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.”