The New Year approaches and I find a deeper level of letting go and being with what is and not forcing what does not fit, or my ideas. I resonate with the cultural priorities that exist here. It is quite simple really. Nothing is more important than the people you are with. Not work or death. Family is more important than work and friends. Taking it easy is more important that being busy. Thank you Thailand and its people… such a gentle and passive culture that suits this Western results-oriented mind set quite well. My values are not really different from that of the Thais. I get a new chance to practice them each day.
I sit at one of my schools, luckily able to receive an internet connection. I am taking a new account of my life here and literally unable to do much as I pulled a muscle in my back and have been self administering Ibuprofen regularly. I have to ride my bike though and I am riding very slowly. The water jug I use to water my garden each day is huge and I have been holding it out in front of me with one arm… and it has finally caught up with me. A teacher friend said I was old. We laughed and I made a point of saying feeling young is a state of mind. It is a good time to take it easy, I do not have to go back to school until the 2nd. Each day I have another lesson in “it is not about me.” This is about a Christmas activity at my larger elementary school. I did not participate in the planning or the actual event. I was a guest. Which is how I feel at that school. I feel like I am part of a family at the other school. My teacher at my “guest” school is a first year teacher there. I think she has to prove herself to the teachers and administrators. She wants to make a good impression and show her strengths and skills. I think that is why she did not include me. I was sad until I realized it is about her not me!
I feel a new freedom moving into 2013… or as it will be in Thailand, 2556. May the force be with you too and all that you do. Keep sparking your spirit… life is here today and so quickly gone. I am going to relish the new year’s moments, hours and days.
The Thai people in my town have become my best friends. They take such good care of me. The son of Tin, Tonnan, age 5, has become a real special person in my life and I apparently in his. When we see each other at the park, I do a little Gangnam Style and he grins and runs. Tin, also a good friend, told me about her day at work. She is a nurse at the Tessabaan, City Hall. Her boss, the mayor of Pua, had a heart attack in his office. She was called and found no pulse when she got there. She led CPR efforts and his pulse came back while she and a colleague were in the emergency vehicle headed to the hospital. I told her she saved his life. She was clearly having some emotions about it, post event and I gave her a big hug and could feel her release a little bit. I told her I was so proud of her. She proceeded to tell me that he smokes heavily at work and that many of the leaders smoke and drink. This I have also heard from PCV’s who work in their town’s Tessabaan. I told her some people change their habits after such a “wake up” call. She said they already have all the information about why it is not healthy to smoke. I told her she could bring in a s smoker’s lung and a healthy lung in a jar. She seemed to think it was hopeless.
I tell ya, Thais’ have a huge stomach for the gruesome. I noticed a new poster in town. I thought at first it was an advertisement for a movie that was going to be shown. It could happen. Even though there is no movie theatre in town. But, a horror movie. It looks like a movie poster I reasoned. I am so naive. The Thais love horror movies and when I watch TV there is always some B-rated horror movie on. Their dramas also have ghosts and people with special powers who are evil and good. What gave it away? The piece of glass through a woman’s bloody head. This is a new safety campaign to encourage people to wear a helmet while riding their motorcycles. The message was clear and it WILL get people’s attention. The poster is outside the Pua Police Station.
Two weeks ago an aerobic’s friend was in a motorcycle accident. I do not know if she was wearing a helmet. She has a full length cast on her right leg. This week, I attended a funeral of a teacher friend whose father had died. His body arrived in an ornate gold coffin on a dragon in the back of a pick up truck. The procession of family walked to the memorial. Monks led each holding onto the rope that was connected to the truck which slowly made its way up the road. I could hear beautiful music of flute, gong and a clarinet type instrument I usually associate with Turkish music. The two identical twin sons (one of which was my friend) were standing on top of dragon holding the coffin. The men lifted the coffin onto the funeral pyre. Wood was stacked underneath. It was to be an outside burning, when, I do not know. I presume the next day. While the grand daughter was speaking, she broke down but continued to talk, most of the women listening put their heads down weeping, almost hiding their tears, as if they were not supposed to cry. I imagine some men were crying too. There must have been about 200 people there. All the family members were crying. I cried with my head up. Later, I asked other teacher friends if they cried, they said no and almost laughed when I said I did. This is one part of Thai culture I find a little dumbfounding. Life and death seem to be taken so matter of factly. Emotions in check. As we left, the coffin was left on top of the pyre in the sunshine in a beautiful forest of bamboo and other trees. The Thai people are very private about their emotions in public. But, the dramas they watch on TV are so over the top with emotions, by watching them, I am sure they get to vicariously have emotions that throughout the day they must withhold. After the funeral we headed to a food stand run by a woman who has been making Som Tom for over 20 years. We had at least 4 different kinds of Som Tom.
This week my hill tribe school Chomchon Silalang, had an event I thought was going to be an evening Christmas activity. I had spoken to the teachers about it and I thought we agreed to several activities. I made a schedule of activities with the help of a teacher. We were to read a story aloud in Thai and English. I bought glue and scissors because on Monday, during our 1/2 day of Christmas activities, teachers did not have some of the supplies we needed for students to make Christmas chains and snowflakes. This was not an issue for the teachers or for the students for that matter. Students sat in groups of 10 and patiently waited for their group’s one pair of scissors to make the rounds so they could make their snowflake.
The evening turned out to have nothing to do with Christmas. But is was fun. The banner read “Fantasy Night For Kids at Chumchon Silalang Dormitory.” There was a singing and dance competition. But the most important event of the evening was the selection of Mr. and Mrs. Dormitory. Most of the children live at the school in dorms because they are hill tribe students, mostly Hmong. Students wore their Hmong traditional clothes, which were absolutely stunning. It appears to have been really well planned. I thought it was fantastic There were so many kids who wanted to sing and dance. The girls got all dressed up, wearing make up and did wonderful dance pieces, all choreographed by themselves.
A second grade boy was the best. He sung his heart out like a real pro. I could not believe it. For each song, the audience, sung along and enjoyed themselves immensely. Winners received tins of goodies and other tokens.
The male teachers and Paw Aw (Principal) wore Hmong clothing. I was unsure how I felt about this because later I found out that not one of them was Hmong. I was disturbed that the Paw Aw was asking the “contestant’s about their clothes and seemed to be making fun of the coins and style of clothes they were wearing. The children were obviously embarrassed. The children at my hill tribe school are so kind and gracious with manners. They waited to receive the candy and goodies distributed to the audience throughout the night. No corrections from teachers and no one was whacked.
In comparison, at my other school, there was a melee when Santa and his helpers were handing out candy to students in the audience during Christmas Day. Students were whacked. Teachers had to put a stop to the activities and change gears.The assistant principal and a lead teacher took over. The Assistant Principal asking for volunteers and asking questions, then handing out money to those who volunteered. I sat and watched as I had no role in the event. That day I saw my true teacher… the pressure she feels to show her best and how she works so hard to prove herself, I see why she does not work with me on events. She needs to do these things by herself. While I was there I asked to hand out rewards to students who received accolades. This common element of school events involves posing with the student with certificate and goodie in hand while getting a photo taken. The big part of the activities was to be a gift exchange. It never happened according to plan. There sat hundreds of beautifully wrapped presents on 10 different tables. Each present with a number corresponding to the student who was to receive it.
Luckily, earlier in the week I made Santas with the students and because I taught alone (don’t tell). I have no pictures except for this one!
The previous week at my hill tribe school was camp out night. Girls and boys cook their own food over a wood fire and participate in a bunch of fun evening activities – mostly little skits. Later, they camp outside in tents. The Paw Aw and community leaders watching drank whiskey and ate hors d’oeuvres. Thai culture is founded in ritual. Ritual guides behavior at temples, home and at school. Most events and meetings are done with ritual and great pomp. So, first there was a lighting of candles and offerings at the shrine where a cast bronze effigy of the founding father of Pua sat. Teachers knelt on one knee and said prayers. Local political and community leaders, who are always invited to special school events, sat in front row seats an were served water and oranges. An opening statement was read which is formally presently to the principal in a folder. Flower necklaces were then offered to teachers (and myself) by the students who made them.
Now the fun starts. The opening act featured boys dressed as Zulu warriors who danced around in a big circle and the scaffolding of wood soon to be lit. Teachers were singing what sounded like to be a Zulu chant sung in Thai. The Zulu warriors lit the fire and were off.
Apparently the fire was not big enough. One of teachers grabbed the can of gasoline and poured it on the fire, whoosh, the fire doubled in size and reached for the sky. As the teacher walked away, we noticed the can was also on fire but the teacher carrying did not know it. Shouts got his attention and when he noticed the can on fire, he ran with the can toward the students. He then must of realized that carrying a can of gasoline that was on fire, may not be a good idea. He ran back to the bonfire and tossed the plastic can onto the fire, whoooosh! Now the fire was reaching outside its original containment but we all drew a sigh of relief.
The first event really happened before everything started, at the girl’s dormitory. 1st and 2nd grade students were cuddling a baby kitten and I was petting it too when I discovered they had it. I asked where it’s mother was. Of course, it wasn’t there. I should have stopped asking questions. I asked what it was eating or drinking. They answered “rice.” I said something to the effect of it needs it’s mother’s milk. Yes, this is all in Thai. I have no explanation for what happened next. The children had gotten up and the kitten was licking an instant soup bag on the ground. This made me sad and realize this kitten had a questionable future. I let go. It cannot be my problem. I can only show compassion. The next thing I hear is tapping and people talking. I look over and the kitten is dead with its head splattered on the ground. I think the little girl took the kitten upstairs and tossed it out the dorm window. As harsh as this sounds, I have no other explanation for it. It was dead. I told another teacher what happened and he came over and basically said mai bpen rai, never mind, it’s all right. And so, here today, gone tomorrow.
This made me think more about the hill tribe children living in the dorms. They have a tough life. They are not used to luxuries, like hot water or new clean clothes. As children they are tough, they hit hard and run fast. They rarely cry. While each dorm has a dorm teacher, there is no mommy to comfort the children at night. They have no one that tucks them in at night, that rubs their tummy when they have a stomach ache, who wraps them in a towel when they come out of the cold shower. No one is reading them bed time stories at night and kissing them on the forehead, “sweet dreams honey pie.” These children cannot live a childhood in the sense of how we view childhood. They grow up fast, learn to take care of themselves and others. They hit the pavement running and are out of mommy’s arms. They are clever, adaptive and resourceful. The older students look after the younger students, as is the norm in Thailand and the pi/nong culture. I do see great friendship and kindness among the students. Boys walk arm in arm or arm over shoulder. Girls walk hand in hand. Boys and girls lie in each other’s arms. They show great affection to each other. They need to don’t they?
Many will not finish high school and instead work in the fields to support their families. I hope that isn’t so… The long term picture is that an education would provide a higher standard of living for them and their families. But where will they get the money to go to school? I hope to encourage and inspire as many as I can to stay in school and continue their studies.
For my small part, I can visit them in the dorms as often as possible. I serenaded them at Christmas by singing Christmas carols. I want to start a read aloud for them at night on the weekends. There is a new boy’s dorm teacher who is also the music teacher. He is amazingly accomplished singer, piano and guitar player. He owns a portable piano. I want to start a sing along with him and the students too. So much potential at this school! There just has not been a ready time to do so.
I am so very lucky. I live in one of the most beautiful parts of Thailand in a very cool town. Pua, is at the same time, hip and traditional. It is country but growing. It is like an unadulterated little Chiang Mai. Mostly recently, to add to its coolness is a walking street each Friday and Saturday night. For three winter months, we have a street fair. Sometimes it is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights depends on holidays. I have met so many people there. Some foreign language teachers too. Now, because it is a long holiday weekend, people have come from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pua for the break. The street fair offers local Northern food I have never tasted. There is homemade clothing, crafts and singing and dancing performances. My favorite is children from a mountain village who perform a story through dance and music. There are rhythmic beats on drums and gongs and boys perform fighting scenes and girls dance traditional dance, some with long fingers. The tip jar is out, of course.
I would say Pua is a clean and tidy town. But, Pua needs some work. For one, we need a “Keep Pua Beautiful” campaign to stop littering. My friend who manages the Animai, a health center in Silalang has tried this. I said I would love to help. Maybe next year will be a ripe time. There are garbage containers all over the school grounds but I see students and adults litter. Plastic bags are everywhere, littering the roads, fields, and school grounds. I was taking with a someone who mentioned the high rate of cancer he has seen among family members. We both mentioned the plastic bags used for every kind of food, boiling hot or cold. We directly take in the hazardous chemicals leaching from those bags. I started thinking today how I could avoid them. When I go to the market I could bring plastic containers and have people put the product inside the container. But, the food has already been sitting in the plastic bag. I could avoid shopping at the open air market and go to the Tesco Lotus supermarket and buy stuff uncooked and cook everything myself, and buy the fruit and veges in bulk. I like going to the market though. As a Peace Corps volunteer, one of the things I need is to be around people. It makes me happy to see people I know. Maybe I have my friends in the states send me a few Nalgene bottles – or reusable ziplock plastic bags that can withstand heat, so I can pour soup, and what have you in the bottles. Thinking…
I am blessed here in Pua. I have even thought about staying another year with or without Peace Corps. Foreign language teachers make good money and their are possibilities of teaching outside the “school” environment. I am totally supported and taken care of in my Peace Corps experience in Thailand. I have been blessed with dear Thai friends, who I have grown to love. They shower me with kindness. I see and learn the culture through their actions. I also realize we are not so different. Visiting my house recently, the husband of my friend waited at the door after he parked the car but would not come in if I just gestured to come in. He waited until I opened the door and then he wai’d me (palms at chest level and bow). So formal…. They brought a passion fruit plant and some bananas. If you are visiting with a friend, it is common to bring fruit as simple gesture of appreciation and generosity. I saw two of my friends, whose names I can now recite, Oui and Pong, at the street fair yesterday. We went to Laos together in November. I sat and talked with them and then parted. About an hour later I saw them again and they bought me a necklace from the vendor I was visiting. The vendor happens to live across the field from me, whose daughter I teach at one of the schools. She said her daughter came over to see me once on her bike and I was not home. I said I was open to have her come over for a little English tutoring. I have never really told people that before. It seemed the right thing to do in the moment. This I only know because I happened to stop and look at the clothing she was selling. It took about 15 minutes before she revealed our common connections. Everything is done not to inconvenience someone else. Now, I have another friend.
Happy New Year everyone! I am going to two parties tonight – so I can play with friends in two different villages.
May you have a blessed new year filled with joy, new growth and courage to live life to its fullest. I owe my spirit of adventure to my mother, my step-dad, my dad and many friends who live their dreams, because really,…. merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!