I have officially been in Thailand for one whole month. I cannot believe it. One month. It sounds too long. It feels crazy to me, that I have been here four weeks already, and when I studied abroad in college I was in Ireland only two or three weeks longer. Looking back at that now, it feels like I did so much more while I was there, like I was there for a lot longer time. It’s all crazy – how time speeds up and slows down simultaneously when traveling.
During this month I’ve come to notice the discrepancies between my expectations of living in Thailand and my current reality. Where to start? Well, I was led to believe I’d be a giant, for one. At 5’8” I’m not exactly small back home either. I read somewhere that the average height of a Thai man was 5’5”, I arrived expecting to tower over locals like a bright, shining white giantess, bumbling around. It is not quite as ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ as I thought it would be. While I do loom over a fair share of the population, I’ve run into quite a few people who are almost my height or even taller. It’s nice not feeling too extraordinarily large, but it’s nice to be able to scan a room and be able to see everything or everyone too. Along with the size difference issue, is the idea of buying clothes. Most of the places that sell things here are the street side tent market variety, without the luxury of a changing booth to try things on. That makes it a bit tricky to make purchases when you’re the exact opposite of the shops’ average clientele. Many dresses I suspect look like shirts on me, and average skirts turn into minis.
I also believed that perhaps I’d stand out for my current choice in hairstyle. It’s short, ‘boy short’ I called it. Thai women would all have long hair, someone told me. Or, they think longer hair is more beautiful? Something like that. I’ve found that plenty of the girls here have very short hair. In school I think more students have short hair than long. While they do absolutely love the other foreign teacher’s long curly hair, mine is not thought of as so crazy. It’s ‘sporty’ one teacher said, but not strange. Perhaps it has something to do with the uniform culture I see here. They’re all supposed to look alike maybe? So they all fit in? I am not sure, but they do seem to love the uniform here. All the schools have uniforms. They have a uniform for regular classes and gym classes. The teachers wear uniforms on Mondays. There are uniforms for everything. There seem to be a lot of piercings, too. I didn’t expect to see so many gauges and multiple ear piercings in my rural Isaan town. A lot of my students have them. It makes me feel better about my tragus piercing. It’s a non issue. And the dress code thing – well – it’s a lot more lax than the teacher placement program led me to think. They made it seem that ‘country’ schools were a lot more traditional or strict over appearance. It’s true that female teachers aren’t allowed to wear pants, but they don’t seem to care if my skirt is over my knee or not. They all call us beautiful all the time no matter what we actually look like, because we are so white. Lighter coloring is beauty here, whereas at home we are considered to be just really pale. We have to watch out for beauty products here, though. Or even body wash. Like westerners lace their lotions with self tanning agents, Thailand has whitening agents in everything. That stuff could be bad for us white chicks, so we try to double check our soaps.
I knew I’d stand out because I’m Caucasian and living in Northeastern Thailand, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the attention. People told me that they’d all love me and my novelty, etc etc. I’m not sure that everyone thinks I’m awesome, so much as…something else. I feel like I am being laughed at. All of the time. I can’t walk to the Tesco to buy more water without four kids on one motorbike flying by and calling out, honking, or laughing. Everyone stares at the other teacher and me whenever we leave the house. We know they’ve had western teachers here before, so why do they keep staring? It’s a real exercise in self esteem/self consciousness. I don’t enjoy feeling like everyone is always talking about me. Then again I can’t understand any of it and there’s nothing I can do about it, so why worry? I’ll just keep on smiling and nodding, smiling and waving. I’ll pose for their photos with the town farang, whatever. But I won’t stand for any photos holding any signs. I draw the line at photographs with things I can’t read.
It’s been two almost full weeks of teaching now. I’ve done a little bit of traveling. The first two weeks, though, I was really struggling with why everyone I talked to before leaving seemed to be so in love with it here. I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, it’s nice enough, I don’t hate it. I’m not in love with it either. It’s always hot, I sweat through all the clothes I own and know I will never be able to get them really clean while I am here with just a bucket and some soap to wash them in. My feet are always dirty. I pretty much never feel really really clean. The mattress is just a piece of fabric stretched over some springs with sheets that don’t fit. My back kind of always aches. My town has nothing in particular to do. If I don’t travel it’s pretty boring. I’ve taken to watching Supernatural on the internet obsessively to keep me sane during the week. This past week was better. We went to Chiang Mai and played with elephants, which was great. Maybe it’s just a time thing, and I’m sure it will get better, perhaps if and when the rainy season starts. I’m just waiting on the epiphany that my friends seemed to have here. Why is Thailand THE place? It’s cheap to live here for me at the moment, sure, but that alone is not enough. I have to do more traveling. Maybe if I get to spend more time by the infamous beaches it’ll be better. Or the mountains. I’m in the rice growing area, so there’s not a lot of the natural landscape beauty I enjoy, save the sunrises and sunsets. Those are incredible. Every morning when I go to the bathroom the sky outside the window is lit up in glorious shades of pink and orange with majestically backlit clouds. Then they go away and it’s just hot again. Hot even for Thai people, they’ve told us.
The teaching is hard. I don’t know what all I was expecting there. More guidance or structure? More rooms with air conditioning? Syllabi? Oh well. It is what it is and that’s fine. I know I’m here for all the experiences, the good and the not as good, but I am glad at this point too that I didn’t sign up for the whole year. The teachers so far tell us they want us to stay the whole year, but I’m not sure I’ll be up to it. Right now I wish I could just travel all the time instead of banging my head against the proverbial brick wall at school. We’ll just have to wait and see. I have no more expectations; I’ve let them all go. It’s better to just meet everything as it comes. You know, mai bpen rai and all.