30 January 2011

Hello Teacher!

(Published 28 November 2010)

When you are traveling today is the only unit of time that matters.  Too much is happening, changing, moving, the days need walls to keep experiences separate and unique.  As you move from day-to-day you don’t concern yourself with months.  Like decades in the real world months are far off things that you only notice when you’ve crossed into the next and turned back to reflect on where you have been.  

I am no longer traveling.  I am traveled.  My clothes are in drawers.  My backpack has disappeared beneath my bed.  I have a bed.  A few days ago I was stacking chairs at Joy Bilingual School with Keith, a transplant from Ohio, he turned to me and casually said, “Crazy that we’ve been here almost a month huh?”  I looked at him like he had just crapped in his hand and flung it at my face.  Come on!  A week maybe, but a month!?  As jarring as it was, Keith was absolutely right, we had been here almost a month.  I blame routine for my dismay.  Somewhere in the midst of making friends and buying sheets and training to teach and starting to teach I slipped into routine.  Routine is like speed reading, your brain starts to recognize patterns and hits the gas because it knows what’s coming.  Routine kicks down the walls of today to make way for this week and the months pass quickly.

Pick up your remote and hit rewind.  It is late October.  I am wearing a clingy sweat-beaded Beer Lao tank top.  My unholy trekking shoes are tied to the outside of my backpack.  The Tuk Tuk driver swears this is the bus station.  I am not convinced.  I don’t see any buses.  I am squinting into the bright sun, looking for Emma, my future boss.  I wonder if she has a car or if she is picking me up on a scooter.  Neither would surprise me.  I look ridiculous.  I have a backpack on my back and another strapped to my chest.  I scream tourist.  I am not a tourist.  I am home.  This is Surat Thani, Thailand.

I really like Surat, it is a true Thai town.  Out of 100,000 residents 100 are foreigners.  In Thailand foreigners are known as farang and it is well known that farang come here to teach.  A few hours after arriving I stopped on the sidewalk to allow a woman to pass, she paused, quickly shook off the “holy shit it’s a white guy” look and cheerfully said, “Hello teacher!”  Surat is small enough to get around by scooter or Tuk Tuk, it has a water front and an island park surrounded by the Tapee River.  It is nice, but it is not tourist nice.  It is a Thai town meant to support Thai people.  The beauty of Surat to the farang community is its access to postcard Thailand.  Surat is surrounded by postcards.  The gulf islands of Ko Samui, Ko Phangnan and Ko Tao are weekend destinations.  Kaoh Sok National Park is a weekend destination.  The jewels of the Andaman Sea, Phi Phi Island and Railay Beach are weekend destinations.  You know that swell of anticipation when you land at the airport and realize that you are baggage claim away from paradise?  That is what is like living here.  In Surat we live arrived.

I really need to learn how to speak Thai.  When I arrived in Surat I knew how to say exactly two things, hello and thank you.  Two phrases should not be difficult to absorb but occasionally I managed to mix them up.  A nice Thai person would walk by and say, “Sawadee-kap” (hello!) and I would respond “Cap-koon-kap!” (Thank-you!).  I am starting to learn the basics.  I can count to a hundred, albeit with dramatic pauses.  I can order a few of my favorite Thai dishes.  And I no longer mix-up hello and thank-you.  But, I am a long way from assimilated.  Imagine trying to explain to a Thai laundry lady that half your clothes are missing with only gestures and pantomime.  I started Thai lessons this week.  If all goes according to plan my days of missing shirts and clucking to add chicken to a meal will soon be at an end.  I do have one concern about learning the language.  Scooby Doo dubbed over in Thai is brilliant.  Even Scrappy is awesome when he is speaking Thai.  I wonder if I will still enjoy it when I realize that “Zoinks Scoob, to the Machine Machine!” has been translated as, “Attention large brown dog, follow me to the colorful American vehicle!”

I almost forgot what its like to be a kid.  I am a 32 year old man.  Any emotional reaction I have gets swiftly punched in the face by logic.  But, kids?  Kids are puppets made to dance by the strings of happiness, sadness, sugar-rush, and energy overflow.  I have been a teacher for two weeks and I have spent every day fascinated, frustrated and bewildered by the complete unpredictability of 8-10 year old Thai children with nicknames like; Peach, Arm, View, Guide, Jet and Ink.  I have made these children smile, I have made these children cry, I have been the coolest, I have been the worst.  Every time I think I have a pattern figured out they remind how foolish I am to think such things.  This is the folly of men, we think that every problem has a solution.  Our unwavering belief in logic and reason blinds us to the fact that emotions don’t give a flying f--- about logic and reason.  I may not always understand them, but I genuinely like my students.  Every class is a pinball game, occasionally the ball falls into the gutter but most of the time it bounces and pings in a bright shiny display that is a joy to watch.

My Mom likes to tell this story about my little sister Jenny, when Jenny was a kid she had the magic ability to make my Dad melt.  Harsh words from Dad would crush Sarah and I, but not Jenny.  Jenny would give him a brief flash of sad so that he felt effective then she would crawl into his lap, bat her little eyelashes and say, “I love you Daddy” knowing full well that he was incapable of staying mad in the presence of her overwhelming cuteness.   I think of this story often, as I am so often overwhelmed by cuteness.  Earlier this week a boy named Ny could not sit down.  I asked and asked again but he kept standing and spinning and jumping and running.  I told him to spend the rest of the class standing at the back of the room.  Tears moistened his eight-year-old eyes, his chin dropped to his chest, his chest heaved.  I ignored instinct, I didn’t reach out and hug him, I kept my stony teacher resolve.  The next class period Ny came bouncing into the room.  He had connected two straws and bent them to look like a phone receiver. He held his creation to his ear, “Hello, Teacher Michael!”  I answered with an eraser, “Hello Ny, how are you?  “I am happy!”  “That’s good, Ny.  I will see you in class.”  “Ok!  Good bye teacher Michael!”  We hung up our phones.  I had been Jenny-ed. 

It amazes me how much of men and women you can see in boys and girls.  Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is on purpose, but the seeds of adult behavior are breaking through the surface even at eight and ten. With the boys it is bravado and ego.  If I am really stern with the agitators they will listen to me, but often times there is the briefest squint, an ego flash that says, “Bitch if you were three feet shorter we’d take this outside right now!”  With the girls it is the understanding that they have power over boys.  When I am stern with the girls, the cutest ones, the ones who know they are cute will look up at me and smile sweetly expecting me to crumble.  When I say, “The smile isn’t going to work go sit down” they respond with pouty looks of disbelief.  There is a girl in my eight-year-olds class named Poon.  She is impossibly adorable.  The outgoing Teacher gave me notes about all the students and for Poon he wrote, “She is a troublemaker don’t let her fool you with her cuteness.”  On one of my first days teaching Poon was acting out and talking with her friends so I moved her to a different table.  She did not like that.  She spent the rest of the class glaring at me with a look that said, "I am sad and I am mad and I want you to know it!”  I saw the future in her look and I thought, damn that is scary.  At eight that look is the innocent reaction of child who feels wronged, but one day she will become a woman and realize the power of that look.  She will practice it, hone it, perfect it with welled-up tears and use it to absolutely cripple men in her life when she feels they need crippling.  Watch out little Thai dudes.

A month has passed.  I didn’t see it going, but it went.  While I was adjusting to a new normal routine tore down the walls of today and pushed life into the patterned and predictable this week.  In a month I have moved in, started a new job, bought a scooter, made new friends, began to learn a new language, attended festivals, explored new streets, settled.  It took a month but I have built the foundation for my life here in Thailand.  Time will not get away from me again.  I have caught up.  I am ready to teach and explore and read and write and build the adventure that I came here to build.