Sunday, June 15, 2003

Things I Haven't Seen in Six Weeks

Every now and then it dawns on me out of the blue. I shake my head in disbelief. "Can it be?" I go through this mini-litany every time I realize that since I came to remote northeast Thailand 45 days ago, I haven't seen....

...a hamburger. Didn't know human life could exist without Mickey D and the Golden Arches. It probably would exist a lot longer without the fat-laden patties of ground dead cow tissue. OK, I'm trying to convince myself I don't miss those juicy Big Macs, shredded lettuce and special sauce. Disregard my knuckle-biting. Argh!

...a cross on a gold chain.

...a loaf of bread. There are a lot of bread-like pastries at the local 7-11 (filled with various flavors of bean curd), but I just get a blank stare when I ask about a "loaf". Rice does for Thai folks what bread and potatoes do for Americans (fill us up).

...a piece of meat bigger than a thumbnail. Meat here is a garnish, not a main dish. But when you're sick, meat is the suggested remedy (despite the fact that I was finally craving some kind of veggie or chicken soup with only a trace of meat flavor).

Mom's pot roast--a faint memory.

...a funeral home. The Thai substitute? The big Buddhist monastery next door to the school handles all funerary functions. There's a big cremation area with a tall smokestack I can see from my apartment. At night, when I smell something burning, I assume it's someone's garbage and I don't care to investigate further. My neighbor complains that it gives him nightmares of dead peoples' spirits from Hell coming to haunt him. He also claims that when he sleeps with his head to the west (position of the corpse on a funeral pyre) he also has the nightmares. Thus, no Thai people in this region sleep with their heads to the west.

...a shopping cart. I had that term as one of my class vocabulary words, but had to drop it, as the students had no idea what I was talking about. It's all hand-carry baskets here. Plus, no one buys any more groceries than they can carry in the small basket of their bicycle or motorbike, anyway. Why fill a shopping cart, if you can't transport the contents home?

...a check. It's a cash-only society here in Isan. Credit cards are rarely used, and when they are, a 3% surcharge is levied. If I use my credit card, I get this long apology about a 3% surcharge and then I have to dig out my passport so they can make a copy. A real hassle. Personal bookkeeping is real simple. I check my bank balance at the cash machine once a week, just like my lazy USA friends who didn't like to bother with a checkbook.

...a file folder. I have been to three stationery stores, the one department store, and three college/university supply stores. No one has ever seen or used a common file folder. I have organized for my entire life with file folders! With 14 classes (400 students), worksheets to review, and 400 tests a week to correct, my apartment is beginning to look like a paper recycling station. Paper everywhere in separate stacks. I've got to figure out how the Thai organize their paperwork, and learn it quick, before they have to use avalanche transponders to find me under the pile of white. (Because they surely won't find me in a file folder marked "J".)

..."normal" napkins. Thai napkins are the size of 1 square of toilet paper, and just as flimsy. They turn to white pulp around the moist corners of your mouth, and you walk away from a meal looking like you've been frothing at the mouth. It takes about 10 little squares just to wipe up from a normal meal. One of my friends in Oregon sent me a "care package" with good old American napkins (in red, white, and blue yet!). I'm the talk of the apartment complex. "Come see Mr. J's napkins! They look like bed sheets! Americans must be very messy when they eat!"

...doggy bags. You don't ask to take uneaten food home after a restaurant meal. Bad manners. So, I either don't order enough and walk away a little hungry, or order too much, and stuff myself, because I can't stand to see it go to waste. My Thai friends have no qualms about leaving half the food uneaten. Such a strange habit for such a poor area. It must have something to do with the lack of refrigeration in most of the farmers' and silk-weavers' homes; or, perhaps cooked food spoiling so quickly in this tropical heat. Meanwhile, I try to do my human-vacuum-cleaner-best to do justice to "all the starving children in ______ (used to be China) who don't have enough to eat". Nice side of the coin: due to the low-fat, low-cholesterol natural diet, here, I've lost about 10 pounds and kept it off. Try it. Stuff yourself with veggies and fruit, and watch the scales reward you!

...sponges that hold water. The Thai version is a flimsy plastic open-celled honey-combed four-inch square that will not hold more than a quarter-teaspoon of liquid. Again, my Oregon friend comes to the rescue in her care package. I use the sponge and then hide it. I don't want anyone to steal it, abuse it, or overuse it. It is my precious remnant of American kitchen life. Only I know where it is, under lock and key next to my passport, bank book, and birth certificate. Thai visitors: "Mr. J, where is that nice soft wiping thing you got from America?" I feign sleep or that I cannot understand their accent. So far so good. The secret is only with me and the 10,000 of you.

...American news, CNN or Reuters. International cable TV is about $30 a month (and $250 to install)--very high-priced for this economy. Most of the teachers and I use "local UBC cable" which is regional in Asia. I get two stations (Filipino and Japanese) which occasionally have news in English, one Vietnamese station from Hanoi, a station from India, an MTV international channel, and the rest (about 25 channels) in Thai. The Vietnamese station is government-controlled and has a great deal of political content--including long musical tributes to Communist leaders, present and past. The Indian station is 95% native comedy shows, and the humor appears somewhat juvenile to a Western observer. Embarrassment makes me keep channel-surfing. One Thai station is all American movies, but the actors' voices are dubbed in Thai. It is hilarious watching Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver talking in Thai.. I always laugh at the wrong times. The price is right: $20 to install and $3 a month. A good side-benefit: it's helping me keep up on my Japanese and Vietnamese. An excellent major benefit: forcing me to learn more Thai. When Julia Roberts, salivating, looks at a Thanksgiving turkey, points at her stomach and says "HEW MAK!" I know she probably just said "I'm hungry". I also find cartoons very educational--they're in simple Thai for small children....and me.

...a lawn. In the city, most houses go right up to the sidewalk. The backyard (if any) is utilitarian: a place for garbage, to hang clothes, maybe a storage shed or two, or a place for the family manufacturing business to operate. In the country, farmers don't mess with lawns (they often don't in the USA, either--take a drive through the backwaters of Eastern Washington or the deep South!). However, the school here is like living in the Garden of Eden (with the addition of lizards and ants, of course). With only 1 or 2 building maintenance men, the classrooms are a bit dilapidated and there's a lot of equipment which doesn't work (broken VCR's, etc.). However, the school employs 7 or 8 gardeners, showing where their priorities are. (I think about that as I look for glue at the local hardware store to replace the loose floor tiles in my classroom--on my own time, and on my personal budget--as all the teachers do!) Every day there is some major garden-related project going on at the campus. Fruit trees (mango, tamarind, lychee), tropical palms, flowering shrubs and trees abound. Tucked between classroom buildings are small red-brick walkways with luscious tropical flora on all sides. It seems like 75% of the plants are blooming all the time. Leaves and flowers are mammoth-sized. Most plants are accompanied by little placards stuck into the ground, with the plant names in Thai and Latin. There are cool marble picnic tables and benches (some under shady cupolas) strategically placed in and around the manicured gardens. It's like an $8 visit to the tropical arboretum under glass up in Vancouver, B.C. . Here, I get to walk through it all day for free. It provides a lot of shade (crucial in this country) and sense of peacefulness. A very nice benefit. Don't miss the lawn one bit.

...a church with a steeple. Yeah right. In the land of Buddha. A couple churches do exist in town, meeting in commercial buildings or nondescript structures. Congregations are poor, and their pastors do not go door to door every morning collecting Baht or breakfast as the Buddhist monks do. For some reason the monks stopped coming to my door at 6:00am. Maybe it was the pitiful "Oh please come in and join me for breakfast. It's just two bites of pineapple, but somehow I'll manage to share..." which sent them away guilt-ridden. Or the shock of seeing massive amounts of white-pale skin as I admonished, "Sorry about being half-naked with a towel around my waist, but I AM in the middle of a shower!" Or, I really think it must have been the incredulously-delivered, "WHAT? You're trying to get money out of a farang TEACHER in the poorest region of Thailand? Hello! (knocking on monk's bald head*). I'll be over to the monastery later this afternoon to collect MY donation!" Word got around. Don't bother the blasphemous farang. A couple of the monks are professors at the college. When we pass, they don't smile or stop to chat as the other professors do. They just pull their saffron robes about them, shake their heads, and do the Buddhist version of the "crossed index fingers warding off a vampire" and walk on. Message: "We don't do business with stingy farang." Oh well, gotta draw the line somewhere. I can get away with it as long as I am Mr. Director's pet.

...a bag full of rice without a live insect. You ALWAYS rinse your uncooked rice.

...a cup full of ice without a frozen insect. You get very skillful with your tongue as an instrument of selection/rejection. open-air market without a fried insect. Delectable item for the discriminating palate, if you're a native of Isan. exterminator. I can't find the word in my Thai dictionary. One of my e-mail correspondents suggested I call in an exterminator for the ants and lizards. I tried to describe the concept to one of my neighbors: "An exterminator is a man who comes to your house to get rid of little animals you don't want. Then you pay Baht to him." Response: a blank stare. Maybe they thought I was talking about the flea-bitten and diseased stray cats and dogs that commonly run around the school. They were probably thinking, "If you're having a problem with little animals, why don't you just eat them?"


Last week I found a couple dozen ants going after some tiny crumb I left on the kitchen counter. As usual, I pounced upon them with glee--wiping, crushing, washing down the drain--in my own "The Terminator" impersonation. I think it was the first time one of my Thai friends caught me acting out this role. He gawked at me with a mixture of horror and concern. "Mr. J, why do you destroy these little creatures? They are only doing their natural thing!" It was Buddhist philosophy and Western culture going for a head-on collision.

"Well I'm doing MY natural thing!" went through my mind. I tried to explain how it is not good to have pests in one's house. I gave all the good American reasons.

"But Mr. J, they DO help to keep our kitchens clean when one forgets something on the counter or floor. They are only trying to help you. If you don't want the little visitors, then you must thoroughly clean the kitchen when you're through," he said, eyeing the pile of dirty dishes in my sink.

Oh. Rebuked and educated at the same time, in the gentle Thai way.

My kitchen is now crumb-less, and my visitors are less in numbers. Now they only come for the water in the sink, and I have generously given trespassing license to "the little creatures" for that. Now, one crumb on the floor, and I pounce on it with my former ant-exterminating fury (after assuring my Thai observer that there are no ants on the crumb).

And the Adventure Goes on...

*Some poetic license is used to get my point across to the reader. No, I did not knock on any bald heads. Matter of fact, you don't touch ANY heads in Asia--bald or not. (An adult giving a blessing to younger children is excepted).