Friday, 28 March 2014

Countdown to Re-Entry: It's the Fin-al Countdowwwwn!

I’m sitting in a cafĂ© on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, having taken the train down from Chiang Mai a few days ago.  My last day was more relaxed than I’d feared it would be – drop the last of the donations at the charity shop (somewhere out there is a refugee child drowning in the ginormous only-one-left-when-I-got-to-the-stack VSO shirt I used to sleep in during the winters); go for a last massage at the place next to the Sunday market; have one more bowl of khao soi, my favourite Northern Thai dish (TWO KINDS OF NOODLES!); and gratefully accept a lift from my landlord to the train station.  I watched the sun slipping behind the mountains, turning everything – highway, roadside shrines, rice paddies, houses, motorbikes streaking home – pink and gold, until we headed into the jungle and the light dimmed.  I am going to miss that town so much.

It’s a weird feeling.  I know I’m ready to move on – more than ready.  If you offered me another six months in Chiang Mai, I wouldn’t take it.  There’s new and exciting work to be done when it comes to Burma’s (potential) transition to democracy, but most of it’s not going to be done from the Thai border, and a lot of it can’t – and shouldn’t – be done by foreigners.  And one by one, the friends I’ve made here have mostly trickled away, both the farangs and the Burma folks.  There will only be one VSO volunteer in Chiang Mai after I leave (poor woman), and she’s following me in a couple of months.  It’s time.

But I will miss it, and a lot of what I’ll miss will be the specific, sensual things:  tastes, smells, the particular red of the sun as it sinks behind Doi Suthep.  And it’s not that these are all better sensations than those in London.  For every plate of fried noodles or red curry, every faceful of jasmine fragrance or languid breeze over the water at the reservoir, there’s a lungful of mixed car exhaust and paddy field smoke; a whiff of the moat water in summer; a bite of oh-God-that-isn’t-frosting; a night so hot and airless that trying to sleep has me almost in tears.  It’s strange, but loving a place doesn’t necessarily untangle the good from the bad.  In some ways, I’ll miss choking on tuktuk fumes as I speed down the highway past tire warehouses as much as I’ll miss incense and jasmine.  Maybe more.

It’s been a curiously vivid period in my life, and, I think, an important one.  I learned a hell of a lot in these past few years.  Not all of my lessons were the ones I expected, either.  I learned how to communicate in simple words, or none at all, when the language gap is too wide – tough for someone whose instinct tends to be to throw more words at any given problem.  I learned several dozen ways to keep ants out of a computer.  I learned that I can ride a motorcycle, and trust me, no one was more shocked than I was (except possibly my pre-departure driving instructor in London, who’d informed me that I would never be able to get it).  I learned that politeness can be a particularly nasty weapon, but one that’s double-edged.  I learned that a completely nomadic existence, as some NGO workers have, doesn’t suit me much better than a completely fixed one, and I’m happiest somewhere in between.  I learned that adventure is doing what scares you, personally, and everyone’s will look different.

I’d expected to learn who I was, by facing hardships and dangers and coming through them.  What happened instead was that I learned who I was when all my excuses – I just need to change cities/get a new job/meet more people/pursue this dream of working in the developing world, and then everything will finally be okay – ran out, and I had to turn and face myself.

And once I did, I found a way to be comfortable in my own skin.

That is always going to be the legacy of this time, for me, and it’s a legacy I can carry with me.  That makes leaving feel a little bit more okay.

One more list for y’all – the Top Ten Things I’ll Miss About Thailand.

10.  The setting.  It’s easy to forget, living in the city, but the area of Chiang Mai can be breathtaking.  It’s all mountains and thick forest and rolling fields, with birds everywhere.  There’s a moment when you’re driving through the jungle around Huay Tung Tao reservoir when you come out of the trees and the world just falls away to either side of the road – water on one side, a steep drop down to the yellow-and-green rice fields below on the  other – and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

9.  The ease.  I could get out of work at five (often having rolled in mid-morning), pick up something hot for dinner from the local market, and easily be home before six.  Virtually nothing in Chiang Mai was more than a half-hour’s drive away.  Going back to, “I’ve just gotten in and it’s 8 pm and I still have to cook,” isn’t going to be an easy transition.

8.  Being an expat (and specifically a white expat).  It gives you a certain freedom, knowing that Thais are going to cut you extra slack and will put down any odd behaviour to you just being a crazy farang; and it also provides an instant in if you want to strike up a conversation with fellow expats.  You’re suddenly and visibly part of a community.  It’s not always a community you want to be part of, mind (don’t get me started on a certain breed of drunken backpacker, or a certain strain of NGO worker), but it’s there if you need it.

7.  The arts.  I’ve gotten so used to seeing gorgeously intricate hilltribe fabrics piled up on every market stall, walking past gilded and gabled temple roofs, and being served water out of the same beautiful silver vessels used to make offerings to the Buddha.  Again, it’s not that Everything Is Prettier in Thailand (there are definitely times when it isn’t!), but that there’s a certain set of aesthetic details I like that I won’t have around me anymore.

6.  The attitude towards life.  This is a pretty broad statement about a culture that I freely admit I still only shallowly understand; two years isn’t enough time to really grok an alien culture, especially if you spend those two years with one foot in the West and one in Burma, and only have one hand braced in Thailand for balance (yes, I am basically breakdancing in this analogy).  But there’s a general approach to life in Thailand that combines a relaxed pace (a meeting that starts at 9 am farang time starts around 9.45 Thai time – and “vaguely 11-ish” Burma time, for reference) with a placid tendency to roll with the punches (if the restaurant doesn’t have it, it doesn’t have it; if the thing is broken, it’s broken; if it’s raining, you just don’t go; if you don’t have 250 baht for the stallholder, then whatever you have is okay) with an often astonishing kindness and emphasis on going out of your way to help strangers.  Okay, so “help” is sometimes spelled “get all up in the grill of” in Thai, but it’s well-intentioned and rather endearing.  I may not miss having people shout after me, “Where are you going?  Did you eat dinner yet?” but I have a feeling I’m definitely going to miss being able to smile at folks on the street.

5.  Markets.  Food markets with pigs’ heads and tubs of live eels and morning glory piled up with heaps of tiny eggplants and chunks of pumpkin, and row after row of curries in neat stainless steel trays right next to pyramids of fried cockroaches.  The other kind of food markets, with stalls peddling noodle soup and stewed pork leg over rice and pad thai, and customers from all the various stalls sitting elbow-by-elbow at shared tables to eat their dinner out of pastel plastic bowls.  Craft markets with stunning embroidery and antique silver jewelry; hilltribe markets with dusty piles of carpets and gorgeous traditional costumes; cheesy tourist markets with black velvet paintings of Muay Thai boxers, knock-off DVDs, and stalls peddling everything from nunchucks to brass knuckles.  All of them packed with loitering shoppers, stallholders riveted to portable TVs showing Thai soaps, and tiny carts selling skewers of grilled meat or bags of dumplings hot from the steamer.  Markets are such a fundamental part of my life here.

4.  The people.  My colleagues sometimes drive me nuts, it’s true, but I’m really fond of them.  Not having K. sneak up and hug me from behind, sweetly chirping, “Busy, Cat?  Busy busy?” as a way of softening me up for another assignment; not coming back from lunch to find S. barefoot on the bench outside, dozing under his hat, with a cigarette still dangling from his fingers; not getting drunk on cheap whiskey with Green Bob and talking about comic books and climate change late into the night – that makes me sad.

3.  Safety.  This is going to be one of the biggest changes.  Chiang Mai was ludicrously safe.  You could leave your computer on the coffeeshop table when you went to the bathroom.  You could leave the rent for your landlady in her unlocked office.  Most importantly, though, it was personally safe.  If I wanted to go for a walk or a drive at 3 am, the most I had to worry about was the soi (alley) dogs.  After pretty much weekly street harassment living in Leyton, I was cat-called precisely once in Chiang Mai.  In my last week there.  By a farang.
2.  Food.  I’ve already raved about the incredible variety of delicious, cheap cooked dishes you can find down pretty much any street, but it isn’t only that.  There are the vast piles of mango and jackfruit (my favourites), and also mangosteen, lychee, longon, and fruits I can’t even name.  There’s also a limited variety of really good Western food that I’ll (perversely) miss, especially soul food, Mexican food, and American-style diner fare – stuff that’s not as common in London (although I understand that it’s increasing since I left).  And as I mentioned in my “weirdest things” post, I may even find myself missing the stuff that I don’t particularly like, like Thai tea (a sweet orange-coloured powder) or gloopy rice-flour desserts.  (Although I doubt I’ll ever miss sugary butter.)

1.  Arcee!  I realised moving out here that it can be, in certain ways, harder to say goodbye to pets than to people.  People have an abstract existence; you can communicate with them remotely until you see them again.  Pets, though, can’t really interact with you unless you’re physically there (with the exception of the time Margaret held her phone up so that I could baby-talk one of her cats and he flew at the screen, claws akimbo :)).  Well, it turns out the same is true of motorcycles.  I know it’s my fault for anthropomorphizing the hell out of my bike, but it was a physical wrench to leave her, worse than almost any of the other goodbyes (with the exception of a couple of my closest friends here who aren’t leaving).  Arcee brought me safely through so much:  thunderstorms and floods, road trips, mountain drives in the dark, the time Moray and I had to steal her back out of a locked parking lot.  I feel like I’ve bonded with her.  More than that, she represented something to me:  a terror of driving that I met head-on until I was able to deal with it – and then until I adored it.  I’ll always have that, I suppose, but the trusty cherry-red bike I went through it with, I’ll probably never see again.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Countdown to Re-Entry: Marvels of the Western World

The title's a little tongue in cheek (I mean, obviously), but just as there are weird things that I'll miss about Thailand, there are weird things about London that will delight and astonish me.

Here are the top five:

  1. Magic box??!!!  Make clothes dry!!??!  No need to hang clothes outside for mosquitoes to breed on!?!?!?
  2. Water come out of tap okay to drink!!???  Drink water, not die??  Don't need to find 7/11 at 2 am??!!!
  3. Another magic box!?!  Make food hot???
  4. Walking down pavement for whole block!?!?!  Not trip???  No walking into noodle stall!!???  Don't get run over by motorbike??!!!
  5. Tea in normal caf has caffeine?!?!  Not put sugar without asking????  Not orange!!?!?!?!

I'm going to be wandering around like a visitor from another planet for the first few days.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Countdown to Re-Entry: Weirdest Things I'll Miss

This isn’t a list of the things I’ll miss most about Thailand – trust me, I’ve got that list, and it’s a doozy – but of the ten weirdest things I’ll miss.  I realised when I was writing up my post on my final trip to Immigration that it’s possible to feel melancholy about leaving behind something you don’t necessarily like, or even something that’s actively unpleasant or inconvenient, just because it’s become such an ingrained aspect of your life.  So, here are ten of the strange things that have become so commonplace that it’ll feel stranger without them:

  • Terrible Thai cover bands.  Forget actually going into the bars – there are nights when you can’t so much as drive along the moat without hearing a group of teenagers in adorably 90s backwards baseball caps massacre a Western pop song.  Which is not to say that there aren’t good Thai cover bands; there certainly are, and great original Thai bands, as well.  But it’s the epically awful ones I’ll really miss, because terrible bands are a bit like unhappy families – they’re unique.  Sure, there are times when I think that if I hear Maroon 5’s “One More Night” warbled off-key from the stage of one more outdoor bar I will stab someone, but life won’t be the same without it.
  • Bizarre gelatin desserts.  When I get back to the land of warm scones, pub cake, and Hummingbird Bakery, am I actually going to pine for the taste of taro gelatin, squirmy little shreds of pandan-flavoured rice flour, and condensed milk?  Probably not – but there’s something satisfying about looking at a buffet of what appear, at first glance, to be luridly coloured alien body parts, and actually knowing what goes with what.

  • Toilet paper everywhere but the toilet.  I’m actually not referring to the fact that you’re not allowed to flush toilet paper in Thailand, but rather to the fact that Thais don’t usually bother with varied paper products.  Runny nose?  Toilet paper.  Cleaning supplies?  Toilet paper.  Looking for something to wipe your hands in a restaurant?  That posh toilet paper with the puppies on it if you’re lucky; otherwise, the ubiquitous pink sheets that tear if you breathe on them.  Using the toilet?  …That’s what the squirter/water barrel and plastic pan combination is for.  What are you, a barbarian?

  • The smell of the moat in hot season.  It’s difficult to describe – sort of rich and oily and sickly-sweet all at once – and it’s not a lot of fun to experience, but it’s a distinct, instantly recognisable seasonal marker, and it’s going to feel odd when neither the moat nor the smell nor the season itself is part of my life anymore.

  • Spicy cheese ramen.  Words cannot do justice to the wonder of the Spicy Cheese variety of instant ramen.  Imagine store-brand mac and cheese in a box back in the States.  Now swap out the macaroni for egg noodles, and add desiccated crab stick and cayenne pepper.  It’s one of those foods that makes you feel ashamed for even being in the same room with it, and yet it’s insanely tasty.

  • Thai (and Burma) bluntness.  “Blunt” seems, at first, not to fit in terribly well with the usual stereotype of Thai people or folks from Burma as deferential and absurdly polite, but there are a lot of ways that people from this region are straightforward to a degree that shocks Westerners.  I remember Margaret Cho (who’s of Korean descent) joking in one of her standup routines, “I’d hate to be the only white person in a room full of Asian people, because we’ll talk shit about you right to your face,” and I kind of get that now. :)  Thai and Burma people don’t think of it as talking shit; it’s just that they don’t see anything insulting about saying, “You’re very fat!” or, “Oh, you know, your colleague, the really old one.”  It’s a statement of fact.   Thais in particular also like to greet each other with what we would consider weirdly intrusive questions:   “Where are you going?”  “Where were you?”  “Have you eaten yet?”  The consolation is that it cuts both ways.  I remember ending a training for a group of women by asking, “Is there anything else you want to bring up?”  After a lively conference with the trainees, the translator said, “They say you are very beautiful.”  Another quick exchange with one of the women, and she added, “She like your face, how it is red.”  Well, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t before you started complimenting me, but thank you!

  • Your soup is in a bag.  Because of course it is.  Actually, I’m amazed this never made it to the West, because it’s a great idea.  The usual Western solution of styrofoam bowls with plastic lids produces way more waste, and is prone to spilling, leaking through the paper takeaway bag, and scalding your hands (not that I have any experience with that ever, ahem).  Pour the soup in a plastic sandwich bag and secure it with a rubber band, though, and you can toss it around or even throw it in the basket of your motorcycle for a jaunt down a dirt road without losing a drop.

  • The way my motorcycle helmet leaves a little red slash across the bridge of my nose.  It’s rakish!

  • Struggles with language.  This is, in a way, one of the things I’ll be happiest to leave behind; it can be isolating to be surrounded by a language (in both written and spoken forms) that you only slightly understand, and exhausting having to remember a completely new system of grammar just to go to the corner store (not to mention the embarrassment when the Thai person you’re talking to breaks out of the usual script for the interaction and tries to make small talk, and you’re suddenly foundering).  At the same time, though, it can be freeing to sit in the middle of a coffeeshop or a public square and not understand a word being said around you; it means you don’t get distracted by other people’s conversations.  And in the same way that the language difference complicates everyday interactions, it also gives you a little thrill of triumph when you manage to get a tricky conversation right.  Besides, it is pretty funny when my inability to master short vs. long Thai vowels means that I end up ordering eight plates of noodles for lunch.

  • Singing colleagues.  If you’d asked me even a few weeks ago what annoyed me the most about my workplace, I’d have said without hesitation, “The singing.”  People from Burma have a long tradition of singing while they work, and that’s transitioned from the fields to the office.  And it drives me insane.  It’s not the singing, per se, as they all have lovely voices, but when one of my younger colleagues starts putting on his comedy falsetto, or the woman across from him sings the same line of a song over and over at five-minute intervals, I get the urge to drive a pencil through both my eardrums.  At once.  And everything in between.  And yet… I’m going to miss the randomness of the song selection (why did we have that one week of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”?), and the occasional invented tunes (with the modern work songs “Looking for the January 2012 File” and “I Will Fucking End You, Google Chrome” being at the top of my personal charts).  I may even miss the comedy falsetto.  Occasionally.  Because the thing about breaking into song while you do a spreadsheet is, whether it’s endearing, irritating, or both, it’s my life in Thailand all over.

    And very soon, it really will be all over.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Apocalyptic Universe

After an abortive attempt to get a tune-up for Arcee today (we got a diagnosis – slightly ragged wheel rims causing the wobbling I’ve noticed of late – but I wasn’t ready to leave her for a whole weekend), I drove into town and finally took the chance to check out the Lanna Folklife Museum.

The newly opened Folklife Museum is in a massive former courthouse near the centre of the city.  Like the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre across the street, it’s more dioramas than artefacts, but together, the two give a solid overview of the area’s history, art, and religious traditions.  While the Arts and Cultural Centre is endearingly dusty, the Folklife Museum still smells of new, and the interior is beautiful, all pale wood and cool tiled floors.  It covers the art and religion side of the equation, with exhibits on Lanna (northern Thai) music, pottery, textiles, murals, and Buddhist ritual practice, as well as a couple of rooms dealing with more day-to-day matters like rice harvesting, unique local foods (including khao soi, northern Thai sausage, and the tomato-pork dip I once heated up and ate like a curry in front of my bemused colleagues :)), and traditional courtship.  Courtship in Lanna society, it seems, used to be a little like old-fashioned courtship in rural English or American communities:  boy comes courting, boy and girl sit on the porch (well, in the Thai and American versions) while she does some kind of household chore, family discreetly leaves them alone, and if boy and girl hit it off, marriage plans are made.  (Also, apparently, once they started to fall in love, young Thai folks would secure “a permission to touch hands”.  Whether this was her family’s permission, his family’s, or each other’s wasn’t clear.)  My favourite detail was this:  “During a flirtation, they were interacting with a tactic of speaking.”  Wow!  Flirting with someone by talking to them!  I’m so glad that I’m privy to these erotic secrets of the mystical and seductive Orient. :P

Modern Lanna courtship rituals retain this magical art of talking, by the way.  Just with fewer porches and less spinning involved, and more malls, moped rides, and procurement of frothy orange concoctions from Wawee Coffee.

The more formal arts sections of the museum are cool, too, especially the gorgeous textile and pottery displays (including 700-year-old plates with remarkably Roman- or Japanese-style decoration).  I think that, like the Cultural Centre, it’s probably best as a first stop for tourists and new arrivals to get some context for their visits, but there were still some intriguing details I hadn’t known before.  Like the fact that the poles leaning against Bodhi trees on temple grounds serve a practical, as well as a devotional, purpose – Bodhi trees grow outward until the branches start to sag under their own weight, so the poles are there to hold the tree up (and gain karma for their donors in the process).  Or the (northern, at least) Thai belief that before birth, the soul needs to pay homage to the zodiac animal of its birth year, and that the animal will then bear the soul to the head of its father-to-be.  (I wasn’t entirely clear on which head.  Ahem.)  Or the fact that palm-leaf manuscripts were used almost exclusively for scriptures, but the (presumably cheaper) mulberry paper was used to produce books of talismans, magic, poetry, and even erotic drawings (which were apparently used as talismans).  Or the way traditional Lanna artists would depict kings, queens, and royal courts in the Burmese painting style, and reserve their own local style for scenes of ordinary life and nature – which makes sense, given that Burma ruled Chiang Mai for five hundred years, so the Burmese court was probably the popular standard for royalty and elegance for some time after that.

There was also a display explaining common tropes in Buddhist art, which drove home one of the things they told us way back in my first VSO training – different cultures have different concepts of time.  Not just whether ten minutes late counts as rude, acceptable, or actually pretty early, but also historical time.  The teleological view of history – the idea that it’s linear, from primitive past to glorious future, all moving towards some kind of goal – is primarily Western, and ties heavily into Christianity (although I think that view of history probably pre-dates it).  In the Christian belief system, the world doesn’t get remade again after Judgment Day.  That’s it.  In many other belief systems, however, including Buddhism, history is cyclical.  The world is destroyed and remade, just as humans die and are reborn.  This display explained that Buddhists believe there were innumerable past Buddhas, and even in our own epoch, Siddhartha Gautama is held to be the fifth (other traditions say fourth) Buddha.  (We’re still due one as well – the Future Buddha, who will arise when most people on Earth have forgotten the Dharma.)

The exhibit included an etched-glass mandala painting labeled “The Apocalyptic Universe”, which sounds like some kind of eighteenth-century work of speculative fiction.  If it isn’t, I may have to write it.

I found myself especially drawn to the displays on Buddhist mythology and ritual today.  After two years living and traveling in Southeast Asia, I feel like I’m only now beginning to get the hang of Buddhist iconography, being able to “read” the imagery the way I can read Christian imagery in a cathedral.  (Visiting places like Borobudur temple in Indonesia and the National Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia has been incredibly helpful for this.)  Before today, it never really occurred to me as something I’m going to miss, but I think I will.  Not so much for what it is (although a lot of it is beautiful), but as a thread that’s woven so deeply through the past few years of my life.  I’ve become very used to strolling along, anywhere, and looking up to see the spires of chedis and the ornate, winged gables of temple halls, studded with pieces of mirror or painted in gold.  It’s as much a part of my daily life here as noodle shops or riding my motorcycle, but while I actively love those things and have always known I’ll miss them (well, from the point at which Arcee stopped terrifying me and became indispensable and awesome), I’ve never really considered temples in the same category before now.

There’s another aspect to it, too.  I promise, I’m not going to go all, “ZOMG Thailand is so spiritual, you guys,” because I think that’s a massive oversimplification of a) Thailand and b) everywhere that isn’t Thailand.  However, there is something I find nice about the sheer visibility of Buddhist history and ritual here.  I suppose that it can act as a reminder of the spiritual side of life, lifting me momentarily out of my day-to-day concerns.  And yeah, it’s tough to swing a cat without hitting a church (or repurposed church building) in central London, but they aren’t as showy from the outside – they’re something you generally need to think about and seek out.  And even then, it’s generally seen as a little bit odd for a non-Christian to pop into a parish church for a few minutes because it looked pretty and they were in a contemplative mood.

Anyway, long story short, the Lanna Folklife Museum is well worth a quick trip if you’re traveling to Chiang Mai – and it wasn’t my only new cultural experience this week, either.  A few days ago, I took my friend R. out to dinner so that I could beg for tips about an upcoming job interview for a position in what used to be her field.  We decided to check out the new location of Khun Churn, the best vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Mai (no, seriously, fight me, bro), which has just moved inside the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, south of the old city on Wu Lai Road.  The place is more of a pain to get to, tucked away amid warehouses and woodworking showrooms and second-hand stores hawking I Heart NY gear covered in Statues of Liberty, so, unlike the museums in the centre of town, it’s become almost the exclusive purview of coach tours.  Which is a shame, because it’s a great place (and free, unlike the other Chiang Mai museums).  The centrepiece is a genuine 140-year-old teak house on stilts – well, I thought that was impressive, although R., being English, laughed and pointed out that her place in Lewisham is at least that old.  Anyway, this house used to stand on the riverside near Wat Ket, and belonged to a wealthy Chinese merchant family.  It’s outfitted traditionally, from the ox carts and wooden looms underneath the house, to the gorgeous dressing table (set on the floor at kneeling height), curtained sleeping area, and separate model kitchen upstairs.  There are some fantastic antique clothes and betel sets on display, too.  The Cultural Centre also has a small hilltribe market, where you can buy textiles and coconut-shell stilts (or do what I did, and just watch small children using the stilts to try and stomp each other :)).

After dinner, we caught part of a performance of traditional Lanna and hilltribe dances.  It’s striking how, in some cultures, there’s a really strict gender segregation when it comes to communal performances.  Women dance, men play music.  And while there may be occasional male dancers (usually in flashy solo performances that involve swords or fire), there are almost never female musicians.  (This seems to be the case in a lot of Arab countries, too.  In Indonesia, by contrast, every gamelan orchestra I saw was a mix of men and women.)

The dancers ranged in age from six or seven up to around sixty, and I have to say, it was the adults letting the side down in a lot of cases.  Maybe it was a cultural thing – grown women needing to be demure and not show off – but most of the adult dancers half-heartedly strolled through simple line dances, waving their hands in a vague manner.  (And then there was the older guy who danced what had to be my favourite dance of the night.  I don’t know the Thai name, but I can only imagine that it translates to “Desultory Drunken Hopscotch”.)  The kids and teenagers, on the other hand, threw themselves into it.  There was a harvest dance where teenage girls whirled and flipped handfuls of rice on wide, flat baskets, and another dance with a young man juggling four flaming brands in his hands and mouth.  The most impressive dance of the night was one where kids sat in a circle holding bamboo poles in rows between them, thumping them and clapping them open and shut rhythmically (imagine the background beat in “We Will Rock You” – that rhythm).  Other children jumped between the poles, trying to keep from getting their feet caught.  Like double dutch, except instead of rope, they were using heavy poles that could easily crush an ankle.

And then the kids in the circle moved the poles around, forming a shifting cross-hatch like some fiendish web of alarm-system lasers in a Mission Impossible movie, and the kids jumped through those.  Respect, man.

It feels a bit strange to be exploring some of these things only now, when I’m so close to leaving.  It’s natural, I suppose – it’s so easy to put off seeing things when you live in a city.  But it does make me a little more melancholy about moving away.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Friendship Treaties Are Magic!

I ended up at Chiang Mai's ASEAN festival today.  Don't ask.

There were huge paper sculptures draped in Christmas lights; one was a peacock and the other was a horse that I think was copied directly from an advert I saw for My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic.  The idea was that you went around to a series of booths representing each country, got your "passport" stamped (because as all of us who've traveled extensively in the ASEAN bloc know, there's nothing more fun than a recreation of going through immigration!), and sampled the food.

Except you weren't allowed to sample the food.

Well, okay, a couple of booths actually DID have samples set out, and I got to try some very nice Malaysian chicken with rice, peanuts, and dried shrimp.  Most of them, though, were a wash.  Laos was still frantically cooking, by which I mean "languidly poking a single chicken leg in red curry"; Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam only had single, rather elderly display plates of food.  Cambodia, if asked, would very politely lift the lid off a steamer and show you a sole serving of amok, which was either not done yet or Not for the Likes of You.  And a handful of others had their samples ready to go, but we plebians couldn't touch them until the interview segment.

This bit was, admittedly, awesome:  two young Thai presenters (both in traditional garb for the occasion, but you could tell from his spiked hair and her glitter eyeshadow that they would both be a lot more at home in more fashionable threads) were making the rounds, sampling the food and making terrible, terrible banter about each country.  I think most of the terrible banter was his fault.  Cultural expectations being what they are here (and, to be fair, in the West as well), he was supposed to be entertaining and engage with people, and she was supposed to laugh demurely and support him.  But he was clearly foundering, both with the language in the English segments and with the task overall, and she seemed to be trying her best, through gritted teeth, to get him to up his game.

"Now, you speak some Laos, don't you?" she asked sweetly.

"No," he declared, "I don't speak Laos."

"Come on, a little bit?"

He stared at her.  Crickets chirped.  A pan-ASEAN tumbleweed rolled past.

I caught up with them at the Burma (sorry, Myanmar) booth, where he was flailing about asking people for a translation of nam prik gung, the food on offer, and she was following him trying to get his attention.  After she finally snagged him long enough to whisper in his ear, he grinned and announced, "Chili Shimp!  It is Chili Shimp!"

"Everyone can try the Chili Shrimp of Myanmar!" she called out, which I think makes for a better tourist slogan than "The Golden Land".

A couple of Westerners went up:  a young man in yoga pants who professed to like the dish, but had some trouble with the spice, and an older American woman I'd seen wandering around, interrogating people about the ingredients on display at each booth (to the point where I'd wanted to yell, "It's garlic!  You're pointing at garlic!  Where the hell do you come from that you don't know what GARLIC is?").  She asked worriedly whether it was spicy, and, on tasting it, recoiled with a horrified expression.


A mix of free food and showing people up appeals to pretty much everything my id craves, so I strolled to the front and asked to taste, and made a big show of appreciating the flavour.  (It had a tiny kick to it, and was very nice.)  The cameraman zoomed in on my reaction to a degree that probably came out borderline pornographic.  The male presenter asked where I was from.

"I am from U.S.," I told him, because I've spent years telling people I'm from America and being corrected ("Ah, U.S.!").

"Ah, U.S.!" he said on cue, and then stared at me with a lost expression before offering, in a tiny voice, "United Kingdom...?"
"United States," his long-suffering companion hissed.

He stared at me a minute longer, then trilled, "Thank you!"

So, I think the taping was just for the Jumbotron on the other side of the plaza (I am not kidding), but it's possible I've ended up on some local news channel, pornographically eating The Chili Shrimp of Myanmar and confusing Thai people.

A fitting way to leave my placement, really.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Big Fish and Buddha Bling: Tales of Immigration

Recently, I went to Immigration for my very last visa extension (3 months, taking me through to April).  I was complaining to my friend Liz about having to get up so early and elbow strangers for a spot in the queue, and she suggested that I liveblog the experience – or, rather, write down my observations live and then post them when I had internet access again.  So, enjoy my Immigration adventures in real time, with added flashbacks looking back at two years of mishaps, insanity, sleepless nights, and assault by small children.  Warnings for strong language…

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Countdown to Re-Entry: Mistakes

For your (hopeful) entertainment, I've decided to do a few "Countdown to Re-Entry" lists, cataloguing the awesome and the difficult things about the process of moving back to London.  Today's list:  "Mistakes I Know I'm Going to Make in London".

10.  Waltzing into M&S and kindly informing the cashier that it's okay, they don't have to bag my things for me!  Yup.  That's right.  They certainly don't.  (Bonus points if I attempt this in Thai.)

9.  Getting onto a bus, asking how much the fare is, then shaking my head and saying, "You're joking!  Do I look like a tourist?  I can do one-fifty; it's really close by!"  (Granted, I just looked up the actual cash single bus fare in London now to make this joke, and, "You're joking!" was my genuine reaction.  Yeesh.)

8.  Buying a bunch of Pot Noodles at the offlicence out of habit.  Yeaaah, not as cheap as pots of mama noodles in a Thai 7-11, and not nearly spicy enough.

7.  Wondering when someone's going to just come up and start helping me without my asking if I'm struggling with anything from a heavy box to a map, while people around me are actually averting their gazes politely because they don't want to presume.  (Or mocking me.  Either/or.)

6.  Peering between the lanes of traffic to make sure I don't get hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street.  Granted, it's a lot safer to be making this mistake in London than it is to make the corresponding mistake in Thailand, and not look.

5.  Believing that "let's meet at 7," means, "let's meet around 7.20-ish-maybe".

4.  Refusing to visit a public loo if I'm out of tissues.  Wait, what do you mean, they provide paper for you?

3.  Forgetting to cook or shop for food, under the assumption that I can always just pick something up on the way home.  Living on takeaway somehow isn't as sustainable in London...

2.  Assuming I can strike up a conversation on the street with anyone, especially anyone who isn't Asian, because hey, they must be travelers or expats like me!  Solidarity!  Nope; they were born here, and don't appreciate being asked, "So where ya from?" by an overly chipper American.

1.  Eating absolutely everything with a spoon.

And a bonus one:  Ending every sentence with "kha".  Maybe.  I mostly manage to avoid this in English, but if I try speaking any other language, like, say, French?  Hoo boy.  I learned that on my trip to Montreal last Christmas. :))