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.

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