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.