Mai Pen Rai
I am writing to you from a state of week-induced hangover. My recent weekends have been so full of tiring travel and activities that coming down from the emotional high of the excitement, genuinely leaves me feeling like lukewarm death. Nothing indicates a spry and full-of-life 22 year old crossing the decorated threshold into maturity, like being literally hung-over from fun (look away energetic college friends, I don’t want you to see me like this). Here’s what you missed while I’ve been technologically cleansing - procrastinator speak for shirking on my blogging responsibilities. The most aged news is that Emily and I got to meet up with a pack of our orientation friends to attend the E-San music festival in Khon Kaen. Considering the relative geographic isolation of our province, it was to be the first time we were reunited with pals of any sort and we were determined to make the most of it, immediately hopping in a cab upon arrival to take us to the promised land (an actual bar with actual people). Despite being in a province that was relatively more familiar with foreigners, we were greeted by the same local fascination we were used to in Amnatcharoen. At this point I will take a moment to reflect on how lucky I am to have Emily considering my literal paralysis vis-à-vis the art of haggling. Somehow the drivers can always smell my fear, rendering me as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
After finally whittling the reluctant cab driver down to a reasonable price, we victoriously crowded into the back seat. The cab driver, assuming we couldn’t understand his local jargon, watched us like a popular tween watching her instagram likes compiling. He muttered incessantly owning his interest even after we politely requested he stop. Emily, in the front seat, jumped into action, insisting (in broken, nonsensical Thai) that he keep his eyes forward. This unlikely hero, standing at a menacing 5 foot 2 and wearing a fun n’ flirty romper as opposed to the conventional armor, repeatedly threatened to pay the driver less than the pre-established price, he contemptuously agreed. Like my first graders goldfish-like attention span, this resolution lasted all but seconds before the harassment commenced again. In this moment, Emily’s skin took on a green-ish hue. Her balled up fists ballooned to the size of basketballs. She howled and beat on her chest while unmistakable fireballs of threats poured from her eyes as she prepared to hulk smash the peevish grin directly off that man’s face. Or at least, the fear emanating from every inch of the man’s body indicated that this was how he perceived Emily’s Mama Bear mode. The delicious silence for the rest of the car ride, ashamed on his part, smug on ours, was a firm reminder that Emily is the fighter you want in your corner in roughly every unsavory situation ever. We proceeded to have an awesome evening catching up with our estranged pals and thrashing our limbs about to the cacophony of confusing Thai rap.
The next morning as we were getting ready for the festival, we realized that no one actually knew the genre of the event. One girl had heard reggae, another had heard country, a third yet had jumped to the conclusion that the festival would showcase electronic music. This misinformed state is highly representative of my entire existence in Thailand. I have used the “Mai pen rai” lifestyle (a Thai axiom literally translating to ‘whatever will be will be’ and manifested as go with the flow) as an excuse to be an ignorant American and deceivingly dressing it up as adaptability. In our eagerness, we showed up to the festival many hours premature. Determined to make the hours productive, we took the time to explore the campgrounds, the vendor stalls, and the venue itself to deduce what type of music the festival would display. After hours of exploring, the jury was still out. The decorations gave off decidedly Woodstock-y vibes which was overall conflicting with the Native American headdresses and confederate flags adorning the sea of tents; oh Thailand – you’re so cute when you don’t get it at all. The butchered lyrics of expired American one hit-wonders crooned in jagged Thai drawl floated on the warm wind from the sperm stage. This is not hyperbolic. In a misguided attempt to be edgy, or youthful, or mysterious (all conjecture, I actually have know idea what motivations drive one to make sperm thematic) the stage was adorned with goliath paper mache swimmers looking down on us like ethereal higher powers of fecundity. I caught myself thinking that the incongruity of the decorations seemed to fit perfectly with the other arbitrariness of the festival – a thought that was interrupted by a family of neon painted elephants meandering by. The astonished public stopped for an onslaught of pictures, of the wild and unnatural white people of course, not the humdrum two-ton mammals. The rest of the event was spent enjoying the relaxed vibes, and socializing with some of the local bands playing the event.
The following weekend we relegated our exploration to more local areas as our lady gang of Thai co-teachers invited Emily and I to venture to Surin with them for the day. According to our ‘deny no authentic experiences’ mantra, we hopped into the truck bed at 6am where we were to be assaulted by gale-force winds for the next three hours. The initial purpose of the day-trip was for the co-teachers to sign up for the teacher test. It is incredibly difficult for co-teachers to become subject teachers in Thailand. That day we journeyed 250 kilometers simply for them to register for a test that 300 hopefuls, our friends included, would later take only to yield a dissatisfying result for a confounding 298 of them. What a staggering statistic: from the initial scoring, only two co-teachers will evade disappointment and be awarded teacher status. The two selected will have less than a week to pack up their belongings, move to a new government-selected location, and enter a binding contract performing duties they’ve never executed. The only commitment I have ever made that approaches that level of solemn obligation was purchasing a Proactive subscription in my oily youth. I can only hope that the commitment results in less dry skin and scarring for our impressive friend who placed among the top two selects!
After the registration process we found a local restaurant where, as is customary, we took off our shoes and settled into a seated position on the floor. Emily and I love spending time with our Thai friends because we are undoubtedly on the benefiting end of this parasitic relationship. While they squirm under the smothering and unfamiliar starring we tend to elicit, we get to coast on autopilot through basic interactions that are normally very taxing for us as non-Thai speakers. We eat like kings when we are with them! By eat like kings, I mean we get to actually decide what we want to order before shooting in the dark and pointing at random words on an indecipherable menu. Thailand has decidedly made me a simple girl with simple needs. I happily munch on the flying ants and silkworms they order as appetizers (while our friends thoughtlessly crush their buggy victims between their chopsticks and wave them around in our faces saying “Ooooooh, monsters”) to earn my meal of delicious local favorites. I live for the tableside conversations we muddle through while sideswiping language barriers and hurdling over narrowly-missed cultural divergences. For your reference, please enjoy this example of a genuine interaction we fought through:
Emily: (posing a theoretically easily-understood question to the table) Do you like vegetables?
Co-teacher: I like Cuba.
Emily: (rolling with the punches) Why do you like Cuba?
Emily: (emitting brain smoke as she tries to connect non-existent dots) Oh you mean cucumbers?
Co-teacher: Yes, teacher!
Emily: (pushing on, encouraged by this conversational break-through) Do you like Spinach?
Co-teacher: No, I like Germany.
To this day, none of us are sure if we were discussing vegetables or geography. Luckily, we know that we always have a banter contingency plan in the form of John Cena. John Cena, if you’re reading this, you should move to Thailand, like, yesterday and reap the rewards of local obsession. Age and gender does not discriminate on this point. Our girly co-teachers, elderly Thai classroom attendants and students alike all converge on their pious devotion to John Cena. Students who could not mutter a single word of English despite intense teacher assistance can be heard gallivanting around at recess yelling, “YOU CAN’T SEE ME”. I don’t get it, I honestly don’t, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to a dialogue that both involved parties can understand. Keep doing what you’re doing out there beefcake!
The day took a sobering turn at the elephant enclosure we understood to be an ethical sanctuary but in actuality was a cruel, monetarily driven training facility. We decided against lingering and supporting the operation and settled for night market exploration instead. Riding around in that truck bed exchanging American and Thai music, discussing language, and sharing experiences with our indigenous friends is a memory I will treasure forever. Cherished friendships formed under impossible circumstance and the supplementary commentary on human kindness and acceptance that accompanies them are the most beautiful gifts Thailand has given me.
Until next time!