Sawatdee Ka from Korat, Thailand! I’m now in northeastern rural Thailand where I feel so grateful to have internet access! I’m at my host family’s weekend home in a city, called Korat, which is about an hour and a half train ride from where I live and teach in Salanongkhon, a village of dirt roads, no traffic lights – or even stop signs – and where everyone knows each other. I wake up to roosters crowing outside my window every morning and walk past a small herd of cows every day. This is the country life in Thailand. But it is so beautiful and green and close-knit, which I love.
I look back fondly on my first evening there. I walked around the neighborhood with my host – a woman, named Suwaluck – and we’d stop to talk to the neighbors so she could introduce me. I really felt a sense of warmth in their community – with all the neighbors visiting each other, all the kids working together on their projects or riding around on their bikes and motorcycles. I stopped to take pictures of the lake and the rice fields that are practically in my backyard for this next month. It’s nice to slow down in life once in awhile.
But I have to admit – when I first arrived on Wednesday, it was pretty tough to imagine how I could live here for the next month. I have my own room with a separate entrance to the house, but the accommodations are meager. I have a twin size bed, an armoire sort of cabinet for my clothes, a bench and a table. But there’s no shower – I have to fill up a plastic garbage can with water and use a “water bowl” to pour water on myself. The bathroom sink doesn’t like to work in the morning, so far. There are these ants that dart around the counter top faster than any ants I’ve ever seen. There’s no air conditioning and just one fan in the humid 85+ degree weather. The screenless windows allow the bugs to come and go freely when the windows are open, but even if they’re closed, they have many other ways to get in. Thus, the mosquito net over my bed. I consider it my safety net to protect me from all the bugs who want to eat me alive. So far, I have 8 mosquito bites…and counting. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t swell up to make me look like I have weird growths on my body.
My host’s name is Suwaluck – I call her Pi Su for short. Pi is the term used out of respect for someone who is older than you and is more than just an acquaintance. She’s very nice and takes good care of me. My Volunthai coordinators told me she had her family living with her, but her husband, her 18-year-old daughter, 15-year-old niece and mother-in-law spend most of their time at their house in Korat. So it’s been just the two of us these last few days. Pi Su is the English teacher at the school, so her English is the best in town, although it is still pretty choppy, so I have to speak slowly and simply with her and explain words often. She enjoys talking about American culture with me and broadening her English vocabulary. The other day when a ladybug landed on her, I taught her the word “superstition”. I explained when a ladybug lands on you, you can put it on your finger, make a wish and if it flies away, your wish will come true. She liked that one.
I thought I might be able to lose weight here, considering how hot it is and how Thais don’t eat as much as Americans, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. Thai people generally eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner (although Pi Su doesn’t make any for breakfast). Plus, she’s only been cooking for the two of us, so I feel pressured to help her finish the food! Oh well, at least it’s all really delicious, or “Arroy!” in Thai. The last two breakfasts I’ve had pineapple (super sweet and fresh!) and yogurt, plus “dessert”. Two days ago, it was sliced pumpkin in a sort of soup/sauce and yesterday it was a sort of coconut jello with salty coconut shavings on the inside (arroy!). We eat lunch at school, which Pi Su makes in the morning and brings to share with the other female teachers. So far I’ve had fried rice, cucumbers, a spicy ground pork dish, a spinach dish and more I didn’t recognize. But yesterday I also ate bugs for lunch. YES, I ATE BUGS! One of the teachers made me eat them…well, she didn’t force them down my throat, but strongly suggested I eat them. She peeled off the wings of a black one that looked like a cockroach, but she said it’s from the water, and put it on my plate, saying “Arroy!” It looked totally gross, but hey – it’s part of the cultural experience I’m looking for, right? I mixed it with as much rice and other food as possible, but I could still discern the crunchy bug taste. I had to eat 3 of those and another bigger one that resembled a small crab leg to me. That one wasn’t as bad – maybe because it didn’t look as much like a bug.
All this is worth it because of the kids. That’s why I’m here! They are so cute and welcoming and full of energy that I’m exhausted by noon and school doesn’t end till 3:30! The students treat me like a celebrity. Some kids even pretended to be paparazzi at one point yesterday, taking photos with their invisible cameras. Any time they see me, they run to me to grab my hands, my arms, squeeze my waist – any way they can be near me. It’s really sweet. The older kids usually wave and say, “Hello”, “Shake hands!” or “Play game.” Or they just stare until I smile and wave, then they smile and wave back. Overall, a very warm welcome, to say the least.
When I first arrived Wednesday and Pi Su would introduce me, all the teachers and students would tell her how I don’t look farang, or like a foreigner, and that I look Thai. I could almost sense some disappointment, especially from the director, that I wasn’t a white, blue-eyed blonde. My friend, Henry, in Bangkok – who’s also a teacher – warned me about that. I try to explain to them (with Pi Su’s help, of course) that I am from America, my family is from China and that America is made up of people from all different backgrounds and from different parts of the world. I may have been reading into their initial reaction, but either way, they’re happy I’m here.
The children’s English is very limited. Many of them say, “Hello, my name is!” when they see me, just to say something in English without really understanding what those words mean. It can be really frustrating to try to explain something that seems so easy, like “My name is Jessica. What is your name?” But I guess it just takes repetition and patience, especially when I only know a few Thai phrases. I tried to teach one class of 12-year-olds how to play Simon Says – or “Jess Says” – and it seemed like some of them got the concept, but most didn’t catch on, so we moved on.
Salanongkhon School has 200 students and 10 different grade levels. I’m scheduled to teach every grade, but kindergarten. My students range from 6-15 years old, so it’s going to be challenging to gauge their skill levels and teach them effectively. Yesterday was my first day teaching, since most of Wednesday and Thursday were set aside for a ceremony to show appreciation for teachers. The ceremony was fun and interesting to watch. Each class made a sort of trophy of flowers to present to the teachers. Each student also had their own little bouquet wrapped in a banana leaf to offer each teacher, while bowing to them on their knees. I got to sit amongst the teachers for a little while, too. If only teachers in the U.S. were given such respect.
During my classes yesterday, I had the children make name tags out of index cards I brought from home. That way they could practice writing their names in English and I could learn their names. They all have nicknames – like Tip and Aefor girls and Bam and Do for boys – since they’re full names would be way too long and difficult for me to remember. The older kids didn’t have much of a problem writing their names, but I realized the younger ones didn’t even know how to write their names in English. So I sounded out each student’s names for them. They had fun with the project and I can recognize more of them by name now.
This country lifestyle with the children is a far cry from where I was just 5 days ago – in the hustle and bustle of the traffic-infested, lady boy-accepting urban jungle of Bangkok. I stayed with some new friends of mine – Cindy (who’s my family friend’s cousin), her boyfriend Henry and their 2 cats. I had never even met them before, but they welcomed me and showed me around like family. They brought me to all their favorite Thai restaurants, took me to the beautiful temples, braved the chaos of the weekend market with me and even took me out to a club. I can’t thank them enough.
Since I first got to Thailand, I’ve had nothing but Thai food for meals. And I don’t mind it one bit. Most of the food I had in Bangkok is the same as the food at Thai restaurants at home – like pad thai, pad see ew, green curry, praram curry, tom kha soup – but like at home, each restaurant’s dishes taste differently. Most of the food is more flavorful – and more spicy – here in Thailand than the Thai food I’ve had in the states, but I have to say, the Thai food I’ve had in San Francisco is pretty close.
Something new I’ve never seen before was this snack that looks like a taco, called khanom buang. The shell is made out of rice flour and it can be filled with shredded coconut, coconut cream and strips of fried egg. Soooo arroy!
All this writing about food is making me hungry…time for a snack! I’ll be sure to continue sharing my adventures in food, teaching and living the Thai country life with you the next time I have access to the internet!