Friday, March 23, 2012

T is for Thailand, Teaching, and Toilet

One of my closest college friends invited me to a party in which the theme was “T is for __________,” so one’s attire had to match the word that ended the phrase. Back in college, I decided to go dressed as a trash can, but today I wish I would have been a little more creative.

A couple of weeks ago, I concluded my first term of teaching in Thailand. I strongly believe that it was definitely the catalyst to not only a better way of living, but for a more productive second semester.

I have learned a lot about myself and teaching in Thailand.

I learned that...
  1. I prefer eating red ant eggs over frogs (they taste better, and eating red ant eggs makes me feel like I am getting back at them for all the times they have bit me).
  2. I need exercise, phone/skype/in-person dates with friends, and alone time to keep my spirits high and energized. 
  3. I can’t say “yes” or “no” to everything that is asked of me. 
  4. Who I am is impermanent. I sometimes feel like I don’t remember who American Glenda is and I begin to panic, but then again I am growing and changing and there is nothing wrong with that. (I hope my friends back home still like me ;) ) 
  5. My experience is my experience and nobody else's. Sometimes we look to our neighbors and compare our differences and similarities and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is always important to be grateful for the uniqueness of our paths. 
  6. Expect nothing. I did not have the privilege to have a formal last week of classes at my school, because many events were planned during the last week of classes. We had M3 (10th graders who opt to transfer schools or enter vocational/trade schools) and M6 (12th graders) graduation. We also had art competition, in which the students performed to see who was the best singer, dancer, actor, musician, and much more. The school also arranged an impromptu parent-teacher meeting/assembly in which I, and other new teachers, introduced ourselves. For a couple of weeks, I was upset that I did not have the opportunity to have a last week of classes (and or good-byes), but I realized that I should have never expected to have a last week of classes.

The lesson of expectations and assumptions brings me to my next topic. Internship month in Thailand. Any good ethnographic researcher knows to put their biases aside (and eruditely present any predispositions to the observer), but this month has reiterated my need to continue working at putting aside my expectations. This month I expected to have hands-on experience in farm labor in a farm in northern Thailand. Unfortunately, my desires were not met because of the following factors:
  • Manual labor is done by outside hired help.  (For instance, if an organic farm needs a tractor, they will rent a tractor and a driver and the driver will do all the work that is required.
  • Daily farm work is done by the family. 
  • I don’t think I was clear enough about my needs to keep busy.
If you know me, you know that I feel the most fulfilled (and happy) when I am busy and getting things done (side note: this is the good old AmeriCorps VISTA motto). My internship month has been very slow paced and I have had a lot of time to ponder my next move in life (and GRE vocabulary building). This month has also made me very anxiously excited for April!

April is my vacation month!! I will be vacationing in Los Angeles, CA and I will be in the company of some of my greatest friends and family. I am looking forward to exploring Thailand in Los Angeles (stay tuned for an entry on LA’s Thai Town) and just being able to enjoy the luxuries of home. I am really looking forward to a month of authentic Mexican (and Guatemalan) food, consistent hot water, English television, English and Spanish native speakers, easy to navigate public transportation, not being confused for being Thai (and having people rapidly speaking to me in Thai), and  western-style toilets.

Eastern Toilet vs. Western Toilet

Do you know the difference between a western toilet and a eastern toilet (aka squatty potty)? Wait...I think I just gave you the ANSWER!!!

Yes, that’s right. If you use a western toilet, you take a sit. But for an eastern toilet, you take a squat hence it’s colloquial name “squatty potty.” I do not have extensive experience with squatty potties, but I did become familiar with them while studying in India. I don’t know why (maybe it’s my advanced age), but squatty potties are more burdensome now than they ever were when I was studying abroad.

During my first months of teaching, two of the teachers at the school where I teach gave me a training session on best practices for Thailand’s toilets (I think there is a small difference between Thai and Indian squatties). They pointed out the hose at the side of the toilet and said that was to be used “when you take a shit” (direct quote). I have yet to use the hose (or bucket if there is no hose) without spraying my entire back.

In Thailand, toilet paper does not make its appearance in (traditional eastern) restrooms, but instead one will find it on the dining table. Thais use (what Americans/westerners know as) toilet paper as napkins or tissue paper. 

The only advantage to squatty potties (in my opinion) is that that squatties tend to be a lot cleaner on the road. During trips (on car, bus, or train) the public squatties have always tended to be on the cleaner side. 

On that note, may your bowel movements be normal and satisfying! :)

Lots of love from Thailand.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hierarchy of Numbers

I have been living in Chiang Mai City for the past week and it has been very enjoyable. I am now living and interning at the headquarters of the Highland Research and Development Institute a part of the Royal Expansion Project, instead of living and working in the rural village of Papae. Everyone came to the consensus that I was not getting the experience I wanted in Papae.

After spending two weeks (total) in the province of Chiang Mai, I have come to the realization that the province Khon Kaen has become my home away from home. On Friday, March 9th, I missed the 9pm bus from Chiang Mai to Khon Kaen and I was truly upset. I opted to sit around Chiang Mai’s bus station from 10pm until 3:45am, so that I could arrive in Khon Kaen City in time for the Fat Radio concert. While waiting, I started getting scared because I was a young woman in a bus station at night (in addition, the lighting was dim and there was a loud man parading around shirtless). Needless to say, I was ecstatic when a 20-year-old English female student from Lampang University joined me in my waiting quest. I, at that moment, felt what they refer to as “strength in numbers.” 

Nim and I commenced talking about EVERYTHING, it felt like the universe had placed her in that awkward bus station at the wee hours of the night just for me! She began to talk about her vegetarianism (she’s actually what Thai’s refer to as “Jey”- they do not eat any meats, eggs, dairy, garlic, ginger, strong spices, or alcohol). Nim told me that she had decided to change her diet and quit drinking alcoholic beverages when she starting learning more about Buddha. She shared her opinions on monks who decided to break the rules (by drinking, smoking, keeping a wife, and etc) and or turned their monk-hood into a business (i.e. taking the donations they received at funerals, merit ceremonies, and other ceremonies that require monks to chant/sing Pali prayers).

Throughout our conversation, I was amazed (and thankful) at this young woman’s willingness to divulge her honest opinions about her culture and in almost perfect English. She explained to me the 5 precepts of Buddhism. Side note: It is important that I mention that there are different flavors/types of Buddhism depending on geographic location (i.e. Tibet, China, Thailand, etc) and each individuals needs. Also, I am still learning about this topic SO I AM NO EXPERT, but I like to share what I have learned.    

5 Buddhist Precepts:

  1. Do not harm living beings (some people include or exclude animals--depending on their dietary preferences).
  2. Do not lie.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
  5. Do not become intoxicated (this precept is also up to interpretation).

Upon telling me the five principles, Nim explained to me why she was at the bus station. She had come to Chiang Mai City to visit a friend and her friend had ended up drunk. Nim clarified that her friend had assured her that she would not work while she was visiting (I did not see the connection between her friend’s drunkenness and her working). I asked Nim what her friend’s profession was and she explained that her friend gave men her company and drank with them. At that moment, her friend (in her newly purchased motorbike) joined us in our conversation. Her friend (whose name escapes me) began furiously and drunkenly asking Nim to go back to her apartment since she would be waiting until early morning for the bus anyway. I was fearful that Nim would bend her arm and join her friend back to her apartment and I would be left alone in the shady bus station, luckily Nim opted to calmly refuse her offers and we fought our sleep and fears together. We happily answered each others questions about others cultures. At 4pm, on March 10th I arrived in Khon Kaen City (my home away from home) just in time for the Fat Fest music concert where I rekindled my love for Thai indie music.

In this entry, I would like to address THE HIERARCHY OF NUMBERS in Thailand. In my opinion, the importance of certain things stands out more in Thailand than it ever did in America. For starters, I don’t remember strangers in the U.S. asking me specific details about my personal life. In Thailand, people have no problem asking me the following:

    How much do you weigh?
    How much do you make a month?
    How much was it?
    How much do you think this was?
    How old are you?
    How old is your mother? 
(And many more random questions that I just cannot recall at this moment.)

The daughter of the family that I was staying in the rural village of Papae, Chiang Mai, Thailand asked me multiple times how much I weighed. Upon my refusal to give her an exact amount she began to guess my weight and she said, “Ok, tomorrow we will weigh you.” I was appalled by her suggestion and confused by her determination to know my exact weight. In my opinion, knowing that my weight was more than hers would place her in an advantageous position in the hierarchy of numbers.

Women (and sometimes men) in Thailand have no problem talking incessantly about their weight and how fat they think they are (when in reality they are petite by American and Thai [any] standards). I have never been comfortable talking about my weight (or others weight). Having the topic of body weight at the forefront of many discussions has awaken in me a battle that I’ve had with my own body. One of my life mentors told me to not allow myself to compare my body type to Thai women’s ideal body image, because we come from different races and genetic make up. At times, this is easier said than done. There are days when I obsess about my caloric intake and making sure that I get enough exercise throughout the week and there are other days when enough people comment on my beauty that it cancels out the fat/weight comments/questions.

In Thailand, people have no problem asking about your salary because they like to know where in the income hierarchy everyone lies. In my school, everyone knows each others salary. Side note: The teachers like to celebrate their advancement in the salary brackets by hosting an after-school party that often includes karaoke, delicious food, and whiskey. Besides my body weight, money matters is my other least favorite topic of discussion.

Some would justify Thai’s comfort in asking specific personal questions because everyone sees each other like family. Around family members, one tends to feel at liberty to say and ask whatever comes to mind. Side note: In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that in Thai culture everyone refers to one another as Pee/P’ (older sister or brother) or Nong (younger brother or sister) followed by their nickname. For example, a 50-year-old would refer to me as Nong Dada or just Dada, but a 10-year-old would refer to me as P’Dada.

There are days when I am overwhelmed by the hierarchical structures I am forced to navigate or abide by. And on those days, I remind myself that a year ago I was aching to be in the position I am now. I have the privilege to represent my country and learn from my travels and encounters. I am also fortunate to observe a culture on the other side of the world and notice that most societies function very similarly to one another. As an American, I have witnessed that we also catalogue people by age, race (skin color), socioeconomic status, gender, sex, creed and any other way we can categorize ourselves.

As I wrap up this entry, I ponder on this questions: Why do we, as humans, have the constant need to create differences from one another? Why do we create hierarchies that belittle some and places others in pedestals?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Hierarchy of Color

I have been at the home-stay--where I will spend my internship month--for a grand total of 3 days and I’ve been sick for the most part. I left my home (and Isaan family) on February 29th at 7am. My host teacher, P’Nok, the math teacher, P’De (also the gentleman that drives me to school every morning), P’Sa (his wife, and the lovely woman who delivered tangerines to my room when I had an infection in my throat) and I commenced our 12 hour drive north to the small town of Papae in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On our drive, I indulged in many local Thai cuisines. I don’t know what did it...but the doctor/nurse/person-at-the-clinic said I have food poisoning (I don’t think I need to explain further what that entails).

Details about my home-stay: I am staying in the home of a family that leads the communal credit union. On Friday, March 2nd, I was a witness to the collective’s monthly meetings and member dues collection. The portion of the town that I live in was all represented. The women in the credit union outnumbered the men and I was highly amused by the local business women cracking numbers on their calculators.

The family that I am staying with is preparing a house for a German volunteer that will be joining them in August. The organization (I doubt they did) notified the family in Papae that I would be joining them on March 1st (SIDE NOTE: some Thais are very relaxed about deadlines and details--this is also known as “sabai sabai,” which to an American this at times can be very frustrating). When I arrived, the family said that I could move into the new house at some point during the month but in the meantime I could stay in their daughter’s room (who only visits on Fridays). Living with a traditional Thai family has really made me grateful for the family that I have in the northeast of Thailand. Side note: My Isaan family is very understanding of my need for privacy and that I dance to a different dance (I do things differently because I am “farrang”**). The family at the home-stay monitors my eating, bathing, and sleeping habits and then they discuss and re-discuss the matters with everyone who stops by their house.

**Let’s count the ways in which I hate the word “farrang.” Farrang is the word that is used to describe “the Other” or anyone that is not Thai. My heart feels warm with joy when someone tells me that they do not see me as “farrang.” On the other hand, there is an unexplainable heartache that comes when someone that I see as a dear friend describes me as “farrang.” My farrang status is further reinforced by inability to speak the language.

At this point in the entry you might be asking: What brings me to this part of Thailand? What is my internship? I am here to volunteer at a rice, tea, and coffee farm. The purpose of my internship is to observe the role of women farmers in sustainable agriculture and their rural communities in Thailand. My goal for my internship was to continue my analysis of women in sustainable agriculture and social movements that I began in Venezuela in 2009.

This entry is entitled THE HIERARCHY OF COLOR because my stay in Papae has brought forward a matter that I had been ruminating upon. Thai culture is implicitly a society of hierarchy (in various ways) and I have noticed that there is a very evident hierarchy of color in regards to value and beauty. Yesterday morning, I walked around the plot of land where my home-stay is located and I stumbled upon their rabbit cages. I noticed that the white rabbits had their own spacious cages, while the gray, black, and multi-colored rabbits were crammed in 2 to 3 rabbits per cage. The colorful rabbits were housed in cages placed on the ground, but the white rabbits were housed in a structure that kept them away from the nuisance of the roosters, hens, cats, and dogs. This was not the first, or last, time that I realized that in Thailand white is beautiful.

If you step into any store, you will notice lightening creams and you will struggle to find lotions and body soaps without whitening agents. If you turn on your TV, you will notice that the protagonists in Thai soap operas are all only a representation of the lightest shade of skin colors in Thailand. If you drive on the road, you will notice most drivers will opt to drive white cars. Side note: People with black cars will put stickers on their cars that read “This car is not Black.” It is believed that black cars are unlucky (hence less valuable). All cars (or most cars) in Thailand are blessed by monks (by request of the car’s owners), and black cars tend to have more elaborate blessing decorations on the inside of the car’s ceilings. If you show pictures of friends back home, you will notice that most Thai people will comment that white is beautiful and everything else is not.

Some people justify Thailand’s obsession with whiteness with the country’s agrarian background. It is believed that the darker your skin color is the more likely you are to work on the fields. Hence the whiter your skin the more likely you are to work in a profession that shields your skin and fills your pockets with more baht/money.

In the classroom (the teachers’ office and my students’ hangout spots), I would notice the importance of the hierarchy of color on a daily basis. I would see female students and teachers covering every inch of their bodies as to make sure to protect their skin from the sun. The same female students would cover their faces in white baby powder as to appear paler (or in my opinion SCARIER...they looked as pale as the vampires on Twilight).

For a long time, I was afraid to know where I fell in Thailand’s hierarchy of color. Side note: I was surprised that I wasn’t told opinions of my skin color sooner...seeing how in Thai culture it is completely acceptable to divulge your blunt opinion on someone’s appearance without any regards of the other person’s feelings. I know in America, the tan of my skin (along with my facial features) clearly otherizes/characterizes me as Latina (but very few Thais understand why my skin is the shade of brown that it is). My first month in Thailand, I had a housekeeper in a hotel come up to me and place her arm next to my arm and compare her skin color to mine--and I didn’t think twice about it. Now after several months in Thailand, I wonder: Are Thais comparing their beauty to what they see in western magazines and movies? (And because western media outlets do not have any [or very little] representation of racial diversity Thais [and other nationalities] cannot conceptualize non-white as beautiful? I strongly believe that the world looks to American/western culture to set their standards of beauty and I know that America/western culture has the capacity to revolutionize what the rest of the world views as beautiful.)

My best friend’s grandmother once told me that I should stay in Thailand because I am so beautiful and my skin color is very pretty. It seemed that after that the flood gates were open and many people began to comment on my skin color and it’s appropriateness in Thai culture. I also have been reprimanded for not being more careful about protecting my skin color--I happen to enjoy running outdoors when the sun is out.

What are you doing to reinforce the hierarchy of color? I know that this hierarchy that I observed in Thailand is not idiosyncratic to my current location.

**SIDE NOTE:** Since originally writing this entry, I have moved to Chiang Mai City where I will be living for the remainder of the month. I will do site visits to different agricultural sites and learn about the work that the Royal expansion project is doing to encourage sustainability in the north of Thailand. My supervisors agreed that I will get more out of my internship month if I receive a more diverse outlook of agricultural sites in Thailand. I have been in Chiang Mai for 3 days and have loved EVERY single moment of it!!

In the parking lot (things I want to address in upcoming entries):

  1. The Hierarchy of Numbers: How much do you weigh? How much do you make a month? How much was it? How old are you?
  2. Being Latina in Thailand
  3. Toilets in Thailand
  4. The effects of mai pen rai on my life