Monday, June 25, 2007

The Dinner Party - June 18th

I came home and couldn't sleep, so I did the logical thing: went insane for a bit. I couldn't bear to eat at the university today either. One can only handle the canteen food subsidized at 15 baht per meal – the equivalent of 40 cents – so many times in a row before reaching a nausea plateau. At least that seems to be the case for me, who knows about everyone else.
So after my failed nap and general restlessness, I went downstairs and took two steps before reaching the biggest Farang hangout in town, Smoothie Blues, where I ordered a chicken quesadilla, which always tastes a little funny. Probably something to do with the cheese (or whatever imitation stuff) they use. I brought along my “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” travel book and tried to plan out a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam for the midterm break at the end of July/beginning of August. Once I had some food in me, I took a trip to the gym with Mark and had myself a workout.
We walked back amidst a torrential downpour, which left me the most soaked I’ve been in my life, but it felt good after working up a sweat. On our way, we picked up a cheap bottle of wine (that wasn't so cheap being that Thailand isn't exactly famous for its wine) to bring to the dinner party we were invited to over at Titi's - the 50 year old Indonesian woman who works at the Asian feminist NGO and happens to like dancing as if she was 21 again. Ben, Mark, and myself all know Titi through Joof, a fellow teacher at CMU that’s 37 but looks like he’s 21. 21 seems to be the magic number here. (note: Joof actually looks more like he’s 27, but then my line about 21 being a magic number wouldn’t have worked so well. Sorry if anyone feels betrayed.)
So the three Americans made their way over to Titi’s place. We arrived to find that she had prepared quite the feast. The spread included things like Tandoori chicken, eggplant lasagna, salad, Chinese-inspired doughy things with bean paste in some and pork in others, cheese covered grapes, and real Mi-Goreng specially for me (because I told her about being obsessed with the instant kind, to which she was floored), and to tell you the truth, I prefer the instant stuff more, though I could never have admitted such a thing. Maybe it’s the MSG in the instant stuff, or maybe it’s the absence of real fish sauce (which I blame for subsequent stomach ailments later that night), but instant Mi-Goreng is just unbeatable.
The three of us were the youngest by far at the soiree, and it was kind of strange how everybody acted completely stand-offish to us. I've never felt that incapable of socializing in my life.
We also happened to be the only Americans, except for this twice-divorced 62 year old insane red-headed woman from California. She loved to ramble on and on about this banana farmer 25 years her junior from Dominica that broke her heart. Daphne was her name, and she owns some natural beauty products company. We were grouped with her by default because nobody else at the party was really interested in talking to us and Daphne proved to be inescapable.
There were a couple of women from Indonesia and the Philippines, a Thai astrologist, a Kiwi man with a wild-west type moustache, this Aussie couple that was “too cool for school”, and an ethnically Fijian/Indian woman from Fiji who had lived in Australia, thus accounting for her twinge of an Aussie accent.
“I’ve been to Fiji before” I mentioned. “But I spent a little less than a week there and only got to do the touristy things.”
“Typical” she muttered.
“I wish I’d gotten to see more, it’s just that I was bounded by time constraints. I wanted to visit while my friend from Fiji was there, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. His dad is actually a professor at the university. University of the Pacific, or something like that.”
“Oh really?” Her interest was piqued. “What’s his last name?”
“Narsi.” I replied. “He’s a professor of economics, I think.”
“Uh huh. I know who he is.”
“Really? That’s crazy. There must be hundreds of Narsi’s in Fiji.”
“Fiji’s not that big, you know.”
“Isn’t there around a million people?”
“No, about 900,000, and most people know of each other.”
“Still, that doesn’t seem too small.”
“Oh, it’s small.”
“Whatever.” I thought.
And that’s where the conversation ended. She just turned abruptly and started talking to the person on her other side, leaving me to my own devices for about the millionth time that night. At some point I briefly entered into conversation with the Aussie guy (of the aforementioned “too cool for school” Aussie couple). As it turns out, his wife has worked for the feminist NGO over the past three years in Chiang Mai while he’s passed the time as a “domestic engineer”. In case you’re not familiar with the profession, it’s just a fancy way of saying that you’re an unemployed bum just piggy-backing off your significant other’s salary. I love to be lazy, but three years of hanging out doing nothing while your girlfriend goes to work everyday? C’mon, man. And then he had the audacity to take needless potshots at me for being American (note: one would think that international NGO workers in Thailand would be above such puerile nonsense, but then one would have to think again). After taking the higher road for a few minutes, I caved and offered up the most pathetic retort I could think of while on the spot, something along the lines of “It's only the people that come from small countries with napoleon complexes that feel compelled to take potshots at people from other countries." I instantly felt supremely lame. I took another potshot earlier in the night from this seemingly nice and innocent Filipino woman that didn’t even make any sense. When I was complimenting Titi on her amazing cooking and expressing my gratitude, this Filipino woman said, “Are you saying that cause you mean it or just because you're American?" I still don’t even know what that means, but I guess I was just saying it because I was American after all since I lied about the Mi-Goreng, though I wasn’t lying about being sincerely grateful and impressed. That’s more than I can say about any of the other people.
Later on in the evening I had another run-in with the woman from Fiji. She was busy comparing bellies with the Aussie guy and said "At least I've got an excuse being 5 months pregnant and all." Not too long after I stepped outside to find her puffing on a cigarette.
"Aren't you pregnant?" I asked.
"Yeah, so what" she fired back.
"Umm, well, isn't smoking while pregnant not supposed to be the greatest idea?" I stammered.
"Who says, western medicine?"
I started to feel very uncomfortable and not really sure what to say because she was so adamant.
"I don't think it's just western medicine that says smoking while pregnant is bad. I think it's kind of a universal understanding."
She shot me a quizzical look.
"I'm not judging" I said, obviously judging, "but isn’t that cigarette you're holding a Western cancer stick?"
“Ok, whatever you want to do, that’s fine.” And then I excused myself really awkwardly.
The night progressed, and right as we were leaving, the woman from Fiji was smoking another cigarette and said to me, "I have a secret to tell you."
"What's that?" I asked.
"I'm not really pregnant" she said. "I was just saying that to make Derrick [the Aussie] feel worse about himself. Just thought I'd let you know."
At that moment it became all the more awkward because if it wasn't a baby we were talking about, then we were just simply discussing her belly fat at that point. I wanted to stare at her belly and separate fact from fiction, but then that just would have been too weird. And then we had to walk the crazy red-headed kook home.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why not go out on a limb? - June 13, 2007

Plane tickets to Austria just went up three hundred dollars over night. I could kill someone. Not really, but still, I feel sick about it. I knew I shouldn’t have waited, but Rudi – the one getting married - didn’t respond to me soon enough with the “a-ok” and the computers at work yesterday wouldn’t load the payment page properly. Maybe if I hold out a bit longer a deal will present itself. See, I’m supposed to go to Europe for Rudi’s wedding. I know what you’re all thinking, Why are you going to Europe when you’re in Asia for a year…Shouldn’t you be exploring Asia? And yes, it is damn expensive, but you see, I made a promise a long time ago to Rudi. Plus there’s another pull that I’ll get to in a minute. Rudi – if you make your way back to the earliest postings on this blog – is a good friend (whom some refer to as the Austrian Kenny G.) that I made in Australia while on a trip comprised of international students traveling along the eastern cost. It was “the east coast odyssey”, though much less an odyssey than per se a romp of sorts. Beyond the majority of Americans, there were three Europeans on the trip: Rudi, Daniel, and Jonathan. Jonathan has pretty much left the picture since becoming a father back in Denmark. Who would have ever thought a child shakes up your priorities? As for Daniel, the Swede, I can’t get him out of my life. He obsessively stalks me everyday on Skype and Gmail chat, seemingly in this for the long haul. Daniel will also be making his way to the wedding in Austria, thus making it a reunion of sorts. We better not have to share a bed.
The other deciding factor in this European sojourn is that my dearest Emily will be in Europe around the same time, so I’ll be joining up with her in Rome after the wedding festivities wind down. She will be traveling around Italy for three weeks with her friend Patrice, so I’m quite psyched about the prospect of jumping her bones, ahem, I mean licking her face, ahem, I mean spending some seriously quality time with her for about five days.
I had to find subs for all my classes and was particularly nervous about running the whole charade by my boss, but she just put it matter-of-factly:
“A few years ago we had an American teacher. His name was Alex. Alex went back to the States for the December holidays and promised us he had found a sub. After the December holidays, several students came and complained that no teacher had shown up for class and so they had missed out on a week of studies. So we fired Alex. We also fired Miguel, the one who was supposed to sub for Alex.” Point taken. I’m actually at the middle school right now having finished up with my daily dose of 7th graders. Thankfully, my last class after lunch was serendipitously cancelled due to some sort of assembly. Still, that didn’t stop the last class before lunch from ruining my day. The first three hours were fine, but I was ready to murder the last class. I decided to test out having a quote of the day, though I should’ve known in advance that metaphors would be lost upon such little buggers. Today’s quote was by Will Rogers and went as follows (try not to laugh): “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” So after first hour met me with universal faces of incredulity, for the subsequent periods I added a visual aid for clarification. I drew an incredibly lame tree to illustrate a “limb” and defined the word “risk” for them. You know, because going out on a limb is like taking a risk, right? Anyway, I also drew some fruit hanging from one of the tree limbs and captioned it “this could turn out to be the best fruit ever”. Then I pantomimed for the class what it meant to go out on a limb by awkwardly simulating climbing out on a tree branch. If that wasn’t enough, I further explained that the risk of going out on a limb was that there existed no such guarantee of not falling or the fruit being delicious, but that if they didn’t try, they’d never know. Still, after all this hand-holding, in the initial 15 minutes I’d allotted, most of the students hadn’t even managed to copy down the quote. So I made my way around the room and worked with various kids on an individual basis. “Write down something” I said. “Anything! Don’t worry about drawing the tree, I just put that up there to help you. I want you to tell me what you think this quote means in real life. What does it mean to not know if you don’t try? What are some things that could be considered ‘going out on a limb?’” So after another 10 minutes, as I made my way around the room, everybody was still fixated on drawing their trees. I was infuriated. “FORGET ABOUT THE TREE” I screamed while erasing the tree off the board. “I swear to God, if another one of you keeps drawing that tree, I’m gonna strangle you. Write, don’t draw. Got it?”
I gave them one last chance. Ten minutes later, everyone was still drawing the tree. I hate 4th hour. The other classes might not have been brilliant, but at least they didn’t fixate on the tree. My favorite interpretation of the quote came from a meek girl in 2nd hour. She said, “The fruit is too sweet and a monkey will come eat it.”

Back home, my Dad is supposedly getting 1-2 phone calls a day from people interested in buying my car. He’s been having more success than I did when I tried, though my best effort consisted of a small ad hoc sign in the window facing away from the street. Still, as soon as people hear the price, they take off for the hills. How can people think that a 2004 Mazda 3 in perfect condition is gonna go for under 10g’s. They must be smoking crack.


It’s official: I’m going to Europe. I found a decent flight on Turkish Airlines flying into Vienna on July 12 and leaving out of Rome on July 20. There was a flight leaving on the 19th for $45 cheaper with only a two hour layover in Istanbul as opposed to the nine I’ll be forced to endure, but I figured it was worth it for one more night with my lady; but a small price to pay for love.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Bad sleeps, the ants, Mark's in the hospital - Saturday, June 9th

I woke up early this morning, maybe because I've been waking up every morning at 6:45am, or maybe because I had to pee intensely. Needless to say, I forced myself back to sleep and awoke around 11:30am to find 3 missed calls from Leah, who's staying at the guest house, completely unsure about what to do, and has probably been up since 6am due to the jetlag. Leah is the latest member of PiA to arrive in Chiang Mai.
I want to eat a bowl of my coco-pops (coco crispies) right now, but I don't have any milk and I'm too lazy to walk downstairs to the 7-11 next door and buy some. There are all these ants crawling around my room now I think because I left out my spoon with some yogurt crusted on it for a day, but I can't figure out for the life of me where they're coming from. This one-by-one slaughter that I've been carrying out isn't the most effective.
Just a few minutes ago I got off the phone with Mark, who called me from the hospital to let me know they're refusing to release him until his insurance info is cleared up. He might just end up walking out on his own very soon if they don't let him out. To offer some background, Mark - one of the other Farang CMU faculty members from Coe College in Iowa, who looks strikingly similar to actor/comedian Brian Posehn - suffered food poisoning from eating at the very same Mexican restaurant I ate at with him (along with 10 other people) the other night, though he's the only one who got sick. He talked my ear off for about 36 minutes straight, probably because he's been so deprived of social interaction.
"And so in 'The Commitment' by Dan Savage" he went on, "They go to British Columbia to get married, just symbolically at least. They're not from British Columbia, and it's not even legal there, but then, I have to go. Bye"
Without warning, after blabbering for those 36 minutes, he hung up on me. I assumed it was because someone had entered his room offering hope of a timely discharge. There really was a God and I had been saved from Mark's desperate chattiness...And then he called me back five minutes later and went on for another 36 minutes. (note: Mark, if you're reading this, I like talking to you. Don't get the wrong idea. You're a beautiful person, even if you look like the mailguy from Just Shoot Me).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Vaccines, 90 cent medical exams, & monstrous 7th graders – June 7th

I got the vaccination for Japanese Encephalitis (JE) the other day at the hospital. It’s a 2-shot vaccine, so I have to go back in another week. The hospital was fairly nice and not half as ghetto as I was probably expecting, though the waiting rooms seemed to be a little packed. Maybe they’re like that back in the states and I’ve just never noticed, probably because when you go to get a shot you don’t mingle amongst the people with eye patches and gauzed heads. Back in the states, the vaccination costs something just shy of $400. Over here it’s something like $15 in total, plus it doesn’t have any of the risky side effects that the vaccination carries over in the States. Kind of ironic that my parents had me get vaccinized for Rabies, but not JE, which actually seems to be the much greater risk over here. Even though most of the everyday people I encounter in Chiang Mai have never even heard of JE, the doctor at the hospital who I spoke with was quite aware of its seriousness and 100% recommended the shots. After I get the next shot, I can go and camp out in rural Thailand, naked under the stars and free of mosquito repellent. That’s actually probably not the smartest idea because I still have to worry about other mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue Fever, not to mention that mosquito bites suck in general, but it’s still fun to think about.
Continuing on in the realm of hospitals and doctors, I recently had to get a medical certificate proving that I’m healthy in order to obtain a work permit and the doctor’s checkup cost me 90 cents. All they really did was take my blood pressure and fill out some forms.
“Are you healthy?” the doctor asked.
“I think so.” I responded.
“You look healthy" he said with a big smile. "Have a good day.”
And that was that.

On other fronts, I had my first teaching experience with the 7th graders yesterday. After being introduced to the entire student body during an early morning assembly, I’m pretty sure it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that life went downhill from there. It was grueling. Teaching five hours of the same class to completely out of control 12 year old kids is kind of like being Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day (only without the devious perks). You have to do the same thing over and over again, all the while being forced to maintain some semblance of interest in a class full of kids who talk at the top of their lungs except when they’re called on and then they turn into little church mice.

Flashback to yesterday while in the thick of it all…
Oh my God, I’m really teaching middle school monsters. They’re infinitely more rambunctious than the middle-schoolers I remember back in the states and the furthest cry from the stone-faced university students. I futilely tried to lay some discipline foundations at the beginning of class because I was told it’s better to start off firm and then lax up as the semester progresses and not the other way around. I’m not sure if my “Hey, everybody, be quiet and don’t speak when I speak” qualifies as starting off firm, as I continuously have to “shh” them and talk really loud, not to mention it’s only 25 minutes into my first class. I’m actually writing this in the middle of class while they work on an activity in pairs interviewing one another about their English nickname, number of siblings, hobbies, and what they would do with 10 million baht (editors note: not surprisingly, everyone wanted a new house and car, though one random kid did say he would burn it).
I just tried to end the activity and nobody’s paying attention to me. This one runt toward the front of the class refuses to stay put in his seat. Is it permissible to choke kids in Thailand? I wonder to myself.

Afterthoughts: While I singled out several kids in semi-failed attempts to elicit participation from the class, I’m pretty sure I accidentally picked on the only autistic kid in the whole school. I don’t know if it’s better or worse that I had no idea.
Another kid randomly came up to me after class, an incredibly small, young looking boy with thick glasses and a face somewhat reminiscent of a simple person. He inexplicably took my arm and began holding and gently caressing it. His initial hello was all I could make out. And then I blacked out.

Monday, June 04, 2007

First Day of School - June 4th

Today was the day I became the man I was born to be. Eh, a tad bit of an exaggeration. It was my first day of teaching and I had one class. For some inexplicable reason, I teach one class on Monday and Thursday, and three classes on Tuesday and Friday, plus the 5 hours straight of 7th graders on Wednesday. This morning it was English 203 for second year university students. I’d been warned they would be a tough crowd, and so sure enough, I felt like a stand-up comedian that was flopping for the first half of class. Everyone just sat stone-faced as I tried to elicit class participation in going over the syllabus. I’m pretty sure nobody understood 98% of what I was saying, but then we played a spur-of-the-moment ice breaker that involved each of the 25 students selecting an English nickname and writing down one thing that they really enjoy. Turns out I have Mickey and Minnie in my class, and they respectively enjoy playing on the computer and traveling. Turns out the class also contains a “Winnie” and some guy that prefers to be called “arm chair”. This one flamboyant boy – who dramatically gushed when he saw that I was his teacher upon first walking in – selected “Elizabeth” as his nickname, much to the chagrin of everybody else.
The weirdest part about today is that while I know I came over here to teach, it never really sunk in that I was “actually” going to be teaching. Somehow I had gotten the impression that people who go over to Asia to teach just walk around saying they’re a teacher without having to do anything. Whoever thought that I’d actually be placed in a classroom standing before 30 some-odd bloodthirsty Thai university students? (They’re actually the most silent and polite people I’ve ever encountered, at least so far) Whoever thought that I’d be an actual lecturer? Whoever thought, whoever thought, whoever thought…

Chiang Mai: The Legend Continues, June 3, 2007

Maybe because my intake of sugar cereals was so strictly moderated as a youth, but it still brings back a forbidden pleasure as I sit here eating a bowl of Thai-version coco crispies. In addition to the coco crispies, my room is also stocked with Mayo, chili beans, cream of potato soup, breakfast bars, tuna, and Mi Goreng instant noodles chock full of msg. I was able to obtain all these things at the farang supermarket, where my buddy Kati was kind enough to bring me. She’s actually been carting my bum all over town this past week, and while she pretends to think I’m crazy, I know that in her heart she has a soft spot for me. Kati’s age is impossible to gauge, so I had to resort to other measures in figuring out that she’s 32 (she’ll kill me if she ever sees this). She ages incredibly well being that she looks like a 15 year old, as do many of the other Thais that I have befriended (age well, that is, not look like 15 year olds). Kati also has a strange preoccupation with Winnie the Pooh as evidenced by her Pooh phone case and Pooh stuffed animal in the back of her car.

I asked Kati about products in the US that say “made in Thailand” and whether those items are manufactured in sweat shops. She said that those factories have perfectly decent conditions. What I’ve come to discover is that Thailand is fairly well developed and not as dirty as one might think. It’s Indonesia that’s more sketch according to Kati as she deterred me from buying the Tim Tam’s manufactured in Australia’s next door neighbor. “I don’t trust things made in Indonesia” she said.

I start teaching class on Monday. In addition to the 2 courses (2 sections each, so four in total) that I’ll be handling at the university, I picked up 5 hours of teaching 7th graders every Wednesday. Word on the street is that I’m gonna have more than my hands full with the 7th graders, but the people at the Junior High thought I’d be a good fit being that I can match the energy level of any 7th grader they throw my way.

Some random nonsense: In the Thai version of Wal-mart, twice a day the Thai national anthem comes on over the loudspeaker and everybody stops what they’re doing for the song’s duration.