Normalizing life in a place that so aggressively deviates from what my last twenty-two years have established to be the ‘status quo’ is undeniably difficult. Breaking the cast and making the unknown, known requires an indefatigable intentionality. In Thailand, I have challenged myself to enter every day with an open mind to an extent that it has become reflexive, even systematic. However, every time I think the largest hurdles are in my rearview mirror, a new discomfort or confusion arises and reminding me that my comfort zone and I are all but estranged frenemies. As I work to establish more and more common ground between my students and I, the results are comical. I sit on the ground tangled between the limbs of a gaggle of young girls. Having conversations outside of the classroom is challenging because the topics aren’t scripted. It takes work to find a subject that either my Thai vocabulary or their English vocabulary can accommodate. Today’s topic: hair. They grabbed at my locks and muddled through a slew of questions before I finally identified the vernacular speed bump – they didn’t know that stringy stuff attached to my scalp was technically hair. The event calls to mind a toddler with a Barbie in tow that I encountered in the bus station a few weeks ago. She affectionately looked down at her Barbie, swimming in a pool of her own golden mane, before noticing me. When our eyes finally locked, she looked up at me with the reverence of some dad somewhere looking at the grill section of a Target superstore. She took, what I dare call, an unprecedented quadruple take as she tried to deduce whether or not the plot of “Supersize” was manifesting itself before her very eyes. Eyes darted down to the toy, back at me, down to the toy, back at me again, with increasing concern each time. I understand, that movie is confusing enough considering the acting cameo by Tyra Banks herself, but the potential of a real life expression was too much for this small thing, who gasped and buried herself in her mother’s arms.
My own students’ reaction was far less polite. After they finally concurred that I do, in fact, grow hair from my head as opposed to straw or instant noodles, they moved on to my arms. “WHAT IS THIS?” they shrieked as they performed Indian rug burns up and down my arm – all part of their formulaic diagnosis I suppose. “It’s hair!” One of the braver ones suggests. They huddle up to fervently discuss whether or not a woman could grow arm hair. Or, more specifically, if a woman could grow arm without being Chewbacca himself. When the huddle diffused it was clear that they had not reached a unanimous supposition. The unsettled troop of tiny Thais could agree on one thing however. The brave one stepped forward again and asserted, “Teacher, I no like it” before plopping herself securely back in my lap. I guess that is my cross to bear in this life. Let’s just hope they never see my legs.
Buckle in readers, the confusion of this next anecdote renders the Great Arm Hair Incident of 2018 nearly insignificant. This is a little number I like to call: Emily goes on a date with a Thai man. Let me set the scene. My biggest fears in Thailand are not the minivan-sized insects, or the motorbike accidents, the tourist scams or even the brain decaying mosquito-transmitted diseases. No, the thoughts that provoke my cold sweats in the middle of the night are always the gym, and the technology section at our town’s Wal-Mart equivalent. In Thailand we have had to become accustomed to a certain amount of public attention in our daily lives. But the tsunami of unsolicited testosterone attached to the exacerbated gazes at these male watering holes leaves me desperate to melt into an awkward puddle and drip away. The only exposure that the people here (who seldom see tourists much less female ones) have to western women is the overtly sexualized media portrayal. White women on storefront advertisements puff out their chests and smirk beguilingly. On the packaging of skin whitening treatments, blonde women seductively stroke their desirable pale cheeks. The inundation of material objectifying an entire subset of people, while uncomfortable for me, is irreversibly damaging to the beauty standards amongst the people here. But the time for soapboxes is later, back to Emily’s exhilarating love life.
The gym is an exhausting experience where Thai meatheads with sordid intentions jeer loudly and stare assiduously. Keep in mind, this is a gym. Full of sweaty people. In Thailand. With no air-conditioning. Yet somehow the staring is more suffocating than the sweltering 92 degree heat. One day, a particularly emboldened pile of muscles with a haphazardly attached human neck and head approached our friend to inquire about us. This began to happen every time our male friend accompanied us to the gym, who would then express interest on the muscle monster’s behalves. Several nights later, in a conversation about how romantically, Thailand is directly comparable to middle school, Emily made THE mistake of her young life. She conceded that she was attracted to one of our unrelenting courters. I smelled her weakness and immediately engaged my most disarming carpe diem motivational speech (patent pending). I knew I had her, how could we culminate our time in rural Thailand without garnering the most authentic experience living in a new place has to offer – feeling ragingly uncomfortable on a date of course. The wheels were in motion the next day and our friend/wingman gave Emily’s number to her meathead of choice. Imagine the hilarity when he texts her later only to find that Emily’s Thai vocabulary is limited to about 20 words. His English vocabulary was even smaller. By smaller, I mean he knows how to say “hello”, but wouldn’t stand a chance of passing a quiz on it’s meaning. This is what nightmares are made of folks. Emily was the unsung hero of their rocky communications. She labored over the messages he sent in Thai characters and used two different translators cooperatively to compose messages back to him in his language.
After some aggressively laborious conversational mix-ups, it was decided that they would go to dinner with a translating third wheel, a man named ‘Cake’ that we recognized from the herd of gentleman callers at the gym. It was all fun and games as the puppet master, but Emily’s hot seat expanded from a single to a double when Cake entered the equation, and my fun was over. A double date. Hooray. Under the pressure of the impending outing, my cunning mind worked overtime surveying for escape routes. I sat down with Emily to deliver the news gently – the double date was a nonstarter. If all of us went, the English conversation between her, Cake and I would be inaccessible for her date, named, I shit you not, ‘Bae’. I would simply be a wrench in the connection potential, so I, being an exhaustingly heroic and selfless friend, would stay home to conveniently eat snacks and watch movies while Emily squirmed under the magnifying glass that my peer pressure had created in the first place. When the date finally arrived, Emily brazenly approached his idled truck and hopped in. “Wait, just you? Where’s your friend?” they asked as Emily texted me live updates. Sorry I can’t hear you over the reverberating shame of my Gilmore Girls binging. The date was rife with conversational breakthroughs and set-backs alike but from Emily’s re-telling of the event, Cake was a fairly reliable translator. He even reassured Emily, giggling, that he wouldn’t tell Bae what his name meant in English slang because of his crippling anxiety. Ultimately, even Bae’s nerves couldn’t extinguish his willpower to show off his white date to everyone he’s ever known. DURING the dinner he posted a selfie of him and Emily to Facebook. The post was undoubtedly the talk of the town and amassed hundreds of likes and comments. When Emily and I shamelessly trolled through the comments later, Facebook text translations yielded the mention of knives, roosters, and many, MANY ‘lols’. I can only assume it went well. Outcome disregarded, Emily’s discomfort was totally worth it for the resulting joke material. On an unrelated side note: can someone accept my friend of the year award on my behalf in case I’m not home in time for the ceremony? Thanks!
Until next time!