Sunday, September 30, 2012

10 Things I'll Miss About Living in Thailand

In many ways, this challenging semester illuminated for me that I could never permanently settle here and it was time to wrap up life in Thailand. Despite the occasional aggravations in my final months, words fail to articulate how difficult it is to say goodbye to a place that changed my life. At the end of my days living in Thailand, I reflected on what I'll miss most & certainly reminisce about for years to come.

1. An Ode to Thai Food 
If you missed my pathetic attempt at poetry, check out my last post dedicated to my love affair with Thai cuisine. Besides my number one true love, the rest are in no meaningful order...

2.  The Strangers' Smile
Thailand, infamously coined the "Land of Smiles," has taught me to practice smiling even when it doesn't always come naturally for me. Despite the cultural and linguistic barriers, a smile is always a safe gesture. If someone flashes a genuine smile in your direction, I dare you not to smile back. Thailand has taught me that it's possible to surpass any language barrier (which will surely arise in the 8 countries I will visit) with a simple smile (and maybe "OK!" being universal lingo helps, too).

I will also miss the friendly Thai folk who go out of their way to strike up a conversation and find out what the heck these farang are doing in Isaan. Whether we were at the store, songtaew (bus) or eating dinner at the market, I will miss the kindness of my neighbors.

3. Schooltime Chaos
Despite all my irritations with the public education in Thailand, it's weird knowing that I will not be returning to a school here. Even if I can only remember a handful of my 700 students' names, I can match each and every face to their unique personalities. While outgoing, dedicated students tend to be more memorable, all of them helped shape my experience, even the troublemakers. Little could they know how their smiles provided me with inspiration to make it to the end of the term. Walking amongst the swarm of thousands of crazy children to the cafeteria everyday was always an adventure. "Teacher teacher!" students with big wide-eyed stares and smiles would yell. The little ones spitting a gibberish of Thai at me, students wai-ing me as I pass, the mix of laughter and tears found on every elementary school playground, the boys chasing each other or improvising sports despite the lack of a field, friends sharing their weird Thai snacks, the new playground being maxed out well over capacity, the occasional child running around solo entertaining himself - I will miss all of these simple joys. In and out of the classroom, my kiddies taught me more than I could ever dream of teaching them. 
My very last class in Thailand!
4. Motorbike Madness
I once squeemed at a family of five taking their newborn home from a hospital all on one motorbike. Now, I forget what a world is like without the swarm of motorbikes, which seemingly aren't obligated to follow normal traffic rules, swerving in between cars without causing any irritation. This scene has become far too normal, and I will truly miss the distinctly Southeast Asian chaotic road rules and patterns.

5. The Isaan Way
I loved my first Thai home in Sriracha, but moving up to Isaan might have been the best decision I made this year. I wrote about my admiration of the Isaan way of life before, but it's something I've thought about often since. A few weeks ago, my friend and I chose to motorbike from his small town to the slightly bigger city of Roi Et an hour away rather than take the bus. It was the perfect day for an open-aired cruise through the farm land, rice paddies, and small villages of Isaan. As we passed such distinct Isaan imagery, I tried to absorb it all, knowing I was leaving soon: children running barefoot through the rice paddies, farmers balancing their handwoven baskets full of crops on their heads, old women sifting rice and farmers leading a hoard of cattle. The sun was beating down hot and hard, but everyone was smiling, happy to be alive. If they happened to notice the farang pair zooming by, they excitedly would shout and wave "HALLO!" Thai people have a global reputation for kindness, but in my experience, the epitome of this exists right here in Isaan, a region that tourists typically pass over completely. I will be damned if Isaan is not one of the most special places I ever encounter. 
My Thai friend's grandmother, sifting rice. She only speaks Isaan (similar to Laos) so I could not even communicate with her in Thai. She stopped school after grade 4 to work on her family farm. Isaan people speak Isaan at home with their friends and family.)
6. Cultural Quirks
To all of the many cultural quirks I've learned to shrug off with the popular farang saying "This is Thailand!"  While some are too quirky to keep me here forever, others have become both very normal and special. I will miss living in a place that isn't as accepting of gay people as Thailand. That there is no stigma if men casually wearing pink shirts or are extremely touchy-feely with one another. That it's acceptable to exchange private information when meeting people (okay, sometimes it's weird, but there is a lot less "biting of the tongue"). I'll miss witnessing such devout Buddhism; my nightly running peers in the park casually pause their jog for a quick bow as they pass the temple. I have to admit, even the squat toilet has grown on me over time (okay, that's not exactly cultural, but I'll miss this place!)
7. Farang Ego Boosters
Any farang who has spent enough time in Thailand might relate to the excessive amount of compliments that come along with looking foriegn. While Western society values tanned skin, Thai society prefers white skin and foreign-looking features. In Thai language, there is even a word to describe a pointy non-Asian nose which they collectively value as beautiful. Although my olive skin doesn't quite qualify me to get as many compliments of whiteness as some of my counter-parts, it's amusing the amount of money some pay for whiteneing treatments. 

Students are constantly saying "Teacher beautiful!" but I'm pretty sure they're sucking up. It seems standard procedure for people I met to tell me I'm suaoy mak (very beautiful) or narak mak (so cute/lovely). When I jumble off even the slightest bit of Thai I know, Thai people are easily impressed and respond with an array of compliments telling me how well I speak, gang mak! (so clever/smart). 

Now, by no means do I deem myself as either beautiful or smart; in fact the humidity is not a good look for me my Thai skills suck for living here for a year. Having a pointy nose seems like an insult, and I'm only slightly more white than they are when un-tanned (which to them is not good "You look like Thai color!"). Being a foreigner, the repetitiveness of the compliments quickly lose all meaning.

Still, although the kind words are taken with a grain of salt now, I wonder what life will be like when suddenly there is no one to tell me I'm beautiful and smart on a daily basis. Oh well, it had to end someday...

8. Learning from Locals
If you've read my blog or know me at all, it's pretty clear that I've developed an immense passion for traveling and foreign culture over the past year. I moved to Thailand not only to travel, but to fulfill a burning desire to Iive, work and immerse myself in a foreign culture. My favorite way to learn about a culture is through the guidance and friendship of local people. Each and every Thai person I've had the pleasure of speaking with and befriending has taught me so very much; be it about Thai language, cultural differences, their devotion to the King, Buddhism, but most importantly that we are all just human beings seeking happiness - same same, but different as they say here in Thailand.  I only wish that I could give back to every Thai person who has impacted me in the past year. 
9. Random Nights Out
In many ways, my lifestyle changed in Thailand. But, at 23 years old, Thailand wasn't going to change that I still value going out, letting loose and having fun after a long week in the classroom. If anything, Thailand has taught me more about myself in social situations. 

Hayden in his element
Moving to Isaan, weekend visits with my friends were made more feasible, but I also lucked out with a South African co-worker who soon became my good friend. Hayden has that admirable quality of never letting anything stop him from having a good time. Whether my friends were in town or it was just Hayden and I, there were countless silly, memorable (or not so memorable) nights out over the past four months. 

Call it superficial, but for me, like so many other aspects of living in Thailand, going to a local pub or club is also a cultural learning experience. Maybe it's comforting to know that people across the world enjoy doing similar things that I'd be doing with my friends in New York. As is all too applicable in Thailand, same, same, but different: less cocktails and more whiskey bottles, less dancing and more awkward side to side swaying, less good music and more crappy (but catchy!) Thai pop, less diner-style drunk food and more noodles and rice.

Every night out was more unexpected and hilarious than the last. Though it was just the two of us so often, we always came away with new friends and really great stories. As the only farang regularly frequenting a local club, anyone wanting to practice their English would approach us with the pick-up line, "I see you here every weekend!" or we'd "sawadee-ka(p)" (hello with the wai gesture) our way into introductions with our combined efforts in Thai. Numerous nights until the wee hours of the morning we spent with new friends, drinking shared whiskey bottles and speaking some awkward version of Tinglish that would only work under the influence. The next morning over a hungover meal or coffee and only slightly-functioning brains, we'd reminisce and laugh about the shenanigans of the previous night.
Random post-club eats: Korean BBQ

Cheers to Hayden, who was the best partner in crime I could have asked for, and to all of the many Thai friends we shared whiskey and laughter with along the way. (If I never have to drink another bottle of 'Blend" (cheap Thai whiskey) again, it will be too soon.)

10. Traditional Thailand
Living here for a year, I was able to experience the full cycle of calender holidays and events. From a massive 5-day water fight for the Thai New year, to the Lantern Festival, celebrating the King & Queen's birthday, the Candle Festival and partaking in traditional Thai events, it was a constant reminder of why I was here. On my last night in Ubon, a huge party was thrown at my school to honor seven teachers who were retiring. The party was huge, with excessive feasting and drinking while teachers performed Thai dancing and singing. Every person took time to tie significant white bands around each retirees wrist as a symbol of good luck. This party happens every year for the retiring teachers, such a special retirement send off that I could never imagine happening at home. I too, was honored with these white bands, which will stay on my until it falls off somewhere in Asia.
Tying the white band for good luck on a retiree
Thailand: Thank you for all you have given me and so very much more.

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