Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pints of Tiger, Rivers of Whiskey, part 1

Every afternoon when we arrive back in the office, it’s the same - “You coming to the Woodstock?” someone, or many someones, ask me, prompting me to ask myself -Why shouldn’t I? I meant to read, or swim, or write, or look for a yoga studio, but all of that can wait. Those activities will always be there but if I don’t go to the pub maybe these friends will not. I’ll get serious later; it’s only my first week.

Friday afternoon begins in what I’ve already come to regard as traditional fashion. First, Woodstock. The pub across the street from Fun English appears nearly empty upon first entering, but if you keep going, to the back of the bar and up the stairs, you’ll find at least a table or two full of red-shirted farangs like me. The bar is nothing special but it’s clean and cool and there’s a pool table and a juke box you can play for free. The beers are standard price, and the food is expensive. Three hundred baht is a lot of money, even for a pesto chicken sandwich and fries, when you could get a full meal for 25 on the street, but you can’t get decent Western food cheap anywhere, and now and then a farang wants some cheese.

Farang doesn’t mean “foreigner,” as I thought; it means “white.” Of course, as a racial slur, it’s not a particularly friendly term, but it is convenient. With one exception, the foreign teachers at Fun English are white, whether they come from America, England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, or Russia. The one black girl, Laura, is English. Rumor has it that Fun English has had a bad time since hiring her. Even though she speaks fluent English (it’s her native and only language), many schools refuse to let her teach because they don’t believe she’s not African and therefore not fulfilling Fun English’s promise of “native” teachers. Sue, from South Africa, whose first language is Afrikaans, on the other hand, hasn’t had a problem. That’s because her skin is as white as the inside of a green fruit the Thai call a farang. In Thailand, and maybe everywhere, it’s easier to be white than any other color. I use farang because everyone else does, and I use it for the same reason Thai people do – to remind myself that I’m different, that I don’t fit in here and I don’t belong, no matter how at home I feel.

Together in the air conditioned comfort of the Woodstock’s brown leather booths, it’s easy to get comfortable. My fellow teachers and I form a happy little family, sharing our day, our cigarettes, even our baht. We can discuss anything – sex, drugs, politics. We’re all bisexual, even some of the boys. We all drink, smoke, screw. We all speak our minds; no one hides their feelings, no matter how ignorant or controversial, and everyone’s up for the argument.

Everyone, that is, except the Thai teachers who, by and large, do not join us at the Woodstock. By now I know that the Thai teachers sit in the big room with the fans at the front of the office, and the foreign teachers sit in the back, with the air-conditioning. I’ve been trying to figure this out by observation but now, after a few pints, I give it up and ask around. Why don’t they come drinking with us? I’ve heard people invite them.

“They’re tired of us,” someone says. Chris, the English one with the mouth. “Thai people can’t hold their liquor.” He laughs and puffs a menthol cigarette with one side of his thick red lips.

“They might have more work to do,” Clarissa, a pretty blonde from Australia, posits, between dainty drags of her Marlboro Red. “They have to get a lot of stuff ready for next week. They do a lot more work than we do. Too bad they get paid less too.” She shakes her head and takes a swig of her pint.

The waitress, a young Thai girl with a blinding smile, comes by. “Emily, ka,” she says. “Tiger pint?” I smile and nod back at her, watch her write a slash next to my name on a notepad. I watch her move around the table in her tight black pants and blue polo shirt, laughing and smiling at everyone, taking our orders while we continue to talk about wage discrimination. The Thai teachers, my new colleagues tell me, make about eight thousand baht a month. Right now I get a little less than twenty , but when I pass probation, my salary should increase to thirty.

The waitress returns so quickly with another beer, golden and cold, and I take a swig to soothe my tar-streaked throat. “That is so fucking unfair!” I say.

“Kun Budsaba is a cold-hearted bitch,” Justine says. She drinks vodka and soda with extra limes – manow, in Thai, I know now. “All she cares about is baht.” Justine doesn’t smoke cigarettes. I’ll have to bum one from someone else.

We shake our heads and lament and I get a smoke from Jill to calm myself. I’m worried that my salary won’t be enough to live on, but I’m no longer surprised that the Thai teachers don’t come out for beers. How many have I had now? Three? Four? I feel good, high, happy, exhausted.

I go to the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. My face is greasy and ruddy, my cheeks pink, my hair dark with sweat, loose pieces falling into my eyes. My red shirt hangs loose and my black pants sag, making my butt look square. My closed-toe shoes stink when I move my feet out for air even a tiny bit. I try to remember when the last time I ate was. I wonder what I’m going to do with the rest of my night. I wonder doesn’t anyone here have any weed? But I’m too afraid to ask.

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