Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Baw Kaw Saw

So, since moving in, I've done a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of nothing at all. And it's been fabulous.

Yesterday I rode the bus (rot bawkawsaw - that means the bus without air conditioning that you don't want to ride for more than a couple hours, and the seats definitely aren't made for farang length legs, but they're AWESOME) kon diao (alone) to the provincial capitol to hang out with the other two volunteers in my province. We walked around a lot, ate pizza and ice cream for lunch (yup! Though I think most Thai pizzas start out frozen, and most non-veg toppings resemble chopped up hot dogs. I was bummed they were out of the veggie pizza which came with peas and corn) and found some oats at a grocery store. I was tempted to buy some peanut butter, but decided not to since, though I LOVE peanut butter and jelly sammiches, I've been doing fine without them, and I'd probably just be bummed when I ran out of it.

I've also been practicing the Thai alphabet with my counterpart's daughter, and I am EXTREMELY proud to say that after 5 days, I pretty much have all the consonants down and am reading and writing a tiny little bit. This was something that I knew I wanted to do, but did not think would be happening for a long time. Mad props to Kruu Na-rak.

I've been trying to walk or bike around at least a bit every day, to get my white face out there, and it's been good. I've played badminton a few times with a couple ladies up the street, and I hit up the market pretty regularly. It's a lot of fun to see peoples' reactions when I speak Thai (especially when they understand me, tone and vowel-length are extremely important, and if you don't speak right you will say "mustache" instead of "massage", or "horse vagina" instead of "snow." Seriously.)

I haven't seen or heard of any parties like the ones I went to during training, which is both a relief and a disappointment. Disappointing because my presence (and dancing) at those parties really helped boost my celebrity status. A relief because after going to one or two of them every week, they got a bit redundant/exhausting. I'll just have to keep my eyes and ears open. Maybe I'll check out the cock-fighting ring by my house.

I've been doing a pretty good job so far keeping my house clean (which impresses my visitors, as does the fact that I shower at least twice a day, a must for Thai people), and I've been enjoying watering my yard in the evenings. I feel like I need to come up with a project for myself, to do something cool and productive, but I'm not stressing over it. I've been spending a lot of time at my counterpart's house, and when I'm home, I've got enough things to do to keep me busy. I am sure that I will need to find more to do to keep myself occupied soon enough, so why rush?

I've been accepted as a member of a youth development committee, so I'll be going to my first meeting on that soon, which is exciting. I just got some more information on that, so I need to read up and make sure I can find some way to contribute. I am also looking forward to school starting up so that I can start doing some more work for the immediate community. They understand that is what I am here for, but I feel a bit weird right now since I'm not apparently doing anything. But I'm not worried, yet. I really haven't had much time to myself for the last 3 months (holy crap, today is my 3 month anniversary!) so I'm enjoying having some time to really kick back and take it easy for a bit and let myself settle into my surroundings before things get kicking again.

And I still need to get those obnoxious speakers.

Ek out!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Epic Post!

Ka tor kap! (Sorry!)

It's been, like, a month? More? My access to internet has not coincided with an opportune time to write a proper post, and the longer I've waited, the longer this one has gotten. And I've probably forgotten a bunch of cool stuff. But now I'm gonna spend some time on this and try to get it all right.

I've started writing this in a text document (which I should have been doing all along, but I was lazy. Actually, it was a pain to plug in my computer because 3-prong wall sockets don't seem to exist here, and I don't have my own power strip yet, though those aren't hard to find). Anyhow, it is being written over the course of several days, so if there are issues with tense agreement or anything, you'll just have to get over it. That also means that my thoughts may sound particularly unorganized (as opposed to the usual level of unorganization), though I will try to remember to read it over and try to make some sense before I actually throw this up on my blog.

Remember Greng Jai? The untranslatable concept intended to maintain relationships by going to any lengths to avoid conflict (among other things)? I got a great quote from our Cross Cultural trainer. She said, “Greng Jai has nothing at all to do with logic.” Comforting, no? To be honest I'm really not worried about Greng Jai TOO much, since I'm already kinda in the habit of telling people what they want to hear, but there are definitely subtleties to it that I should be careful and aware of. And trying to figure out when I'm being placated. Ugh. Oh. Check this out. Apparently there are some specific words that people will use that indicate when someone is Greng Jai-ing you, but we didn't learn them because we were playing a game (that didn't work) that took longer than expected. Grrr. But you know what? Mai bpen rai.

A couple new thoughts about the difficulties of Thailand. Things that are considered rude in America are no biggie at all here. For example, there is apparently NEVER an inappropriate time to answer your cell phone. Meetings, lectures, weddings, during meals or a massage, or while on stage (seriously), it's all good. Granted, I will definitely be taking advantage of this when I find myself in the many situations where everyone only speaks Thai and I have no idea what's going on, and the choice is between texting a friend and dozing off, but it will take some serious getting used to.

Next is the issue of noise pollution, or rather, the lack of an issue. For example, people here like their karaoke, and they like it LOUD and at all hours. And that's cool with everyone. This is another one that I will probably end up using to my advantage, as I'm planning to spend a fair amount of my moving in allowance on some great big stereo speakers.

It IS, however, considered rude to raise your glass higher than someone older than you during a toast.

It is not rude to say that someone is fat (ooan), either behind their back or to their face. In fact, you can pretty much safely comment on anything that is observable. They are also quick to ask personal questions such as “How old are you?” “How tall are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “How much did that cost?” This was pretty uncomfortable at first, and I still don't like calling people fat, but it's made me wonder WHY we (Americans) are uncomfortable with such topics. The questioning may seem nosy, but it's a quick, easy way to get to know some basic (and possibly important) information about someone.

“Thai Time” is taking some getting used to. Punctuality is something that people don't really worry too much about here, as evidenced by the fact that probably 9 out of 10 wall clocks do not function. Life definitely moves at a slower pace here, and Thai people wonder why Americans are always in a hurry. I have trouble explaining, especially in Thai, but also in English. Americans DO seem to take time a lot more seriously, but are we really accomplishing more? I feel like people spend a lot of time rushing to waste their time, if that makes any sense. My perception is that Thai people simply take their time and don't rush when they do things, while Americans rush through them to get on to the next thing. And these are fierce generalizations (which I am never a fan of making, but am being asked to do so a lot), and this is also not to say that Thai people do everything slowly, nor that Americans do everything sloppily. I think you understand what I am trying to say, so I'm going to move on.

And you need to cover your mouth when using a toothpick, but you can pick your nose in public. Basically, it seems like most things are OK (especially if they are considered fun), as long as they don't disrupt the hierarchy of age and status (which are SUPER important).

A while back we took a field trip to a unique temple. It is unique because it is devoted to caring for people with AIDS. It has an ICU for patients who are doing particularly poorly, rooms for those who need some assistance, and tiny little one room houses for the ones who are able to live mostly independently. The whole place is really for those with deteriorating health so that they can live out their days relatively comfortably and respectably. And when I say respectably, let me tell you how many of them came to be at this wat. There is a huge stigma about HIV/AIDS in Thailand, with all the same reasons for the stigma as anywhere else (only bad people get AIDS, prostitutes and drug-users), but because of the collective-community way that Thai people live, those feelings are magnified countless times, because people are afraid of associating themselves with those people who are perceived to be “bad.” We have learned that 20 years or so ago, when AIDS was on the rise around the world, the Thai government was quick to act, and a lot of money and energy was spent on education, awareness and care for infected people. These efforts were very effective, and Thailand was very successful in reducing the numbers of new infections. Since then, economic downturns have reduced the budget for AIDS care, and education and prevention have been cut back the most. Medicine (anti-retro viral drugs) IS still available to the public, but in order to get it, people must officially register as having AIDS with the government, so some people are understandably hesitant to seek aid.

Anyway, many of the current residents of the wat were abandoned there by their families. Literally. It is apparently not uncommon for people to be found dumped outside the temple. The wat keeps the ashes of all the cremated bodies for families, should they choose to claim them, but that is a rare occurrence. They have created a stack of these bags of ash that consists of the remains of over 10,000 AIDS victims.

The conclusion of our visit to the temple was a cabaret show, performed by the residents of the facility. They practice dance routines as a means of physical therapy, and it was really good to see them apparently having fun and in better health than they had been before coming to the temple. They finished with a Q&A session, and we asked a lot about what WE can do about HIV/AIDS in Thailand. The general consensus (besides donating money, which we did) was to simply treat people with dignity.

Before our trip, I had wanted to do something about HIV/AIDS during my service but I really didn't know what I COULD do. Now I know that I should be able to find a local group for PHAs (People Having AIDS) with whom I can simply go socialize, and maybe assist with any projects that may be working on, though that would secondary in importance. I am also more determined to do some work educating youth (and adults), so I will be seeking out the local health offices and discussing options with them. The Peace Corps provides us with a whole toolkit of information and activities (in English and Thai) specifically for AIDS awareness and education, and I really want to get some good use out of it.

Then we had ice cream!

Not really, but that seemed like a good transition. And I DO eat ice cream as often as possible here. The guys driving around with the great big canisters of fresh coconut ice cream are AWESOME. Did you know that beans, corn, sticky rice and candied pumpkin are all acceptable ice cream toppings here? I've also had corn and bean popsicles (not together in one popsicle, that'd be gross, but they DID have pieces of real corn and beans in them!) Corn is considered a dessert here, and it can be found in the markets in cups done up like a sundae, with chocolate sauce and sprinkles. I meant to get a picture, but I'm guessing you've probably figured out by now that I am not too quick with the camera.

We celebrated our two month anniversary in Thailand by having our Language Proficiency Interviews. Now, I'm REALLY not sure HOW this happened, but I scored pretty damn well. Better, in fact, than several people I KNOW speak much better Thai than I do, so either my interviewer really liked my attitude towards Thai (which he did compliment me on), or he had lower standards than other interviewers, or SOMEthing. I don't know. To be honest, the score really doesn't mean much to me, and it was really more for Peace Corps than it was for us, but it was pretty cool, and it made my language teacher proud, so, I'll pat myself on the back.

Training wrapped up pretty nicely, we had some end of training interviews with some of the core staff (pretty low pressure, at least, I thought so) and took a written exam to make sure we knew enough policy stuff and whatnot. Funny thing, I failed the cross-cultural portion of the exam. Apparently I don't understand Thai culture AT ALL and am bound to make countless cultural faux-pas. OR (as I prefer to think) I felt most confident with that portion of the test and spent the least time on it. When I met with the cross-cultural coordinator to discuss it, I felt that we were giving the same answers to the questions, I simply did it more concisely using more general statements. I was also seriously dinged for using the word “weird” to describe how we (and some projects we may propose) might be perceived by the locals (and I still think it was appropriate), as the word had different connotations to me than the person scoring my test. Sigh. Now I KNOW I'm a failure. I'll try not to lose TOO much sleep over it. (And yes, they ARE still going to let me be a volunteer).

After that, we said goodbye to our host families by having a big ol' Thai style party. All of the families were presented with certificates (did you know Thai people LOVE certificates? Some of the volunteers who have been here for a year like to joke that you can get a certificate for crossing the street safely) and the volunteers did several performances. I was involved in the bamboo dance, which involved hop-scotch style rhythmic hopping over big bamboo poles getting clapped back and forth by other volunteers. There was another Thai dance that involved clapping coconut shells and a lot of energy, a medley of American dances from the '50s to present, and a couple live music performances. All in all it was a lot of fun, and a lot of tears were shed by the end. I am determined to be a good son and go back and visit my family in the next two years.

The very last bit of training was the counterpart conference, for which our counterparts (co-teachers, principals, or staff from the local government offices) came together and we had a bunch of information sessions to prepare us to work together and make sure we were all on the same page. For that time, all us volunteers were back in the hotel where we had started originally, and it was a really good time for a bit of last minute American-style socialization, though this time we all knew better to sit on the stairs. Actually, I (and a couple others) tried to sit on the stairs, for old times sake, but it made us feel really uncomfortable. I guess we're being assimilated pretty darn effectively. Then we got sworn in, and it was off to site.

Today (during Song Kran), I saw a driver stop and pass an open beer and a cigarette to a police officer. It bothered me a little, but mostly I thought it was super sweet. Drunk driving is an issue here, and especially at Song Kran. Have I told you about Song Kran yet? No?! Poor, unattentive me! Song Kran is the Thai New Year (though they change their calendars on January 1, so I don't really know what that's all about), it is officially celebrated on April 13, and it lasts three days. Notice that I said “officially.” Where I am, it lasts about a week, and some people celebrate for the entire month of April. There really aren't any strict rules about it. It is presumed to be the hottest time of the year, so naturally everyone spends the days throwing water at each other. I've heard that the “big party” is in Chiang Mai, where several streets are packed with people for several kilometers in a festival atmosphere, splashing and squirting each other, boozing, and dancing. In smaller towns (like where I am), it's more like groups of (mostly) kids standing on the side of the road with hoses and barrels of water, throwing buckets at passing cars and motorcycles. Occasionally a pickup will go by with people throwing water back at the ones on the side of the road. It is also the time of year for reunions, when the younger generation who have all gone away to school or work come home. So it's a really convenient time for MORE partying! I have heard that there's a lot more to Song Kran than all this, with some mellower activities, and some symbolism behind the water and whatnot, but all I really know is what I've observed.

Song Kran is now officially over and I have in fact learned some things. The Thai name for the thirteenth is Wan Long (which means “Wash Day”), and it is a day for cleaning. You do laundry, take an extra shower or two, clean your house, whatever you've got. It's external cleansing only, though, so food and alcohol are still OK. The fourteenth is Wan Gnao (I'm not sure on the translation), but it is the day for spending time with family. Thai families get pretty big (extended families, that is, nuclear families seem pretty comparable to American ones, though that would imply that the extended families are comparable, too). In any case, the big extended families are much closer (both physically and emotionally) than I am used to. During training, I liked to joke that my village only had one family. And it seemed pretty true. It seemed like everyone I met was related in some way to my family. In the village of about 8000, anyone who asked who my family was knew who I was talking about from my father's first name and a vague gesture in the general direction of the house.

I moved into my house yesterday morning. As I said before, my house is pretty darn sweet. Much bigger than I actually need, adequately furnished, and has enough dishes for (at least) five families (though I AM missing a few key pieces, so go figure). I also have a closet full of women's clothing and a bunch of random stuff/trinkets. I have been spending the last two days going through things and stashing what I won't use in a crawl space and cleaning, and hanging out with a group of neighborhood kids who have become my posse.
Some more about that.
A couple boys showed up at my house yesterday with my pa-aw (principal), one of whom will be a future student of mine. We stood around awkwardly for a few minutes after my pa-aw left, then I ran in the house and grabbed a hackie-sack and showed them how to hack. It was a new game to them, but between football (REAL football, you foolish American) and tukraw (I think I've mentioned tukraw, Thai-style soccer that is a cross between hackie-sack and volleyball), they picked it up pretty quickly. They began to feel a bit more comfortable with me and began asking me questions (none of them were really up for trying to do any English) and learned the limits of my Thai. Over the next little while, the group of boys grew to five, and before I knew it, they were asking if I wanted to eat Goit Diao (noodle soup), and I was following them to the nearby stand. I got a chance to impress them with my capacity for eating spicy (I think I actually like my food spicier than the vast majority of Thai people, so I am pretty amazing to them), and made jokes about having 10 girlfriends. We went back to my house and I showed them my Super Nintendo games on my computer, then went back to work cleaning while they played. I also bought them ice cream. So I'm essentially the AWESOME farang in the neighborhood now.

I also got to meet a bunch of the adults in the area, had some broken conversations and received a gift of green mango, and several offers for dinner and vegetables. I love Thailand.

This morning I took a walk around the area, saw the morning market (I think I need to go a bit earlier next time, or else it's just really small), but I spoke a little bit with a couple vendors, was offered whiskey (at 8:30 AM) and bought some tomatoes. A lady also gave me some chili peppers (she wouldn't take money) when I said, “Pom gin pet dai” [I eat spicy well]. Then I spent some time just wandering around, found the local health station, and put myself on display. I feel like right now, one of the best things I can do for myself is learn my area and let people get a chance to become familiar with me, so I will probably continue to do the same thing in the mornings (because it's still cool) until school starts. I did a little walking around this afternoon, but it's pretty durn hot, and it seems like a better time to do stuff that requires less moving (like FINALLY finishing this epic post).

So there you have it. I have made it back to present, SURELY missing numerous interesting observations, anecdotes and ponderances, but such is life. My house DOES have internet (high speed, what's up Posh Corps?), so presumably I will be able to update at my leisure. And I'll get some photos up soon, too.

(That's my newest nickname. It sounds kinda like “egg,” and basically means “number one best.”)