Given how often I go full-fledged nerd and gush over her work, some of you may know that Margaret Atwood is my favorite writer. The Times (London) said, “Atwood has the magic of turning the particular and the parochial into the universal,” and this is what I’ve always admired. In simple language with shocking content, yet maintaining subtlety, her writing attempts to decipher ways of thinking, encouraging important questions in the reader’s mind.
“I could perhaps like others have astonished you with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style; because my principle design was to inform you, and not to amuse you.”
-Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
During our weekend trip to Pai, I came upon a second-hand bookstore where I picked up a copy of The Tent, a collection of Atwood’s smart and entertaining fictional essays and poems. At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading separate short stories, but I’m lucky Jenn convinced me, as frugal as I am, to give it a try – I haven’t wanted to put it down, and apparently it’s inspired my writing. Here’s a collection of short stories from our little town of Lomkao.
Our very pregnant stray cat who adopted Jenn and I, Murphy, has officially had her very precious kittens! There’s three healthy hamsters crawling all over their mama in a cozy little make-shift nursery Jenn put together by recycling a tub that Pee Som used for Khao Noi’s food.
The greyish black angel is called Geppetto after the puppeteer in Pinocchio, one of Jenn’s favorite character names. On the first day after he was born, his face was like a raisin – but the cutest raisin you’ve ever seen, all scrunched together in contentment. “Now that’s a Geppetto face if I’ve ever seen one.”
Clementine is all white with a black tail, named after Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As unique as she is in color, she’s also the only female kitten. A rarity makes a perfect Clem.
You’ve met the vanilla and you’ve met the chocolate – now meet our swirl, Hobbes. We’re all Calvin and Hobbes fans, and the name seems to fit him despite his cow-like black and white appearance.
The plan was never to take Murphy in as a pet. We didn’t want the responsibility – mostly because we will be leaving next year. Who will continue to take care of Murphy once we’re gone? But, to add a little cliche to your day, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, right?
After meeting the kittens, Pee Som stood outside the Banana Cabana, pointing at our enclosed patio area, remembering, “This is where Butter used to stay. We brought her here when the Princess came to the school because we had to hide the dogs – the Princess doesn’t like dogs. And then Butter got sick and she stayed here until she passed.”
John had told us once before that Khao Noi also used to have baths in our shower. “Wow,” Jenn reflected, “This house has quite a history.”
“This is the angel house,” said Pee Som. “Khao Jai Mai Ka? (Do you understand me?)” she asked with her eyes peering into mine. “Only angels live here. You two have very different hearts. Very big hearts.”
Love Without Language
In the office at LKP, I’m called the Package Princess. I’m so incredibly grateful for the support I continue to receive. I have loved ones who pour love toward me, lift me up in smiles and notes and cards and phone calls and care packages. I am truly so blessed.
I received a thoughtful package from a dear friend of mine, Kay, with a belated birthday gift including two beautiful blouses. I tried the tops on for Jenn, disappointed to find that they didn’t fit. I saw a light flicker on in Jenn’s mind and she said decidedly, “I know exactly who would look perfect in those.”
Nom Mattayhom, the restaurant across from LKP owned by Ben and her family, has become much more than a restaurant to John, Jenn and I. And yet, no one in Ben’s family speaks any English, Ben included. Ben’s husband, Bang, and her mom, Jimwae, all work at the restaurant, accompanied by Ben and Bang’s son, Butter, who delights the customers with how cute he is. A summer-long accomplishment was getting the very-shy Butter to high-five me.
The more often we regularly ate at Ben’s restaurant, the more Jimwae started treating us as her own grand children – bringing random snacks and left over dishes to our table, handing us a bag of fruit to take home with us for breakfast the next day, pouring us a Leo beer to share with her over a language-less connection.
One Friday night, we motorbiked to 7/11 (where else?), picked up a 24-pack of Leos and headed over to Nom Mattayhom. I wrapped the tops in tissue paper and wrote “วันแม่มีความสุข” on the package: “Happy Belated Mother’s Day.” Thailand’s Mother’s Day, August 12, was the weekend beforehand, when we had been in Pai.
We offered the family beers and stayed until close hanging out with them, making the most of hand gestures, photos, Google Translate – anything that worked. The laughter wasn’t at all dependent on the success of the translation, and neither was the love.
I went for a breakfast smoothie that weekend and found Ben grinning ear to ear in a perfectly polka-dotted blouse, pointing as if to say, “Look what I’m wearing!”
Drinking Chang with Changsen
I frequently consider how grateful I am that we were placed in a smaller town rather than a big city like Bangkok. Lom Kao, which I recently found out translates to “Old Town,” presented challenges at first and was quite an adjustment for us. But after visiting our OEG teacher friend, Andrew, in Bangkok this past weekend, we’re reminded of the close relationships we have been able to establish in our little town compared to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. We had a lot of fun in Bangkok, eating vegan food, visiting the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – Wat Pho, and spending a night on the infamous Khao San Road, but returning from the overcrowded city was a breath of fresh air.
One of the closest friends we have made in Lomkao is Changsen, the former graduate of LKP who was training us in Thai boxing. Changsen is a university student in Chiang Rai and was only home in Lomkao for the summer.
Changsen’s mother, a single mom, owns a restaurant in addition to owning an insurance company – people here work very hard to make a living. We hung out with Changsen often at his mother’s restaurant (which doubles as their home, as most restaurants in Thailand) but we were fortunate enough to really celebrate with Changsen on two occasions.
For Changsen’s 21st birthday, one of our Chinese teachers, Yuming, joined John, Jenn and I at their restaurant, Kia Tong. Pete also joined, one of Changsen’s close friends who also works out with us. Pete speaks much better English than Changsen, so he really helps the group communicate by translating for Changsen as much as possible.
We brought a cake from a bakery in Lomkao that read in icing, “Happy birthday, Changsen!” I made him a card to have everyone sign that was cool enough to end up in the family’s China cabinet (I was very proud of this accomplishment, of course. You all know how much I love cards).
Changsen returned to university last weekend, about 12 hours away by bus. On the Saturday before he left, we got the group together for one last grand shebang (After all, John leaves the first week of October, which is creeping up quickly).
We got to entertain Pete and Changsen to their first ever game of beer pong and the Ring of Fire card game. Do you remember me mentioning how huge social media is here? Of course, Yuming had photos of the celebration on Facebook in no time. Yuming posted a fantastic shot of the four of us playing beer pong, clearly having a great time with friends. I had just made a cup when she took the shot, so everyone’s reactions are priceless. In America, you might be worried about your coworkers seeing photos of such an event.
Can you guess the reaction here? One of my two coteachers, Pee Nit – the older, more reserved and sweet coordinator – approached me on Monday, “What was that game you were playing with Changsen’s family? It looked like so much fun!”
Though I am taking a break from Thai boxing, I know the rest of the gang will really miss Changsen at the boxing ring. Luckily, Pete commutes to school in Phetchabun, so he will still occasionally exercise with the group. And as much as we will miss Changsen, Jenn and I have yet to explore Chiang Rai… but now we know where to stay when we do.
There’s always a positive: Thai boxing wasn’t for me, so instead I’m focusing on deepening my yoga practice and I’m loving every minute of it.
More than Teachers
I’ve talked a lot about the school system here – how different it is structurally, how much more relaxed it generally is, but what I haven’t described is how different the relationships are between student and teacher. When Jenn and I took our teaching certification courses to prepare, we were told of how schools within Asian culture can discourage any physical touch between teacher and student. As a “hugger” myself, I expected the relationships to be impersonal, but what I found instead was a pleasant surprise.
Teachers are much more open with their students here compared to my experiences within American schools. Between teachers and students in America, social media contact is discouraged, conversation about private lives is frowned upon. It’s funny, because I do remember hugging several of my high school teachers and counselors, but in many other ways, the culture I thought would be more impersonal than America is starting to expose America’s true lack of healthy relationships.
Teachers in our office treat students like their own children; they act as family members, encouraging and helping students in every way they can, including support in personal matters. Students and teachers genuinely care for each other. Many mornings a week, while getting ready for first period, groups of students will come in with baskets of fruit and other foods for the teachers.
I discovered that in one of my classes I actually have a vegetarian student. She has now cooked two meals for me, walking into my class with a fully cooked meal she cooked by herself, and casually handing it to me, “Teacher Sam, I cooked this for you!”
Jenn’s students all say, “I love you!” before she leaves the classroom. I have a student who runs up to me and hugs me with all her might whenever and wherever I see her.
Every Friday, I walk into my mattayhom 5.2 and 5.5 classrooms to hear a 45-person chorus of, “Happy Friday!!!”
One of my students ends our class by playing guitar for everyone.
Pee Som spent her Thursday afternoon last week teaching a group of students how to bake a cake – baking it with them just because they wanted to.
The contrast to the American educational role model of developing healthy relationships with superiors is disheartening, but I am inspired by my students every day. They teach me compassion, acceptance, patience.
One day, John told us a story about a former foreign english teacher at LKP named Dane. Dane had a student come to his house one day asking for money. The student wasn’t able to tell Dane why he needed it, but he seemed like he may have been in trouble.
A couple of weeks ago, Jenn received a message from one of her mattayhom 6 students (a high school senior in the US) who told Jenn that he needed her help.
Asking for financial help in Thailand can be considered very shameful and embarrassing, and it was clear the student was very nervous to talk to Jenn, but that he did not know where else to turn. His English is not the best, but in some words he told Jenn that his mother accidentally broke his friend’s phone and that they could not afford to fix it. He asked Jenn for one thousand baht.
“The thing is, I get paid a higher salary as a foreign teacher than the majority of people living here. If I can consistently afford to buy indulgences like ice cream and coffee, and if I can afford to travel as much as I am, why can I not afford to give a fraction of my salary to a student who needs help?”
I think it’s rubbing off on Jenn, too. She seems pretty inspired to me.