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.

No comments:

Post a Comment