothing I’ve done. Thanks, mom and dad, for birthing me with skin of this color – perhaps that is all I can say. As warned by friends, TV, literature alike, I am treated like a blonde, drunken teenaged American supermodel strolling an Italian strada at midnight: girls are constantly catcalling me, saying, “I love you,” and “you’re beautiful!” Even my male students, entirely straight (as far as I’m aware), affront me with praise, and yes, I feel like “affront” is, indeed, the correct word in this situation. “Teacher! You are handsome, tall, and smart.” Every day, it’s this, and I don’t know how to handle it, as I’ve always primed myself for insult. I was, as you would be, quick to bask in it all, but after watching my students slathering themselves in whitening creams and powder every day during class (I’ve even heard of some students washing their hands in the chalk tray, smearing the refuse all over themselves), it seems like this sort of reverence and praise is a bit bittersweet, if not fucked up. Supermarkets in beach resorts – and everywhere else, for that matter – are rife with skin-bleaching products where ours would offer suntan and self-tanning lotions. Here, pale is to bronze as rice is to obesity.

2) The King. It’s still just weird to me, that whole situation, and I can’t imagine ever getting used to it, thankfully. For a country so riddled with poverty, the average family even appearing impoverished in reflection of our own gluttonous standards, they spend the entire bounty on looming, ominous portraits of this near-deity, overblown processions, birthday parties which he could never attend, and little necklaces with his face printed on fancy enamel tablets. It’s like spending your savings on appointing the countertop in a rare, flashy marble wrapped around a leaky drain.

3) The food. Or wait, that’s actually amazing and not weird at all.

4) Canine genitalia. I won’t go into detail, but it’s definitely something you’d have to see to believe.

5) 7-11, for its treatment of mayonnaise and dairy products, amongst other things. None of these things are refrigerated. For scratches ‘n sniffs, I finally caved in at 7-11 and bought a sausage pizza. It’s of course not frozen, not warmed, but found packaged as if it were a cinnamon roll, featuring chopped bits of hot dog, ketchup smear, and a rather fanciful, lacy topping of mayonnaise. They also sell Bird’s Nest Beverage, which is mostly how it sounds (if you think it sounds like a remarkably expensive thumb-sized libation brewed from the saliva of a native avian species purported to, of course, enhance your “strength”), and “Essence of Chicken”, another sipping drink that hopefully tastes far away from the ring of its title. There are more, of course, but I shan’t bore you.

6) Manchester United and The Cranberries.

7) My morning commuter bus BLARING glossy Thai pop at six in the morning, as if we were on a mobile night club, returning from a particularly late night out, stretching into the morning. This is my daily commute: how is one expected to stay sane in this situation? My mom’s the only one that knows, as she tried talking to me one morning over that dreadful din.

8) My students are incredible musicians. Absolutely amazing! Watching their talent shows drives me deep into a cavern of shame, as I’ve been playing guitar since they’ve been five and yet they can sound as tight and professional as an MTV band. After class yesterday, in fact, having brought my guitar to school, I sang with a group of students that simply idolize me. In reality, I should idolize them: I flipped to a page in a songbook, found some John Lennon (of whom they’d never heard, of course), and after I sang one line of ‘Imagine’, the kid had the song down on guitar. For an hour we played songs he didn’t know, and he rolled with it: amazing. Then, of course, as Kelly put it, they’re obviously so good at music and sport and the rest because they’re so busy not caring about English. Try teaching a class that doesn’t understand, “be quiet,” or, “okay, you may leave.”

9) Teaching English. My administration is more passive-aggressive than I am when I need to be confrontational. Their way of shooting down a request from me, then returning it with a fresh demand: pretending like they don’t understand English, then saying, “yes, you can stay after today to plot out our Christmas show.” “I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish.” “Oh, you don’t? Aren’t you Christian?” “No, I’m Jewish.” “Oh, okay, hahaha. So, what religion are you?” “Jewish. I’m a Jew.” “Right, right, but what religion are you?” Anyway, I had to include that second half of conversation. Otherwise, yeah, my co-teacher often shows up to my classroom, where I’d been waiting, studentless, for fifteen minutes, and she’ll be laughing. “Where are your students?” I shoot her a look: “I don’t know, but I’ve been waiting and no one’s here.” “Yeah, they wanted to play sports, so I guess you have no class today.” This, mind you, is usually after I’ve wandered the building, asking everyone I could, wondering what the hell is going on. They don’t ever “know” if I have class until I actually don’t, and even then, I’ll rarely get confirmation, merely an empty classroom and an extreme sense of a lack of respect. Pretty amazing. By the way, I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas over twenty times this week. Just wanted to add that.

In any case, things are continuing to get better every day. Some days are pretty bad, yes, but generally speaking, things are good. I have more vacation time than George W. Bush out here, which is nice, and, hell, in just two months I will be leaving for Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and…AUSTRALIA! I think I will buy my flight this weekend, finally. I’ve been threatening for a while, but I think the date is going to be April 2nd. Hope to see you there.

Anyway, Happy Holidays to everyone. Snuggle up close to your family for me – these days are always reminders, especially when abroad, of how important it is to have your family with you. I do miss you guys a lot, and hope to talk to you soon.

Doses of love and liberty,

Eric

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~ by nearhelsinki on December 26, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Essence of Chicken: A Hasty Rundown of My Life in Thailand”

  1. I found your blog while researching about teaching English abroad.

    “Everyone stares, shouts, smiles, offers, photographs, touches, thanks, apologizes, offers more, and, above all, reveres me because of nothing I’ve done. Thanks, mom and dad, for birthing me with skin of this color – perhaps that is all I can say.”

    I just returned from Jamaica where I felt like a walking freak show for being white. (Which is strange because as a Latina, I’ve never identified with being white). But I was stared at wherever I went. Two little girls followed me into the bathroom at restaurant and touched my hair. They asked me if I had sweets. When I said that I didn’t they were so disappointed because their mother said that “white people always carry sweets.” I’m terrible at being white!

    Your students sound amazing!

    • Hi Steph,

      Did I ever respond to your comment? If not, I am sorry, and thank you for reading my writing. I went to Jamaica with my family a couple of times when younger but it wasn’t such a cultural experience, as was yours. Still, a shockingly beautiful country, and I can still smell that ceder-fruit steam rising from the staircase to my room in the heavy torrential rain…feeling the steps under my feet, warm and soaked to the grain, was just a completely indelible memory for me. Anyway, keep up the ol’ traveling and thanks again!

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