Wait, what?

From here on out this blog will follow the life of an individual living outside of their home country for the next year. It will focus on the total and utter confusion I now call daily life. These past few days I have come to realize that I no longer have any idea what is going on around me.

It all began Tuesday night, around 11 pm when my plane landed in Bangkok. After traveling for about 27 hours I was happy to finally be off a plane and eager to leave the airport. I quickly realized how difficult communication was going to be, when my luggage did not show up and none of the airport staff spoke English. Finally, I was able to meet with the claims office for my airline, and they told me that although my luggage had been delivered to the wrong place, they would have someone drive it out to me the next day. To hear that was both a relief and an annoyance, because I had been in the same clothes for two days, but at least they knew where my luggage was.

(Appreciation of simplicity when you don’t speak the language)

I met my boss, Mike, at the airport, and then took a three-hour car ride to the town that I now call home, Nakon Sawan. He checked me into a hotel that was completely decked out in Hello Kitty decorations, and I quickly passed out, exhausted from traveling.

(Self portrait, first night in Thailand)

The next morning I sat outside my hotel, drank some tea, and was attacked by a litter of kittens that happened to find me as I was waiting to meet up with Mike.

Mike came and met me on a motorbike, gave me a tour of Nakhon Sawan, and took me to lunch and then to find an apartment. For lunch we went to Kup Kup, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had about four tables, and is notorious among the foreigners living in the city. My first meal in Thailand, Pad Kapow Moo (fried basil pork), was incredible.

These past few days I have quickly come to learn that Thailand’s food is nothing like America’s Thai Food. Not only is it much tastier, but also it is so intensely spicy, even the breakfast dishes. The menus are all in Thai, which makes ordering somewhat of a challenge. I am trying to learn the names of what I like so I can order without a menu, since I have no idea how to read Thai. I have found that the easiest way to eat are the street carts. They have huge bowls of different dishes, and pointing and smiling seems to work. The only problem with this is I still don’t really understand what I am ordering. Lets just say I am learning to expand my taste pallet. Most people in Nakon Sawan don’t speak English, and since I don’t speak Thai as of now, everything I do is a game of trial and error. Yesterday as I was ordering a girl came up next to me in line and she happened to speak a little English. I was about to order what looked like a super yummy veggie dish, but noticed some type of meat in it so I asked her what it was. She asked the woman working the cart and then replied, “liver.” I decided to pass.

After lunch I found a place to live, in the heart of the city. I am renting a room in a hotel, which is much too large for the amount of furniture in it. My place is similar to a studio, except that I don’t have a kitchen, only a fridge. I am on the fourth floor, so my balcony has a decent view of the city around me.

(Mid-afternoon storm weather)

All the floors are tile and the walls are cement, so every sound I make echoes and bounces off of the space around me, which has made me very conscious of how loud I am. The other girl I got hired with, Danni, lives on the floor above me, which is really nice. I have never lived alone before, but having her upstairs reminds me of college and campus housing.

(The entrance of my building)

On my first real night here I went out to dinner with all of the teachers I work with. There was a group of about ten of us and we went to a restaurant where I got a taste of how different this country was going to be. For starters, the buildings are not enclosed like ours are. It’s more of a giant room with a roof, but no front wall. Almost every restaurant is like this, and I assume it’s because it’s too hot to keep the buildings closed up. As I was sitting at my table, I noticed something you don’t normally see in American restaurants… cats. There were cats strolling around everywhere and no one even glanced at them. They just cruise around the tables and wait for leftovers. I am surprised that they are able to handle such spicy food, since I don’t believe their natural diet would include so many chili peppers. I have come to assume they are mutant Thai Kitties. I let the other teachers order dinner for the group of us, and we are shared a bunch of dishes. Some things were kind of similar to dishes I had tasted before, and then others were unlike anything I had ever seen in a restaurant. One dish was a big fish that had been fried and cut open, and then stuffed with peanuts, shrimp, and a bunch of veggies and some things I had never seen before. The fish still had its face on and I’m almost positive they fried some of its organs. In Thailand it is illegal for them to sell booze at a restaurant, but not illegal to drink in one, so we brought all of our own hard liquor and then they mixed it for us and served it back to us. However, it is not illegal for them to sell beer, and oddly enough beer here is served over ice. This is because the air is so warm that the beer doesn’t stay cold if you pour it in a glass. It sounds funky, but the beer and ice they serve isn’t as bad as you would expect.

After dinner we went to a bar called Container, which is exactly that. The owner, God (the coolest guy ever), converted a giant old storage container into a bar. Most of it is outside patio seating, and then the actual bar is in the container, which has been reconstructed in some way to function as a building.

The Container is somewhat of a foreigner’s spot, and we were the only people there, other than God and a few others who work there. We stayed into the early hours of the morning, drinking whisky, exchanging stories, and getting to know each other.

The following day Danni and I went to breakfast at Mercy coffee, where we recuperated from the night before. Danni found Mercy, and I have a feeling we will be spending a decent amount of time there, since their menu is in Thai and English, and one of the owners, Tee, speaks a little English. Mercy reminds me of a hipster spot, with its bicycle frame art structures, vintage camera decorations, and the old-fashioned typewriter on a stand by the door.

After breakfast we spent the afternoon exploring some of the area around our hotel. Although I have only been in Thailand I can say with certainty that they are obsessed with four things-

1. Cats

2. Mustaches

3. American flag print clothing

and…

4. Hotdogs

Every store I enter has both a cat inhabiting it, as well as cat clothing. There are cats everywhere.

And next to the cat shirt is the shirt covered in little mustaches. And next to that is the denim shirt with American flag trim on the sleeves and collars and pockets.

Danni and I went in a 711 to pick up a few things and I have never seen more hotdog products in my life. Everything here is made with a damn hot dog. Hotdogs on pizza, pre packed mini hotdogs in buns, hotdogs in pastries, and they even had bacon wrapped hotdogs spinning on their hotdog grill. And their hotdogs are not like the ones you see in America. These are extra long giant dogs. I’m talking like two feet of processed meat the color of my skin. Creepiest hotdogs I have ever seen.

The snacks they sell all come in really odd flavors as well, such as spicy lobster Pringles. Danni and I probably spent a half hour in 711 checking out all the weird food and funny labels and trying to figure out what things were.

(At least some stuff is in English)

On our way back from 711 this lady started yelling at me from across the street, ran up to me, and delivered me a piece of paper with an email address on it and a note that said, “Hi, my name is —, nice to meet you.” It was from the day before, when I met the girl who told me what the liver dish was. Our encounter had been brief, maybe only three minutes, but I was told this will happen often, and soon I will have tons of friend requests from Thai people on facebook, who I have only met once, yet they managed to track me down. One of the other teachers told me she had received a message on facebook from someone she met the night before, that said “Hi, it was nice meeting you, I miss you.” I have had people shout, “I love you” multiple times as I walk down the street, or they honk their horns as they drive by. It is a really uncomfortable feeling how much they like Americans, but I was told to expect this, seeing as there are very few Westerners in this area, maybe only fifty in a city of half a million Thai.

Being cut off from communicating with those around me has been the most difficult part of this week, since it makes every interaction really confusing. Throughout the day trucks drive around the city, either blaring pop music or some sort of announcement from their roofs, and I have no clue what they are talking about or why.

I immediately learned to laugh at myself as I attempt to speak basic Thai with storeowners and those at restaurants. I have come to accept that they are either laughing with me or laughing at me, but either way were both laughing so it seems to be going ok.

This weekend I meet my different groups of students, and then Tuesday I take over my classes full time, and I couldn’t be more exited to start work. From what I have been told I have total and full creative control over everything I do, and no one ever supervises me or tells me how to teach. I get to work with all different ages so the variety of what I will be able to plan is exciting.

I couldn’t be happier to have finally made the move here, and I can tell this is going to be a life changing experience. I am looking forward to the amazing adventures that this year will hold.

(Girl in 711 with her cat)

A reflection on Veteran’s Day

One week ago was Veteran’s Day. I decided since I live in Washington DC I should visit Arlington Cemetery. Arlington is our nation’s cemetery for all those who have served in the armed forces, and it is where my grandfather lays. For as long as I can remember, Veteran’s Day, for me, was just another day off of school. I’d never celebrated it for what it represents, for whom it represents. Both my father and grandfather served for our country, as I’m sure so did many others in my family’s history that I am unaware of.

I am not at the top of the list of the patriotic, but I can appreciate what it means to be American. My life in America has meant the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion (which I choose not to have and no one cares, it doesn’t matter), equal rights, a good education, being raised in a family that can support me because they enjoyed the same privileges I do. I understand this is not the same for every American. Growing up in America, for me, has never meant growing up as the 1%. I don’t need to be in the 1% to enjoy every amazing opportunity that has been presented. I have been given so much. I’ve never struggled. I’ve never needed. I’ve never been hungry, homeless. Living a good life in America does not mean existing in this percentage that people have made out to be the mega monster capitalists of the world. I’ve never even thought about those who have so much more than I do, because I’ve always had enough.

Focus. I am getting off topic.

To be an American, means that I appreciate that there are people who are willing to risk their lives for my freedom. People my age who die so that I may live.  People who sacrifice their own opportunity at college, so that they can protect the freedoms that are guaranteed to me in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I don’t agree with many of our country’s policies, foreign and domestic, but our country’s policies are not what Veteran’s Day is celebrating. It honors those who have dedicated their lives to protect a country. A country that I can live in and where I can freely express my opinions. They fight for my freedom of speech- so that I can say, “I fucking hate that we’re fighting other nations. I fucking hate the act of war. War is disgusting and destructive and it’s pathetic that this is the best solution the so called ‘smartest creature on earth’ can come up with.” Veteran’s Day is about individuals. It’s not about war. It’s not about America. It’s not about democracy. It’s about people.

The range of emotions that I experienced those hours spent at Arlington were so scattered. It was as if a child dropped a bag of rubber balls. Every ball representing a different emotion. Bouncing off into a different direction. A scattered spectrum. I felt Pride. Anger. Privilege. Guilt. Despair. Happiness. Confusion….. But most of all, I felt sadness. Rock bottom sadness.

After visiting my grandfather’s grave, I walked over to the area that was designated for all those who have lost their lives since 2001.  Row after row after row of graves marked for people who should be alive. People who were a year older than me. People who were younger than my little brother. Row after row after row. Mounds of fresh dirt. Lives lost so recently grass hasn’t had time to grow, head stones haven’t been made. This is my generation. They don’t belong in the ground.

Parents sat before their children’s graves, posted up in folding lawn chairs, scarves, mittens and blankets in their lap, braving the crisp cold Virginia morning air, to spend Veteran’s Day with their sons and daughters. I saw one father wiping down his son’s grave, while his wife rearranged the flowers at the base.

While walking through a grave yard as massive as Arlington it’s easy to be overcome by the sheer size of it. The perfectly aligned rows of polished white stone. Each with the same lettering engraved upon the face. The exact measured distance between each row. It’s so overwhelming. So impersonal at moments. You forget that bodies separate each row. Thousands and thousands of people lay beneath the earth you walk on. A sense of distance is created in a graveyard when you walk though the rows, and you think of the people as those whose lives have passed. Those who have been under the ground long enough for their body to be reclaimed by the same earth that gave it everything it needed to live. But when you see that fresh mound of dirt, the one where no grass grows, the distance collapses. This is new. This just happened. Someone just lost the person they love most in this world.  The presence of the parents, distance collapses. These soldiers are children. They have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They’re not just soldiers. They’re not just faceless men at war, fighting in a far off land. A land you and I talk about, read about, which only exists for us in college lecture halls, on the tv, the internet. A place so fucking familiar, yet you and I will never go there. We’ll never know.

It really hit me in those moments that those gravestones aren’t just names and dates. They’re your neighbor, your best friend, your girlfriend, your fiancé. Your child. Your child. Your CHILD.  I kept coming back to the fact that all these graves were children. When I say child I don’t mean in the sense of a little kid. In the eyes of their parents, these were their children. It was the presence of all the parents that hurt my heart. It destroys the rule of nature, of decency, of logic, of everything that should be right in this world, to know that a parent buries their child. That a parent feels the pain of losing who they created. That’s not fucking right. Ever.

Seeing parents hug one another, comfort each other on this national day of loss, created that feeling within me. That one really heavy feeling that starts behind your belly button, and rises with pressure up through your chest, shoving against your rib cage, jamming itself against the bottom of your throat until that lump rises. Until tears flow. I kept trying to swallow, to resist the temptation to cry over people I had never met. Never would meet.

After wandering by myself for a bit I met back up with my friend who was speaking with a woman. I approached them and I heard her ask him to make a toast. She pulled out a Dixie cup, poured me a shot of Crown Royal, and we toasted to her son. I didn’t say anything. Language failed me. I couldn’t open my lips. Within minutes of meeting her I was choking back tears. They toasted to James, and then she told us the story of who he was, where he was, how he died. All of the details.  The pain in her story was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The words she used to describe how amazing, brave, talented, intelligent and missed her son was. She said he knew he was going to lose his life. How he called her and told her he felt it was going to happen soon and he just wanted to come home and never return again. How when it happened, in his last moments of life, he was still giving commands, making sure that those he lead and those who were hurt were taken care of. The story of someone’s loss, a mother’s loss, was unbearable. Her confession that things haven’t been right since. She hasn’t been the same and nothing makes sense. She doesn’t make sense to herself anymore. What it means to lose your child.

I had resisted writing about this for the past week because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where to begin. The most important thing she told me was that her son asked her that if he were to die, that she would make sure that he was never forgotten. “Just remember me.” That he would continue to live in people’s memories.

I am not going to retell the details she told me. Her sharing of his life is something that will remain forever stored in my own memory. Rather, I’m sharing my experience with you, and the pictures, because it allows us to share a common, if general knowledge. A knowledge of lives lost. Children gone. For you and I. War is fucking awful and dirty and it takes people away from one another. It erases individuals who should be here. Be present. That is Veteran’s Day. Not forgetting.

“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death beings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. All around you things are purely living, and you are among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self- your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. You are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”