Thursday, March 30, 2006

Through Thai Eyes - I

One of the very enjoyable experiences of teaching here in Thailand is seeing your home country through their eyes. This year we sent about 50 of our English-major students to the USA for summer work. Remember, summer in Thailand is March-April-May, so right now these students are scattered all over the USA from Hawaii to Florida. I always wait in eager anticipation to get those first emails, and I share one with you (warts and all!) I just received this morning, along with my reply.

Pardon the student's vocabulary choice for "cigarette butts." We have more work to do with him when he gets home!


Dear Teacher,

First of all, I'd like to apologize for not able to keep in touch with you as often as I've told you before, because there's no computer or even the telephone in our dormitory. The telephone box doesn't present in our site as well. Each time I need to use the computer, I have to go to our boss' office where many people are seriusly dealing with their works there. Therefore, I don't want to do like that so often. Although our boss will move us to the another better dorm where provides internet access, we don't want to move because we have to pay more money for the housing. Anyway, I will do try to keep in touch with you, my professional teacher.

Thank you for the GREAT GRADE you've given to me. It pulls up my GPAX a lot.

Here, in Virginia, is a good match for us. It's peaceful, nice environment, friendly and funny people and not crowded.

Before we came here, we had stayed in your HOME, at New Yorker Hotel, New York. We experienced many fascinating things there. The buildings are much more bigger than those ones we see in Bangkok or in our other big cities. We went to the Central Park where I have no idea that how they can put that natural park among this HUGE CITY without leaving it destroyed like the park in our home (Country). The squirrels are running all over the yard in the park without being scared of people. Moreover, we can breathe freshly in the park (or even in the city) despite we are surrounded by a large number of crowded people and cars !!! Fascinating !!!

And evenmore, I saw a young boy and girl kissing in the park ignoring the people (including me) who kept walking pass them! And the most attractive is that ... the light of the city which is very colorfull at night, especially prominantly at Time Square. We love it.

But what I consider it makes New York unpleasent is the CIGARETTE! I saw almost people (or even all) ,from the young to the old, smoking a lot. There are many cigarette asses (or cigarette filters?) in everywhere -- on the streets, in the trash cans, and almost in the DRIANS !!! It seems like the people consider smoking is as normal as drinking the pop !!!

I think European and American are on the top list of those who smoke the most. So, I wonder how do you survive from this matter, because I've never seen you smoking and appreciated it's the good of you, my kind teacher.

All in all, I LOVE AMERICA. It doesn't make me disappointed. THE POWERFUL AND MIGHTY COUNTRY.

I almost get used to with the food, the foreign accent and the weather now. And I enjoy working so much.

>>> Once in a life I experience America, it is worth my whole life... <<<>

Yours sincerely,

P.S. Sorry for the lenghtly mail, it's affected by the reasons
according to the very first beginning of this mail.

Dear C,

Wow, what a great email--how interesting to see the USA through your eyes!

New York City is made up of a huge population of recent immigrants (mostly from Europe and the Mediterranean countries), so you'll see many similarities to Europe there--including the smoking (yuck). This city is soooo different from the West Coast where I live--but my impressions of New York City are about the same as yours! I do love the liveliness of the city, also.

Despite the difficulty of finding a computer, thanks for the effort to send an email. By the way, public libraries often have free email service on their computers, although you have to get a library card (free) to use one.

As to your grade, please don't thank me. YOU did all the hard work, and you earned it. There were 2 C'2, 7 C+'s, 1 B, 10 B+'s, and only 5 A's given in the class. So, consider yourself part of the privileged, elite, top 20% of the class!

Hope to hear more from you later!
Your Teacher in Thailand

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It's Getting Chili in Thailand

...and we're not talking about the weather
(100+ Fahrenheit right now).

I am referring, my-about-to-be-dazzled readers, to a recent extraordinary accomplishment from a brown-thumbed gardner who has trouble growing even weeds. When I first moved to Thailand, I bought a big bag of dried chili peppers to use in my quest to learn how to cook Thai dishes. When I later learned that Thai cooking in Isan is basically any stir-fry with 50% chili peppers, I abandoned the no-challenge project. However, three years later, I pulled out this bag of chilis from the fridge vegetable bin, and inquired of my friends what to do with them. "Throw 'em in your weed-patch, and watch what happens," was their sage advice. OK, I do grow a few weeds. My weed-patch looks more like a partially balding old man with tufts of hair sprouting haphazzardly here and there.

So, I threw the dried-up, deader-'n-a-door-nail chilis out into the balding weed patch and forgot about them. In a couple months, lo and behold, I had a half-dozen chili bush babies! Amazing how becoming a father changes your perspective and you start accepting responsibility. I got serious and started watering them every day.

A month or so later, I had teenagers in the family. Hungry teenagers. This momentous event now called for fertilizer to feed my hungry charges. I asked my Thai teacher the name of a good fertilizer I could pick up at the town garden shop, and how I should ask for it. With an impatient wave of the hand, he dismissed my idea immediately. He wasn't quite sure what the best word was, but he spelled out the only one he knew in very large letters on a scrap of paper and held it up an inch from my nose: "S-H-#-T."

"Uh, you mean the kind that comes from cows?" I naively inquired, screwing up my nose.

"Yes Ajarn (Teacher) J., Do you know something better?" His tone of voice was that of a pre-school teacher lecturing her toddler. Oh, cow manure to feed my chili bushes. I remember something vaguely about that in a history book. Didn't the American Indians give the early colonists cow dung for their corn? No, that was dead fish. I was catching on to this farming-in-the-country thing quite quickly.

"Of course!" I laughed a little too loudly, "I just remember hearing something about bat manure being the best possible fertilizer, right?" Incomprehensible stare from teacher. Yes, I'm learning how to save face in Asia.

Fortunately, cows and manure are everywhere in Isan (the latter usually on the bottom of your shoes). Mission easily accomplished.

A month following, so help me, a handful (batch? gaggle?) of adult chili bushes waved in the breeze in my little makeshift haphazzard garden. I couldn't believe it--from three year old dried chilis scattered about the garden--I had a sustainable crop which commands about $1 a pound on the local market. (I'm rich! I'm rich).

The real thrill came when the peppers started appearing just a couple weeks ago...first green, then yellow, orange, and finally bright red.

Today, was the crowning glory of my agricultural career. I picked two of the most beautiful, glossy, red chili peppers I've ever seen from the top of one of my tenderly cared-for chili bushes.

[Actual photgraph of actual first two chilis from actual garden grown by actual farang appears at the top of this blog. Stamp that photo: "EVIDENCE".]

Relishing the moment, and remembering that when chilis are red, they're fairly mild, I popped a whole chili into my mouth and chomped down. Arghhh! Cough! Choke! Gag! Oh yeah, it's the COOKED red chilis that are fairly mild, I remembered too late. Seven glasses of water later, I felt I had at least gotten my money's worth (and the equivalent of a burn-tattoo on the roof of my mouth).

Perhaps your local newspaper might feature in the near future about a teacher-turned-chili-business magnate who has taken over the market of Thailand's national vegetable, the venerated chili. Remember you heard it here, first.

By the way, my first bio-engineering job after above accomplishment? Tone down that fire. Gasp.


P.S. Pardon my over-simplification of Thai-Isan cooking. There really are some wonderful unique dishes that take some artful cooking and and involve a list of delicious ingredients. Something I have no patience for on the chef's end of things.

Monday, March 06, 2006

And You Think YOU'VE Got it Bad?

When you're sitting in stalled traffic on I-5 or I-405, just cheer yourself up by knowing it could be worse. Last December 4, 2005, Bangkok had the worst "normal"* traffic jam on record. Traffic was blocked on an "expressway" between the city and the airport. The time motorists sat in their cars without moving? Eight hours.

People ran out of gas while stalled. Other's abandoned their cars and started walking. Of course that only served to worsen the situation. Many tickets and tow trucks later, things got cleared around midnight.

A couple years ago, it took me three hours to go the eight miles from the city to the airport by bus, barely catching my flight five minutes before they shut the airplane door. Yes, I could have walked (maybe jogged) it faster.

It is common when visiting Bangkok to have your taxi driver turn off his motor in a traffic jam--often the traffic won't move for 20-30 minutes at a traffic light. That's at EVERY intersection! Of course, the taxi's meter keeps running! So, it's not unusual for me to pay my fare up to that point, get out and walk. Usually you can flag down a motorcyclist and offer him 20 baht to take you between the stalled rows of cars (praying no one decides to open their car door...). So, count your blessings!

Also, another reason I enjoy living in the "Appalachia" of Thailand--Isan--far, far from the madness!

*"normal" excludes traffic jams due to natural disasters such as hurricanes (Houston 2005), fleeing attacking Martians (New Jersey, Halloween of 1938), etc.