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Great Southeast Asian Sojourn, Part 1: Vietnam

March 1 marked the beginning of our summer vacation, or what we in the Salaya Club have dubbed our “Great Southeast Asian Sojourn.” We had a few bumps on the way (missed flight, lost baggage, lost credit cards), but somehow we made it to Hanoi. And what a city! I seriously love that place. The vibe is totally different than Thailand, and more what I was looking for when I moved to Asia. I could feel a certain buzz and energy in the air that I don’t sense when I’m in Bangkok, or even Chiang Mai really. The people were super friendly; more friendly I think than in Thailand. Land of Smiles, Schmand of Schmiles! Also, I enjoyed the food a lot more. Maybe I’ll move to Vietnam in October?? 

Since this is Vietnam, the city has a bit of a French influence which you can see in the architecture, which is very pretty, and the presence of bread! The cool rainy weather was a nice break from the insufferable Thai heat, though our feet were pretty disgusting after walking around in flip flops all day. Vietnam is also cheaper than Thailand (hooray communism?!), though using the Vietnamese dong makes for some good jokes. 20,000 dong is about one dollar. Seriously, the jokes write themselves. Since it is communist, you will see that red color all around (the Vietnamese flag is red with a yellow star), propaganda souvenirs, and bars shut down at midnight, or rather the whole city seems to, but there’s underground bars and clubs that rage all night, if you know where to find them.

Also, the cultural drinking experience in Hanoi is the “bia hoi,” which is local beer that they brew daily. There’s a small street/corner in the city that has all of these little streetside bars (bar meaning a 10×10 patch of sidewalk) that brew their own cheap beer (maybe 5,000 VND per drink) each day. The batch is new everyday, and has to be drunk that day. It was an awesome way to experience Hanoi nightlife, and mingle with locals. I only wish that I had made it there more than once. 

What it all comes down to is that I love Hanoi, and would live there in a heartbeat. Do I really have to go back to Thailand? Thankfully not yet…

After Hanoi, we overnight bused it to Hoi An, a sleepy beach town. It was cute and quaint, but I didn’t find much there to entertain me. I think it’s going to be hard for each successive place to live up to the standard that Hanoi set. After two nights in Hoi An, and another overnight bus, we are currently in Nha Trang, where my grandaddy Lillard was stationed in the war, and near where Autumn’s dad was at Cam Ranh Bay. Tomorrow we will leave for Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, where we will spend a couple days before heading for Cambodia. One country (almost) down, three more to go! 

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Feels Like I Only Go Backwards

It’s been exactly 3 months (and one day) since I arrived in Thailand. Everything I’ve read about culture shock says that this is around the time when the initial honeymoon feeling wears off, and the shock really begins. For me though, I think it came in reverse.

I spent probably the first month and a half in Thailand really frustrated and overwhelmed. Since I arrived a few days late, I felt like I had to play catch-up to my fellow teachers. Though they had only been here a couple days longer than me, they had already made friends, explored Bangkok some, and were picking up the language. I felt like a huge fish out of water. In retrospect, I think I was still pretty stressed from my whole “stuff getting stolen” ordeal and being thrown into the middle of orientation didn’t help much.

When we finally got to Salaya, it wasn’t much better. Just trying to get groceries was a huge undertaking, and my normal comforts and stress relievers were nowhere in sight. I consider myself a pretty adaptable and patient person, but this was challenging me like nothing else before. There were a lot of tearful days where I thought to myself, “Holy shit, did I just make the biggest mistake of my life? What the hell am I doing here?! I am clearly more of Western European gal.”  If you had told me 3 or 4 years ago that I would make the decision to move to Asia for a year, I would have laughed so hard and said, “Yeah, okay, and then I’ll become pope after that.” Asia had never interested me as much as Europe, so when Thailand wasn’t fitting perfectly, I thought maybe my year-plus-long plan to move here had been a dream or a delusion. Though there were good days or moments that validated the move, they didn’t come around as often as I might have liked.

Fast forward to Month 3, and I am finally feeling more comfortable here. The smells don’t bother me as much, I can navigate the market and buy food, and Thai sounds much more like a language as opposed to just gibberish, not to mention I can catch a word here and there!  Sure, there are some days where all I want is a huge bowl of guacamole and a Fenway Frank, but the the homesickness is not nearly so acute.

Though three months doesn’t seem like that much, especially since my contract is for a year, we are only about six weeks away from the end of the semester (and summer vacation!!). The six-month teachers are winding down their stay here, while I feel like I am just hitting my stride. At one month, I was afraid of being honest when someone asked me, “So, do you like Thailand?” But ask me now, and I can say that though it took a while and the relationship is still complicated, I do.

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Old Enough to Party

Figured it was about time to check in and post another update! It’s been just over 2 months since I’ve been in Thailand. On the one hand, it feels like I’ve been here for AGES, especially with December being such a whirlwind. On the other, I also feel like a newbie here, and I still have so much do.. which it is true! It’s also weird being here during the holidays. Sure, there’s Christmas decorations everywhere and Tesco is stuffed to the gills with gift baskets, but it also just feels like a regular week. I still have to go to school and teach (ok, this week it’s just Christmas songs YAY), and I’m not doing any of my normal Christmas traditions. More so than ever, being away from home for the holidays really makes you realize that being with your family is what makes the holidays FEEL like the holidays (cue the world’s smallest violin). MISS YA, FAMALAM.

BUT NEVER FEAR! This holiday season I’m switching it up. Sure, we might be ordering pizza for Christmas dinner (OH YOU JEALOUS HUH), but come Friday afternoon, we will be headed to Koh Pha Ngan for a full week, and spending New Year’s Eve at the infamous Full Moon party. Basically, I’m not torn up about it. This is when I break out my “chicka chicka yeahhhhhh” dance.

mclovin-chicka-chicka-yeah-superbad

When I surface, I shall be tanner, drunker, and happier. See ya on the flip side, los interwebs.

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Tourist vs. Resident

Before I left the U.S., I must have answered the question “What are you doing?” a million times. When I told people that I was teaching in Thailand, that usually prompted some response detailing their familiarity with the country:

“OH! I went on vacation there last year!”
“I know a girl who taught there!”
“My best friend’s cousin was in Bangkok once.. I think..”

My automatic reply was “So, did you/they/he/she like it?” and the overwhelming answers were YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES. People adored it, they had the most amazing time, what an incredible place. “You are going to LOVE IT there!!!” Needless to say, this led to a build up in my mind of Thailand being a paradise — the most BALLIN place on Earth — and questioning why I didn’t make the move earlier.

Well, after 6 weeks, the jury is still out on whether I love it or not, but I have come to the (probably obvious) realization, that the experience of visiting the country for a couple weeks is polar opposite from living here and engaging in daily Thai life. When people come for vacation, they visit the historical temples, chill on the beach for a few days, and explore gritty Bangkok. They get the briefest taste of what Thailand is all about, and it’s specially curated for the tourist and their delicate sensibilities. What they don’t see is the life that regular Thais lead.

Daily life in Thailand involves dirt, litter, and stray dogs.. all in massive numbers. And when it’s hot and humid (which is, uh, every day), it STANKS. I have to ride a motorbike to school 5 minutes down the street because there’s no sidewalk and I would probably get hit by a car flying down the four lane road if I tried to walk on the side. When it rains, it floods because there’s terrible drainage everywhere, so good luck getting anywhere.

The school's driveway. This happened after an hour and a half of a downpour.

The school’s driveway. This happened after an hour and a half of a downpour.

Traffic is pure insanity: I am talking bumper to bumper any time of day, any day of the week. Recently, it has been even worse (how is it possible?!) because of the enormous protests in Bangkok.. but that’s another post for another day. School has its own set of frustrations; let’s just say the Thai school system makes American schools look like finely tuned machines filled with perfect angels.

Tourists relaxing at a resort don’t have to battle with the language day in and day out; they don’t have to deal with the simple task of buying a movie ticket turning into a ten minute ordeal involving five movie theater employees (true story). They don’t find themselves standing in the aisle at Tesco Lotus, staring at the shelf and trying to figure out which box is dish soap and which one is laundry detergent.

And frankly, they don’t have to contemplate a run-of-the-mill Thai menu. This is not your American pad thai, y’all. I’m talking fermented fish and other crazy stuff. I will admit that this stuff may appeal to some, and I am a lifelong picky eater, but after a while you just find yourself pining for a grilled cheese or a steak. In an upcoming post I will compare just how big the difference is between the menus from real Thai restaurants and ones in America.

This probably sounds like one big bitch-fest, and in a way, it is. I’ve been frustrated with a lot of the things here (yay culture shock!) but it’s all part of the process. There are, however, plenty of things about this country that are incredible and that I enjoy. I love how friendly Thais can be, I love being able to travel on the weekends and do some pretty sweet stuff, and all the while, I’m having an experience like no other.

I’m still learning how to navigate Thailand, and discovering what I like about it. Really getting to know a place doesn’t happen overnight, and it will probably take a couple more months, so until then, I will just have to practice saying “mai bpen rai” when I really want to say something else.. and maybe take up meditation. For real this time.

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This is just to say…

… that there will be some good blog posts coming up! Yep, a blog post about future blog posts. How meta. I’ve just returned from a crazy 5 days in Chiang Mai and the past couple weeks at school have been busy, so I haven’t been able to write at all, but I have a few things I do want to write about knocking around inside my head. You can expect posts on the following:

  • American Thai food vs. Thailand Thai food. Yes, they are different. 
  • Life in Salaya (our town)
  • the Thai personality (generally speaking) and customs /habits
  • Perceptions of a country as a tourist vs. as a resident

I might also delve into the underbelly of Thai society at some point, mostly because an incident at our apartment building that happened not more than a couple of hours ago spurred me to do some Googling that revealed some startling information

Keep an eye out for one of these posts this weekend, hopefully! 

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“Teacha, Teacha!”

We are nearing the end of our first full week of classes, so I thought I would take this opportunity of having cooperative WiFi to talk about my school a bit. My school is called Kanchanapisek Wittayalai Nakhon Pathom School (KPN or Kanchana for short). There are 9 affiliate Kanchanapisek schools around the country, so ours is distinguished by putting the province, Nakhon Pathom, in the name. It’s a “royal project” school, so it attracts the best students from around the area.

Thai secondary (Mathayom) schools are divided into levels M1 – M6, with M1 being 7th grade, and M6 being 12th grade. I am currently teaching 2 levels: M3 (so freshman) and M5 (juniors). I have 10 M3 classes, and 8 M5 classes, and I only see each class once a week. Since each class has about 25-30 students (maybe a few more), that’s a lot of kids whose names I am definitely not going to remember at all.. I am not even going to try.

What I do want to learn is some of my students’ nicknames, because these things are HILARIOUS. Sometimes they will have a short Thai name, but often times they (or their parents I think) have picked random English words. So I have students whose nicknames are Champ, Cartoon, Ice, Boat, Best, View, and Toffy. Some other teachers have other ridiculous names, such as Oil, Pond, Curve, and Biggy. I am not sure what the reasoning is for the choices, but it’s amusing nonetheless.

Even though I have told my students my name, the title of this post is one phrase I hear from Thai students constantly. “Teacha, teacha! How old are you?” “Teacha, where you come from?” “Teacha, how long are you in Thailand?” These are the tame, expected questions though; often they like to get a little more personal, or downright absurd. Some of my favorite exchanges so far:

Male Student: Teacha, do you have a boyfriend?
Me: No, I don’t.
Student: I am single.
Me: I don’t date students.

Male Student #2 (it’s always the boys): Teacha, why do you have light skin?
Me (a little flabbergasted): Why do you have dark skin????
(That one was a hit with the students.)

Female student: Teacha, what color are your eyes?
Me: They are hazel, which means green and brown.
Female student: Oooohhh suay, suay [beautiful]!
(Kid, you get an A from teacha.)

Sigh… kids are kids no matter what side of the world you’re on. I know I am probably forgetting some silly student stories (there’s a new one everyday), but that just means I will have to same them for another post. Stay tuned, and sawadee ka!