Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Intro to Impermanence 101

My co-worker’s husband passed away in early December of lung cancer. He was really young, in his forties, and they have two kids in elementary school. They had a Buddhist funeral at a temple in Bangkok, with monks chanting and giving speeches in Burmese. A guy sitting next to me, a friend of the family, told me that the monks were talking about how life is impermanent and that we should be at peace with death.

At the end of the ceremony, a bunch of the male guests carried the coffin out to the crematorium, which was on the same compound. When I saw them carrying the coffin into the crematorium, my breath imploded into itself. It seemed so final, watching them go up the steps with the coffin, knowing that soon there would be nothing left of the guy except memories and photos.

It also seemed too soon. He had only passed away the day before.

I looked over at my co-worker, his widow, who was keeping it together really well. She and the kids just watched matter-of-factly. Maybe it’s because they are Buddhist, and when you’re Buddhist you know that cremation is part of how you die.

Even though a lot of people in the U.S. get cremated these days, I think the idea of burial and keeping the body around is pretty ingrained in us. I see it as one of the ways our culture tries to avoid the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself. At that moment, surrounded by all my Thai and Burmese co-workers, nearly all of whom are Buddhist, I felt like the least enlightened person in the crowd, with a knot in my stomach knowing that this guy was soon to be a pile of ashes.

Someone flipped a bunch of switches in the crematorium and there were these dramatic whooshing sounds, like pilot lights for a massive, industrial-sized stove. The fire was going. I think that most Asian cultures are all about not showing emotions, which added to the discomfort I felt with everyone around me watching almost impassively as the carriers slid the coffin into the, well, oven.

There was a tray of straw flowers at the foot of the steps leading into the crematorium. One by one we each took a flower and filed into the building. We put our flower into the fire next to the coffin, which was still intact except for a black spot that was starting to grow as one corner caught fire and burned. People wai'd the deceased as a show of respect, placing their hands together in front of their face in a prayer gesture. We continued out the door on the opposite side of the crematorium.

I asked another co-worker, our HR director, how long it usually takes for the cremation to be complete. I’m pretty sure I had to rephrase the question a few times. “How long does it usually take to burn the body? To burn away the coffin? How long does it take…ugh.”

“A few hours,” he said kindly. Thank God Thai people are so polite.

One reason I had asked was because even though the crematorium had been built with a tall chimney, I wanted to make sure to leave the compound before I started thinking there was someone selling barbeque from a food cart. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Dogs In Taiwan

I was telling my parents about the proliferation of soi dogs in Thailand. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes about alternative Asian cuisine, I'm following up my last post with my parents' response.

"Years ago, when I was still in Taiwan, you'd never see stray dogs anywhere."

"Why not?"

"People were hungry. They'd catch stray dogs and eat them."

"Really? I thought white people just made that up about Asian people."

"No. Even your dad, when he was in the military, his friends would catch dogs and eat them."

"No, no," my dad said. "Not everyone. Just the officers. They'd never share it with the regular soldiers."

"So, I mean, you'd catch the dogs and then grill them over a fire?"

"No," my mom said. "Stew."

"They'd catch the dog and then chop chop chop," my dad said, chopping at the air with his hands.

"But stray dogs are so skinny," I said, always being practical. "What's there to eat?"

"Better than nothing."

Now I'm in the mood to watch that episode of King of the Hill when the Laotian family moves in next door and their pet dog escapes from the yard. As the wife frantically calls the police to report their dog missing, Peggy spies on them through the window. She sees her strange Asian neighbor in the middle of making dinner, chopping meat while she's explaining the situation to the police.

"Dog!" she says into the phone. "Run out!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Miss List

I’m flying home! My five months in Thailand have also flown by, commemorated only by this rather spotty chronicle of my time here.

The last few weeks I’ve kept a list of things I’ll miss about Thailand.

The only things I felt like I left behind in Kenya were friends. Everything else I was happy to see becoming a progressively smaller dot on the African landscape behind me, getting more wavy and distorted through the trail of jet fuel from the plane as we barreled down the runway towards the US.

Overall Thailand has been much more livable. I didn’t have the same level of cultural immersion as I got from living in an African village, but I also didn’t emerge with the frayed edges of sanity poking through my sweater at awkward angles.

Things I’ll miss about Thailand:

1. I won’t dwell on the obvious: friends. I met some really great people and each of them touched me in their own way. Like all good friends should.

2. The way Thais treat animals. In the States we’d want to vomit a little, because many Thais treat their pet dogs and cats like kids, combing them daily and even dressing them up in barfy clothes with ruffles and ribbons. I came here with the expectation that Thais, like people in many Asian cultures, value animals for their utilitarian worth and not for the companionship and affection they can provide. I assumed that they believed that dogs and cats belong outside and should be grateful for scraps to eat.

In Kenya most people treated dogs and cats like, well, animals. Beating the family dog, keeping him chained up all day, feeding him household waste destined for the garbage pit, beating orphaned kittens on the head with a metal spoon, and throwing rocks at any animal that wandered into a human dwelling were all appropriate ways to treat things with four legs.

So in contrast, seeing Thai people carry puffy toy dogs in their motorcycle basket or letting them ride standing with their hind legs in their owners lap and front paws on the handlebars was pretty heart-warming. Most pet dogs and cats don’t cower and shuffle away when you lift your hand over their head, because they don’t expect to get beaten all the time.

Also, most people in Thailand can claim to have “soi dogs,” or strays that hang out on the lane (soi) where they live. It’s not clear whether these dogs technically qualify as strays since many of them are fed and taken care of by people who live on the soi. No one will claim ownership for the dogs or allow them inside their houses, but everyone makes sure the dogs are well cared-for. At the same time, they bark and fight all night, spreading mange and doggy STIs to each other. One of my first observations when I got to Thailand was that the country needs public health for dogs. Part of the problem is that people feed their soi dogs, so they stay healthy enough to reproduce, ensuring future generations of mangy but loveable strays sleeping like speed bumps on your street all day.

One of my friends says that her soi dogs are really intelligent. I suppose it makes sense if you’re going to survive as a stray in Bangkok. She says that when her soi dogs walk out to the main street, which is a two-way multi-lane thoroughfare, they look both ways before crossing the street. How can your heart not melt seeing that?

I think it puts their IQ higher than some American politicians we’ve known lately. Look both ways before invading a foreign country.

4. Cheap stuff. I suppose it’s not hard to beat out New York City when it comes to having cheaper stuff (or more charm, smaller rats, and friendlier people for that matter).

This was a mixed blessing, though. You usually get what you pay for in Thailand. If a bowl of noodles is 30 baht ($1), it’s not enough for a decent meal. If a pair of flip flops is 59 baht ($2), it won’t survive more than a week of hoofing around in Bangkok. If a cotton shirt is 180 baht, it’s not cotton. But, hunt around for awhile and you start to learn where the bargains are. Plus, $580 gets you a really nice, furnished one bedroom apartment in a centrally-located neighborhood, with a real kitchen and space to lay down a yoga mat in front of the TV or have drinks with a friend or two on the balcony. Three thousand dollars doesn’t even get you that in New York.

5. Obviously, the food. Although I’m a bit tired of Thai food for now, and just asked my mom to have a pot of spaghetti sauce waiting for me when I get home tomorrow, there are certain dishes that just won’t be the same back in the States. One of them is pad thai. The only thing that makes pad thai worth eating, in my opinion, is the sliver of baby banana and sprigs of Chinese chives that come on the side. In the States, they only give you bean sprouts.

Also, Thai food in the States isn’t properly spicy. I’m not even sure if most American Thai restaurants have that four-flavor spice rack that every self-respecting food establishment in Thailand has, the one with 1. chili powder (hot), 2. chilies in vinegar (sour), 3. sugar (sweet), and 4. fish sauce (salty).

And finally, Mahachai was THE place for cheap, fresh-off-the-boat seafood. One night I bought two fat crabs and devoured them both all by myself. I have to admit, though, it was a bit difficult to hear them tapping frantically inside the pot as I steamed them to a sweet, rich tenderness.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Protests

The protests are over. Tomorrow at 10am, the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have agreed to vacate both airports in Bangkok. Cargo flights are scheduled to resume, and passenger flights within the next few days.

Read up on it here.

It’s a complex situation with a political history that goes back for years – arguably a decade or more.

It’s been tense the last week or so, and although someone could easily change their mind, I feel like after tomorrow things will settle down for the most part.

Mostly I’m left with the observation that the way a country asserts and responds to civil disobedience is such a window into their culture. In many ways I found the protesters’ behavior, and the government, military, police, ordinary citizens and opposition groups’ responses to it to be very Thai.

What struck me as very Thai was the generally non-confrontational nature of the whole protest. In nearly five months of illegally occupying government buildings and essential transportation infrastructure, only two people were killed. This is of course two people too many, but considering the number of people involved, and the fact that the police and military were repeated called upon to do something to disperse the crowds (but didn’t), this is quite impressive. This is not to say that things have been peaceful. Just not as violent as they would be in most other countries.

But this is what also strikes me as very Thai: Throughout the protests, the armed forces were reluctant to do anything. The government would issue a weak order for the military to do something, and in response the military would issue a statement saying they weren’t planning to use force anytime soon.

It was similar with the cops. The (now former) prime minister told the police to shoo protesters out of the airport, and the police announced that the protesters should leave the airport, but nothing happened.

My favorite headline, from The Nation, reads, "Police to launch psychological warfare to weaken public support for PAD."

Psychological warfare? Some friends and I had a good laugh about that.

“You mean everyone’s going to be very passive aggressive from now on?”

“Yeah, everyone’s saying, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore, so there.’”

“Or they’re like, ‘Hehehe. I’m going to tell them yes when I mean no.’”

It turns out police were just going door-to-door telling ordinary citizens not to get involved with the protests. Still, this is what they refer to as taking action?

In some situations, Thai people are known to react calmly, or not very much at all. When you’re backpacking around the country on vacation, this is called The Locals Are So Friendly And Laid Back. When they’re your work colleagues, this is called Cross-Cultural Frustration.

Thai people strive to achieve or maintain jai yen, or a cool heart, based on the Buddhist principle of acknowledging the impermanence of all things in life and therefore remaining detached from things that ultimately don’t matter, like replying to emails or meeting deadlines. It’s a very enlightened view of the universe, but not very practical for working with unenlightened Westerners who want to get things done every once in awhile.

All judgments aside. Well, some judgements aside. Despite some very tense moments, especially during the last week, and a few explosives-related casualties, the overall mood of the protest seemed very jai yen. No one was really itching to physically harm anyone else. The police weren’t too interested in getting injured in the name of defending the rule of law.

There was also the reaction of the general populace during this whole conflict. In the beginning, PAD had a lot of popular support, especially among the educated elite and urban middle class. Bangkok, basically. A pro-government (anti-PAD) group organized itself and became vocal in the past week, with a lot of support from rural areas of the country.

As PAD’s airport occupation wreaked havoc on broad sectors of the economy without appearing to achieve anything, they started losing support. Thais who formerly supported PAD for their anti-Taksin and anti-corruption stance began to get irritated. They had viewpoints that weren’t represented by either PAD or the pro-government protesters. But where was their voice? I didn’t hear of anyone trying to organize a third movement. Maybe something was brewing and I didn’t hear about it. Oe maybe everyone was jai yen. Get pissed off, but then detach. All life is impermanent.

In contrast, how would this have played out in the US? A group of armed citizens take over an international airport and demand that the president step down? I’d say the city’s mayor would speed dial his riot police, and in 45 minutes they would’ve cleared the scene of every last protester and their farts. What does this say about American culture? That we’re results oriented? That we like to throw our (rather obese) weight around every chance we get, especially when it involves firearms? Or that we value the rule of law – and not getting sued – above most everything else?

Oh. Maybe you should scratch all that. Here’s a much more insightful, well-argued explanation, which got this issue of the Economist banned in Thailand:

A Right Royal Mess

And the response that appeared in the Bangkok Post:

An Open Letter In Reply...

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Stories

Winter has started in Thailand. I was surprised to learn that actually means it’s cooler. In Kenya winter meant dry season, which meant no afternoon rain to cool off the day. Thailand is apparently far enough from the equator that there are subtle temperature changes with the seasons. I no longer need to keep my fan on at night, and there’s a breeze that reminds me of spring time. I no longer take two showers a day.

My language teacher, Noi, has some of the best stories stored up from her seven or so years of teaching Thai to foreigners. I always thought I was pretty good at picking up languages, but I think Thai may have defeated me, at least for now. It’s a tonal language, but it also has so many sounds are nearly indistinguishable to me, and to other foreign speakers as well – apparently.

Noi tells this story of a Japanese student of hers who was trying to buy a bus ticket from a female ticket vendor. He asked, in Thai, if she was selling tickets – “dtua” – but used the wrong tone. So instead the vendor heard, “Are you selling your body?”

Normally this type of story ends in a good laugh and confirmation of foreigner incompetence. This woman called the police. The poor guy was roughed up and forced to leave. I don’t think he ever got his bus ticket.

Noi has another story about a female student of hers who was trying to buy bananas at the grocery store. You can generally find two types of bananas here – the local ones, which are small and sweet, and the larger ones like those found in the States and Europe.

This student asked the sales clerk, in Thai, if they had large bananas. Because the student didn’t know if there was a special name for the large bananas in Thai, she referred to them as “falang bananas” – foreigner bananas.

Of course, she mispronounced the word for banana – “guai” (falling tone) – and instead used a vulgar word for penis – “kuai” (no tone).

So the request went, complete with hand gestures:

“I’d like foreigner penises. The big penises. Not Thai penises. Thai penises are small. Foreigner penises are big. I want the big penises.”

One of the teaching methods that Noi uses is to speak to me in Thai and use non-verbal cues to show me what she’s saying. Because of this, she is a repository of entertaining stories and tall tales.

Once during a lesson Noi told a “true story” about a guy in Africa who stowed away on a plane headed to America. He couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket, so he waited on the runway for a plane to pass and hopped onto the wheel. As it retracted, he made himself comfortable in the wheel compartment. But since that part of the plane isn’t pressurized, he got cold and suffocated to death, unbeknownst to anyone.

As the plane was about to land in the US, the wheels dropped down and cut off his leg, which then fell into someone’s yard. The woman living there heard the sound of it hitting the ground and went outside to see what had happened, and found this severed black leg. She flipped out and called the police, who came and took the mysterious leg to the hospital, at which point I asked, “Why? It’s a leg, not a sick person.” Noi didn’t have an answer; it was just what she knew of the story.

Meanwhile at the airport police were searching the plane because one of the crew had reported blood dripping. They found the one-legged dead dude in the wheel compartment, a rather unfortunate lesson in what can happen when people think too much about money and try too hard to get to America. (This was Noi’s moral of the story anyway.)

Noi comes up with the most outrageous stories and she always claims “she read them in the paper, so they must be true.” I’m willing to indulge her on this claim because I think that what’s more important is that her stories crack me up.

One of the funniest parts of the story was when she drew a picture of the African guy, because she was trying to demonstrate that “kon Afrika” means African. So she drew this guy with tight curly hair, a broad nose and big lips. To top it off, she drew a bone in his hair so he looked like Wilma Flintsone.

In many cultures, words that embody stereotypes and caricatures of people’s race are just adjectives. They’re as innocuous as telling someone they look fat or old, which isn’t very innocuous to us. My supervisor, who speaks almost as little English as I speak Thai, has initiated two conversations with me, ever.

Conversation 1: “You fat now more than when you come Thailand.”

Conversation 2: “You eat now more than when come Thailand. Become so fat.”

The other day my co-worker’s husband asked why my skin was black and my face was gray. That’s the best question I’ve gotten since arriving here. I’m still working on the answer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Photos!

Links to the right, under Most Recent Photos -->

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The M'squitters

I finally spent an evening cleaning up my house a little bit, mostly sifting through all the weird clutter and oddball dust bunnies that have built up in my drawers over the last four months. It’s amazing how things purchased and not purchased accumulate in different corners of the house, even as I consciously avoid buying anything that won’t be consumed by the time I leave here.

Some of it is necessary. I have a pretty elaborate collection of insect repellent of all sizes and flavors. I’ve sampled a good proportion of the insect repellent available in this country. My friend Nandita recommended this roll-on stuff made in Denmark or someplace, one of those countries you’d think wouldn’t really be experts on mosquitos. It's a DEET + lemongrass formulation, two ingredients that don't work very well on me on their own, but who knows what could happen if you mix them together. I'll never know, though, because I’ve traveled all around the country in search of it and no luck.

The best that I’ve found so far is a brand called Sketolene. They have a few different formulas, but I like the all-natural one that uses lemongrass and eucalyptus. It’s nearly as effective as DEET, but is non-toxic and doesn’t leave that sticky film that DEET does.

I seem to be a special case in terms of my ability to attract mosquitos. DEET-based repellents claim to last 12 hours, but they usually only last about 3 hours on me before the skeeters come a-buzzing again. And a 28% formulation works as well as a 100% formulation. I once used a 100% DEET brand, and it was so humid that 15 minutes later I had sweated through it, and I had three new bites. I hate mosquitos.

I’ve also tried a 100% lemongrass repellent, which lasts a whole 10 minutes. For whatever reason, the eucalyptus in the Sketolene makes all the difference. It must have the same confusing effect on a mosquito’s sense of smell that the menthol in Tiger Balm has, but without the scent of a Chinese grandmother.

So, Loi Krathong begins this week. It’s an annual lantern festival that takes place during the full moon in early November. People light candles, incense, coins, flowers and other offerings on a small lotus-shaped raft made of banana leaves, make a wish, and send it all down the river. It’s also considered an act of atonement to the river goddess for polluting the river, which seems ironic when you start wondering where the rafts and all their semi-biodegradable contents all end up after everyone has their fun. But, it makes for nice pictures and I’m hoping to find a riverbank where I can set up my camera and tripod.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The American

But first, more on the food thing. Tonight I had an obsessive urge to floss. I'm not an avid flosser, and never flossed until I was 17. In the last few years I've improved to twice a week. But whatever is in the food here makes my teeth feel fuzzy, so I've been flossing nearly every day. It's like drinking Coke and then eating spinach. FUH-ZEE.

Anyway, the last day or so has been very exciting for 52.5 percent of Americans and over 90 percent of the world. I took yesterday off to watch CNN with other Americans in Bangkok. Brady and I both have Obama t-shirts, but mine is in a barely readable Pac-Man font that says, "Bangkok for Obama," while his says "Obama" in both English and Thai. So he gets a lot more attention for his t-shirt than I do.

I get the impression that support for Obama among Thais is nearly unanimous. Brady gets a lot of greetings and smiles and congratulatory fist-waving when he wears that shirt. In contrast, not only can no one read Pac-Man, but no one congratulates me. I'm Thai, after all.

A few years ago this would have bothered the crap out of me. It's mildly disappointing to have strangers congratulate Brady, the white guy, and ignore me, the illiterate Thai lady who can't speak her own language. I want to be congratulated for finally being proud to be American. But I try to set realistic expectations here, and I'm quite content to know that my new president drop-kicks Thailand's new prime minister is the ass. So there.

Until now, I've always cast a vote for the candidate that sucked the least. Today, we've elected the guy I actually want up there, instead of just firing the loser everyone wanted kicked out of there.

I've been scouring the election coverage and came across a reader comment that said, "Today is only the third time I've ever waved an American flag in my life. The first time was 9/11 and the second time was when I dressed up as Condoleeza Rice for Halloween."

My heart brims with joy.

Yes. We. Did.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Different Approach

So I’ve decided that trying to play catch-up with my blog posts isn’t working because I’m now 3 months behind, and I suspect some readers are starting to jump ship. I was keeping field notes for awhile, which became the basis for some of my blog entries, but even those have fallen by the wayside in the last month. So, I’ll just start from today, and fill you in on the recent past as I go along.

Election Day is Wednesday Thailand time, Tuesday American time. Although it looks very promising that the only qualified candidate will win, anything could happen. If it does, don’t blame me. I voted correctly.

Twice, thanks to New York State not being on top of their absentee ballots.

So, I have this way of obsessively focusing on certain themes that recur through my days much the way annoying songs run in your head. In the last few weeks I’ve become fixated on this single observation about Thai food: I’ve got excessive flavor overload.

Actually, the main complaint isn’t the flavor so much as the extremes of salt, sugar and oil that are used to “enhance” flavors. I think one of the theories behind Thai cooking is that different flavor groups are used to balance each other out in a single dish. So in many dishes you have salty, sour, hot/spicy and sweet all in one.

But, finding the correct balance is a finely-honed skill that most Thais don’t actually possess. Instead they are good at salt-oops-sugar-oops-salt-oops-sugar-oops-sour-oops-sugar-oops. Until you get a dish that is way too salty, way too sweet, way to sour and way too spicy. Ta-da! To the untrained palate this passes as delicious. To me, it gives me a headache.

In Thailand I’ve stopped cooking altogether since I’m not allowed to have a gas stove in my apartment, and street food is cheap and tasty compared to the effort of going to the market everyday and cooking dinner after a long day. But when Elsie came to visit a month ago, and now that Brady is visiting, we’ve been cooking our own meals. The verdict? I sure miss eating stuff that tastes like it did before it was salted and sugared to death, or smothered in sauce.

This whole realization about Thai food makes me understand why most Thai people don’t like Japanese food. “Too bland,” they say.

In contrast, I love Japanese food. It tastes like it did back when it was alive. Chinese food is similar. The principles of Chinese cooking, I think, are based on the idea of appreciating what the food actually tastes like, instead of matching it with the most appropriate flavor counterpart. I’m told that there are all these different types of basil that have specific purposes in Thai cooking. So, pork gets one type of basil, chicken gets another, shrimp gets another and so on. Amazing.

Anyway, this weariness of Thai flavor overload has informed some of my recent cravings. Not so long ago I was hoping that the hotel buffet where I was eating would serve French onion soup with lots and lots of melted cheese on top. No such luck of course. It was a Thai hotel with a mostly Thai clientele, and I had to settle for shrimp tom yum.

Then today I was at Tops Super with Brady, looking at salted peanuts, and I said, “Right now I would really really like a baguette with brie, salami, tomatoes, fresh basil, cracked black peppercorns, watercress and maybe some hickory smoked turkey breast. Because it would be nice to eat something that tastes like its original food source.”

“But you said salami,” he pointed out.

“Salami tastes just like a pig,” I said. “And that’s really what I need right now.”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Mime

Thursday morning my coworker was supposed to pick me up at 7am to go to Mae Khlong for a workshop on migrant rights. At 7:30, she still hadn’t called to say she was waiting for me outside, so I called her.

“Ohhh!” she said. “Jahteenahh! I forgot to come to your house.”


“You go with Ahn,” she said. “Eight thirty he come. Sorry. I already drive 10 kilometers.”

Caroline called me at 8:30. “Oay told me you needed a ride. I’m at the 7-11 waiting for you.”

There’s a 7-11 on every block in Thailand. They’re more ubiquitous than Starbucks in the States.

“Which 7-11?” I asked, of course.

“Next to city hall,” she said. “Next to the police station.”

Well, those are two landmarks that every resident should know in their own town. But not me.

After a lot of walking around and calling Caroline, we found each other. City hall was not where I thought it was. There were some other Raks Thai staff and a few other people I didn’t recognize.

Caroline and I rode in the same car as a Thai woman named Wii (actually spelled Wi but for the Apple generation it’s more fun to spell it with two “i”s) who is doing a PhD in nursing in the northeast. When she learned that Wii spoke English, Caroline waved her fists excitedly.

“Good good good,” she said. “Now I can talk to someone in English.”

My sentiments exactly.

The workshop was held at a riverside resort near Amphawa, a town famous for its floating markets, fireflies, and homestays in stilt houses on the river. Caroline and I lassoed Wii into sitting at our table and translating for us. She didn’t seem to mind, as most Thai people are excited to meet English speakers so they can practice. I was grateful to have a translator because everything was in Thai, including the signs for the bathroom.

Caroline leaned over at one point and said, “How is here different from where you come from?”

For some reason people love to ask me this when I’m in other countries. I don’t know why. I’d never ask such an open question because the obvious reply would be, “What do you mean?”

Which is what I asked.

“How is this workshop different from if you were in the US?”

Ah. “For one thing, there would probably be a lot more talking,” I said. “Americans love to hear themselves talk, even when they’re not saying anything intelligent.”

Caroline laughed. “Asians aren’t like that. We don’t like to talk,” she said. The irony, of course, is that Caroline can’t stop talking. She is the chattiest person I know in Thailand. She said that if it weren’t for her uncle threatening to kill her if she ever became an actress, she would have become an actress.

Actually, I don’t find Thai people all that shy. I think this is actually a pretty gregarious culture, and women are just as chatty as men in mixed-gender situations.

According to Buddhist tradition, monks are only allowed to eat food that lay believers give them as alms. If you’re up early enough almost anywhere in Thailand, you’ll see monks walking around with their alms containers, and people offering food as a good deed.

The resort where we stayed was a teak wood number built on the riverbank. The monks in the Amphawa area traditionally collect alms by boat, and are now a tourist attraction. Friday morning I was up at 6 hoping to catch a glimpse of saffron robes floating down the river with their empty containers. There is a small dock where resort patrons can wait to give alms to the monks when they paddle by. If you give advanced notice, the resort will organize food for you to give the monks. How’s that for no-hassle alms-giving? You don’t even have to go to the market yourself.

Photos here.
Last weekend Francisco and I were in a 7-11 looking for something for his wonky stomach.

“Do you have Pep-To-Biz-Mol?” he asked the woman behind the counter, enunciating each syllable. It was a long shot but it couldn’t hurt to try.

She stared at him blankly. I tried pantomiming, one of my favorite ways to communicate with Thai people.

“Do you have…” I began. I held my stomach, frowned as hard as I could, and moaned like a person with diarrhea.

The woman’s face lit up. “Oh!” she said. “Test baby?”

Hmm. I hadn’t intended for my sign language for “diarrhea” to translate into “pregnancy test.”

A pantomime success story. A few weeks ago I saw a cockroach in my bathroom. A lot of Thai bathrooms are a single open floor with drains. Shower runoff goes down there, as well as runoff from something called the “host spray” according to signs in the mall – a short hose with a spray nozzle that you use to hose down the toilet after you use it. Of course, having a “host spray” makes a lot more sense when you’ve got a squat toilet rather than a sitdown toilet. I’ve also wondered if some people use it as a personal bidet as well, but I’d rather not know. I just avoid touching the “host spray” in public restrooms.

Anyway, one night a cockroach had crawled up through the drain and was nosing around my bathroom. How rude. I didn’t invite him in. I flipped the lights on and off trying to scare him back into the drain. It was one of those things that makes me realize how dumb humans are.

The guy eventually crawled back into the drain and I stuffed it with a jar cap that happened to fit perfectly. A few days later, the cockroach found its way back out – through the drain in my balcony. It was time to do something.

I accosted one of the apartment managers in the elevator.

“Do you have bug spray?” I asked, making a pumping motion with my index finger. “I have a cockroach.”

Blank stare.

“Um…” I clasped my thumbs together, wiggled all my fingers, and scuttled my hands close to the ground while making a high-pitched humming noise, because that’s what a cockroach sounds like, according to this mime.

“Oh!” he said, his face brightening. “I have. One moment.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Chinese

Oh my God. I found out that the woman who cleans the building (and now my apartment unit) speaks Chinese. We were heading up the elevator to my unit when she said, “Can speak Thai?”

“Nit nawy,” I said. A little. Then, to avoid any confusion, I showed her how much by putting my thumb and index finger as close together as possible without actually letting them touch. “Nit nawy.”

“Speak China?” she said.

“Nit nawy,” I said again, but this time I could actually claim some space between the fingers.

“Can you speak Chinese?” she said in Chinese.

“You speak Chinese?” I blurted out in Chinese as my jaw fell off and dropped to the ground. “I can speak Chinese!”

I had to bite my lip from cracking my face open grinning. Instead of only being able to communicate like a 2-year-old, I could now communicate like a 4-year-old. Hooray for college foreign language requirements!

Francisco’s Taiwanese coworker would go around asking Thai people if they spoke Chinese, especially if he was having a sudden communication breakdown. He didn’t have a ton of luck with it, but once in awhile someone would know a little Chinese. It's a clever idea since a lot of Thais trace their ancestry back to China, but I've never tried it myself.

Later today, I was buying food from my favorite cart at the night market. I had an awkward exchange with the vendor about what was in the curry I was about to buy.

“This chicken?” I asked in Thai.

“This thai thai thai thai,” she said in Thai.

“Chicken?” I asked again.

“This thai thai thai thai,” she said again.

I just nodded and bought it, figuring that as long as it wasn’t fried termites I’d eat it. The vendor looked at me for a bit and said in Chinese, “Do you speak Chinese?”

Man! Where are all these Chinese speakers coming from? I know it’s perhaps the most widely spoken language in the world, but still.

“Where are you from?” she asked. I told her.

“Oh, so you speak English, too,” she said.

Yes. Unfortunately, not a language that gets me very far in Thailand.

I’m glad that once again I remembered to pack my Chinese phrasebook with me. When I first arrived in Kenya I told another volunteer that I had brought it with me to Africa, and she laughed and rolled her eyes. But when I got to my village, who were the only other foreigners there? A Chinese construction crew, paving the road.

Incidentally, it wasn’t chicken in the curry. It was fake chicken that was either made of tofu or fishcake. A Thai person could probably say which it was. In fact the vendor did, twice.

I went swimming again this morning. Again, there was no one there. Like every other outdoor activity in Thailand, the heat was a bit oppressive even in the pool. I think the trick is to go early, around 8 or 8:30, when there’s still one lane that’s shaded, and the water hasn’t started warming up yet. Afternoon swimming is impossible in this pool, unless you like swimming in 90 degree bathwater.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Heat

Even though I don’t understand anything my coworkers say, my initial impression is that they’re all pretty nice, and they love to laugh. Our finance officer, Jaep, asked me yesterday how my work was going, and I told her that I felt a little neglected by Bangkok, and that some guidance and support would be nice.

Today she told me she had talked to Caroline and Dr. Khin, and they agreed to help me with my work and be my translators. Jaep gets stuff done. She’s the Thai version of that person who whips out her cell phone everytime she needs something, and 30 seconds later it’s taken care of. The Thai version because she’s always laughing, and never in a hurry.

Also, she, like everyone else, refuses to walk outside for even 100 yards. Thai people don’t walk. They drive to avoid generating any body heat that would add to the heat already generated by the climate here. Makes a lot of sense, but I feel ridiculous piling into the car and driving 100 yards to go to lunch. If everyone else is doing it, I won’t make a spectacle by walking alongside the car (since we never actually leave the parking lot when we do this), but a few days ago I was alone in the office and had to find my own lunch. Usually someone orders out, or sends Ahn to pick up something, or cooks something. So I walked about 150 yards to a restaurant across the street that served chicken and rice – two words I know how to say in Thai.

I joined a pool! There’s this small resort-type conference center across the street from our office, and it has a lap pool. Last Friday I harassed one of our field officers, Pak, to help me get a membership (by being my translator). The best part of the whole incident, of course, was that he drove me there. It’s literally about 70 yards away. I even said, “We can walk together.” And he said, “No, too hot.”

Which was true. It was two in the afternoon and just a sauna outside. So he got the keys to one of the Raks Thai vehicles and we drove for 20 seconds across the street. Twice, actually. The first time we just went to the membership office to ask how I could join the pool. Then, since I didn’t have my wallet, he drove me back to the office, which took about three minutes because the parking lot is one-way so he had to circle around and go the long way.

The pool is gorgeous. It’s outdoors, which I find to be a luxury after all the indoor pools built for cold climates like San Francisco and New York. But if you think about it, an outdoor pool is probably cheaper to build than an indoor pool. You don’t have to put a building around it.

Pak had pointed out the women’s locker room to me last Friday, but this morning when I arrived I’d forgotten which one it was. The signs above the entrances were all in Thai. Fortunately there was no one around, so I ducked into the locker room with the coral-colored tile. Lockers, toilets, showers, sinks. I ducked into the locker room next door, the one with the blue tiles, and took a quick spin around just to make sure I was in the right place. The blue tiled locker room had urinals. My first guess was right.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The One Two

One thing that drives me crazy about Thai is that the word for "one" sounds almost the same as the word for "two" in Taiwanese: Nung in Thai, nun in Taiwanese, same tone.

So whenever people are talking about one of something, I'm always wondering, where's the other one?

Actually, come to think of it, the numbers one through ten in Thai are strangely similar to Taiwanese, even though the languages are supposedly not related.

Thai:       Taiwanese:

nung         ji
sawng       nun
saam         saa
sii           shii
haa          go
hok          la(k)
jet          chi
bpaet        bpweh
gao          gao
sip          tsa(p)

The () indicates a sound that may or may not be there; I always thought it was swallowed, but I'm not sure. I don't actually speak Taiwanese.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Water

Purifying drink water is much easier here in Thailand than in Kenya. Turn on the faucet and water comes out. Technically you can drink it without getting sick, but my friends have advised me against it.

“Water I think not so good,” Oay said. “Water come from ground, not good. Better you buy bottle.”

Actually, ground water sounds a lot safer than water pumped out of the river, especially in this town. I’m pretty convinced that the Tha Chin, which flows through Mahachai and brings the fishermen home, is much more polluted than any other body of water I’ve lived near – including the Chicago and Hudson Rivers. One reason I think this, and I might just be overreacting here, is that the water in the river is black, often coated with a layer of rainbow oil slicks, and is a fertile home for invasive water hyacinths.

Anyway, so I was thinking, groundwater sounds a lot safer than Tha Chin sludge, until I thought about that massive public health disaster in Bangladesh: arsenic in the groundwater.

Well, I bought bottled water for the first couple of weeks here. It tastes terrible. I think the word for it is brackish. It’s salty and metallic. The water from the faucet tastes exactly the same. I’m wondering if bottled water here isn’t just straight from the tap.

The reason I think this is because I’ve boiled bottled water and tap water, and I get similar results: a bunch of crusty white floaties. My water boiler – one of those electrical appliances found in every Asian household that boils your water then keeps it warm as long as you want – is always lined with the crusty stuff after I boil water. I’m not sure what it is. Probably just mineral deposits. But why is it also in the bottled water?

At least I learned a few things in the Peace Corps. If you let water sit for an hour or so, the debris sinks to the bottom, and you can pour the clear water into another vessel. The taste is noticeably improved.

Editor's note: I've since switched to bottled water that's delivered to my door in 20-liter jerrycans. No brackish taste, no white floaties. It's a winner.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tops

My life has taken a turn for the more convenient now that I’ve discovered a Tops Super in the mall next to the night market. Now I can get all the things that are comforting to me and whose appeal confuses Thai people: cereal, milk, peanut butter (crunchy only though) and of course, Tim Tams. Also, I don’t know why I haven’t gone yet, but there’s a Swensen’s ice cream shop in that building. I think it’s because of the logistics – I go to the night market to get dinner, but I take it home to eat (because of the mosquitoes), so why would I then go back to get ice cream? I mean, it wouldn’t be impossible, just inconvenient.

Editor's note: A few days later I actually ate at the Swensen's before dinner because I had an ice cream craving and I didn't want to walk back there after dinner to get it. This girl manages.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Soup

They sell these do-it-yourself tom yum kits at the market for like 5 baht (15 cents). It comes with a few stalks of lemongrass, a few stems of kaffir lime leaves, and a small piece of galangal root – all together enough to make a family-size pot of tom yum soup, and then some.

Tom yum kung is a Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp. My co-worker gave me the recipe a few days ago. It was DEE licious, just like what you get at restaurants here. I sent some pictures of my food to Brady because he’s in Sudan, where there’s talk of a famine.

“Oh my God!” he said. “I’m licking my computer screen.”

Here's what you put in it, if you're a real Thai:

Kaffir lime leaves
Galangal root
Fresh chili
Lime juice
Soup stock (pork is preferred here)
Meat of choice: shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, fish or anything else you feel like throwing in

Also, I've been getting friendly with the mangosteen again. They're expensive considering how much of it is just fibrous gristle. Forty baht per kilo is the market price these days - more than a dollar.

There's this quirk though: Ants live under the leaves, so when you break the mangosteen open they rush out onto the flesh of the fruit to gulp down the sweet juice before you become an unsuspecting anteater. Because if you eat a mangosteen, one day you'll eat an ant.

I had these mangosteens in the fridge for two days, and when I went to fetch them tonight, the ants were still there, tearing around waiting for me to break open the fruit.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Lazy Saturday

Woke up this morning very slowly. The weather outside was gorgeous – overcast and cool, for this place anyway. I haven’t needed to turn on the AC yet this morning. I had a hard time getting out of bed because I didn’t really know what to do all day.

From my living room balcony, I can see the corner of a shimmering aqua blue swimming pool in someone’s back yard. I look at it every day, to see if anyone is using it, because there’s nothing I’d like better than to live in a swimming pool for the next six months. This is surely the hottest country in the world.

As far as I can tell, this neighbor of mine with the swimming pool has never used it. It’s gotten to the point that I’m no longer convinced that it’s a swimming pool, except that I can see the house reflected in its surface, and when the sun shines in the afternoon I can see its ripples reflected off the house. It’s torture. I want to scale their wall, jump in and start splashing around. In this picture you can see it in the lower left corner. I'll try to take a better picture on the next clear day.

Oay called me this afternoon with a phone number for her friend, Mary, who might be willing to be my Thai teacher. This has been a source of constant debate for the last week: Where can I take Thai classes?

Oay suggested that I take a Thai class with Burmese migrants, because there are plenty of schools in Mahachai that teach that crowd.

“But I don’t understand Burmese,” I said.

“No problem!” Oay said. “Teacher speak Thai!”

Well, I insisted that if I was going to pay good money to learn Thai, my teacher was going to at least speak English well enough to explain Thai to me.

“Maybe I have neice,” she said. “She in high school. Maybe she teach you.”

Just because someone is actively studying English in school doesn’t mean they speak it any better than an adult.

“I ask her make time teach you.”

I told Oay that I wanted a real teacher, not some poor teenager who got her arm twisted by her aunt.

So this afternoon, at Oay’s urging, I called the mysterious Mary, who was expecting my call.

“Hello?” I said. “May I speak to Mary?”

A man’s voice on the other end said, “Thai thai thai thai.”

“Mary,” I said.

“Thai thai thai,” he said. “Thai?”

“Mary, please,” I said.

“Mary?” he said.

“Yes, Mary.”

“Hallo?” said a woman’s voice.



“Are you Mary? I am Justina. Friend of Oay.”

“I don’t know.”

“You are Mary? I am friend of Oay.”

“Sorry. Don’t know.”


The man came back on. “Thai thai thai. Sorry. Thai thai thai. I don’t know you.”


All I can say is that Thai people are really nice about wrong numbers. In the U.S. it would’ve been, “You got the wrong number, lady.” *click*

This poor couple actually tried to conjure up some English to explain to me that I had the wrong number. They were probably smiling the whole time, too.

The Phone Call

At lunch today, Caroline was telling me about her place in Bangkok. She rents a room for 1,500 baht, which explains why Noreen was so appalled that I pay 6,000 baht for my place. Unlike most Burmese migrants Caroline has mostly Thai neighbors.

“So I have a lot of privacy,” she said. “Thais don’t care what you do. My people, they’re so nosy, always come to see what you do, see a man come visit and talk who is this man, is he good, just talk talk.

“I think Thai people, they are higher developed than Burmese.”

I thought of yesterday’s dinner in the Burmese hood with all the neighbors sitting in the doorway staring at me while I ate.

This morning I started regretting giving my phone number to Lad and Bot. Someone kept calling at 7:30 this morning. I picked up, thinking maybe it was Caroline since we had arranged to meet up this morning and go to her drop-in center together.

“Hulloooh?” I said, trying not to sound sleepy.

I heard a bunch of Burmese chattering on the other end and occasionally, the word “English.”

“Nnghh…” I said. “Hullo?”

More Burmese chattering, probably about how they didn’t know any English and couldn’t communicate with me, which didn’t occur to them before they dialed.

I hung up on them and tried to go back to sleep, but they called three more times, and I hit “ignore” three more times. It was too early for me to find any humor in the situation. In their hands, my phone number had turned into a toy that they were determined to break before 9am on Christmas morning.

When I saw Caroline later she said she had met those guys at the market on her way to town. They told her they had tried to call me this morning but didn’t know how to speak to me in English.

No. Kidding.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Burmese Dinner

Caroline let me tag along on one of her community outreaches this afternoon. She organizes informal small-group meetings where she and a few health volunteers she has trained lead discussions about family planning, condoms, dengue fever and STIs. Most of the people who attended were migrant women, although there were a few men.

After the session she took me into one of the housing communities where Burmese migrants live. She introduced me to a bunch of guys playing takraw, that popular kickball-volleyball game played with a bamboo ball. Some other people were loitering around and started getting interested in me after they noticed me fumbling with the one Burmese greeting I know. There was the usual confusion about where I come from and why I look Burmese. I’m pretty convinced that people in Southeast Asia can’t tell their own people apart from any other ethnic group.

A couple of the guys who were watching the takraw game started getting chatty. Through Caroline, they fired questions about where I come from, what I do, if I’m going to give them money, if I can take them back to America, and if I’ll marry one of them. The conversation alternated between tiresome and engaging.

Lad, Mr. Super Chatty, invited us to have a look inside his house because Caroline had explained that I’m a total dumbass and have no idea how Burmese migrants live. I felt like I was intruding on them, but they all seemed eager to share their world with me. Lad was actually complaining that I hadn’t brought my camera.

The housing block is a bunch of small rooms in a row much like the one we went to for the mobile clinic. Each room serves as the place where a family eats, sleeps and cooks.

We went inside Lad’s house and he and his sidekick, Bot, started pulling out food for us to eat. It was odd that they had all this food already prepared for us, but it turned out that everyone had already eaten, so these were leftovers.

We sat on the ground, barefoot of course, and suddenly a grand spread materialized in front of us. Fried fish, fried "cockroach shrimp" pancakes, raw vegetables, various chili sauces, rice, lily flower fish soup, steamed cockles…mm mm.

The extended family and neighbors gathered at the door to see if I could eat Burmese food, which reminded me of the slack jaws and zoo-animal prodding from my first day in the village in Kenya. (“You know how to use flip flop? Then show us.”)

I was a little thrown off because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat with my hands or not. (The answer: No hands. Spoons and forks.) They brought a basin of water for us to wash our hands in, which we shared and which was subsequently used to rinse off spoons before we ate. I see a health education session right there.

While Caroline and I ate, Lad, Bot and the Peanut Gallery neighbors peppered me with questions. How old am I? Am I married? What kind of work do I do? Do I have siblings? My stomach is still on fire a bit from the chili fish paste sauce.

Most migrants in Mahachai live in pretty basic quarters like Lad and his family. But they also have a lot of modern amenities. Lad’s house had electricity, a large TV, a pretty fancy stereo system with big speakers, and a fridge. He and his family have been in Thailand for more than ten years, so they’ve had some time to save a little money.

By the end of the meal, Lad and his wife were inviting me to stay the night. Their room was a bit small for guests, and even though Lad speaks Thai, I don’t. Plus, Bot had been much too interested in my marital status for my taste. Caroline had to catch a bus back to Bangkok so we made a hasty getaway, but not until Lad had put me on the spot and taken my phone number. It will be interesting to see what the Burmese version of phone stalking looks like. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Migrant Hood

Today was the first time since I arrived here that I was reminded that some parts of Thailand aren’t like Bangkok, or even idyllic Thai villages.

We hold a mobile clinic every Wednesday with the help of some staff from Samut Sakhon Hospital, the provincial hospital in Mahachai. Today we went into a migrant neighborhood with rows of low concrete buildings divided into small rooms by thin plywood. Dr. Khin and some nurses set up shop in one of the hallways.

I didn't get photos of the row houses, but one family stays in each room, and although you can close and lock your door, there’s not a lot of privacy from your neighbors’ prying ears. However, some families had TVs and refrigerators.

Other houses in the neighborhood were corrugated tin boxes on bamboo stilts, sitting over a black, fetid marsh full of garbage and toxic waste. The smell got worse once it started to rain.

Even without Lake Trash, the constant smell of fish drying in discarded fan cages is unmistakeable.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Translators

I forgot my list of interview questions at home. I was at one of the Child Learning Centers run by my organization, located in a neighborhood called Krok Krak Nai. I wanted to interview some teachers for a report I'm writing about the child centers.

It turned out that I didn't need my list of questions. The interviews ended up being one big exercise in how to lose everything in translation.

The original plan was to conduct structured interviews with each teacher, and turn the data into a well-researched document about how the child center intervention model is being used to achieve the project objectives.

I love how grad school brainwashes you into thinking that systematic, analytical approaches to problem solving work.

I interviewed Yi first, a Burmese woman who taught high school before coming to Thailand. I was accompanied by a small team of interpreters. Oay translated my English into Thai, and then a ten-year-old Burmese kid tried to translate her Thai into Burmese.

My first question was very simple: In your opinion, what are the objectives of the child center?

I knew we weren’t going to get very far. When I was ten, I don’t think I knew the word “objective.” Oay and the kid discussed it for awhile, then he translated it into Burmese. There was only confusion on the other side.

I tried again, trying to use simpler language. What are the problems that the child center tries to help with?

The question was passed down the line like a bucket of water down a row of firefighters, a little bit of meaning sloshing out with each new person handling it.

A light bulb seemed to go off on Yi’s side, and she sent her reply back down the line.

“She says…” Oay began. “Sometimes kids fight, and the teachers try to talk to them, teach them not to fight, or they talk to the parents to try to help the problem.

“I think maybe she didn’t understand the question,” Oay added.

No kidding. Our Thai-to-Burmese interpreter is a 10-year-old.

Oay picked up her phone. “I call someone else to come translate.” A grown-up, I hope.

While we waited, I tried to ask the question again, simplifying even more. How does the child center help the kids?

“We teach the kids how to brush their teeth, how to eat, to clean themselves,” came the answer.

A little closer, but not quite the big picture response I was looking for. To provide free day care services and teach basic language and life skills to children of Burmese migrant workers in the Krok Krak Nai community. That sort of thing.

Man, three days into this project and I could already invent objectives without interviewing the teachers, and be right. But that wouldn’t be a systematic or scientific approach, would it?

The new interpreter, a grownup, arrived and the poor kid was excused. We fared a little better, but the question about objectives just wasn’t surviving the gauntlet of translation.

It made me think of some of my professors who go into complex emergency situations in Africa or Eastern Europe and do rapid assessments. They interview people who not only speak a different language, but people who in many cases have just run for their lives, are sick and hungry, and have lost homes, livelihoods and family members.

And I was sitting barefoot on the floor of an air-conditioned office, ants zipping circles around me, feeling extremely awkward and reflecting on the absurdity of my situation, which was not so bad compared to what it could have been.

Again I'm struck by how silly it is that my organization agreed to take on an intern who doesn’t speak Thai. I’m sure they know something I don’t. They have a steady stream of foreign interns who don’t speak Thai. There must be a secret to this somewhere.

I’ve discovered the ancient Thai secret to eating – buy more than one meal. I see people at the market carrying at least five bags stuffed full of food. It’s possible that they’re feeding their whole family, but still, there’s no way that people can survive on the tiny portions that they serve here. I think most people snack throughout the day, but my variation is just to eat two servings at every meal.

There’s a reason my tribal name in Kenya meant “the girl who is always hungry.” Gobble gobble.

The Mundane Monday

Back to work today after a long holiday weekend that included a successful excursion to Khao Yai National Park and an impromptu visit to Ayutthaya, one of the many former capitals of the kingdom that was burnt down by roving Burmese armies.

I really hate when people experience something like a sunset or a national park and instead of appreciating it at face value, write it off by saying, “Whatever. Such-and-such place had a better one.” But, I’m going to do it anyway.

Khao Yai is quite nice. But the Masai Mara had tons more animals.

Of course the two parks weren’t designed for comparison. Khao Yai is more about monkeys, birds, vibrant teal-colored scorpions, and a handful of elephants. Nevertheless, jungle foliage and leeches seem to be a good deterrent for crowds of shopping, eating people, and that was what I needed.

The leeches in Khao Yai were tiny. Borneo had bigger, thirstier ones.

Ayutthaya is popular on the tourist route because of its historical significance as well as its easy access from Bangkok, but one of the most notable landmarks in the town, in my opinion, is a rather unremarkable bridge with a very remarkable name: Pridi Damrong.

See photos in the sidebar there, including the Pridi Damrong bridge -->.

Language is a gateway to so many things that I’ve always taken for granted. I went to the night market to get dinner last night, and even though it was nice to walk among the light Sunday night crowd listening to the night market sounds, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying. It’s weird blending in and knowing that everyone sees you and assumes you’re the same as them, but feeling completely different, and alone.

I haven’t seen another foreigner in town, except the one woman who was waiting for a minivan to Bangkok. Good call, lady.

Actually, that’s not true. I met this Indian dude who lives in my building. He’s the guy I call the Dude on the Internet, because he’s permanently attached to the computer in the lobby, always checking his email. He was there the afternoon I moved in, he’s there most evenings, and he was there yesterday when I went to drop off my laundry. And of course he was there two hours later, when I went to pick it up. This time, though, he stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he said. Do I hear English? “Were you at Victory Monument this afternoon?”

Why, yes I was. I had a deceptively simple task there: to transfer minivans. I was coming from Ayutthaya and trying to get on a van back to Mahachai.

It turned out that somewhere in the big mess of people at Victory Monument, I walked past the Dude on the Internet, and he recognized me but couldn’t place my face right away. What a very bizarre coincidence. That place was a total madhouse yesterday. I suppose that’s a dumb thing to say. It’s a total madhouse everyday. In fact, most places in Bangkok are a crowded disaster, especially if they’re designed for shopping or eating. And everything in Bangkok is designed for shopping or eating.

Bangkok, like New York, has too many people. In fact, Bangkok has even more people than the five boroughs: 9 million here, compared to 8 million in New York. That is about 7.25 million too many people.

Anyway, I’m not sure if all the stands are set up at Victory Monument everyday, on Sunday afternoons hundreds of stands selling clothes, watches, jewelry, makeup, bags, food, food and food pop up all around the Monument.

It turns out that the guy, my neighbor and new English-speaking friend, has been living in Thailand for three years, working for an American seafood company. He started out in India but was transferred here. I was curious to know what exactly he does for his company, since my organization works with the migrant laborers that these companies hire in droves. His card says "quality assurance." Is that IT-related or shrimp-related?

As I was checking out of my hotel in Ayutthaya yesterday morning, I started chatting with another guest at the reception desk, also an Indian dude. He was also heading for Bangkok, but was going to have breakfast before boarding his minivan. I said, oh, okay, well good luck finding the minivan station, I’m headed there now. And I left, grateful for the only 35 mph English conversation I’d had in 24 hours.

In Bangkok a couple hours later, after circling Victory Monument at least twice on foot with a heavy backpack and no more bottled water, I finally found my minivan station. I stopped at one of those fruit carts that always look like a gift from God on a hot day. The fruit was flying off the vendor’s stand, everyone was so hot and thirsty. I stood and waited for the fruit man to slice a new watermelon, and noticed the guy from Ayutthaya standing next to me, also waiting for fruit.

I don’t know how to capture exactly how random it is to run into someone at Victory Monument. This place is massive and chaotic, and people bustle around like ants. Not a small, orderly place. I wonder what the probability is of crossing paths there with two people I know on the same day, especially given that I know about four people in the entire country.

Lunch was a little embarrassing today. I ordered rice with duck, and the portion was so small that I was still hungry after licking my plate clean. Oay encouraged me to order a second meal, and offered to wait for me to eat. No one else was having seconds, even though they had all each eaten only a tiny bowl of noodle soup. But if I didn’t eat something else, I knew I’d still be hungry. So that’s me, Two-Lunch Justina. No one made fun of me or even seemed to think it was odd that I ate twice as much as they did. But then again, no one’s English is good enough to say, “Wow, fat lady, you sure can pack it away.”

I usually try to learn one or two new Thai phrases a day, so I asked Oay how to say “rice with duck.” I probably should have asked her how to say, “two orders of rice with duck.”

There was a hair salon in the shopping center where we were eating called “Porn Saloon.” First, why is it that so many countries refer to hair salons as saloons?

I asked Oay what “Porn” meant in Thai, because I see it a lot. She said it’s just a name, and doesn’t mean anything in particular, which is no fun. I wonder if there was actually someone named Pridi Damrong?

“Hi, my name is Pridi. Pridi Damrong.”

“Yes, you are, in my opinion.”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Tones

Greenleaf Guesthouse and Tours, Pak Chong. So I managed to find my way here, which was an unexpectedly arduous feat. This may seem obvious, but EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY IS WRITTEN IN THAI.

The northern bus terminal in Bangkok is massive, with several floors of ticket windows going to all northerly corners of the country. There were about three windows with destinations written in English, and luckily Pak Chong was one of them, presumably because foreign tourists like me travel there to get to Khao Yai National Park.

The bus to Pak Chong was standing room only. It was the Thai version of the Latin American chicken buses or the rattletrap Kenyan matatu-buses, which means it had a little rotating fan buzzing from the ceiling, passengers with all sorts of food in their laps, and ticket takers in tight uniforms droning in Thai. I got stuck sitting on the stairs, which wasn't so bad because I got to sit down, especially after I discovered that my Lonely Planet guide put just enough distance between my butt and the scalding metal steps.

For some reason I assumed that if Pak Chong was written in English at the bus terminal, then it would be written in English somewhere in the actual town. So I didn't bother to ask where we were when we pulled into a town and some people got off the bus. After all, there was no sign anywhere that said, “Pak Chong.”

An hour later I looked at my watch and realized that I was three hours into a 1.5 hour bus ride. I tapped the guy next to me.

"Where is Pak Chong?" I said in Thai.

Blank stare. Thai is a tonal language so if you use the wrong tone people don't know what you're talking about.

"PAK Chong," I said, trying a different variation on the tones. "PAK CHONG?"

More blank stares.

"Bok Jong?" I said. "BOK Jong? Bok CHONG. Bak JONG. BAK Chong."

"Buck CHONG?" he said, his face lighting up. "Buck CHONG! Buck CHONG!"

I nodded vigorously.

"Buck CHONG!" he said, pointing behind the bus. "Pass already."

My standing-room-only neighbor started discussing my predicament with three other men, and after every head had managed to turn and stare at the idiot foreigner cleverly disguised as a Thai lady, they decided that I needed to stay on the bus until the next stop on the route, a city called Khorat (in Thai, goh-LAHD, if you ever want to find out if you’ve passed Buck CHONG). There I could catch a bus going back to Pak Chong.

Well, Khorat was another hour away. By the time I got there, found the right bus with the help of my kind and generous new friend, and took it back to Pak Chong, my 2-hour trip from Bangkok had become a 7-hour trip into the heart of Northeastern Thailand.

I think trying to get around in a country and culture and language I don't understand makes me realize how well I knew Kenya, and how comfortable I was getting around after living there for so long. It was really helpful to know Swahili, but I also knew how everything worked, and I could predict how people were going to behave. And because of that I knew how to navigate my environment to get what I needed. If I wanted to wash my underwear? Ask for a basin. If I wanted a hot bath? Ask the guide to boil water. The matatu tout will always remember to tell you where to alight if you ask him to. As much as Kenya infuriated me, it was very familiar place and I'd never be lost there.

So, thumbs down on the people’s bus in Thailand. Yesterday evening I took a minivan into Bangkok with Dr. Khin, who makes the 1-hour commute to Mahachai everyday. Thumbs up on minivans. They are new, clean, air-conditioned, and only one person is allowed to sit in each seat. The entire vehicle still has all its original parts from the factory, instead of being a Frankenstein vehicle created by welding together the remains of four or five different dead cars harvested from accidents that happened 20 years ago in more developed countries. There are no rattling windows, no missing rearview mirrors, no touts hanging out the window trying to recruit more people to stuff inside, no passengers with teargas-grade body odor reading your book over your shoulder and holding your wrist to stop you from turning the page because they’re not done yet, no drivers falling asleep at the wheel, no rusty door sliding off its rails and clunking onto the ground while unemployed men on the street leap from their drunken stupor and run over to try to force it back into place.

Minivans here are a lovely ride. Still, my other car is a matatu.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Recovery

I’m feeling a lot better today. At Dr. Khin’s suggestion I took a second day off from work. My coworkers have been great. Dr. Khin and Noreen just stopped by again, and of course the good doctor came with food--a brilliant four-part loaf of bread, to be exact. Each part has something different embedded inside. It goes, prosciutto (or its Thai equivalent), pork sung, hot dog, and raisins. It’s such genius, especially the hot dog. I love being in such a food-obsessed country.

Earlier this morning Jaep and Ahn stopped by. I was still wearing my glasses and padding around in sleepwear - wee boxer shorts and a shrunken t-shirt. I still don't know what's considered modest here, but they were polite enough not to stare or seem bothered. They didn’t stay long though. Maybe the shorts were like, “Go away! Go away!”

Dr. Khin is fond of asking about my poo. The first thing she said when I opened the door today was, “So how many times did you have diarrhea today?” And this morning she called to ask if it was watery or solid.

Other than that, I’m planning an excursion to Khao Yai National Park for the four-day Big Buddha weekend that starts tomorrow. Fortunately there are more public restrooms in Thailand than in New York City.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Sick Day

I felt a lot better yesterday morning so I went into the office. Oay took me to see the drop-in center at Tha Chalom, a neighborhood a 30-second ferry ride across the river from the market. The site also houses a child center, so I wanted to see what they do as well.

Noreen is a Burmese nurse who manages the drop-in center at Tha Chalom and sees clients seeking basic health care. We chatted a little about the child centers, since my primary project is to compile a report to donors and partners about them. I found it more interesting to ask Noreen about Burma, though, and I have a feeling I’ll be collecting bits and pieces of people’s personal stories throughout my time here. For a country whose government restricts contact with the outside world with such a heavy hand, there’s a lot of information that gets out. For that matter, there are a lot of Burmese people that get out – millions in Thailand alone.

After a couple hours of trying to have a coherent conversation in a hot room with a fan blowing on me, I was starting to feel a little feverish again. Noreen laid a thin comforter and pillow on the ground and told me to take a nap.

I decided that being instructed to take a nap at work yesterday was reason enough to stay home today and try to get a little better.

Dr. Khin visited me this afternoon and came bearing ORS and fish. I really think the Asian obsession with food is a bit much; she asked me literally six times if I had food to eat. I told her, each time, that I had some rice and some vegetables - and now some fish. She also asked me all about my diarrhea, which was sweet. I like talking about my poo.

It was really a day of trying to get better. I laid in bed, then on the couch, then on my bed, checked some email, turned the AC on and off, turned the fan on and off.

I finally ventured out to the night market around 6:30. I must have been really thirsty because all I wanted was fruit or juice. I got three trays of pre-sliced fruit – some papaya, pomelo and mango, the last of which may not be great for a funky tummy, but it looked pretty tasty. When I got home, I could only eat a bit of papaya and a slice of pomelo. The idea of fragrant rice and fish just didn’t appeal to me.

Oay came by to see how I was doing, and said she was a little worried about me. While she was here, the HR director in Bangkok called me to make sure I was feeling better. I have to say that everyone has been so wonderful with making sure I’m okay. It’s nice that there’s a doctor and several nurses in my organization. I definitely feel like I’m well looked after here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Barfies

My coworkers Ahn, Oay, Muu and Arom were kind enough to plan a day of sightseeing for me, with a stop at a human rights workshop that Raks Thai was hosting for migrants at a wat (temple) in Mae Khlong, aka Samut Songkhram, the next province over from Mahachai.

We got a late start on our trip to the floating markets at Damnoen Sanduak, which is in Mae Khlong. Guide books recommend getting there as early as 6am to avoid the masses of tourists, but we didn’t arrive until nearly noon. By that time there were more tourists than fruit vendors on the river, and they were stuck in a floating gridlock because there was no room for the scores of boats to pass each other in the narrow waterway. My recommendation: heed the guide book, get there early.

We had lunch at the Raks Thai office in Mae Khlong. Muu and some of the Mae Khlong staff ordered an elaborate meal including tom yum soup, som tum (green papaya salad), and fried rice with eggs. They spread newspapers on the floor of the office and we sat around it picnic style and barefoot.

I’m sure the food was delicious, but my stomach was starting to get angry with me about breakfast.

“I didn’t like those eggs you ate this morning,” it said.

“Justina,” Oay said, pointing to my food. “Delicious?”

“Yes,” I said.

Muu looked at my half-empty plate, then at her own, licked clean. “If delicious, you plate like this,” she said.

“It’s delicious, really,” I said. “But stomach feel bad. I think eat bad eggs for breakfast.” I’ve started to speak in simple English to get fewer non-comprehending stares.

Sure enough, two hours later, as we were parked in town and waiting for Oay to run some errands, the eggs staged an uprising and evacuated themselves onto a small plot of grass in front of someone’s shop.

Muu had followed me out of the car and was murmuring and patting me on the back. “Okay,” she said, handing me a tissue. “Feel better?”

Everyone was so great. Oay came back with some medicine and put me back in the car, directing Ahn to take me to his house. I was still dizzy and faint so I barely remember walking through a small jungle with wooden planks spanning across a marsh to get to his house.

Ahn’s mom padded out to greet us as Oay and Muu helped me through the house. No one had said anything about Ahn living in a wooden stilt house on the river, a common style of housing in this area. It was a small and simple wood structure, but picturesque and breezy.

We walked through the house to the back porch, which looked out across the river. Their boat was docked at the foot of the porch. Ahn’s mom laid a blanket and pillow on the floor and everyone encouraged me to sleep. No problem. I was on my back and snoring 30 seconds later.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Oddball Photos, Volume 1

Branding That Wouldn't Fly In the US. Darlie Toothpaste, originally made by a Taiwanese (some sources say Hong Kong) company that was bought by Colgate in the mid 1980s. At the time, the toothpaste was called "Darkie," and today the Chinese name still translates as "Black Man Toothpaste."

This brand was also popular and widely available in Kenya.

I bought this mop at Tesco and didn't notice the branding until I got home. And nothing says "Black Man" better than stereotypical Chinese fortune cookie lettering.

Too Much Exoskeleton. I went to the market here in Mahachai to buy shrimp, and this being one of the biggest seafood markets in the country, I was presented with about 15 different kinds of fresh shrimp to choose from. There were several different species, further separated into various price tiers based on size and, I'm guessing, freshness. There was one stand selling live shrimp out of basins being pumped with a constant supply of water. The shrimp were moving around, blowing bubbles and looking pissed off about being there. These guys were the most expensive - 180 baht per kilo.

I usually buy the greyish shrimp that we're used to seeing in the States. Today I saw some big blue shrimp with long claws. What ARE those things??? There was only one way to find out. The verdict: Stick with the familiar shrimp, unless you like eating the head. The claws were a lot of work for tiny morsels of meat.

(below) Blue shrimp with long claws from the market lined up on my counter for inspection.

The Market

I don’t know what they were thinking at the pillow factory. Maybe they get paid according to how much polyester fill they can stuff into a single pillowcase. The pillows I bought at Tesco are like tall bricks, and last night my body finally rebelled.

Lying in bed this morning in a half-conscious stupor, I decided that I would cut open my pillows and remove some of the stuffing. An hour later, I had two somewhat flatter, softer pillows, and a new third “bolster” pillow that I made out of the extra stuffing.

Bed-in-a-bag sets in Thailand come with a comforter, fitted sheet, two pillowcases, and two bolster pillowcases – long, cylindrical log-shaped pillows. That’s right, no flat sheet, but two bolster pillowcases for I’m not sure what. Maybe people use them as body pillows, which sounds like bad back alignment waiting to happen. But I’m no chiropractor.

Today I decided to explore my neighborhood on foot, and apply some of the community mapping skills I learned in Peace Corps, which basically involves wandering around looking for landmarks in English so I can find my way home.

I set out for the market around noon, the perfect time of day for idiots who want to get heat stroke. My apartment is in a pretty central location. There’s a night market down the street that pops up around 5 pm everyday to feed hungry workers pouring out of their office buildings.

This morning, a Saturday, the street was lined with tarp-shaded stands full of clothes, random knick-knacks, plants, and cages full of rabbits, parakeets, gerbils, kittens and puppies for sale. As pets.

As pets.

I wandered further without purchasing anything live, and ended up at the park where Ahn took me yesterday. I had mentioned to Jaeb that I wanted to go running, so she stuck me on the back of Ahn’s motorbike after work yesterday and told him to take me to the park, where he was meeting some friends for sepak takraw, a popular game in Thailand that appears to be a combination of volleyball, soccer, and hackeysack using a loosely woven rattan ball.

<-- A sepak takraw player kicks the ball so fast that you can't see the ball. (Lumphini Park, Bangkok.)

The park here in Mahachai is a tiny spot of paved sidewalks, stray cats and manicured bushes that wind for a solid one-eighth of a mile next to a temple that seemed to be broadcasting a monk chanting over loudspeakers. Though ridiculously small, the park seems to be a popular place for runners, perhaps because it’s the only place in town that isn’t lined with shops, highways or factories.

Yesterday afternoon the air was thick, hot and still, and 15 minutes of heaving my feet one in front of the other was plenty. Half of my water content was now on the sidewalk. Amazingly, there were at least fifty women gathered around a small gazebo for a vigorous aerobics class set to loud techno, which was competing with the chanting from the temple.

My co-workers have been advising me to take motorcycle taxis everywhere, but there are a lot of places that are really accessible on foot. I don’t get the sense that people walk a lot in this city. I guess it makes sense – it’s hot as hell. Today I discovered that both the market and the temple are less than a ten minute walk from my house.

Right next to the park is a long pier where you can catch a commuter boat across the river. For 3 baht per crossing, it runs day and night ferrying migrant workers who work odd hours. You can even take your motorbike on the boat.

The river appears to become a port at this point. There are fishing boats docked all along the water’s edge, appearing to be in varying degrees of working order. The river also has tons of water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant that tolerates pollution really well and is known to wreak havoc on the water’s ecosystem, killing off fish, breeding mosquitos and water-borne parasites, and blocking sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants. As if the unfortunate smell and garbage floating on the surface weren’t enough.

I wandered away from the pier and into the market. It’s really quite amazing. There is so much fresh seafood – shrimp, squid, fish, eel, crabs of all sizes, lobster. And if the fresh version is too perishable for your taste, just walk a little further to find stand after stand selling the dried version. I came to the market armed with a very important phrase: thao rai. How much? Next time, I’ll also plan to be armed with its counterpart: numbers.

I wonder if most of the mamas selling seafood at the market are Burmese or Thai. I am so thrilled at the prospect of being able to get anything I could possibly want right here in my town. Need a pet turtle? Need a turtle for soup? Need a washing machine? It’s all here. I mean, except cheese and quality chocolate. I still haven’t found a supermarket nearby, only the Tesco that’s a bit of a drive from my place. I’m starting to miss bread.

People are generally pretty nice about my not knowing any Thai, despite the initial confusion. There are always some blank stares, some giggling and embarrassment, but always an attempt to help out the weird Chinese lady.

I know that my sense of urgency about needing to learn the language to avoid awkwardness is a bit unnecessary. Lots of expats live here and never bother to learn Thai. They’ve learned to manage the language gap. My brother’s high school friend, a Taiwanese American, has lived in Hong Kong for eight years and still doesn’t know Cantonese. If he’s shrugged off the constant assumptions about what language he should be speaking for this long, I’ll survive a few months while I learn some basic Thai.

The other night, over dinner with Francisco, I was marveling about the TV screens all over the Bangkok SkyTrain stations and on the train cars.

Francisco said, “Those things wouldn’t last five minutes on a subway car in New York.”

I said, “I wonder why people are so respectful of property here that they wouldn’t think to steal a TV screen.”

He said, “The question we should be asking is why people in New York aren’t respectful that they would think to steal one.”

And then we laughed at how ridiculous we are as Americans.