I’ve been home for a month now and I feel no more adjusted than I did when I first arrived back in the States. I knew that the move back home would be hard, that there would be reverse culture shock along with many trends I wouldn’t understand because of my absence from American culture for the past two years.
When still in Thailand one of my friends mentioned JLaw in a conversation and immediately I asked: “Who’s JLaw?”
She answered with: “Oh boy, you really have missed out on a lot.”
That was my first indicator that I had a lot to catch up on in American culture. Now whenever I find myself incompetent (which is often) I blame it on my absence. “I’ve been in Thailand for the past two years, Mom. How could I possibly remember where the decorative bowls go or that when we’re out of apples I write it on the grocery list?”
There have been things that I expected to be different that have not surprised me—the variety in body shape and clothing style and skin color and overall diversity compared to the homogenous population of Thailand. But there have been many other things that have shocked me, things I haven’t thought about for two years and which still, a month later, tend to baffle me. For the first two weeks after arriving back home, I was confounded by the fact that I could hold a conversation with anyone around me and conversely they could do the same. When entering a restaurant, if a hostess asked me how many were in my party I would turn to the person behind me, hoping they could answer instead. It was as if I had forgotten English, forgotten my native language, despite the fact that I spoke more English in Thailand than Thai. It was bewildering and strange to me that all I had to use were words to communicate. No more pointing fiendishly. No more polite gestures and bowing and speaking quietly in Thai, hoping that through my quietness my ineptitude at their language wouldn’t show.
Once I was confident in my English communication skills, I noticed how Thai culture has seeped into me so that now when I see something that is not culturally acceptable there, I become uncomfortable, even if it is perfectly acceptable here. When at camp I stepped into a kiddy pool with two other volunteers to cool our feet off, I admitted my discomfort saying: “It’s strange that people aren’t afraid of feet in this country.” I explained how in Thailand the feet were the dirtiest part of the body and thus it was impolite to point to things with your feet, to lift your feet above your head, or to put your feet on things in public. When I see someone’s feet on the couch I still cringe in nervousness that someone else will see and be offended. When someone lifts their foot in the air to show someone the cut on their foot I must choke back a shout to tell them to stop.
And then there are the other smaller things that still bewilder me. The giant highways and speeding cars – why aren’t people politely (and SLOWLY) meandering down a one lane road? The excessive amount of paper towels – who knew that we used so many paper towels. The consistent supply of toilet paper and soap in public restrooms – that part is actually really nice. The packaged, frozen, processed food that my body has protested since the day I landed in the States. Where are the open air markets full of fresh fruits and vegetables and butchered meat with the pig’s head sitting right next to it? The constant drone of the TV, the onslaught of images and commercials and sounds that I can’t seem to escape no matter where I go. And possibly worst of all, Starbucks, which has completely lost its charm. A chain coffee restaurant with stock designs and furniture that has the same menu no matter where you go. Where are all the cute cafes I went to in Nan—the one with the cat pillows, and the other one with a Western feel, and the one I liked to go to on the weekends because it was a little further away, and the one that had a couch looking out a clear glass wall on passersby?
Life, right now, feels as if it has shrunk. Coming back home, living in the same town I did as a child, a town I never much liked, has sapped my motivation. I sleep in and go to bed early. I hardly write or read and looking for a job seems fruitless (and I haven’t even started). I knew moving home would be hard. But I had hoped being with family would counter some of that, that the joy of living near my mom and sister and brother would give me solace, would make me realize why I was excited to move back home. But right now it all feels hard, different, in some sense a duller version of living.
I have two more weeks to be a teacher. Two weeks. That’s it. Two more weeks of nearly falling over at the end of every class, a gaggle of kids reaching their arms around my legs. Two more weeks of giving a million and one high fives every time I leave a classroom. Two more weeks of bending over to receive kisses from seven year olds. Two more weeks of going to the morning market before school, the stalls smelling of fish and fried dough, of squeezing my way to the far end where jok (a Thai rice porridge) is steaming in giant pots, a long line stretching far past the small counter space the stall owns. Two more weeks of sticker charts and bathroom passes. Two more weeks of trying to get kids to sit still and finish their homework. Two more weeks of singing nursery rhymes and playing with puppets. Two more weeks of flashcards. Two more weeks of “Repeat after me kids.” Two more weeks of asking What is your name? and still getting the answer I am fine, thank you.
Two. More. Weeks.
And then I will be an anonymous traveler backpacking across Asia.
“But you should be excited,” my mom says to me over Skype. “You’re on to the next adventure.”
Yes, I am. In three weeks I leave for a month in India, after which I will hopefully head to Myanmar and then back to Thailand for a few weeks before flying to Ireland to visit family and finally heading home to the US in mid May. It’s exciting, to be sure. I’m going to celebrate my two years of successfully living abroad by traveling for three months. And then I will move home and find a new job and start all over again.
But most days I don’t feel excited. Instead, I am overcome with grief. A pang of sadness that comes with leaving Nan, leaving my students and the relationships I have created here, behind.
The other night I spent over an hour wandering a Silver Festival with one of my students, Nice, who I happened to find because her mother owned one of the stalls. She pointed to things as we walked, asking what they were called in English—table, skirt, purse, rice—and in exchange told me their names in Thai. She ate dinner with me and was patient as I tried to formulate basic sentences in Thai. I lingered at the festival far longer than I intended to because I didn’t want to end my time with Nice. It was such a special, almost magical, moment to spend so much unexpected time with her outside of class.
What am I going to do without these kids? It’s a question I ask myself nearly every day. Yet, I still haven’t come up with an answer.
The other week every girl in my second grade class came up to me during class, gushing with wide smiles, their fingers itching with something to tell me. “Teacher, Earth . . . Bio!” They pucker their lips and make obnoxious smooching sounds. “Earth love Bio!” They all tell me separately, twenty girls giving their own rendition over and over again so that it takes fifteen minutes for us to start class. I don’t mind. I find that I am smiling just as wide and giddy as my girls are. When Earth runs into my arms to give me a hug later that afternoon, I bend down to tell him: “I hear you love Bio.” He looks at me with an even bigger smile than any of the girls showed earlier. “Yes,” he nods without hesitation.
These kids make me laugh. They make me smile. They challenge me to be my absolute best self. Teaching is one of the hardest things I have ever done and it is certainly the hardest job I’ve ever had. It has taught me compassion and resilience, organization and patience. It has taught me how to love and be loved. It has taught me the difficulties and yet the great reward that comes with serving others. It’s funny. In the end I believe teaching taught me far more than I could ever teach my students.
So in conclusion: thank you Nan. Thank you.
P.S. All the pictures above are a compilation from the this past semester.
Thanksgiving has come and gone. I have eaten no turkey, nor sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. I have not watched football nor I have sat around a table and said what I am thankful for. Strangely, I don’t feel that I have missed out. Sure I miss my family (and the food). I asked my mom this morning if there really wasn’t any way she could send me some of the turkey.
Last year around this time I wrote a similar post, one that expressed the way my students have taught me to love beyond my capabilities, to have patience and compassion, and to always, always laugh. They still continue to teach me all these things. I think this year it was harder for me to see that. I was wrapped up in what, unfortunately at times, has become the mundane–struggling to communicate in Thai, going to school early and coming home late in the afternoon, eating dinner, and watching TV on my computer before going to bed. I had fallen into a routine that seemed almost lifeless some days. The magic of Thailand, the newness of this whole experience, wore off some time ago. There are hardly any days anymore where I look out at the playground–1600 students jump roping and drinking pink milk, playing soccer and tracing circles in the sand to start a game of marbles–that I ask myself if this is all real. It is real. Too real some days.
Teaching is a really hard job. It involves giving up weekends for grading tests and lesson planning. It means some Friday nights are spent in the office making a poster out of butterflies your first graders colored that week. It requires patience and deep breathing and hearing your name called forty times in one minute without wanting to rip your head off. Teaching is the loss of all personal space, children reaching for your skirt, your hands, your boobs, your butt, anything their pudgy hands can grab onto. It is germs–lots of germs. It is losing your voice and still going to school because you promised your students you would make turkeys that day. It is fun and difficult. It is exhilarating and exhausting and it is what I am thankful for this year. It is what I am thankful for each and every day. Maybe not all the germs and the late nights and the hours spent grading on the weekend, but the students who make it all worth it. Teaching for me, is all of these tiny faces. All of these beautiful children that have touched me each in their own individual ways, each of which I love deeply and genuinely.
So I may not be home this Thanksgiving, able to celebrate with family and friends but I have 269 other reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving.
I’ve been back from my three week vacation for quite some time now, but with Halloween festivities at school and getting caught up with lesson planning I haven’t had the time to sit down and complete this blog post until now. Here is a very shortened, fairly condensed version of my travels for your enjoyment. Read on and enjoy.
“The tourist sees what he comes to see. The traveler sees what he sees.” – quote found in Siem Reap hostel
We spent two days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. With a guide to help us during our first day, we learned about the histories of the temples, when they were built and why, facts that sadly dissipated from my mind only minutes after they were said. It didn’t matter. The place spoke for itself. Preserved walls, complete with carved stories into the stone, detailed Hindu accounts to tell their children. There were crumbling walls that lent itself as a garden, giant trees growing from the ruins. There was beauty and history and lots and lots of pictures.
The second day we explored the outer, smaller temples by ourselves. After a hot morning, sunscreen dripping from our faces, it began to rain at lunchtime, and never stopped. We tiptoed through puddles in ancient buildings with no working drainage system. We sported pastel colored ponchos that were so cheaply made they began to tear in less than an hour. We stood underneath the rain, our tongues out and arms wide, thankful to be alive, thankful to be in this incredible place.
Our main purpose in going to Phnom Penh during this trip was to educate ourselves on the genocide that happened in Cambodia in the mid 1970’s. For those who don’t know, the Khmer Rouge, an extreme Communist group, took power for four years staring in April 1975. They then began to kill anyone they thought was an enemy—mostly intellectuals and their families. It’s estimated that 3 million people were killed during those four years.
We visited the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng Prison is where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured people before killing them. It was an old school. Two buildings were lined with pictures of the victims, young boys of only fourteen or fifteen, mothers with babies cradled in their arms, teenage girls and elderly men with glasses, all of them with wide eyes, a few with haunting smiles. The stairways were covered in stains. From old students’ spilled Coke cans? Rust? Blood? It was unclear. Metal iron beds sat in one building, supposedly never moved from the place of their last victim. Pictures hung on the wall above the beds–a mangled body draped across the metal frame, his head on the ground, blood swirling around it; another with a chest cracked open, the man’s eyes as big and open as saucers. The pictures were yellowed and the edges of the film weren’t quite clear, making it all seem somehow make believable. Another building had two rows of cells facing one another, tiny prisons built hastily with layered bricks. They measured one meter in width, maybe six feet in length. Big enough to lie down and nothing else, the tour guide told us. He had survived the genocide himself, working in a labor camp with only part of his family. He informed us that the Khmer Rouge studied the principles of Nazi Germany. They took ideas from Hitler’s death camps. I walked through the prison, my head down and mouth pulled tight. I left with a headache and a giant sinking pit in my stomach that I summed up to hunger.
People stayed at this prison for weeks until they were brought in trucks, blindfolded, to the Killing Fields. There they were hit across the head or punched in the skull, dumped into a hole, hoping they were dead. Bullets were too expensive. The Killing Fields had fragments of bones scattered throughout the walking path that cut through dozens of mass graves. Bones still come up every rainy season when the soil shifts, the audio tour said into my ear. I was taken aback at the washed up fabric that had become stuck in the roots of trees, the small offering of bones that sat undisturbed beside it. It was unreal to me. I was standing right there, graves where hundreds of people were killed and buried, the ground becoming warped from their swelling bodies and chemical decay, and yet I still couldn’t quite fathom it. I still can’t fathom it now, two weeks back from this trip.
Takeo: Beautiful. Relaxing. Delicious.
We stayed at a homestay in Takeo with a kind family who spoke perfect English and cooked hearty, delicious meals. We ate more than our tummies could fit, eating one (or two) extra slices of pizza when they made it from scratch, kneading out the dough on the bamboo counter and cooking it in the clay oven they said they had built just for making pizza. We sat around the circular stone table for hours after a meal, talking with other travelers or playing cards. We drank tea and ate moon cakes in the afternoon light before dinner. We rode bikes through the green covered countryside in the morning, our skin already itching from mild sunburns. We read books in hammocks and watched as thunder clouds rolled in, the air becoming breezy and only slightly cool. I woke up at sunrise each morning, watching as the sun peaked above the rice fields, the light so blinding I had to look away. We stayed longer than either one of us had anticipated. And even when it was time to go, we didn’t want to leave.
Kep: Unexpected. Remarkable.
Our next stop was Kampot, a small local town located charmingly next to a river. But Kampot, however, is not where we ended up. We boarded the bus from a restaurant in Takeo, politely informing the driver we were going to Kampot. He was less than impressed, averting all eye contact and waving his hand for us to sit down. About two hours into the drive, my friend Brea and I looked at each other. Aren’t we supposed to be there already, we said to one another. We looked to the woman next to us, trying to ask her in English if Kampot was coming soon. Ten minutes, she assured us with a hesitant smile. We looked out the window to see water. Kampot, we thought. The river. But then the river quickly expanded to the horizon. The ocean? Welcome to Kep, a sign read, placed in the hands of a giant crab statue standing in the middle of yes, the ocean. Kep was most certainly after Kampot in this bus route. Brea and I had looked at one another and laughed. I guess we’re going to Kep, we said.
We hopped off the bus and into a travel agency. Rabbit Island, the only other group of travelers on the bus said to us as they scooted past our bewildered faces. Why not, Brea and I thought. What else are we going to do? We had heard about Rabbit Island, mainly a blue box in the travel book taking residence in a high corner shelf at the
homestay in Takeo. The box said it was nice. We booked a boat ticket for that afternoon.
Rabbit Island, as it turned out, was a half-mile strip of sand lined with thatched bungalows and a smattering of restaurants that resembled more of a dusty, old sport shed than a place to eat. We rented a $14 a night bungalow that included a bed. Just a bed. No wifi, no electricity, no running water.
During our three days there we napped on blue wooden lounge chairs, taking dips when we got too hot. We read in a hammock draped across our tiny bungalow’s porch when it rained in the afternoon. We ate fried rice with shrimp and squid and crab and attempted to learn how to excavate crab meat from its shell (it’s very difficult if you’ve never tried). We drank beer and watched for an hour as the sun set behind the islands in the distance, the sky saturated in color, pinks and purples bleeding across the entire horizon.
In the late morning of our third day, we boarded another boat for the mainland, our skin slightly brown and our hair caked in salt. Brea headed back to Phnom Penh to catch a flight to Chaing Mai and I started my solo traveling, sleeping with a dragonfly in a local hotel before bussing to Koh Chang the next day.
Koh Chang: Engaging. Fun.
Like any good beach town, I spent the day alternating between reading, swimming, and reapplying sunscreen. I made friends with people who I could barely converse with in my broken Thai—the staff of a local restaurant/travel agency. They called me Teacher Banana and Barbie, saying Brenna was too difficult to learn. They said hello to me each morning as I walked past and around dinner-time they would ask about my travels that day. I made friends with people who I had nothing else in common with but a long walk in the same direction. On a booked trekking tour I hiked with people from all over the world—Korea, Germany, France, Russia. We crouched in bushes and listened to the sounds of monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We snapped pictures of a stone-colored snake that glided through the branches of low-lying shrubs. We ate lunch on top of the peak, the entire landscape of Koh Chang looking out before us. I made friends with people twice my age. I unknowingly walked into a BBQ party, making a quick drink to watch sunset into a night conversing with German and Canadian women old enough to be my mothers, over hamburgers and kabobs.
I rented a bungalow, this time wooden and with running water (still no wifi or electricity). The water was a picture perfect blue, lapping up onto scattered rocks only fingertips away from the raised porch of my bungalow. I sat with my torso emerged in the water right after I arrived, looking out across the sparkling water that was so clear I could see tiny fish swimming around my wrists. This is paradise, I thought.
I woke most mornings at 6 without an alarm clock, the sounds of waves softly echoing outside my window. I ate breakfast and wrote for an hour in the cool shaded terrace of the small restaurant. I laid out on beaches with only myself to keep me company, small strips of sand that I could walk across in less than thirty strides. I snorkeled for seemingly hours, seeing giant rainbow colored fish, black and white striped fish, a red crab with claws I wanted to eat, a fluorescent blue stingray, and a fish with a nose so long and thin I thought it would hurt if it touched me. I devoured book after book. I talked with strangers for hours over lingering bottles of beer. I fell asleep early with the sound of the waves rocking me to sleep.
It was a dream. I have never felt so in love with any place in the world. It was beautiful. It was breathtaking. It was paradise.
Home is where you don’t want to leave even when you desperately need a vacation.
First term is over. I am now eating toast and thin, doughy pancakes with a cup of steaming instant coffee. Mmmm. I am in Cambodia. I left Nan on Thursday afternoon, the day after school let out. I felt a sort of melancholy as I rode around town doing various errands—exchanging Thai baht for Cambodian currency (they use the US dollar here believe it or not), printing off airline tickets and copies of my passport, and of course packing. It was the same sort of melancholy I felt each year at Puget Sound when it was time for our winter or summer break. A sadness that came not because I didn’t want to go home, but because I didn’t want to leave a place that had become my second home, my second family. On Thursday when I felt this same sadness wash over me I couldn’t help but feel a little satisfied. Although Nan has felt like a home for me in many ways since my first semester here, this certain feeling—a sort of overwhelming sadness to leave for only three weeks—indicated that this place has truly become home.
We flew out of Nan to stay in Bangkok for a night before our flights the next morning.. My housemates, who stayed with me that night, flew to Vietnam so early the next morning that I woke to an empty room. Just myself. Alone. It was a bit jarring to fall asleep with four giggling girls around me, our conversations leading us into our dreams, and wake to an eerie silence, the mattress strangely empty beside me. I explored the small market and shopping center that morning before heading out for my own flight early that afternoon. Being by myself, while a bit unsettling at first, allowed me some space to reflect on how far I’ve come since I moved to Thailand.
I arrived in that giant airport in Bangkok, in seemingly the middle of the night, knowing not a single word of Thai, a year and half ago now. I was a girl who had no idea what I had just gotten myself into. I spent my first day in Nan eating grilled chicken on rice, wondering how in the world this was Thai food when I had never seen it on the menu in the very authentic, very frequented by me and all my friends, Thai Silk restaurant in Tacoma. In my first three hours in town, me and the other teachers from my school rode our bikes to the local spa and changed into large, oversized garments to have our first Thai massage. With a woman’s foot nearly in my crotch, pushing her entire body weight into my inner thigh, I questioned why I ever wanted to come to this country. My first few days in the classroom began the somewhat impossible task of learning every kid’s name despite all their faces blending together and their names a whole new language. My first few months I noticed the clenching of my fists when trying to explain a concept to a confused student, frustrated with how they still couldn’t understand, even after I explained it to them four times.
I have grown so much from that girl, from that young woman who packed her packs directly after college graduation to move halfway across the globe and teach in a foreign country I knew nothing about. That girl who could hardly even say hello in Thai now has a big enough vocabulary and enough confidence to order food in a busy, local market, to ask for simple directions, to even attempt to converse with the man helpful enough to hail me a taxi. While many days I am hard on myself about my lack of Thai language skills, I must remind myself that everything I have obtained has been mostly self taught. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment.
While my students’ faces still tend to blend together for me at times, this year having 280 students as compared to 108 last year, I am much better at remembering their names, and I can connect with them on a personal level in and out of the classroom, mostly because I can conduct a simple conversation in Thai with them. They bring me laughter and joy each day and I don’t know how my life will be nearly as happy without them for these three weeks, let alone when I will have to return home for good (something I can hardly think about without tears coming to my eyes). I am now (mostly) confident when I walk into the classroom, no longer balling my fists when I talk to confused students but patient beyond any reasonable measure, something that still surprises me considering this patience has not diffused to every aspect of my life quite yet.
And while I still don’t thoroughly enjoy Thai massages like most Western tourists do, I have found other parts of Thai culture that I adore, namely their food. I have increased my spice tolerance and learned the names of so many dishes in Thai that I can almost spell them in my sleep (not an easy task considering the Thai language uses an entirely different script from English).
It’s incredible for me to think of that woman who existed only a year and a half ago. I was mostly still that same woman at the end of last year, only starting to blossom and unfold the person I could really become. I was nervous and scared to start a second year here, almost as nervous and scared as I was to board that first flight to Thailand, sitting in the airport by myself, knowing I wouldn’t see my family or my home for a year. But oh, how happy I am that I decided to stay. I’ve become a better person because of it.
Even after two years this country still manages to bewilder me, confuse me, and anger me. I am angry that no one informs us about assemblies or schedule changes so that we show up to class only to find that our students are missing—gone on a field trip or visiting with monks in the cafeteria or seeing the dentist in the meeting room downstairs. I am angry that when I first visit local food carts, I am overlooked and only attended to after all the locals have been offered food first, even if they arrived twenty minutes after me. I am angry that our school still puts our lunch out every day, placing our meals on silver trays next to the director’s seat, a clear sign that we are socially above all the other teachers even though none of us have any actual teaching experience. I am angry that we are treated differently everywhere we go, that we are simultaneously like celebrities, random women grabbing our wrists and directing us into selfies, while also being a circus side show, small children gawking in awe at our white skin and blonde hair and shouting after us FARANG FARANG (a.k.a. foreigner). I am angry that no one thinks to mention to us that we need to wear orange on a certain day and then show up to school to find that all of the teachers are not only dressed in that color but wearing identical shirts. I am angry that the way of life here forces my students onto motorbikes each day, most without helmets and all without a say. I am angry that one particular student suffered the consequences of this lifestyle when she was involved in an accident last year and now has a completely scarred leg due to her injuries. I am angry that for the first time in my life I am made aware of my gender in a way that not only makes me uncomfortable but makes me want to shout and scream WOMEN ARE JUST AS GOOD AS MEN!
This is a wide but not all encompassing list that has accumulated
throughout my time here. I realize that this is not my usual positive self speaking about students that make me smile and landscapes that take my breath away, or even experiences that challenge me and make me learn something. This is a stark reality check. When I came home for the months of April and May I was astounded at what most people thought my daily life was like. You’re living in Thailand. That must be wonderful. I think some people imagine me sitting on the beach most weekends, sipping a cocktail, and reading a book. Others see exotic fruits, steaming curries and an unfathomable language. And then the smaller percentage pictures shouting children, chalk dust and sticky marker covered hands. In reality my life is a little of all of these things, mostly the latter, and very little of the former. But most importantly, my life is made up of reflecting on my emotions, managing them and directing that energy in a positive way. I have learned over the last year ways to manage my anger. However, that doesn’t mean that still aren’t moments where I am threatened, where I feel I am about to be unraveled, where I don’t know how to suppress that anger any longer.
Over the past couple of weeks I have struggled with one such scenario, an anger that feels raw and untouched mostly because I have never had to experience this sort of adversity in the States. Gender inequality. It is something that I noticed from my first couple of months here last year. No girls seemed to run around the track, or play sports, or really have any muscle tone what so ever. All the women had a style that I would describe as overly feminine and girly giant bows tacked onto the end of their ponytails, small shiny belts accentuating their unbelievably small waistlines. The gender discrimination only became more apparent the longer I lived here. Some hotel managers only addressed the male in a group, never speaking to the women, some even implying that the male must be married to one or all of the women. I was told I couldn’t lift tables or chairs in the classroom, that I couldn’t carry my students’ books from one side of the school to another. Only men, a good Thai friend told me one time when I asked if we could help move a new table into our home. At first I found this all a bit comical. That is until this whole sexism thing started to affect my daily decisions.
I wanted to play soccer again. After having been off the field for a year, I finally found a fellow American friend who played three times a week with some locals. I asked to join and headed to a sport’s store to pick up some cleats. The woman who ran the shop was perpetually confused by me. When I first pointed to the cleats I wanted to try on she looked at me skeptically, saying they were for football.
“I know. I know,” I said. But still she was hesitant.
After I perused the shelves for a few more minutes and she saw that I wasn’t fooling around, she pulled a pair out of the glass casing for me. I was probably the only girl she had ever helped to buy cleats, I thought as she packaged up the red and white ones I had chosen.
I expected to get some backlash when I first walked out onto the field, expected for the men to not totally accept me. Yet, I was so so glad that I was brave enough to go play, after a year of not playing, on a field in hot, humid Thailand among all older men who could say anything they wanted about me and I would have no idea what they were saying. That night on the field, the men seemed welcoming and yet subtly hostile towards me. They told me good job and tried to translate for me as we switched activities. And yet they snickered at me when I ran, saying I was a foreigner, a girl. I imagined that they discussed my audacity to come play with them in the first place. It wasn’t until the next day when I told my mother over the phone, glowingly I might add, that I had played for the first time since moving here. Be careful, she warned. You can’t change a culture, Brenna.
And this, my friends, is where I started to feel uncomfortable. And angry. I was angry that when my male, American friend said he wouldn’t be going to practice for the next week in order to nurse a nagging Achilles’ heel, that it meant I couldn’t play either. I was angry that I had to be afraid of what could happen if I was on this field alone without a friend to “look out for me.” I was angry that these images even came to mind, that I even had to assume this of the men here. I was angry that girls are not encouraged to play sports here, angry that they didn’t have the same opportunities as boys, angry that these deeply engrained cultural values were now affecting me.
I remembered the man that owned the sports’ shop where I bought my cleats, how he sat at a table with a bowl of porridge in front of him and the TV on, not even acknowledging the sales woman when she asked him for change, wordlessly shooing his wife over to do the petty task. I was angry that men here could get away with doing nothing and still have all the wealth and power. I was angry that my girls, my brilliantly beautiful girls, could out perform the boys on every single task in school and yet they would still have less because of where they live, because of the gender inequality that exists here. I was angry that I was conscious of my gender, conscious of my limitations because of it. I was angry that I had grown up in a country where I had the opportunity to play, angry that my girls didn’t have the same opportunity. I was angry. So angry that I was nearly swallowed in tears as I tried to calmly explain to friends why I felt uncomfortable to go play soccer without a male counterpart. So angry that I didn’t want to think about my anger, didn’t want to think about the gender stereotypes that pervade this culture, didn’t want to think about how this would affect my young girls’ lives, how they would be shut out of so many opportunities simply because they had breasts and a vagina.
I haven’t been to practice for about a week and a half now. My cleats sit out on the back porch, grass and mud still clinging to their new surface. And I am still angry.
The rainy season has finally begun, which means I now I wake to roosters and raindrops. It means that the morning market now smells like damp fish instead of grilled bananas and curry. It means that classrooms are filled with barefoot children, their socks hanging on the railing to dry. It means that colorful umbrellas dot the school yard and that my hair is too big not to pull back into a ponytail.
All of this, though, are tinier, beautiful moments tucked between the stories. For now, let me present you to the final installment (at least in the first volume) of Tiny Beautiful Moments. It’s sort of a two-part finale.
Earth comes to the front of the room, bouncing up and down, his contagious smile so wide that his eyes must narrow to make room for it on his small face. I ask the question: Write the number thirty-five. Earth puts his whole body into the piece of chalk, scrawling the numbers largely on the board, thrusting his hand into the air when he is finished.
“Correct,” I say before handing him the makeshift ball.
We are playing math basketball. I ask the students to write a number that I say out loud. The fastest student then shoots the sock puppet (there was no small ball in our office to use) into the pink bucket placed on a chair near the window. Standing at different distances from the chair, the students have tested just how many points they can get, Bombay (not one of my athletically gifted students) shooting from across the entire room to boldly try and earn ten points. When he made the basket, the sock puppet flying swiftly and perfectly into the bucket, the kids erupted with laughter and cheers, Bombay himself jumping into the air, his pudgy hands held high. Bombay’s victory made all the kids want to try for the ten point basket, each of them walking across the classroom when they got a correct answer. Some of the smaller girls who looked hesitant to try for ten points were pressured by Earth, who whispered loudly through cupped hands “Ten points, ten points!”
So when I finally call Earth forward and it is his time to shoot for the basket, he scoots back, near the door, swinging the puppet around his head with the small string attached to its head. (Let me a take a minute here to describe this sock puppet. It was given to me last year by a kindergartner, a small sock stuffed with cotton to make a head, tied with a rubber band and a face drawn on in marker. The rest of the sock dangles freely, strings hanging from its hollow body as if they are its two legs. This puppet is what I brought to class for the kids to play basketball with. The same puppet Earth now has suspended above his head.) Around and around it goes until he releases . . . and it flies straight out the open window. I immediately start laughing. Earth jumps up and down, a little too pleased with himself. The Thai teacher however, is not happy. She folds her arms, her normal smile replaced with a scowl. Oh, shoot, I think, I should probably be mad too.
“Well, now the game is over,” I say to the class, my greatest attempt at trying to be upset, although I can’t quite stifle my smile or my laughter. I turn to the board to add up the points of each team, and giggle into the chalk written tallies.
As I hand out the worksheet for that day, my kids shrug their shoulders and say Mai bpen lai, the Thai equivalent of No worries.
“Mai bpen lai,” I say back to them, all of us smiling.
When I reach Earth’s desk, his smile is perhaps bigger than I’ve ever seen it.
“Next time, throw a bit softer, Earth.”
He squeezes his eyes shut and stands on his tippy toes, a gesture I have become all too familiar with in this last year as his teacher. He nods his head, as if he really can understand me.
“And good job,” I say before I walk from desk to desk, making sure everyone is completing their work.
“You’re students are awesome,” she says to me just as I go to brush my teeth.
She arrived this morning. It was a visit I was nervous for, not having ever really spoken to her outside of camp.
“I know,” I try to say with a mouthful of toothpaste.
I brought her to class with me, my students nearly tackling her when she tried to play a game with them, the girls scooting close to her during the whole period, whispering to her in a mixture of Thai and English. They are fearless and accepting, asking the next day where Teacher Roohie has gone.
“She went to see the temples,” I will say and they will sigh, already missing their new friend.
“I don’t know how you’re going to leave them,” Roohie says to me now, standing just outside the doorway to the bathroom. “I fell in love with them in just one day. I can’t imagine what must happen in a year.”
“I know,” I say, spitting my toothpaste into the sink. “And I’ve been with them for two.”
We are both silent. We have talked too much this last day about med school and the future.
“I don’t want to think about it,” I say before slipping past her, both of us retreating to our rooms to sleep.