my mid-20s, I found myself stuck in my hometown putting my university degree to excellent use as a cashier. So I took a job in Thailand as an English teacher. Weeks before I left, I didn’t know many details about the job. What I did know was that I’d be leaving everything I knew behind, as well as the one person who’d been there through it all.
On my way to board the ferry to Vancouver, the elevator doors closed on my last glimpse of my boyfriend’s face for the next six months. I was immediately alone with an intercontinental flight in front of me—I was about to endure 30 hours of travelling time to a completely unknown destination. I stood on the deck of the ferry, feeling the still-cold spring air, and looked at the full moon.
Airports always feel like the liminal, transitory, dreamlike places they are: the huge carpeted passageways, everyone far away from wherever they came from, jetlagged, disoriented, and wandering to their gate. Airports are literally passageways to other worlds, while foreign languages echo all around. I arrived in Suvarnabhumi Airport sweating in jeans and sneakers. Arriving in Bangkok was a rush; the air was hot and thick, and I suddenly realized that everyone had black hair and spoke Thai. I felt immediately drawn toward my only link here, the small-boned Thai woman in a pink floral shirt holding a sign saying, amazingly, my name. My contact met me with a bottle of water, and I drank it gratefully. Sometimes called Suvannaphum, the airport is one of the many places that remind you that Thai-English translation is not exact. Words are spelled as they sound, which leaves room for interpretation. The changing names of islands like Ko Samet (or, Ko Samed) makes getting a bearing on things all the more interesting.
My host drives me past green countryside where banana and palm forests soak up the hot sun. We arrive in a town where shops have full walls open to the outside and the sidewalks are studded with food carts. Families on motorcycles race by; truck busses or tsong taews carry passengers along one of the main arteries of Thailand, Sukhumvit Road.
The house where I am to stay in the town of Klaeng has a concrete floor and wooden walls with a gap near the roof. The bathroom is a fair-sized room with pink tiles and a toilet, showerhead, and garbage bin. The shower has only cold water and the garbage bin functions as my washing machine, Thai style. On one of my first mornings there, I find a quarter-sized frog under the showerhead. I put it in the dustpan and put it outside, then go to work. The next morning I look under the shower head and it is there again. I put it in the dustpan and bring it outside. The next morning, it’s there again. I leave it.
When I take my first bike ride around Klaeng, I’m amazed at my surroundings. My senses are assaulted so much that I feel timid upon leaving the house. I realize I am a rarity in the small town that most people pass through on their way to the party city of Pattaya, the northern centre of Chiang Mai, or nearby Bangkok. I take some pictures of cats and try to avoid the dogs wandering around in groups or lounging in the heat at the edges of roads. I get lost. I discover a river with a bridge over it. I ask directions at a Tesco Lotus using hand gestures and the name of the school, “Wi-ta-ya-sa-tha-worn,” I stammer to the girl behind the counter in broken Thai, saying the name of my school, so that I may find it again.
I discover that the food is miraculous in Thailand. Thai people believe that food itself will make a person happy and healthy, optimistic even. I know this because there are certain moments when I depend on food as a reminder of the amazing reality of where I am. I often feel homesick—except for when I eat coconut jello or ride an elephant.
The school itself is very large: comprised of 10 or so buildings, a square for assemblies, a track, basketball court, boxing ring, gardens, a giant reservoir, sitting areas for students shaded by tall trees, eight ping pong tables, the canteen, and a front gate. Behind the school are the teacher’s quarters.
Before I came to Thailand, I had somehow gotten the impression that I would be teaching one class of 50 students per day. After arrival, I realize that number has grown to 15 classes of 50 students per week, bringing my total jurisdiction to a whopping 750 students. Since this is a public school, it isn’t too different from your average group of students around the world; they are boisterous, unruly, and adorable. Most barely speak English, but yell out, “Good morning, teacher!” with such regularity that I am beginning to understand that, in Klaeng, “Teacher” is somehow what I have become.
In Thailand, teachers use a microphone to be heard above the din. To be fair, some groups are better than others. In one class, the 12-year-olds can’t seem to stay in their chairs and sometimes spend their time lying on the floor. I find more and more, however, that if I keep them occupied by singing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” they remain pretty attentive. These classes wear a newbie like myself down. I’m just grateful I don’t understand the jokes they almost certainly make as I walk through the halls.
Female teachers are not allowed to have tattoos and also have to wear skirts or dresses instead of pants. I am only one of two white teachers at the school. A vindicating example of my otherness is the nickname a teacher whose nickname is Apple bestows on me. I am known as “Pai Keow,” meaning rice leaf, because of my white skin. I like it.
I’ve been given textbooks for two out of the three grades I have to teach. Teaching materials are a godsend when you have 750 pairs of eyes looking at you every week. I walk out early during a few classes in which the din of the children overpowers my stubborn will to teach a few words of English or die in the process. As Will Smith said, “. . . if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things. You are getting off first. Or I am going to die. It’s that simple.”
Whenever I do gather my books and exit dramatically, I leave a roomful of surprised kids who momentarily become, wonder of wonders, silent. Once, a girl follows me out and exclaims, “I’m sorry teacher!” Her voice is breaking. We stand in the stairwell together. Rushing to collect my thoughts, I say, “It’s okay, mai pen rai,” and smile to show my appreciation for the gesture of humanity that teachers everywhere know the value of.
Sunthorn Phu is a three-day festival celebrated in Klaeng that puts any summer fling in my hometown to shame—based on culinary options alone. There is an extravaganza of food sellers and live entertainment that takes place in a park surrounding a large lake and the huge Sunthorn Phu statues painted different colors that stand twice my stature. The scene is full of people eating and hanging out, while onstage, a band plays Thai music and a lady from Burma recites a poem. On the steps, people sit cross-legged on mats and eat papaya salad or som tum (barbecue chicken and quail eggs) and drink bubble tea, beer or coconut juice.
I am still getting used to the abundance of people selling food everywhere. Outside of the grocery store, on every street, and on most stretches of highway, there are portable food carts selling fruit, grilled meat on a stick, noodle soup, toast with sweet milk, bags of papaya, jackfruit, or pineapple, coconuts—you name it. At the festival, I try an omelet that is cooked in front of me on a three-foot-wide pan by a woman who throws the mussels, eggs and batter together so quickly and carelessly it’s as if she’s making mud pies; soon I’m holding a steaming hot omelet on a paper tray, only 40 baht the poorer.
I also love going to temples in Thailand. Most temples are open to the outdoors and the surrounding courtyards. Inside, there are often Buddhas, like the solid gold Buddha in Bangkok that is six feet high, a foot wide, and maybe three feet from each sacred knee to the other.
I love the town of Klaeng so much. I love the market. I love being shoulder to shoulder with Thai people. I love looking the sellers in the eye and showing off my few words of Thai.
Ja ow neung malacaw ka, kow rai ka?
Sam sib ha baht, ka.
Kahb khun ka.
My boyfriend Mark comes to visit for two weeks at the end of my stay in Thailand. We have been apart for nearly six months and plan to fly home together. Mark is a guitar teacher. The trip is a significant alteration of his regular routine: practicing jazz standards every evening with an apt feline audience. I missed him like crazy, and the moment I see his sweaty face in the airport is magical.
We say goodbye to everyone at school and head for the island of Ko Samet on a truck bus or tsong taew. We walk across the white sands in the pouring rain and see a hut tucked into a corner. Sitting under the thatch, a Thai woman with penciled eyebrows is sitting chewing betel, contributing to a growing red stain on the sand beneath her. The next day, we sit on two deck chairs drinking beer and reading our books from the hotel’s lending shelf. We settle in to doing nothing and serenely take in the scene of turquoise water, white sand and colourful bathers.
Suddenly, I hear a shout, a deep, strong, short shout.
Now that I think back on it, I don’t know if I saw it or not. I imagine I saw someone raise an arm out of the water then sink down and disappear. I remember thinking, someone is calling to his friends, they’ll hear him. It didn’t seem to concern me.
I return to my drink and the man trying to sell me a henna tattoo in the shape of an elephant. A girl with dyed red hair down to her waist comes up to us quickly, “There’s someone who has fallen in the water,” she says, “Can you swim? He’s fallen in the water.”
Mark and I take a few seconds to respond. “I can,” says Mark and passes me the fistful of bahts he has in his swimming trunks, and runs into the water. I find myself holding onto his money, which prevents me from running in too.
I should have realized precious moments were going by.
A group of men help tow the man in. Ashore, they hoist his body over one man’s shoulders, so that his torso is upside down, and shake it to try to get water out. People gather around on the beach, and in the first 30 minutes, the Chinese man is surrounded by other travelers rubbing his limbs, giving mouth to mouth, pressing on his chest and yelling at him to show some life. The man’s wife, maybe in her early 30s, kneels beside him in her yellow bathing suit, repeating his name, crying out for her husband. I notice there is no one that seems to know her, and I put my hand on her shoulder. She turns around and holds onto me for a little, while I pat her head and hold her tight.
Another Chinese man comes along, and he seems to know the couple. I remember them yelling “Da Fa.” I’m not sure if I remember it right, but I think that was his name. A man approaches the body, and I remember his wife saying something to him in Thai. She doesn’t want him to touch the dead man. Mark keeps doing CPR long after others have given up, mostly because the man’s wife will not give up hope.
Finally a speedboat arrives and two men check the victim’s pulse. I’m still standing on the beach, and I see the speedboat zooming off to the hospital. Mark is dripping wet in his t-shirt, looking like David Hasselhoff. We hug and sit on our chairs. He asks someone for a cigarette. The man who had wanted to sell me the henna tattoo comes back for a last ditch effort, but we tell him to leave. We drink and smoke quietly. The water is so calm and the scene so idyllic. Just as the serenity had returned after I had first heard the man scream, the disappearance of the speedboat erases the occurrence of this event so completely that we sit in our shock and try to grapple with the coexistence of so much beauty and the terrifying closeness of death.
The experience on the beach showed us that travelling to a place like Thailand is an exercise in reconciling two conflicting opposites, between the beauty of an orchid and the daily tragic outcomes of life. It showed us how fragile the breath of a living person is, no matter where you go.
The school semester came to an end, which meant so many different things. Going back to Canada, saying goodbye to everyone I had met and grown to know, and saying goodbye to my students and everything that had become so familiar during my time living as English teacher at Wittayasathaworn, Rongrian Klaeng.
Every word I learned in Thailand was a key to greater exposure and deeper comprehension of the language and culture. I remember a moment, standing on the sidewalk outside of the main gate of the school, when my perception shifted. Immediately I felt like this was usual to me. Before, everything had a quality of being exotic and strange, and suddenly, it all settled into itself. I recognized everything as being mundane or ordinary: the trees were trees, and even though they had different trees, palm and banana, essentially, their earth was my earth. The only perceivable difference I became aware of was that this neighborhood was located further around the world.
When I went to Thailand, I went without knowing what it would be like. In my mind, I had a wonderfully large blank canvas that was to be filled with images and pictures of elephants, waterfalls with pools to swim in, sun-wrinkled old men and women in shorts and flip flops, butterflies, motorcycles, old men selling live turtles in the market, cats eating bowls of rice, thousands of faces, and thousands of moments when I had to catch my breath and pinch myself.