Whenever I’m in my room (I seem to spend quite a bit of time in there), despite all of the other things that are constantly running in and out of my head, two things are consistently tugging at my brain. One is that being in Thailand is exotic, but living in the boonies doesn’t necessarily get you that much closer to the reclining Buddha or Wat Phra Singh on a daily basis any more than if you were seeing the inside of your bedroom in the states.
The second thing, as movement above me catches my eye, is that spotting a big, ole lizard on my ceiling (an almost daily occurrence) is a much less terrifying ordeal than spotting a big ole spider on the ceiling. In fact, looking at the little guy up there, I feel absolutely no inclination to do a thing about it. Perhaps it’s a matter of book covers. It’s like the difference between catching the eye of an unattractive or awkward boy vs. a cute one. Though let’s be honest, spiders are as apt to have a great personality as lizards are.
Thailand continues to be an odd cocktail of the mundane routine and the exotica extreme. I now know how to jump onto the back of a water buffalo (with caution and a running start) and how much is too much to spend on rambutans, and if I am ever again tossed knee deep into a leech infested rice paddy, I now know how to stick the landing and keep the clothing damage to a minimum. I even know the best ways to get revenge on the person that tossed me into that rice paddy. I’m learning all kinds of life skills that I never knew I needed.
Teaching English is a challenge that (like most of the other challenges here) I didn’t anticipate. I’ve never had so much compassion for my elementary school teachers as I do now. I teach first through sixth grade and it’s a bit of a daily disaster. They don’t have enough English to understand my explanations, and I don’t have enough of a basis in Thai to explain it to them. I’ve found that my ridiculous elastic face seems to breach the language barrier fairly well, but even that can only communicate so much.
The little daily discoveries keep me laughing. Whether it’s the kids that, when I say “P-LANE” they say “P-RAIS, P-LARES, I-KYS” or the backpacks in the market with the same logo as North Face only they say “Mouth Form” instead, or even that all of our water says “smile is our way of life” on it. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but as way of life choices go, that seems like it would be a pretty good one.
It seems that, now that my two-week anniversary with Thailand has come and gone, I shouldn’t continue to harp on the language barrier that has now just become a part of my daily routine. My Thai mother has taken to taking me out for meals just to get me out, because my reclusive nature has inspired many more hours in my room with The Count of Monte Cristo than any of us expected. I sat in my room today wondering what it is that keeps me inside (besides the heat) and I realized that not being understood and trying to express anyway is more exhausting to me than walking 12 km up the mountain to Doi Suthep for Buddha’s birthday last night.
Among the more personal discoveries I’ve made here is this: I have a great need to express myself and an even greater need to be understood in that expression. Maybe that’s not news to anyone, but the mental strain of having so much to say and having no one to say it to is actually physically taxing. You’d think it would be a chance to turn to my journal and my computer and just write pages and pages of my thoughts or channel it all into the first great American novel written from Thailand. But instead, my thoughts stew for so long inside me with no one and no where to bounce them off of that they finally expire and slink back to the shadows of my psyche where they came from.
I was sitting one day with the seamstresses in the textile factory where I live in and we were exchanging what the words were, in our respective languages, for the things around us.
At one point E– (haven’t a clue what the Romanized spelling of her name would be) held up her scissors and said “Arai kha?” asking me what they were called and I was shocked.
This girl who is a seamstress doesn’t know the word “scissors”?! They don’t know that that word reminds me of all the times I’ve cut my finger doing craft projects, of the sweet satisfaction of cutting into cardboard or fabric and discovering that you’ve got a really fantastic pair of snippers, or those times in second grade when I would make my arm hair stick to the static on the chair and than trim it with my little Fiskars. It struck me that the language that I love so much and all of the associations that I have with every word that I know and the way that I use those words is completely and utterly unknown to most of the world.
I know in my heart of the universalities of other forms of language, languages of love and languages of grief. I know that God understands us all in a way that transcends even the need for words, but still it filled me with a dreadful sense of wonder to know that I’m welcome here because of this great commodity of English that I have and didn’t even work to possess, and yet I will likely leave without anyone (except perhaps myself) knowing how much it actually means to me.