Thursday, June 24, 2010

Clowns, Rats, and Kao Mon Gai

Fun English does not operate on an intuitive kind of system. At least not any I can figure. It works like this: the company makes contracts with schools around the city, selling our special “fun” English classes and guaranteeing “native” instructors, plus a Thai teacher for each class. Each morning all teachers, Thai and “native,” meet at the office to get their things and a cab (or in this case an office van), and travel together to their school for the day. Every day is different. You might have the same school every Monday and Wednesday, and the same one every Tuesday and Thursday, but no one goes to the same school every day. The Thai teachers make the commute possible, handling taxi money and directions, and they serve as liaisons between Fun English and the school. It sounds like they have more work to do than me, but I’m sure they’re paid accordingly.

I follow Ed and Arm, who is literally about as big around as my bicep, into the grounds of the school. Arm’s hair is short like a boy’s and her snaggle-teeth beg to be braced. She doesn’t seem to notice, smiles with all her teeth, her round, wire-rimmed glasses making the light dance. She introduces herself to me as we enter the building and once inside our classroom begins setting up, emptying the box of toys onto a table and placing dry erase markers next to the board. Ed, too, makes preparations. I ask if there’s anything I can do to help but they say no, why don’t I find a seat, anywhere is fine.

My polo shirt scratches my skin as I pull it down around my neck, tugging at the thick fabric, grateful for the air-conditioning unit in the corner working hard. I look around and find my seating choices rather limited; there are no chairs in the room, no desks - nothing but the white board and the one table up front. Edmond catches me looking and smiles. His brilliant white teeth even the score against Arm’s.

A steamy stream of air gushes into the room along with what seems like a million children. The Prathom (elementary) 2 children - 2nd grade, more or less – loud, animated, downright ecstatic, it seems, to be here. They scream and giggle and shriek and point at me and laugh, running around the room like animals. Ed fiddles with piles of white laminated flashcards, while Arm shouts as loud as her little voice can, apparently urging everyone to sit in five even rows on the floor. They sit and scream then until finally Arm shouts, “Ah ManOw!” Then the children’s backs straighten, their hands flap into their laps, their eyes close and their cheeks puff out. Like magic, the room is suddenly silent. When I ask her later, Arm tells me that what she said in Thai was “Put a lemon in your mouth.” I don’t get it, but file it away anyway to use as an incantation later, when I get my own class.

Now I sit in the back, near the corner, curling my legs under me, “Indian style,” as we used to say in America but don’t anymore. I cross my legs because I know the taboos in Thailand, too, and one is to never point your feet. Thai people consider it extremely disrespectful to have feet extended in their direction. They also think it quite bad manners to touch someone else’s head. The guidebook says this is because of Thai Buddhism, within which feet are the most degraded part of the body, the head the most sacred. Seeing the state of my own feet after a day of walking around the city in flip flops, I think the feet part, at least, makes pretty good sense.

Edmond tests the children with a rapid-fire review of flashcard vocabulary before starting in on his lesson about prepositions. He uses the lines they’ve already made for a Pictionary relay race. The student at the front gets a whiteboard marker, and at “Teacher Ed’s” signal they run up to the board and draw whatever he commands. “The ball is in the tree!” he shouts in his blue-blooded accent. “The dog is behind the chair!” The children scribble desperately, then spin around and repeat the sentence back to him or Arm three times – “Dog in ta-ree!” “Dog is ta-ree!” - before running back to their lines and handing off the marker to the next student.

They play other games and the class goes on more or less this way for fifty minutes. Everyone screams and runs and plays happily until a fat, old Thai teacher from the school comes in. I can’t exactly tell but it seems like the lesson has been interrupted earlier than Ed and Arm expected. Everyone seems surprised, but Arm and the teacher talk and finally the children, just as happy as ever, file out of the room.

“They have sports day,” Arm explains when the room is empty.

“Bloody sports days!” Ed says. “You’d think Thailand would have some really amazing Olympic teams considering how often they cancel class to play sports… but they don’t.” While we wait for the next class he explains to me that Thais have trouble pronouncing two consonants next to each other, so they almost always insert a vowel where there isn’t one in English – thus tree becomes ta-ree, snake = sa-nake, cream = ca-ream, etc. “They’re a lot easier to understand if you know that,” he says and I nod, my eyes absorbed by the next horde of children flooding through the door.

Their English and their concentration abilities leave something to be desired, but the children are pure pleasure to look at. All the girls wear plaid skirts and tan blouses. Long black braids swing down each little girl’s back and the boys’ knees brown, knobby knees poke out of navy blue shorts. The clear buttons on their light blue shirts are done up to their smooth, skinny necks. The only less than perfect physical aspect of the children, as far as I can tell, is their teeth. No one doesn’t have at least one black and rotted through, and many mouths are full of jagged choppers, eaten away from the bottom up. But it’s easy to overlook, since other than that they are so perfectly sweet and beautiful it’s almost painful. All I want to do is kidnap a few to take home.

We Fun English teachers, on the other hand, aren’t quite as picturesque. Actually, we look more like clowns than teachers, and from what I’m seeing that title might be more apt. Edmond prances around, his golden curls glistening, his flashcards tucked under one arm, tiny droplets of sweat flying from his forehead, and I wonder how I’m going to act like that and still take myself seriously. “Oops!” goes the beautiful man, over and over again, whip out flashcards and pulling his long body into a straight-legged soldier pose, making me marvel that someone so good-looking coudl be stripped of his dignity so easily.

Still, I try to keep an open mind. What he’s doing does seem to be working - the children do what he commands; they know the answers and they listen, for the most part, as long as he keeps them moving. I guess the important thing is that they’re learning - whatever it takes to make that happen. Besides, I have so many other things to consider that I can’t dwell on anything too long. For example, there are the names. All the children wear nametags, which Arm and Ed distributed to them at the beginning of class. That isn’t weird in itself but the names - Earth, Nut, Oat, Power, Love, Cream, Spaghetti, Beer, Golf, Porn - are. What kind of person would name their child Gin? Or Porn! But surely Porn must mean something different in Thai; I’ve met four today.

After three hours of observation any sustenance provided by my Seven-Eleven pastry is long gone and I’m paying even less attention than the children. Finally, Ed and Arm dismiss the last class and we leave for lunch. I take the opportunity of the walk to ask about the names.Just nicknames, according to Ed. Everyone has a regular name too, like Natanicha and Pornprawee and Paweena and Thanakorn, he says. The nicknames aren’t just for Fun English; it’s not like my being called “Emilia” in Spanish class. Here, parents give children nicknames along with their regular name in order to protect them from evil spirits. If a demon wants to find Thitiwat, the thinking goes, he won’t be able to because everyone else is calling him Noom. Sneaky people, these Thais, but with such unscrupulous spirits to contend with you can’t really blame them.

At a blue plastic table in an open-faced “restaurant” on the side of a busy road we sit down to eat and I find myself thinking of Rob and Anne, the Intercontinental Hotel, high tea, the famous Thai art of cutting fruits and vegetables into flowers. The red-headed Brooklyn girl swaggers over to us and sits beside me with a hefty sigh as Ed tells me that he’s going to order, “Kao mon gai without the blood.”

“Chicken and rice,” the Brooklyn girl says in answer to my pleading, pathetic eyes. “With sauce. It’s good. Don’t worry; I’ll do it for you. It’s all you can get here anyway.”

The waitress comes and the others – Ed, Arm, Justine, and Justine’s TT (Thai Teacher) - order while my stomach aches and cars race past. My hands are fat and dirty and I don’t know where to put them. “Diet Coke,” I say, as the waitress turns to go, and the Brooklyn girl tells her, “Pepsi song, ka,” and to me, “No Coke here.” I nod and smile, agreeable, hopeful, easy-going, that’s me.

Finally I get the red-headed girl’s name – Justine. “Where in Brooklyn?” she asks and I tell her my address in Park Slope and we talk about the neighborhood and her place in Brooklyn Heights and I am happy to talk about home but worried too, because Justine seems angsty and harried, like she is clinging to New York, to Cali, to America, like she hasn’t left a bit of it behind. She’s come to Thailand with her boyfriend, Jake, and Ed is here with his girlfriend, Carolyn. As we talk I begin to understand that almost everyone at Fun English is part of a couple. Why didn’t anyone send me the memo? Will I have to do my traveling alone? Will I always be the third, fifth, seventeenth wheel? Have I made a terrible mistake?

I look up. No. The blue sky beams upon my white face. The sun, the air, hot and wet, embrace my skin. I see no computers anywhere, only pleasant people, idyllic children, busy streets, temples, orchids. My soda arrives and I suck at its sugary, syrupy goodness. I never drink soda and have no idea why I’m craving one now but it tastes wonderful. My heart beat slows. The pace of the world settles.

Justine is complaining about P Noon at the office, about someone named Mai Mint and Kun Duang Cha, the boss. “Are they having you teach this week?” she asks me.

“No, I’m observing today. Tomorrow we’re supposed to do training, I think. It wasn’t all that clear.”

Justine laughs. “It never is,” she says. “I bet money they have you teaching by the end of the week.”

“No,” I say. “We do the training first. It’s in the contract.”

Justine laughs harder now and the waitress brings our food and we all sit back to let her place the faintly yellow sticky rice and mound of soft boiled chicken, gelatinous skin hanging off the side, in front of us. Sliced cucumbers add color to the plate, as do three chunks of brown dotted with tiny holes.

“Arm!” Ed says, “I told you no blood!”

Arm grins and pokes her fork at his plate, skewering one of the brown squares. “For me, ka,” she says, giggling as she pushes the blood jello between her crooked teeth. Justine shakes her head.

“I wouldn’t think you’d mind it,” I say to Edmond, “Don’t the English eat blood pudding?”

He looks terrifically, comically sad as he shakes his head. “Some do,” he says. “I do not.”

We eat, everything but the blood, and it’s delicious. The chicken is super tender and the gingery-spicy sauce and small bowl of buttery broth with parsley and a single piece of some kind of white vegetable floating in it, like a white cucumber, compliment it perfectly. My body comes back to life and my senses awaken and then I look down, at my purse, to make sure it’s still there and under the table, next to my feet, darts a wet, greasy, half-drowned rat.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I scream, jump up, clutch my neck and send my cheap fork clattering towards my feet. A hand, strong and dark, pulls me back to sitting. My companions stare at me over the table and the many eyes of the restaurant merely glance, no face registering expression, unless a deliberate lack of emotion can be deemed expression in itself.

“Be quiet,” Justine’s Thai Teacher tells me, her voice tight and hard and as small as the sea-wrecked rodent.

“But there’s a rat under the table!” I say, loud American through and through.


Ed and Justine shrug. “Lovely country, isn’t it?” Ed says. “Here, Arm, have the rest of my blood.”

Justine pats my arm. “It’s fucking disgusting, I know,” she says. I look across the table at her TT but she’s eating silently, avoiding my gaze. “This restaurant is a bad example for your first shop-house,” Justine reassures me. “They’re usually much cleaner. I wouldn’t eat here but it’s the only half decent place around. Welcome to Thailand, honey. I tried to warn ya.”

Everyone but me finishes eating, no one acknowledging the rat that just ran over their toes. I try to eat too, picking at my chicken and rice, sorry to waste it but unable to move on.

“You not leave rice,” the horrible TT says, still not looking at me.

“Huh?” I ask, but she just shakes her head. She calls the waitress over and pays, leaves without another word.

“What’s her deal?” I ask when she’s gone. “Does no one care about the rat? What’s it to her if I eat my food or not? I’m the one who’s paying for it.”

“She’s a bitch,” Justine says. “That’s her deal.” She turns to Arm and squeezes her shoulders. “Why couldn’t I have a nice TT like Army? Huh? Do I have bad karma or something?”

“You can’t have her,” Ed jokes back. “And regarding the rat - it just isn’t Thai to mention it. You can’t make a fuss like that, about anything. It won’t get you anywhere here.”

“Jai yen yen,” Arm says, nodding and smiling sweetly, if not quite apologetically, at me.

I ask about the rice comment again and they say the girl, whose name, they tell me, is Joy, was probably referring to the Thai taboo against leaving rice on your plate. It’s disrespectful to the rice farmers, they say, and Arm fills me in that Thailand is the biggest exporter of rice in the world. The word for “eat” in Thai is gin kao – literally, “eat rice.” Fine, so now I have an excuse to always eat everything on my plate, especially if it is sticky rice, which I now know is fantastic. Next time. Next time when I don’t look down.

We pay the bill and my meal plus the soda is thirty baht – less than a dollar. Maybe that’s why I don’t have the right to complain about a rat.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First day on the job

I rise at 6 am, after the sun is already up and burning in the bright blue sky. It sneaks in under my curtains and into my eyes when they open at the sound of Rich waking me up again with the ringing of Skype. I grab my glasses, my headphones, say hello in my gravely morning voice and walk barefoot across the tiled floor to open the curtains onto this glorious day. My first day of work at my new job.

Rich’s voice matches the weather, bright and effervescent. I like it; I’m smiling, but warily. I look down at the chipped red polish on my toes and listen to this man’s voice in my ear, desperate and distant, his attempt to pump artificial sunlight into my veins ill-conceived and unnecessary. The purple building, the blue skyscraper like a gleaming spaceship, the golden spire of the wat, the tinkling shell wind chimes of my apartment neighbors. This brightness is real, literal. “How are you baby?” Rich says. “Did you sleep well? I miss you. I’m thinking of you, sweetie. I’m thinking of you all the time.” I tell him I’m thinking of him too, because it’s true, but I don’t say “all the time.” I’m not a liar. I don’t know whether he is or not. His arms around me felt good. They felt great. They felt better than any arms ever have ever. But they are not here. The sun is here. Work is here. I am here and I need to get dressed.

I put on black pants, a little too big for me, a plain red t-shirt and close-toed sporty Mary Janes. The Fun English uniform is black pants and a polo shirt, which I’m supposed to get at the office. Today I am in training, observing someone, somewhere, teaching English. All I know is I have to be there at 7 and, since I don’t know any other way to get there that’s as cheap, I’m going to walk. I say goodbye to Rich and put on my mascara. I say goodbye to the computer, to Skype, to New York. I take the elevator down to the ground floor, to Bangkok, to Thailand, to the new me.

That’s me, that’s right, I’m making it happen, I talk to myself as I walk outside my building, into the parking garage. The doorman bows low to me and grins and laughs out loud, as though seeing me walking by on this fine morning is the loveliest thing that’s happened to him so far today. “Sawat di, kap! Sabai di mai, kap?” he says, and I know he’s saying hello and how am I but I can’t remember what to say back so I smile and nod and wave and say “Si!” like an idiot, and my happy self-talk falters as I come to the edge of the garage and stand looking out, not knowing which way to turn. I go by my gut and make a decision, realize halfway down the block that I chose right, and my inner chatter brightens again. I pass a tailor’s shop where beautiful manikins wear silk dresses of every color and a rainbow of fabrics line the white paneled walls in the back. I know by instinct that I will never be able to afford to have a dress made here, and that is okay. That’s okay and it’s who I am. I make my own luck and my own money and I can dress myself and take myself to Asia. I am doing just fine and I don’t have anywhere to wear a fancy silk dress anyway.

All the way to work I am happy, walking, sweating buckets. I buy myself breakfast at Seven-Eleven and sip my cold green tea through a short red straw. In about twenty minutes I arrive at Fun English. A walk in the sunshine beats a forty-five minute subway commute with the stinky, angry, tired people of New York any day. I’m damp and sticky and possibly smell, but I feel energized, awake, light on my feet. I know I’m near the building when I see taxis lining up at the curb and young people in black pants and red polo shirts toting hefty plastic baskets. Some sit on the curb smoking, others shovel steaming noodles into their mouths, the ones who laugh and joke the loudest seem to be English, their jokes at the expense of the Thais, who smile and flirt back easily. Unintimidated, I walk up to the fray and ask which way to the office. An extremely tall white man with a massive lower lip and a thick cockney accent directs me to the elevator, welcoming me heartily and shaking my hand without mentioning his name.

It is seven on the dot when I arrive and the large outer room that flanks the “office” part of the office is already teeming with teachers. Mostly Thai teachers sit around a large table, eating breakfast or grading worksheets or sleeping on their folded arms while several oscillating fans cool their lean brown bodies. I don’t get a chance to make it all the way through the office, to where the farang teachers sit, because I am intercepted by a short Thai lady who grabs my shoulders and turns me around saying, “Emily, ka? You go to Sitabutr, observe teacher Edmond. Your van leave now.”

She pushes me out the glass door back into the big room with the fans where I practically bounce right into a tall white boy with luxurious curls in his golden blond hair. I’m mesmerized immediately by his beauty, his hair like a halo around his head. I stand blinking for a moment at this pink-faced, lightly freckled, smiling angel. The Thai woman who holds my arm with her tight, tiny grip laughs and I can see her rows of silver fillings in her teeth when I look back to see what’s so funny.

“Edmond!” she says, pointing at the boy, who grins back at both of us. “Lor, na?” she says and I smile, embarrassed, feel myself blushing, sure she’s commenting on my reaction to his looks, sure he understand her.

“P Noon, is this Emily?” the boy says in an accent so perfect he might have been raised in a castle with a moat, and gardens, and a butler with whom he got on extremely well.

“Chaiiiii,” P Noon says, drawing the word out so it’s long and windy like an Iowa back-country road, but far more whiney. It means “yes.” I learned that in a podcast.

“Emily, ka! She go Sitabutr with you today, she observe you, Edmond.” She laughs some more and I sort of start to get the impression that perhaps Thai people just laugh a lot. It seems a little odd though, since I don’t see anything funny.

Edmond doesn’t laugh but smiles big, says hello to me and tells P Noon that he will take over, for which she seems very grateful, bowing and backing away slowly, laughing until she is behind my back and then gone in a flash. Edmond tells me to wait, disappears, then returns with a red polo shirt over his arm, identical to the one he’s wearing. “Here’s your costume,” he says.

“Cheers,” I reply, rolling my eyes good-naturedly. The shirts are fire-engine red and have “Fun English” stitched above the right hand corner pocket in threads of every color, equally as bright. Tiny polka dots like confetti or sprinkles dot the pocket area as though a party were about to explode from it. I carry the shirt, will wait until the last minute to put it on. I may not dry my hair all the time or wear a lot of makeup or buy fancy clothes, but I have some standards, after all.

I follow Ed to the van, which is full entirely except for the two seats left for he and I. No one speaks and, aside from the rumbling of the running motor and a pop radio station turned on low, the van is completely silent. After we climb in Edmond says, “Ready then,” to the driver and without another word we begin careening through the tunnel exit of the parking garage as though on an amusement park ride. Everyone slips and slides into each other but they just grab the door handles or the ceiling and remain mute.

Edmond sits in front of me and since no one else speaks, I say very little to him, asking only where we are going and how far away it is, where he is from and whether or not he likes living in Thailand. He tells me the same school name I heard from the Thai woman, and that it is an okay school with good kids and air conditioning, but lousy choices for lunch, and that we should be there in about forty minutes, depending on the traffic. He comes from Oxford, he says, has been in Thailand about six months, and likes it very much. I give my own answers to these questions and when I say “Brooklyn” someone in front starts to holler. It’s a female voice but she makes it deep and loud, bellowing “Brook-LYN!” like a rapper. I laugh and immediately want to hug her. Where is she? But I can’t tell for sure, all I can make out is a spray of dark red hair between the slats of several heads.

“Represent!” I say, feeling ridiculous and whiter maybe than I ever have, except that I’m blushing so much I’m sure I’m as red as the shirt still in my lap. I wish we talked more and also I don’t, and we all fall back seamlessly into the silence of the van, unfortunately still listening to the very bad radio station. I put in my headphones and turn up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to block out the noise of Pink singing about her parent’s divorce.

The traffic is bad. I have a book in my bag but prefer to stare out the window and take things in. Traffic, Seven-Elevens, food carts, babies without helmets clutching the handles of motorbikes, shacks with tin roofs under bridges, dirty canals, gleaming skyscrapers, massive billboards featuring models so white they’re practically European, some that definitely are. We turn onto smaller and smaller streets until we’re eventually so far inside the traffic matrix that we sit still for five or more minutes at a time, and I fall asleep with my sunglasses on and my mouth open to the blaze outside the window.

I wake to the sound of the van door sliding open. I jump out with everyone else and start to walk away from the van when someone grabs my arm. I look up from the tiny white hand with its purple-manicured nails to the face of a female teacher with holes like gaping chasms in her earlobes with fat black disks pushed in. She wears a long-sleaved white T under her Fun English polo, and her tight black pants show off a generous booty. This has got to be the Brooklyn girl. She puts a finger to her lips and rolls her eyes. All around, everyone else is also stopped stock still on the sidewalk. Inside the gates of the school, just in front of us, children are lined up on a concrete playground, their mouths open wide, singing. The music comes from them but also a loudspeaker somewhere. It lasts about two minutes and then everyone moves on, as though they were paused on a video cassette and some demon in the sky just pushed the play button again.

“What the hell was that?” I ask the girl.

“National anthem,” she says, walking to the back of the van and heaving her bulging pink plastic basket from it. “They do it every morning at 8 and every night at 6. It’s great. Fucking fantastic. Enforced patriotism.” And she sings the song loudly, making a mock salute with her free hand. “You’ll get used to it.”

I’d like to talk to her more, to express my confused and concerned feelings about this unfamiliar ritual which does, as she points out, smack of compulsory allegiance, but Edmond is there with his basket and his Thai teacher, Arm, and we are heading in to the grounds and up to the school and the girl from Brooklyn is gone and I’ve no time to consider or analyze. I have to go teach English.