Ban Sokkam (Photo Version)

Because a picture can speak a thousand words, I’m going to post only the pictures I took will in rural Thailand, plus brief descriptors when necessary.

This small shop is basically the 7-Eleven of the small town. It was conveniently located practically across the street from Yai-Loh's house.
This small shop is basically the 7-Eleven of the small town. It was conveniently located practically across the street from Yai-Loh’s house.
Puppies and their mother.
Puppies and their mother.
Thai buffalo.
Thai buffalo.
Yai-Loh sold these bananas at the local market that day. She was proud of how big they were.
Yai-Loh sold these bananas at the local market that day. She was proud of how big they were.
A panorama of Yai-Loh and Thadom's farm.
A panorama of Yai-Loh and Thadom’s farm.
Puppies, their mother, and a cat. Cats and dogs are plentiful and breed often on these farms.
Puppies, their mother, and a cat. Cats and dogs are plentiful and breed often on these farms.
Banana tree.
Banana tree.
This scaffolding is used to shade the vegetable garden.
This scaffolding is used to shade the vegetable garden.
"We drive the solitary road that winds through the rural plains along the Bung Khong Lung River."
“We drive the solitary road that winds through the rural plains along the Bung Khong Lung River.”
Vegetable garden
Vegetable garden
Rice paddy, surrounded by empty plots fertile for the next planting.
Rice paddy, surrounded by empty plots fertile for the next planting.
A bunch of bananas, still green.
A bunch of bananas, still green.
Junga
Junga
Rubber tree tap.
Rubber tree tap.
Rubber presses. Rubber is worth more when pressed into sheets. Unfortunately the farm doesn't yield enough rubber to process it anymore.
Rubber presses. Rubber is worth more when pressed into sheets. Unfortunately the farm doesn’t yield enough rubber to process it anymore.
Cisterns. Before the days of bottled water, these would collect rainwater to provide drinkable water.
Cisterns. Before the days of bottled water, these would collect rainwater to provide drinkable water.
The wall around the house property.
The wall around the house property.

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Unsure what to do with these old tires from a truck, Yai-Loh's husband, Thadom, chose to "store" them here.
Unsure what to do with these old tires from a truck, Yai-Loh’s husband, Thadom, chose to “store” them here.
A beehive. Yai-Loh will harvest honey from the hive.
A beehive. Yai-Loh will harvest honey from the hive.
The front of the house and the "veranda."
The front of the house and the “veranda.”

Here’s a nice video of our drive through the village.

As a bonus clip, for those of you with culinary interests, here’s how you properly shed papaya for Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam):

Ban Sokkam

We’ve just finished breakfast, and I am left alone on the breakfast mat outside to soak in my surroundings. I close my eyes. The shrill of electric saws slicing through timber resemble infants crying for milk. Low rumbles of distant engines occasionally pitch upwards as motorbikes and trucks pass by the house. Countless birds in treetop ensembles tweet harmoniously in the nearby rubber tree grove. Splashing and clattering can be heard as the neighbors clean, while chattering in Isaan over the steady clucking of chickens and crowing of roosters. Dogs bark and whimper. Leaves rustle in the breeze. The peace of this place amplifies the quietest sound.

I sniff. Clay, mud, dust, dirt. Wood smoke. Animal musk and dung. The sweetness of barbecues and boiling coconut milk. And faint herbal smells. These combine with the bittersweet aftertaste of Thai iced coffee on my tongue, and the dull dryness of my upper palette, dusted by the roadway.

I can feel the chill of the breeze, accompanied by the cool of the shade, and contrasted by the heat of the sun. My throat and feet feel dry, and I can feel the earth’s dryness scrape against my soles. But the grass and leaves are damp, slowly drying in the morning sun. The ground feels ruggedly soft, compared to the smooth, cold, hard tiled floor inside the house. A stickiness still lingers on my fingers and teeth from the rice consumed at breakfast. Most of all, I feel, smell, and taste the cleanest air I’ve ever known—rich and good—unadulterated by pollution or noise.

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“Around the top of the wall, broken glass protrudes upwards, warding off intruders.”

I wander the house and its surrounding grounds.This house, like it’s surrounding village, is seeped in rustic modernity—the organic growth of steel, copper, concrete, and cement, from the clay, mud, rocks, and grass. A plot of red earth compounded within walls forged from poured cement and cinder blocks and mortar. The entrance is guarded by a painted iron gate that slides on wheels straddling a monorail track. Around the top of the wall, broken glass protrudes upwards, warding off intruders. Oxidized iron and tin creak in the breeze, shading the driveway from sun and rain.

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On the veranda outside the house, clothing hangs to dry on weathered rope clinging to iron support pillars ornate with make-shift electrical installations, all battered with the rust-red of the clay-dust.

The house is made of old timber, cracked plaster, and tin roofing. Holes in the walls let in obsolete satellite TV cable and precarious electrical wiring. Inside, the electrical wiring dangles and drapes across the ceilings, providing crude lighting and power. Patterned tiles decorate the floor with reflective smoothness. Single panel doors on iron hinges, and locked with sliding bolts, hardly protect the occupants from thieves or vermin. They’re merely a formality.

My girlfriend arrives on her motorbike and I climb on. We drive the solitary road that winds through the rural plains along the Bung Khong Lung River.

"We drive the solitary road that winds through the rural plains along the Bung Khong Lung River."
“We drive the solitary road that winds through the rural plains along the Bung Khong Lung River.”

The road, bordered by wild, ragged vegetation that encroaches upon the order of what little civilization thrives here, provides the vehicular tributary for a village of 200 people. The roadside is like an alluvial plain fertilizing a hearty crop of farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers—mostly farmers. Vast stretches of rubber tree orchards, rice paddies, vegetable patches, and banana tree groves separate brief clusters of dwellings and shops. In the shade of rubber trees, farmers toil near the elevated jungas that keep watch over their land. The next harvest will barely subsist their utilities and fuel.

A soft, unsung song sweetly plucks my chords. A vague hum resonates in my organs as the pull of the planter’s piping caresses my soul. This village and its rural simplicity—its fragile poise between modernity and tradition—between the industrial and the primal—they reverberate an overtone that pulsates to the steady beat of my heart.

It is a symphony that has many movements. The sweet swell of its opener will gradually transform into the off-beat, tentative syncopation of rural toil and hardship. It plays a rhythm uncertain and anxious. It’s a dissonant counterpoint to the tragic melody of urban modernity. The rural beat is a simple grave accelerating to a steady andante—a Phrygian folklore sung by the have-nots of a forgotten fundamental. The rural song hums unheard phrases that both depend upon and provide substance to the leitmotif of mainstream Thai society. And I am the lonely baritone, momentarily duplicating their resounding bass lines, only to rejoin the tenors in the chorus.

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“In the shade of rubber trees, farmers toil near the elevated jungas that keep watch over their land.”

Christmas in Rural Thailand

Today marks the last day of my visit to Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand located near–and sharing an affinity with–Lao DPR. It’s a special day because by now my girlfriend’s family has started to like me, and because it’s the first time they’ve been around someone who gives a damn about Christmas. Like so much of the chocolate we eat on this tinsel-quality holiday of commercial cheer, it’s also bittersweet. Today, I miss my actual family, who as I write this are settling down with eggnog farts and visions of sleigh bells. And today, I’m leaving my newly acquired Thai family to return to the now-monotonous life of teaching in Pattaya.

As I write this, I sit at a picnic table constructed from bamboo shoots, while swatting flies and dogs away from barbecue chicken sitting out for sale to locals. The hollow clunk-clunk-clunk of a mortar and pestle keeps a steady tempo as Yai-Loh–my girlfriend’s mother–makes som tam.

Her shop is a makeshift vending booth, also composed of bamboo with a logged skeleton. Behind it is a raised bamboo platform for Yai-Loh to sit crossed-legged as she bashes away at strips of green papaya, chili peppers, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce, long beans, lime, peanuts, and tomatoes. Occasionally she’s interrupted by customers, chattering in Thai, laughing, and most likely making remarks about the farang guy sitting and writing in his notebook. Except for their periodic appearance, Yai-Loh and I are alone outside. My girlfriend is inside cooking rice. When we’re alone together, we’re usually speechless due to our language barrier. By now, we’re comfortable with that, and use facial expressions and body language to communicate, often joking in a silent but powerful language, and laughing heartily at our jests.

The three of us, my girlfriend, her mother, and me, have had a tiresome 4 days together. We returned late last night from Vientiane, Laos.

Upon returning, I was craving some chocolate. Every Christmas in my memory tastes of chocolate–especially thanks to the Toblerone I receive in my stockings every year. Foreseeing this craving, and feeling the pain of being far from home, away from my family, and away from the holiday atmosphere that customarily annoys me, and knowing that nostalgia and sentimentalism are the languages of the holiday, I bought some chocolate in Udon Thani. And not just any chocolate–a special gift pack of Toblerone in a branded triangular box. And my intention wasn’t selfish. I wanted to share it with my Thai family, and give them a taste of my Christmas nostalgia.

So I came back from a tiresome visa run to Vientiane, to a home (Yai-Loh’s house) away from home (Pattaya) away from home (America), and I thought, I’ll sneak in one piece of chocolate tonight for myself. After all, I bought it, and I always sneak a peak on Christmas Eve.

I found the box next to my pillow–not where I left it under the blanket roll at the foot of the bed before we left for Vientiane. Perhaps someone–other members of the family–had cleaned the room while we were gone and placed the box kindly next to my pillow. I picked up the box and began to search its edges for its sealing tape. Instead of finding tape with that perfect factory seal–no bubbles or folds in the tape, and that transparent color-saturating quality–I found that the tape had small inconsistencies in its re-colorization of the yellow hue of the box, with small air bubbles. Its edges were also raised at the corner. The tape, in other words, had been unstuck and re-stuck. The box had been tampered with.

In a panic I lifted the tape on all three sides and removed the top of the box. In the bottom row, the middle piece of dark chocolate was missing. I checked the package count and recounted the pieces–the total number minus one! Someone had stolen a piece of chocolate–a piece of dark Toblerone chocolate!

I was hurt. Not over the missing chocolate itself–which would have been shared anyway. And not because I’m gluttonously fat either. I was hurt over the lack of respect and bewildered by this obvious breach of the code of hospitality–that someone would steal from a guest in their home. And not just any guest either–a significant other–a tentative extension of the family–a person whose lasting first impression matters more than most. I was hurt also by the lack of gratitude. I had already given so much to this family. I promised my girlfriend I could ignore their dysfunction for the sake of staying with her and enjoying her companionship.

But it wasn’t just the breach of trust, lack of respect, or principle dishonor. I was hurt because that box symbolized my holiday experience. It was home. It was a memory in the making. And someone tampered with it, and tainted it!

So I told my girlfriend. I told her my feelings in so many words, not expecting her or her family to fully understand. She was pissed. “I think my brother,” she said.

This assertion didn’t surprise me. At 18 years, he was rebelliously independent, conniving, and dishonest. My girlfriend warned me not to leave anything valuable when we left for Vientiane, for fear that he might pilfer it. Just as we were both considering the likelihood of his guilt, we heard his voice outside calling for her.

After some harsh Thai shouted back and forth, he stormed off on his motorbike. “He talk bad to me. He say he not eat it,” she said. “But he lying, I think.”

She called her mother, who was down the street in her junga, where he was also headed in a rage. She told her what happened.
Yai-Loh, after seeing her son come in crying, upset by the accusation, explained over the phone that he had been out working the fields all day, then went to play video games at a nearby Internet cafe. He hadn’t been to the house at all.

Samoa, however–my girlfriend’s niece and Yai-Loh’s ward–had cleaned the house that day. She had lately been defying her grandmother’s orders not to bring people over to the house during the day when no one else was home. Despite being a generally well-behaved, sweet 17-year-old girl–studious in school, helpful around the house and junga, and well-mannered, this disobedience and circumstantial happenstance left her looking rather suspicious. Yai-Loh chided her granddaughter amid Samoa’s insistence of her own innocence. My girlfriend remains convinced of her niece’s guilt.

Seeing a witch hunt in action, along with the realization that teenagers will be teenagers, I began to sober from my initial hurt. I assured my girlfriend, who was still conducting the investigation over the phone with her mother, that I would soon forget the offense and we should just let it lie

By Christmas morning–this morning–it had been forgotten. In fact, I had forgotten it was even Christmas. So I woke up thinking nothing of the missing chocolate, nothing of bitterness, or even bittersweetness. I just wanted to enjoy my last hours in this peaceful rural bliss by getting some writing done. I could finish a novel in this tranquility, I thought, as I walked out to the som tam stall with notebook in hand.

As I sit here writing on the bamboo table, listening to Yai-Loh bash her income into being, I begin a simple sketch of a Thai village on Christmas Day conducting business as usual, unaware that in 12 hours my friends and family will stumble sleepily to gather around their Christmas trees.
But while I write, the hollow beating ceases. Plastic rustles and bamboo creaks.

“Brandon,” Yai-Loh says nearly perfectly–I have been teaching her how to say my name all week.
I look up and smile. She hands me a translucent plastic bag containing peanut M&Ms and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. “Mah-lee klee-mah,” she says. She rarely smiles because 60% of her teeth are missing, and this gesture involves no exception.

Confused, I look up at her. ” Klee-mah?

“Uhn!” she mutters, indicating “yes” in casual Thai.

A-rai?” I ask. (“What?”)

Klee-mah, klee-mah! Mah-dee klee-mah!” She smiles, showing her missing teeth.

I take the bag, understanding only that it’s a gift. I write “Klee-mah=chocolate?” in my notebook.
My girlfriend, who has just entered the scene during this exchange, explains that her mom bought the chocolate for me that morning, feeling bad that some of mine had been stolen.

Then it hit me.

Understanding is funny that way. It often arrives late to the party. Yet it holds all the booze necessary to make the party go. So in its absence, everyone sits around waiting, nervously tapping their feet or fingers, smiling anxiously at each other. Then Understanding bursts into the room, gallons of liquor dangling from each arm. Everybody cheers, pats Understanding on the back, and begins pouring their icebreaker over their ice.

I cross out my crude interpretation “klee-mah=chocolate.” I say to Yai-Loh, smiling, “Thank you! Merry Christmas to you, too!”

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Teaser Update

Hey faithful followers,

I’ve put more time between posts than usual, and that upsets me more than it does you, I assure you. This was the last week of school before Christmas holiday (yay for a 2-week vacation for a holiday Thais don’t celebrate!), so I had some things to wrap up (pun intended). I’ll also be making my first trek to rural Thailand this weekend to visit my girlfriend’s family. While there, I also have to apply for a Non-Immigrant B visa (essentially a work visa), which inexplicably involves going to a Thai embassy outside the country. So I’ll be visiting Lao DPR, which will not only be my first real visit to another Southeast Asian country, but also my first visit to a technically Communist country (or at least socialist).

So with all these things going on, here’s what I have planned for this blog in the coming days and weeks:

  • The final installment of my three-part series about Thai music. I’m about halfway through the research, so I hope to finish it soon.
  • A play-by-play of my visit to Lao DPR, and probably a separate post about visas (in case an expat-to-be stumbles upon this blog).
  • At least one post about rural Thailand

I feel it necessary to point out that although some people are probably anticipating a post recounting the first field trip of my career earlier this week, I’m sad to simply report that there’s nothing to report. It was rather uneventful.

Anyway, Happy Holidays everyone. I’ll see you on the other side! (whatever that means)

Mid-Terms

…are nearly over. In fact, they would be over if not for a scheduling conflict that pushed one of my exams to Monday–having no seniority sucks. Anyway, it’s a big deal for me because a) I’m new to this, so writing and setting exams was challenging and frightening, and 2) I really wanted to see empirical evidence that my remedial students are improving.

Summary: I did fine, but my exams were chalked full of issues that I now know to avoid next time. And my students did improve, however incremental.

However, you may question the latter of these when I share some of my students’ more memorable answers on the exams.

The first is a student from my youngest class. He’s in the equivalent of 6th grade. You’ll appreciate his answer better if you’ve seen Disney’s “Big Hero 6.”

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And here’s my final comment in response to his effort:

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Honestly, I applaud his effort. Although unoriginal and blatantly disregarding the instructions, it’s a miracle to get these students to write anything at all. He wrote the most. So kudos to him, and kudos to Disney for giving him inspiration. Just don’t sue him, Disney.

Other students, like the ones in the year above our Disney fan, have a harder time with English, particularly comprehension. But judging the exam below, it may be a simple refusal to try at all. You be the judge:

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His classmate offered a similar, yet more emphatic answer. And I rebutted with more illustrative creativity:

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These are exams of two of the three students in that class. As you can probably surmise, they need a bit of work. But I’m proud to report that they did improve their scores from the last exam. So I feel accomplished…for now. And they should, too.

Moving to Thailand. Step 2: Researching Job Placement

Before the Move

Finding a job at home is frustrating and scary enough. A recovering economy, the charade of making the perfectly eye-catching resume with all it’s impressive jargon, determining whether everyone really insists on 2 years experience, customizing cover letters with that I’m-so-fucking-interested-in-your-amazingly-unique-opportunity flare, and giving the genuine-but-not-too-edgy answers in an interview—all these work together to make for a miserable job search experience. An experience so miserable you almost say, “Fuck it! I’ll flip burgers!” because that dead-end soul-sucking job is an improvement to the grind of finding a new employer whose ass you’ll have to lick just to get in.

Knowing this first-hand, I could only imagine how much more complicated and frustrating looking for a job would be in a foreign country. Add to that the visa situation. I didn’t really want to try to navigate all that paperwork while living on spare change and a tourist visa. So I figured securing a job ahead of time was the safest bet. The new employer would prepare my work permit and Non-Immigrant B visa paperwork for me, and I’d arrive in Thailand smiling at the immigration officer with that I’m-totally-legit confidence.

But the catch was how to find prospective employers that weren’t looking to bend me over and make my ass black and blue. And the Internet is the one place where they prey on the lazy and desperate. Ads nicely adorned with pretty colorful logos and too-good-to-be true opportunity abound. A little digging into these sloughs and I discovered them for the muck they are.

The other option for job-hunting from an ocean away is to use a recruiting agency. Some TEFL programs actually have recruitment as part of their program, but one needs to be flexible to get the most out of these. And for the agencies that don’t offer a TEFL certificate, there are mixed opinions around the Internet. On one hand, agencies guarantee a salary and benefits, furbish a work permit and visa for you, and have access to a variety of jobs.

The downside is that agencies often side with schools, which side with parents, who don’t usually side with teachers. In other words, they don’t understand you, don’t care to understand you, and generally back the whiniest group of humans on the planet—the ones who act entitled because they pushed your students through their useless twats once upon a time. Plus, these agencies are in the business of making money, which generally comes from the schools. They’re not interested in placing quality candidates in respectable schools. They’re only interested in placement…period. Connect the dots and go home rich.

It didn’t take many horror stories for me to decide that placement agencies were not the way to go. So how do I land a job in Thailand? The good ole fashion way. Bring enough savings to sustain a month with no salary, design and print—on paper—a beautiful resume with photo attached, and hit the streets inquiring at every school whether they’re looking for teachers. This is what the Internet community recommended, so it became my plan.

After the Move

So how’d that go, exactly? In hindsight, it was fine. But let me run you through the torrent of the job search in real time. First, there’s the Internet again. Several job postings could be found, some attractive, most of them not so much. The difference between searching for a job in Thailand and searching for a job in Thailand while in Thailand is that your options open up. In-person interviews become feasible, employers have the bolstered confidence that this candidate is in Thailand to stay, and personal touches, like physically dropping off resumes and follow-up phone calls, can be made.

But after two days of hitting every posting online, and panicking at the idea that my tourist visa would expire in only 10 days, I hit the streets. I jumped on a motorbike and drove to every fathomable neighborhood, but not aimlessly. I had acquired a list of reputable schools, and was targeting all of them. Tirelessly, I dressed my best despite the scorching heat and pouring rain, suffered pollution and traffic, and waltzed into each school with a crisp, colorful new resume in hand, along with a personalized cover letter, with wording styled both for a non-English-proficient Thai principal and a stuffy old British fart. Who knows who I’d be coming into contact with?

The results were disappointing at first. By the end of my first week in Pattaya, with a CELTA certificate not even printed yet, I had delivered resumes to 25 schools. Twenty-five fucking schools! Some of them had advertised; some of them had not. The biggest facepalm of the whole experience was getting an email from the president of Maryvit saying he tried to call my the number but it wasn’t working. I checked my resume. I had written my number with one digit wrong! Rookie mistake by a seasoned job hunter.

Most of you know the rest of this story. From a corporate language school pilfering tuition from the richest percent, to a well-respected Thai private school that values quantity over quality, to an English-programme school that can’t manage itself to save itself and cares more for appearances than results. But putting aside the appalling standards of education in Thailand for another post, I can finally celebrate having my “dream” job here in Thailand teaching English and making a difference in young peoples’ lives, to whatever degree of efficacy the powers that be allow me.

Homesick

For the first time since I arrived in the Land of Smiles, I feel homesick. I tried eating a Western Bacon Cheeseburger at Carls Jr to placate the sadness, but then I just felt fat on top of it. So I’m hoping that this post will help me battle the fog encamping me, and hoping typing it will help me burn a few calories, too.

To begin with, I have say I’m a bit surprised at how soon the homesickness hit me. A friend who once lived abroad for many years warned me it was inevitable. I just didn’t expect it within three months of living here. Everything is still so new, and I’m still contemplating everything around me—all the challenges, frustrations, delights, and spectacles that I daily face.

I’ve narrowed it down to several causal factors. First, it’s the holidays back home. Thursday mornings are my toughest mornings at work, featuring an onslaught of one class after another. Two Thursdays ago, I stumbled into the teacher’s room exhausted from the lack of interest exhibited by my Secondary 2B Remedial class, and slumped over my desk to catch my breath. In that moment, I realized it was Thanksgiving that day. It would be the first in 31 years I’ve not celebrated. In fact, I didn’t have a single memorable meal that day. I think I had pork noodles for dinner? I tried Skyping with my family, but the snowstorm-induced power outage in New Hampshire prevented that from happening. That was when the desire for an American meal set in.

And now, annoying renditions of Christmas tunes pipe from the speakers in shopping centres and restaurants. Thailand has a weird relationship with Christmas. As if pandering to the white expat minority, they set up a Christmas tree outside the biggest shopping centre—Central Festival—and decorate their stores with fake snow and Christmas lights. But in essence, Christmas is to Thailand as St Patrick’s Day is to America—an excuse to wear a festive color and get drunk.

Yet despite the half-effort to be festive, despite the K-pop versions of “Jingle Bells,” despite the fact that I’ve usually found Christmas annoying in years past, I actually miss the fucking holiday. I miss the commercialism being shoved down my throat. I miss the transformation of virtually everywhere into the picturesque Christmas Towne, be it Dickensian or Whoville. Most importantly, I miss my family and friends, and mourn the fact that I probably won’t see any of them this year.

The holiday season also explains another cause of my sadness: my friends and family are not as responsive as usual. My blog readership has dropped, my Facebook likes have diminished, and my WhatsApp messages go unanswered for a bit longer. I don’t blame my filiates and affiliates for this. They’re busy and when they have time they do make the effort. And every response sends electric joy through my being. But the lag is a sober reminder that I am not among them, and that my absence is probably less acutely noticed. Moreover, their chats and messages are hardly a substitute for their company, and this is what I miss the most.

In addition, I’m at a stage in my expat experience where everything annoys me. The people here annoy me (except for the friends I’ve made of course), the traffic annoys me, my job annoys me. This or that senseless law annoys me, the weird unexplained customs annoy me, the language annoys me. Motorbike taxis annoy me, Songteaws annoy me, coach buses really annoy me. I hate the pollution, hate the lack of public transportation, and hate the fat old fucks that sit in the beer bars thinking they’re hot shit because they just pulled the buzzer and bought all the girls a shot. Everyone but my girlfriend annoys me, but my constant irritability causes conflict even with her. So being annoyed I pine for familiarity. Suddenly everything I once called “my life” in America makes sense, and, though I don’t regret leaving it behind, I’d be lying to say I don’t miss it.

But this is not to garner pity. I am quite happy. My girlfriend helps keep me sane, and her constant affection and dedication reminds me why I moved here and why I’ll insist on trudging through the annoyances and homesickness to sap everything I can out of this adventure. I just wish I could ship all my friends and family here, along with a few of their social mores, to ease the fog that this beefy-bacon-induced food coma only exacerbates.