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One of the perks of living in Southwest China is that it means I live very close to Southeast Asia, therefore I decided to spend the first three weeks of my absurdly long Chinese New Year vacation in Thailand. The first week and a half I stayed in Bangkok with a good friend from college, Adam, who’s teaching at a local experimental elementary school. Then I spent my final week and a half with three fellow teachers, Laura, Kristen, and Sam, on the southern islands of Ko Somui and Ko Phangan.
Three weeks was a nice amount of time to spend in the same country. I got to get a good feeling for the culture and the food, learned how to count to 100, and began to really love certain little things about the country. Instead of recounting my every step over the 3 weeks I’ve decided to list my six favorite things about Thailand. Some are obvious, and others not as much.
1. Street Food. I’ve decided to devote an entire post to Thailand’s food, so just sit tight.
2. Super Hip Bangkok College Students
They make ankle length pleated skirts look like the most fashionable pick of the season. It’s like Gossip Girl Thailand has taken over every time a class lets out from one of Bangkok’s dozen colleges. The girls’ black skirts vary in length, but they all accessorize with a slouchy brown leather belt and fabulous flats of their choosing, and they wear smart white oxfords with big round silver buttons.
There’s something about the length of their skirts, the cuts of their shirts, and the silver detailing that makes their outfits seem very retro, like a lot of Thailand’s buildings and infrastructure. They seem to overtake Bangkok at certain times of day, looking cooler than all the normally done-up Thai boys and girls around them.
3. Sparkling water in a glass bottle, with a straw.
Available at any 7-11 (and you can usually see another 7-11 from any one 7-11, so that basically means everywhere), and the same price as a plastic bottle of still water. Nothing like an ice-cold bubble water after you’ve been trudging around wats all day in the heat. Plus the bottle is cool looking.
My favorite T-pop star. I wish I could describe this hip Thai girl vibe better, I tried with the college students but couldn’t quite get there. Whatever it is, Palmy has it. She’s retro, fun, and a little edgy. Just watch the video to understand this vibe I’m having trouble with. And then help me describe it. I love Palmy, she sings, she dances, she acts like a bird.
5. The colors and the gold.
It just makes me wish I had a better camera.
6. Dining Al Fresco.
I don’t think I had a single indoor meal this entire trip, except for the couple trips to McDonalds, and that wasn’t our fault, we live in rural China. A few times I may have been covered by some sort of patio like structure, but I was effectively always outside. I liked not having that separation of street and restaurant. The fact that there was no need meant that the weather had to be awesome, which it was, but it also was just a great way to enjoy the environment of where I was while simultaneously enjoying the food.
I thought it was important to reintroduce my team, since they make regular appearances on this blog and are the best companions a girl could ask for in rural China.
You’ll see below the ladies of Bangmai; Yuting, Kaede, and myself (from left); supporting our big strong male teammate, Wang Yong. Our facial expressions in this photo exemplify our natural charm and liveliness. Kaede wasn’t ready, so this photo ends up exemplifying her natural confusion and boringness. Just kidding we’re all equally awesome.
In all seriousness, they’ve been an incredible support to me this semester. I can’t imagine having done this without them! I’ll miss them this vacation and can’t wait to restart our family meals and team workout video sessions.
What’s great about our school is that it’s a little insular community. Both teachers and students live in dorms (different buildings) during the week and all live and work in the same couple hundred-foot radius. On sunny days several local teachers will sit outside on stools, eating sunflower seeds and chatting. They’re our coworkers and our neighbors, so getting to know the local teachers has been really important and really FUN.
The moment we felt like we’d really been accepted into the inner circle was when Kaede, Wang Yong, and I were asked to be in a skit that several local teachers were performing in a government sponsored talent show for all of the villages surrounding Lincang. We didn’t know we’d be performing for a packed auditorium of party officials and friends when we agreed. I for one thought we’d only be performing it in front of the school, and didn’t understand that this was kind of a big deal until we were forced to skip school for three days and showed up at the big auditorium for our dress rehearsal. I probably should have realized, considering the number of hours we’d spent rehearsing at one of the teachers’ homes over the weekend.
The skit was called “Tomorrow Will Be Better” and chronicled the story of a young girl who’s father works in the fields and then plays cards and drinks all night. The girl drops out of school very young to have a baby and later expresses her regret that she couldn’t keep studying, the message being that education is very important and it’s up to the entire community to support our children. The skit contained a handful of dance numbers and two uplifting ballads. Kaede played the young girl, Wang Yong one of the other fathers, and I the incredibly challenging part of the “foreign teacher.” It was kind of a stretch and required a bit of research. The skit ended with all of us holding each other’s hands above our heads and swaying back and forth.
We unfortunately did not with the competition, but Kaede and I did manage to catch the attention of the people running the event. They asked us if we would perform an American song or dance for their big closing exhibition the next night. This was one of the first times I ever truly and firmly tried to say “no” to a Chinese person I was supposed to respect. Our lives here sometimes feel like day after day of head nodding and doing what our principals, and the various important people our principals introduce us to, tell us. We try never to give an outright “no” to any request. It’s not “no I don’t want to go to your house for a drink,” but “I’m sorry I really need to write some lesson plans and I’m very tired.” Or we just go to their house for a drink.
In this case, I came outright and said, “no I really don’t want to perform, just the three of us, in front of an entire auditorium of people.” Unfortunately, one of our local teachers had already promised our services. We were trapped. Because we didn’t have any traditional American culture to whip out and wow them with, we decided to learn a very old and famous Lincang area song, thinking we’d win the crowd over by appealing to their local pride.
Backstage, as we were about to go on, they sprung on us that we’d have to answer questions about what we loved about Lincang after we sang. I rehearsed a quick answer about how I liked my students and spicy food most of all. It wasn’t until I was onstage that I saw the enormous TV video cameras. Next week my students told me they’d seen me singing on TV. Then some local teachers told me the same thing. Then some of my student’s parents. Then the doctor at the hospital where I was getting my required Visa health examination.
Thus began my life as a local celebrity. So far I’ve been able to retain a good degree of normalcy in my life, us famous people tend to have trouble with that.
you mistake your students for wizards.
Last week was Bangmai’s sports week, which meant I got to watch my 4th and 5th graders battle it out in a ruthless tug-o-war, and game after game of middle school ping-pong . When I walked down from the teacher dorms to the main field in front of the classroom buildings and saw the scene below, I thought the ninth graders were participating in a quidditch match. How else would you explain one student standing with a hula-hoop over his head as his classmates tried to get a ball through it? I soon realized this is how Bangmai makes up for our lack of basketball court. Two students play the role of “hoop” and stand with a ring over their heads, which they can also move to make sure the ball makes it through. Bangmai’s B-ball stars don’t let anything get in the way of their mad skillz.
Video credit to Justin.
Christmas came to rural China this year, thanks to the tireless spirit and festiveness of us foreign fellows! I’ve never worn a Santa hat for longer than five minutes until this Christmas. When I wore one for days on end. Some might say we overcompensated, but really it was necessary to create the atmosphere around the holiday, since most people around us had no idea that it twas the season.
Christmas was saved by many a delivery from America, which included goodies like: a super plush Santa hat, hundreds of candy canes, a little Christmas tree with ornaments, festive chocolates, and a SANTA SUIT. Thanks Pank and Justin!
I told my students that Christmas is the most important holiday in America and that everyone always celebrates it with their families. Since this was the first time I wouldn’t be with my family on Christmas it was their job to celebrate with me! I gave them pictures of Christmas-y things, put on Christmas music, and had them make cards and decorate little white circles, which acted as ornaments as we trimmed our own green paper tree together.
In one of my fifth grade classes, I had arranged for Wang Yong to knock on the door 10 minutes into class and come in dressed as Santa, with candy canes for all the good little boys and girls. I went to answer the door when the knock came, right on schedule, and saw before me the PERFECT Chinese Santa. It turns out Wang Yong had gotten cold feet and recruited one of our favorite local teachers, the conveniently portly Zhen Laoshi, to take his place. Unfortunately Zhen Laoshi couldn’t get the iconic “ho ho ho” down. It came out more like a deep “huh huh huh.”
The kids came up with some great cards. I told them to give them to their parents on Christmas and show off how they can say “Merry Christmas” in English.