Singing in the Rain

It’s Foreign Languages Day here at The Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai, Thailand–a gathering of five schools to compete in various English activities. There are debates, spelling bees, speech contests, storytelling contests, and singing contests. The last of these is really the focus of my story, but let me set the scene first.

I had just finished judging the debates, which had run late due to usual Thai chaos and lack of communication. I was exhausted, but relieved that my judging duties  were finished.

But despite simultaneous public events all centered around the building next to mine–Foreign Languages Day, ASEAN Day, Harris Institute Open House, and Childrens’ Book Fair–I still had to hold my dreaded Normal Program English class. This was a class full of sweet students with obvious learning disabilities (if one wants to count apathy as a learning disability). Amid the noise of various speaker systems blaring music and the bedlam of students running around haphazardly, I was not looking forward to teaching a class that, on a normal, distraction-free day, couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.

I approached the classroom, opened the door, and groans of disapproval filled the air. It was as if I had just told them they were to clean up after all the festivities. They stared at me with that “Really?” kind of look, amazed that I was actually going to try to teach them.

Just then, thunder cracked. Without any buildup, a torrent fell upon Chiang Mai. To call it rain would be too mild. The downpour was so thick and heavy that visibility was limited to about 40 feet. The weight and size of each drop were so large that awnings abandoned their intended utility and left soaked their refugees underneath. Within minutes, small floods of water formed on a ground that couldn’t absorb the angry sky’s abuse fast enough.

“Class is cancelled today,” I announced.

Cheers filled the room. Many in the class, though, did not understand even that much English, and looked around bewildered as their sharper peers rejoiced. It didn’t take long for them to get the idea. As I walked out of the classroom, stepping carefully so as not to slip on a newly rain-soaked (yet covered) walkway, one girl burst out of the classroom yelling, “Tea-CHAAAA!”

I spun around.

“I love you!” she said, holding up the classic hand symbol with the thumb, index, and pinky fingers extended. I smiled and continued back to my office.

I wanted footage of nature’s power. So I started filming from the same walkway where my classrooms were. I walked up the walkway further, trying to capture every angle of the tempest from my relatively dry vantage point.

Just as I was finishing the video, I heard music coming from just down the stairs near me. It was very distinctly a recorded track with a student’s live vocals. Then I remembered the singing contest. But I also recognized the tune. Was this not-more-than-fifteen-year-old student singing, publicly, for a school contest, Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor”?

I want down the stairs to see. Sure enough, a ninth grader from Dara Academy was timidly singing, “Let’s just kiss till we’re naked, baby.”

Stifling my laughter, I looked at the judges. As a rule, all judges have to be native speakers of English. I looked over and saw several colleagues of mine simultaneously looking very serious and official while also stealing glances at each other. I’d seen those glances before in my students just moments earlier: “Really?”

I had to keep watching. It’s warming up. “Can you feel it?” It’s warming up. “Can you FEEEEEL it?” It’s warming up. “CAN YOU FEEL IT BABY?”

I chuckled to myself and returned to my office. Nothing screams Thailand education better than an innocent Thai junior high schooler singing a very sexual song, the lyrics to which she probably didn’t entirely understand, belying the probable lack of supervision she received in preparing for the contest, while foreign judges look on in absolute wonder.

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A Tale of Two Cities, Part 2

The following is a continuation of my lengthy comparison of Chiang Mai and Pattaya. Newcomers, see Part 1.

 

7-Elevens versus Temples

Once upon a time, Chiang Mai and Pattaya met together for a few drinks. After getting will lubricated with liquor, Chiang Mai lost a bit of her usual class and accused Pattaya of being a bit slut. She added, “I mean, you don’t even have but—what?—four temples? I’ve got hundreds of temples. So there!”

Pattaya replied, “Yeah, well for every temple you’ve got, I’ve got a 7-Eleven, a Family Mart, and a Tesco Express!”

“Impossible!” said Chiang Mai. “I’ve got hundreds of temples—more than anyone could possibly visit in a year. If a person were to feel truly pious, they could literally visit a different one every week!”

“Well,” retorted Pattaya, “At least none of my residents need to go more than fifty meters to buy a pack of smokes, a bottle of Chang, and a condom!”

“You are a slut!”

“And you’re a prude, holier-than-thou bitch!”

Pattaya grabbed Chiang Mai’s hair and shit got real.

They haven’t spoken to each other since.

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In summary, whereas in Pattaya 7-Eleven puts Starbucks to shame with their proliferation, in Chiang Mai they’re quite a bit rarer. In fact, you might just pass 30 temples before you arrive at the nearest 7-Eleven. And if you don’t feel like doing that, try the neighbor. She’s converted the front half of her ground-level apartment into a little, humble convenience store.

 

Central Festival

As one might expect in a city entirely centered around its nightlife, daytime boredom is a real struggle in Pattaya. As a result, many residents become quite familiar with the seven-and-a-half level shopping mall known as Central Festival.

There you have a whole array of international clothing stores—the kinds of places that make their clothing in sweat shops in the neighboring countries for pennies a day, then ship them to Hong Kong, then import them into Thailand with duty taxes.

But if you’re not into buying a dress or a pair of jeans at three times the price of what you’d find in the local markets (but at twice the quality, it must be said), you can eat at one of the dozens of overpriced Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and American chain restaurants. Most people go there for SF Cinema City, which is arguably the best cinema in town.

However, the real attraction is the many retirees walking hand-in-hand with their granddaughters’ Thai peers. Ogle the beautiful, tanned, skinny Thai girls, then look at their senile boyfriend and lose the sushi you downed only moments earlier.

Central Festival isn’t unique to Pattaya. It’s sort of like Westfield shopping malls (for you SoCal residents). And so there’s one in Chiang Mai, too. It’s older and smaller, but it still features the same international chain stores and restaurants, and it still has a state-of-the-art cinema on the top floor.

The one palpable distinction between Central Festival Pattaya and Central Festival Chiang Mai is the demographic. In Chiang Mai, malls feel like malls in America: hundreds of teenagers wandering its floors aimlessly in the rare escape from home and school that it affords them. There aren’t addled pensioners twitching in the arms of their juvenile partners. Only innocent mallrats killing time and not finishing the homework assignment I gave them two weeks ago.

 

Traffic

Sorry, Chiang Mai residents, but I scoff at your complaints about traffic and the driving habits of people in Chiang Mai. Pattaya is far worse, with hundreds of drunk tourists who think they can manage a motorcycle even though they’ve never driven one before, thousands of impatient migrants from rural areas who haven’t adapted their driving habits to urban traffic, and probably millions of coach buses caterpillaring down every street and soi to show their Chinese riders the not-so-interesting part of Thailand.

Trust me: Chiang Mai is civilized compared to Pattaya.

 

Cafes/Beer bars

You really can’t drive anywhere in Pattaya without passing a pinkly lit open-air beer bar stacked with ladies who couldn’t get a job at the gogo bars. You can’t walk any of Pattaya’s broken sidewalks without hearing “Welcoooooooome!” or a deep-voiced “Sawadee ka!”

You really can’t drive anywhere in Chiang Mai without passing a cutely decorated café that serves subpar coffee and features overpriced Thai food and half-assed Western food.

However, the cafes do find ways to distinguish themselves, and every now and then I find one worth visiting routinely. That’s a lot more than I can say of the beer bars in Pattaya.

 

Friendliness of Locals

Probably the most useful generalization about these two cities goes like this: while Chiang Mai is everyone’s city, Pattaya is nobody’s.

And here’s what I mean by that:

Nobody is really from Pattaya. It’s a city full of people who have migrated there seeking the rich opportunities that sex tourism offers to people who are poorly educated. As a result, nobody really feels responsible for the city. Nobody seems to regard themselves as the city’s caretakers or stewards. And so it sags in near dilapidation. At the same time, visitors receive only a superficial welcome. There’s no pride in Pattaya, so why wash your greetings an enthusiasm for its culture?

Meanwhile, many Thais living in Chiang Mai are from Chiang Mai. They’ll be the first to brag that theirs is the best city in Thailand. And because they’re proud, they warmly welcome visitors. They usually want people to experience that special feeling that most visitors get when they come here. Chiang Mai has a character that usually stamps fondness in people’s hearts, and engraves itself strongly in their memories.

 

Food

It’s not that Pattaya has bad food, nor is it that Chiang Mai necessarily has the best food in Thailand. It’s just easier to find what you want in Chiang Mai. Moreover, because Pattaya is nobody’s home, restaurants often close during holidays because their owners go back to their little villages hundreds of kilometers away.

Here’s another way to look at it. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a turkey dinner in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a Cubano sandwich in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a proper burrito in Thailand. And until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had to scour the streets looking for decent Massaman or Panang curry.

The only downside to Chiang Mai’s food scene is that it can make a fella go broke real fast.  Finding those cheap Thai restaurants for locals only has proven to be difficult since my arrival here. But time should remedy that.

Oh, and seafood…I miss fresh seafood.

Chapter 2: A Tale of Two Cities

What crawls out of a slimy slum into the cultural mecca of Northern Thailand? Well, me, as it happens. If you’ve followed my adventures closely, you’d know that my experience in Thailand, though marked with marvels at many turns, has reeked of the ripe ribaldry of my fossil fellows. The giant brothel that is Pattaya is now my past, and I have finally arrived and settled in one of Thailand’s most charming cities—Chiang Mai.

Now that I’ve taken some time off from writing and immersed myself in this new life, I’m ready to continue reporting my experiences to anyone who’ll suffer through my amateur prose. However, I think for this new chapter, I’ll skip the Lonely-Planet-esque overview of Chiang Mai. That’s been done to death. Moreover, I sense that my readership will start to include fellow residents of Chiang Mai, so I don’t think I’ll bore them with descriptions they already know.

Instead, I thought I’d do a contrast, albeit an unfair one. It’s a bit like comparing the bastards in “Game of Thrones”: totally obvious but fun nonetheless. By the time I finished it, I had written 2700+ words, and since the internet seems to think that’s too many for you to read, I broke it into three smaller pieces. The following is part 1.

 

Walking Streets

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On a semi-regular basis, I used to haunt the inglorious neon lights that washed the throng of curious pleasure-seekers in a hellish hue of reddish pink. I used to walk the gauntlet of gogo bar hostesses and street advertisers shouting their rudimentary welcomes and enticements, shoving their laminated menus of ping pong shows and short-time sex in my face as I dodged drunken tourists gazing everywhere but directly in front of them. I used to go there simply because that was where my girlfriend and her friends liked to go to let off steam, and where the best clubs in Pattaya could be found.

It was Walking Street—the most famous street in Sextown. Though it was a mess of every shade of prostitution, it was also a place where adults could have fun and drink the sun into rising.

Chiang Mai’s Walking Street is a different place. Every Sunday around 4 pm, Ratchadamnoen Road closes to Sunday Walking Street Chiang Mai, Thailandvehicles, and creates a 1.5-km stretch of shops and food stalls. When you enter Sunday Night Walking Street from Tha Phae Gate on the east side of the moat, you can stare down the makeshift market until it disappears into a haze of forever. One is hard pressed to visit every shop in every nook, cranny, and alley. Even the numerous temples along that run open their grounds to vendors. Street performers and small bands huddle in the center of the street-come-walkway and fill the market with an assortment of sounds ranging from traditional Thai music to bluesy folk rock. My favorite is a band comprised of all blind men singing original, Beatlesque compositions in both Thai and English.

And whereas most touristy locales feature twenty shops with the same twenty trinkets, Sunday Night Walking Street features vendors plying truly unique, often handcrafted items: purses made of hemp, leather patchwork vests and bags, screen-printed t-shirts designed by the vendor herself, and more. It’s an artisan’s community with items you seldom want to pass up because you may never see them anywhere else.

The difference between these Walking Streets is stark: while one exploits human sexuality and debauchery, the other celebrates human creativity.

 

Loi Kroh is Mini Pattaya

Stemming from the southbound road that borders the eastern moat is Loi Kroh, a one-way street that connects the moat to the famous Night Bazaar. The first time I drove down this road, things felt simultaneously strange and familiar. There were many open-air bars with girls dressed in short, tight dresses standing on the sidewalk watching hopefully as I passed them by. There was also a complex of cubical-sized bars each with its own pool table, with even more Thai woman looking bored as they sat at tables in front of each one. There was even a few gogo bars and massage parlors with girls wearing the not-so-typical masseuse attire.

I had stumbled upon the one pseudo red light district in Chiang Mai, and my first thought was That’s weird. The gravity of that thought and everything it implied suddenly hit me. I had left a city where all of this was normal. And I was now in a city where it was zoned in and isolated, so as not to smear the rest of the city’s reputation.

 

Party till Tomorrow

It all depends on how you define “tomorrow.” If you mean that you want to party until the sun comes up, go to Pattaya. If you’re content with calling it quits when the clock strikes midnight, marking the technical beginning of the next calendar day, then stay in Chiang Mai.

Despite nationwide laws to close at 2am, many clubs in Pattaya don’t start chasing out their clientele until the first dim rays of sunrise hit their doors. In puritanical Chiang Mai, however, bars must close at midnight, and only a few rebels remain secretly open through the infant hours of the morning.

The Closing of a Chapter with the Opening of a Book

I’ve thought of all kinds of ways to get philosophical and theoretical about what I’m about to share. Instead, I’ll let the images below speak for themselves, and speak for how proud I am to be a teacher, how blessed I’ve been to have the students I’ve had so far, and how affirmed I feel in my methodology. Because honestly, this has more emotional meaning than anything else.

Let me briefly explain the context. I’ve recently concluded one chapter of my new teaching life abroad. I’m leaving Pattaya, the city of misfit sexpats, and moving to Chiang Mai, the Oakland of Thailand, at least in terms of creativity, individuality, and cultural pride. I’m also leaving a school which serves the primary purpose of being a tax shelter for an alcohol distributor who couldn’t care less about education, and going to a school that is so focused on education it’s constantly trying to implement the latest ideas, including project-based learning. However, I also regret that I must leave some wonderful students midway through their school year.

They’re sweet, warmhearted students, as their work below will testify to, and we had quite a year together with me as their homeroom teacher. I’ve learned that compassion and empathy are a teacher’s biggest assets. I’ve learned that most students are totally perceptive of the amount of passion and care you put into their education. I’ve learned that honesty, consistency, and fairness are essential. And I’ve learned that a partnership with my students was the key strategy to get the results I desired in them. What’s wonderful about these lessons is that I learned them not by failing, but by succeeding. Sometimes we do have to learn from our failures, but I’m glad I didn’t have too many in my first year as a teacher (though I certainly had my share).

I may get into more detail about my overall approach to teaching and some of the specifics behind what I think made me successful—as well as the lessons learned from a few trips and falls along the way—in a separate article. For now, I’ll let my students do the talking, through a handmade book they tearfully gave me  on my last day.

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Expathy

If you’ve been one of my faithful readers, then you’ll know I’ve spent many words dissing the senior expats here in Pattaya. If you were my age, and you had lived in this scummy city for even a few months, you’d quickly understand why. However, I’ve always tried to be empathetic. Behind every face is a brain, and under every chest is a heart, and I value the task of trying to understand the invisible mechanisms that influence the way people behave. Although my capacity for empathy is notably limited, I think I can now stretch it towards the previous targets of my ridicule. However, to do so I’ll need a special kind of empathy; the expat empathy is a different brand, so I’ll brand it “expathy.” (It’s ok, I know it’s not as clever I want it to be.)

I decided to practice expathy recently entering one of their usual haunts—the beer bar. I started watching this one senior expat drinking with a young, lovely, little “hostess,” and I caught myself thinking, “You go, grandpa!” As condescending as that sounds, I meant it earnestly. Even though I was trying to keep my stomach contents while I watch him flirt, dance, or make out with his skinny, half-life junior, I started to imagine the road that may have led him here.

I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably had a pretty unlucky love live. It occurred to me that he might still be married, and I could judge him and feel pretty good about myself, while ignoring the fact that I’ve admittedly fantasized at least once about infidelity. Then I remembered (from my own failed experience) that marriage can be pretty rotten, a prison in which a certain vague but vital part of us gets chained to the wall and whispers for water and a sympathetic ear. I’ve also never had children, never had decades to add weight to the marriage, and never had a life that would easily confine me to the expectations of others. (In fact, I’ve tried to live outside anyone else’s prescribed narrative for me, and it’s led to successes and failures alike.)

My point is, as despicable as international infidelity is, unfaithfulness is a common problem, with a host of causes ranging from pure unchecked libidos to immense, soul-crushing dissatisfaction. And since I’ve experienced my fair share of both, I can relate on some level to the possibility that this guy is cheating on his wife. It was an alarming realization.

But then I thought that perhaps a more sympathetic backstory might be that this guy’s had his share of bad luck. Even if he was more successful—even if he probably had a lot of action in his prime—he’s only now in his autumn years begun to take life seriously.

Maybe he was once an eligible bachelor, and perhaps he wholeheartedly embraced the ideal of a mutual, heartfelt love, and pursued it in his past relationships. And perhaps he was let down enough times to reject it.

Now he lives by a pragmatic love—a love that would rather feel needed than feel adored. He dispenses with the glitter and glamor of Hollywood’s scripted romance, and turns to the economic realities of cross-cultural relationships. He accepts that there is a mutuality, even if it isn’t the ideal of mutual respect and love. He relishes taking financial care of his little brown beauty, and he’s ok with the fact that the care he receives in return isn’t one motivated by affection, but by a myriad of necessity, obligation, and gratitude.

Or maybe this expat spent so much of his younger years not taking life seriously—having a lot of fun and planning very little for the future—that now he’s realized he’s run out of luck. So he came here, where he can find an endearing Thai girl ten to twenty years younger. She’ll dote on him, care for him, give him the sex life he’s never been able to wean himself off of, and make him feel like he’s finally found someone who cares about him. Who cares if it’s a lie? Who cares if it’s a game? He’s paid the lip service and played the game plenty himself.

Or could it be that he was just a loser back in Farangland? He wasn’t very sociable—maybe he was a bit abrasive, a little off, a bit awkward, or a little bit timid. He couldn’t land a date, let alone get laid. He was never remarkably good-looking or wealthy. He’s lived his 60 some-odd years lonely, rarely sexed, scarcely loved, and hardly accepted. Here, he’s still lonely, but he can go out and pay a pittance to get attention, feigned affection, and some action. For once, women will talk to him, and it doesn’t really matter to him that he had to show his bill roll first.

Or maybe he had little success with women back home simply because he couldn’t progress ideologically. The young, submissive, subservient Thai girl represents his ideal woman. He could never delicately dance his man dance in a feminist world. When your life begins with a load of privileges that slowly get stripped away in an equalizing world, suddenly it’s more difficult to find a woman who can respect you, let alone love you.

Unable to cope with the fairness that feminism seeks to usher in to society, he relocated. He found a place where women are far from equal to men in the eyes of society, a place where a woman’s only hope for an easy life is to acquiesce to the chauvinism of a rich older man, a place where a good woman is defined as one who takes on all domestic tasks and serves her man at every turn. Such a place is Thailand, and its epitome is Pattaya.

When I arrived at this final scenario, and thought about how well that describes so many of the men (young and old) I’ve met here, my expathy came to a grinding hault. I couldn’t bring myself to pity a man who exploits the limited economic options of women in a developing country that epitomizes gender inequality.

I’ve seen too often that men come here viewing women as a commodity, as a trophy that they’re duty-bound to keep “polishing.” For example, I know one young girl who was weary of the life working in a short-time bar (basically a brothel that fronts as a small bar, where women have some autonomy about who their clients are). So she took up the offer of one of her older, richer customers when he offered to “rescue” her from the bar and give her a good life. But along with the security, house, and Mercedes came mandatory breast implants, a nose job, and a membership at the gym. He tells her she’s too fat, or getting too pale, and she must improve her appearance to his liking. And that isn’t the half of their so-called “relationship.”

I keep trying to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. I keep trying to show expathy whenever I can. But then I remember examples like the one above, and I’m deflated. But at least I keep trying.

Pattaya Cribs (Video)

For almost a year now, people have requested that I start posting videos instead of just writing about my time here. To be honest, I don’t like making videos. Wordsmithing is much more enjoyable an art than video editing. But because I love my faithful readers, I’ll give you want. And the topic of this post couldn’t be any more appropriate for video format. Enjoy the brief tour of my humble lodgings in Pattaya. (By the way, iMovie sucks ass.)