My days consist mostly of teaching, studying, and volunteer translation work. Life has fallen into a somewhat normal pattern.
I love languages. One of the fascinating things I have found about languages is how after a period of time, some languages lapse into your subconsciousness until one day they randomly poke up without being asked to.
I’ve noticed this with both Pennsylvania Dutch and Thai. At first when I move into an English-speaking only environment, my brain is alert. I speak English clearly and choose my vocabulary carefully. After a few weeks, however, my mind becomes relaxed and suddenly a PA Dutch word or a Thai word will pop out in the middle of a sentence, leaving me apologizing to my listener, especially if they cannot speak the language.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon of knowledge diving into my subconsciousness in more than one way. A few weeks ago, I moved back from Thailand on short notice for about 4 and ½ months to wait out the Covid-19 crisis until my university can open again in August. At first driving on the right side of the road was no problem. As I grew more relaxed, however, I found myself struggling with remembering which side of the road to drive, and made several mistakes because of it. Also, the longer I am home, the more I find myself randomly wanting to “wai” people when I greet them or thank them. (The wai is a greeting in Thailand done by pressing your hands together like you are praying and lifting your hands to face level). It’s like you can stuff those languages and habits into your subconsciousness for a certain amount of time until suddenly they come popping out again.
This, I think, is the same way with stories. Coming home, my world changed drastically. Now that I am back in the states, living like a “normal” American, every now and then memories coming rushing at me unexpectedly. It’s as if my brain stores snapshots of life and then in my subconscious moments flashes them across my mind. The longer I am here in the states, the more they pop up. Sometimes I come to myself, realizing that I have been staring out of the window for the past few minutes, halfway across the world. Some of those memories are hard, hard memories. Others are ones I can laugh at. But all of them bring to me the scent of a country that I love.
How do I share those stories? Stories that seem somehow sacred?
Starting last July, I began working as a volunteer translator at the Mueng Chiang Mai Police station helping with communication between foreign tourists or expats and the Thai police. One day a week of volunteering became two days a week, sometimes three or even four. My time there changed my life more than I imagined it ever would and now many of those stories are submerged in my sub-consciousness. Between this, school, and the teaching ministry on the side, the stories are abundant. Eventually, many of them burrow into my mind, becoming a part of me.
I developed friendships with many new people, some of who I admire and respect wholeheartedly, and others who I love but cannot admire because of some of the things they are involved in.
I sat across from a fourteen-year-old girl, asking her to consider not getting married the next month to her fourteen-year-old boyfriend, and instead finish at least two more years of school, which would get her at least into the 4th grade.
I sat with a man who had found his young friend dead in his bedroom of a suspected drug overdose. I listened and translated for him as his voice cracked with grief as he described the details of walking into the room and finding him dead on his bed. I listened as he talked with his friend’s girlfriend on the phone, beside herself with grief.
I communicated with a British man whose brother committed suicide in Thailand, trying to figure out the complicated details of funeral arrangements. The police report gave details of the death, but it was all in Thai. That was the saddest piece of written translation that I ever did.
I went to court. The first time in my life. My job was to translate for a European man who had tried to pickpocket another foreigner in broad daylight, since he was running out of money. I stood on very shaky legs and translated for him as he received his six-month sentence to a Thai prison. I also got warned twice by court police for sitting with my legs crossed.
I translated for a case in which a girl walked into a supermarket and randomly stole a fruit knife, attempting to carry it out with her as she left. The evening was filled with moments of tension, hilarious laughter, and an odd feeling of camaraderie with both her and the officer, as well as the supermarket employees.
I sat across from a fellow American from a state not too far from my own, and listened to him as in obvious shock, he told me how he found his wife lying lifeless in the kitchen. His beautiful 5 year-old daughter watched him uncomprehendingly as he sobbed. Tears flooded my own eyes when one of the older officers at the station put his hand on the American’s shoulder and tried to comfort him in a language he couldn’t understand.
I sat in the waiting room office of the prosecuting attorney with a Canadian hippie and a Russian lady and listened as they quoted poetry and waited for papers that needed to be signed.
I went with an immigration official and a foreigner who was being deported for having possession of marijuana, a grave mistake in the Kingdom of Thailand.
There are so many, many more stories, many that impacted me deeply, and some that I am not at liberty to share. Tears push my eyelids as I think of them. So many small memories, like the coffee that one officer would offer me whenever he saw me. Or the time I accidentally erased the video games off one of my “uncle’s” computer while trying to help him free up space, much to his chagrin. Or the time I joined my friends in their small flat for a delicious meal and a rousing discussion of the latest police news, the same friends who accompanied me to the airport to see me off in March.
These are the stories that God has given me, and yet they are more than stories. I share them, not to boast about my experiences, but because they so much a part of me and who I have become. They are people, lives, friends, souls. Some people I see only once, for a few fleeting minutes or hours. I have failed many times in reaching out to them, but I pray that the presence of Jesus inside of me will give them an awareness of God as they leave.
The pain of loving and losing is intense, but I am richer for it.
Do not tell me, please,
That I have memories left to be my souvenirs
These are not souvenirs.
Souvenirs you put in a box on the top shelf of the closet behind the winter blankets
Where ten years later you pull them out and dust them off
To laugh over and touch and remember
Shed a tear or two.
Do not tell me, please,
To be glad for the memories.
Memories are good, but these, these!
These are not just leftover scraps of life,
But pulsing, moving, breathing
Faces and names and lives and places
Woven into the fabric of my being.
No, they cannot be boxed up
Or fitted into photos,
Slotted into albums,
And then stored away and lost
Like the postcards in the greeting card boxes
Buried behind the 4th grade A Beka math book.
Do not tell me, please,
To forget the past
And simply move on.
Five and a one-half years of life
Lived unstopped and unfettered
Are not just old scribbled journals
Or letters from some forgotten lover
To be conveniently shelved in the attics of memory,
Put out of harm’s way and where they can do no harm
Not even for only 5 months on this side of the Pacific.
No, that would be shelving me
And I am not a souvenir
It feels odd to be alive at a time like this. The streets continue to get emptier and emptier after an order to shut down universities and schools, large tourist markets, entertainment venues and sporting events in an effort to stop the spread of Covid19.
The city lies cloaked in gray. Smog blankets the mountains, hiding the sun that should come out in blazing heat. The Air Quality Index shows the PM 2.5 to be over 360, at dangerous levels.
Our worlds have been uprooted, our safe schedules in upheaval. The ground beneath us is shaky, the sky above us is shrouded, the road before us is blurred with confusion.
Through it all hovers a brooding heaviness. Fear. Fear, waiting to latch its teeth into us when we read the news, when we discuss the crisis with friends, when we see the city streets emptying.
In a time like this, it feels sometimes like the distinct black and white lines that we like to draw are blurred and shaky, smudged into gray, like the sky above.
Life has felt like this for me in the past week. Selfishness seems to be the norm in cases I meet at my work as a translator. Anger flares over the smallest things. Hope seems to be ebbing low. Some of the kindest people I know are said to be the most corrupt. My own future and the dreams I’ve cherished are vague and unreal and look impossible. My school and internship plans for the next 5 months have been totally changed. Sometimes the things you believe with your mind don’t feel right with your heart.
It’s easy to let these things carry into my life, to begin carrying a heaviness that was not mine to carry. It’s easy to let the unknowns and gray matters and smog of life soak into my soul.
But when I stop and think of it, I can still trace some of the lines and truths. Through the gray, I can still see color. I can still see truth.
It is still right to be kind.
It is still right to be just, even in the face of injustice and corruption.
Being humbly truthful is still the best thing.
Unselfishness still speaks as loudly as selfishness.
Prayer is still the best response to an unknown future.
Practicing generosity is still one of the kindest and unselfish things you can do.
God is still in control.
God still keeps his promises.
God still loves this world.
And donuts still taste really, really good.
The road to Saohin is rough and steep.
Saturday, February 1, six years after my initial decision to move to Thailand, was the first time I traveled the road to Saohin. And probably not the last.
On Friday January 31, I drove to Mae Sariang, a town in Mae Hong Son 5 hours away that I am quickly learning to love. The drive there, though long, was relaxing, and there was a sense of adventure and hope and “this is a day off of school” that I felt in the air as I drove. I stopped in a pine forest and took off my shoes and enjoyed the spicy smell of pines, making me think of both Sara Teasdale’s “pines, spicy and still”(Stars), as well as the words: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep” (Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost).
I arrived in Mae Sariang around 5 and checked into my hotel. I left several times, once to buy food, once to go to a coffee shop, and once to chase down a song I heard wafting over loudspeakers.
The next morning I went to Saohin. They had told me the road was bad and life was rough there. Would I come look at it first before I would decide whether or not to do my 3 month college internship there? Could I come Saturday?
So I went with the teachers who had come down to the city for the day to run errands and pick up some other things besides this odd farang who wanted to live in the mountains. Aside from the fact that I spent the first two hours sniffing mentholatum in a desperate effort to keep my lunch of noodles from reappearing, I loved the trip up. After the first 61 kilometers, a rest, one little drammamine pill, and 20 children piling on the back of the truck, we tackled the final 37 kilometers. It took two hours (during rainy season it can take many more), crammed into a double cab pickup with 4 other people. I got to know them. And I like them.
Saohin was small, with a school, a police station, a temple and a few houses, more like a wilderness outpost than a true village. They said a church was up the road a bit in another village. Most of the 80 plus children come from other villages to study at Saohin.
(photo credit: กรุงเทพธุระกิจ) Sometimes this even happens, according to the news.
We went to Burma on Sunday, crossing over the border passport-less about 3 kilometers from Saohin. We toured some places, ate some sweet desserts and came back.
No phone service exists for most of the 98 kilometers from Mae Sariang to Saohin. Electricity is brought to the village via a few solar panels, but most daily work is done without the aid of electricity. Most of the cooking is done over an open fire, and washing is done by hand. No refrigerators exist.
I came back to Mae Sariang on Sunday night, mulling my experiences in my mind. Three months. Could I handle it for three months? Maybe. More than that? I don’t know.
There are always those times when the dreams we dream start to become true, and reality hits us like the freezing splash of water of the dip shower I took on Saturday night in the teachers’ house. And odd little things start niggling at our minds. Can I give up my midnight habit of eating cornflakes each night? (no fridge= no milk.) Take cold showers? Live with no phone service?
But when I came back down, pictures of the village kept flashing through my mind. And I KNOW it sounds cliché, but a piece of my heart was left there in that dry mountain forest on the western edge of Mae Hong Son. And I knew I wanted to go back.
But the road to Saohin didn’t start on Saturday, Feb 1 when I left Mae Sariang. It didn’t even begin on Friday, when I left Chiang Mai. Or even when I started looking for an internship, searching through Google maps and finding places that became further and further away.
Perhaps it began one day under a little thatched roof when two of my friends and I were dreaming about what we would do when we would get “big.” I never thought the things we wrote down that day would actually become true.
Perhaps it started the day I traveled with the CMCC youth group to a Karen village in Doi Dtao, Chiang Mai, up roads similar to those of Saohin.
Perhaps it started February 1, 2014, when I made my decision to move to Thailand. Or perhaps the day I signed up to go to IGo.
Perhaps not. Perhaps the road to Saohin began when I was in the 5th grade and listening to the speaker with the funny Carmel name talk about her experiences in South America. Perhaps it started when my teacher gave me the book Peace Child to read. Perhaps it started when I picked up my history book and started learning about far away countries with odd sounding names.
Perhaps it started one day on the sandpile underneath a bunch of green ferns when I prayed to give my life to Christ.
I don’t know. But I do know that “road leads on to road” (Frost). I know that it looks like Saohin will be my home for three months starting hopefully sometime in June, with week long trips to Mae Sariang once a month. But that doesn’t mean the road to Saohin leads to my final destination. Perhaps the road to Saohin is only a road that eventually leads to other roads.
I don’t know. But a sense of deep joy and expectation fills me as in my mind’s eye I look up that road, winding, muddy and steep, to what lies ahead.
Thank you, Jesus.
I asked her if she loved him. She said yes,
Her nut-brown hands clasped in her lap
Hands that instead of scratching sums and wiping
Chalkboards of the second-grade classroom
Would soon be cradling sons and daughters and
Threading flowers to sell at the intersection
On smoggy March days
She asked me if I had someone. I said no,
But I didn’t tell her of the cloud of pain that
Hovered over me or the knife that still pricked my heart
She wouldn’t understand why anyone would put
A knife into their own heart
I wondered if she knew what love was. But I didn’t ask,
She felt sorry for me that at 29, more than twice as old as her
I did not yet know love as she did
(What she did not know was that I knew love,
But only the kind you let go
Even if it meant turning the point of the knife)
We wondered what the other was thinking. But we didn’t ask,
The table and a world between us,
The dirt floor swept clean
Open windows, a motorbike droning somewhere,
Smoke from a fire wafting through the room
Only a smudge caught in the air
January 28, 2020
I am excited to announce a new book!
Recently I was inspired to make a compilation of the poems and essays that I’ve written over the past 5 years. The result is a small book called a “tradebook” from Blurb (a company that in the past I only used to make photobooks). It’s about 90 pages long. I’ve titled it Through a Glass Darkly. It contains 4 different sections labeled “The Other Side of Home,” “Steal Away,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” and “Shoes.” The book contains poetry and essays mostly having to do with life in Thailand, day to day events, people I’ve met in my time over here, etc.
Actually, I’m not really sure if I should say that I published a book. In a way I did, but it’s a very simple book, and the printing of it will be very informal and low-key. For me, it’s more of a thing I do for myself. There’s something satisfying about seeing your work bound up in book form.
I am offering it for sale, though. While it is mostly text, it also contains about 15 high quality black and white photos, all taken in the area of Chiang Mai. It contains about 41 items of prose and poetry, several titles which are as follows: “When Tears Become a Language,” “Silence,” “The Image of You,” and “Dusk-Doi Sutthep.” Most of the items in the book are found on my blog.
The book is priced at $5.99.
If you are wanting to have the book mailed to you, shipping in the States is priced at $3.00 for one book with 10 cents for each extra book added. As far as payment is concerned, a check can be sent to my home address, or you can pay via Paypal.
Below are a few pictures to give you a glimpse of what the book is like. If you’re interested, please leave a message in the comments below and I’ll make sure you get one.
2 a.m. on the Nawarat Bridge
The city sleeps as I cross
I wonder how many people I am
My heart shifts like the changing lights
Glinting on the river below
One winding river with a thousand gleams
The night wind breathes sorrow as I pass
The grief of the world presses in
A million sorrows from a million lives.
How many griefs can one heart carry?
How many days does one tear live?
How many people can one person be?
2 a.m. on the Nawarat Bridge
The city sleeps as I cross
I wonder how many people I am.
Yes, I know it’s been months since I blogged.
I’m emerging this week from a world of homework, teaching, and translation. I have two weeks to take a deep breath before I dive under again.
Perhaps this next time when I go under I can do it a little more wisely. When balancing homework with ministry, I just simply have not got it figured out.
I like living life. But sometimes I try to live too much life all at once. So that’s why the past few months you didn’t hear much from me. And looking back at the past few months, there are several things that I would do over again and there are several things I would not do over again.
One of those things I wouldn’t do again was help an acquaintance with a Sunday afternoon children’s event/party. I didn’t know until I got there that I was supposed to be MC (master of ceremonies, or announcer, or moderator. Whatever you want to call it). In Thai and English. I have never been an MC in English, much less in Thai. It was terrible.
But I did many, many things I loved. And some of those things might turn out to be a lifelong job. I don’t know yet.
Here’s a glimpse of what life looked like for me the past 3 months.
I taught. The top left picture is of two wild, adorable children that I’ve been teaching English to on Tuesday evenings. The top right picture is a group of children at the Saturday morning White Elephant Club in San Kamphaeng. I haven’t been helping with this all the time; only at times they don’t have enough teachers. I also substituted for a friend at Chiang Mai City Church (CMCC) for a few months. The bottom picture is where we went to visit a student’s family at their home with Pastor Kiat, the Thai pastor at CMCC.
I made a birthday cake for this young lady and took it to her school. She’s been a part of my life for the past 4 years, sometimes more so than others. I am so thankful that now she is able to go to school. That is an answer to prayer.
We had a traditional Thai dress day at Thai church to celebrate the church’s nth anniversary (can’t remember the actual number).
We said goodbye to some people and said hello to others.
We helped with an English camp at a local high school in San Kamphaeng.
My favorite thing that I’ve started is volunteering a shift once or twice a week as a translator at the local police station. This has turned out to be something I love, being that bridge between two cultures. To be honest, I also enjoy the adrenaline rush. For the most part, my job consists of translating for people who have lost important items, such as a bankbook, passport, cell phone or wallet, or translating for foreigners who have been in traffic accidents. Every now and then I’ll translate for a case for a foreigner who has died in Thailand, or has gotten in trouble with the law or in an altercation with a Thai national. There are some intense times where I, as a translator, feel like a kickball being kicked from side to side.
I love getting to meet new people as they come into the station, and being able to give them at least a slight sense of security when they see another foreigner there. Most people who come to the police don’t want to be there, and not knowing the language adds another stresser. Speaking and learning Thai is something I enjoy, and I love the chance to use language as a way of helping others. I also love getting to know the people on the Thai side of things. Many of the officers I work with are close to retirement, so in Thai I refer to most of them as uncle. Then there are others that are closer to my age who enjoy practicing their English and just being friends. On the top right hand picture is a picture of two of my “uncles.” The one to the left has a very gruff exterior and a very soft heart.
One of my friends, Care, to the right in the picture on the left, was an intern the first few months I was there. She loved practicing her English with me. To the right is another of my favorite “uncles.”
So yes, I’m still alive. Other than the things above, I’ve mostly been doing homework, as well as some additional translation for acquaintances. And that all of that has taken up most of my waking moments.
Hopefully soon I’ll have time to tell you sometime about the time I got stuck in a phone booth during a rainstorm or the time when we ordered pizza at the police station. As well as my recent trip to my friend’s home in Chiang Dao.
Sometimes we experience things that we simply have no name for. Craig Thompson, who blogs at Clearing Customs, wrote about “In-flightisms.” This inspired me to come up with my own lexicon of words that describe specific people, places or things in Chiang Mai. Here are seven new words I have coined.
- Farangogation: the interrogation that occurs on the first meeting of a Thai person and a Farang. “Can you speak Thai?” is usually the first question asked. If the answer is yes, and usually only then, the interrogation proceeds. How many questions are asked is usually dependent on the Farang’s Thai speaking ability. The more they are able to answer clearly, the more questions are asked. If the first questions bring undesirable results, the last questions are usually left unasked.
- Where are you from?
- How long have you lived in Thailand?
- Where do you live in Chiang Mai?
- Can you speak Northern Thai?
- What kind of job do you have?
- Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?
- How much do you pay for rent?
- Do you teach English?
- Can you eat Laab? (substitute Laab for Somtam or another very spicy food)
- Are you half-Thai?
Questions in a farangogation are usually directed by a group of Thai people at one farang. Questions are asked in rapid-fire succession, leaving the foreigner little breath to answer. A farangogation is usually held in order for Thai people to be able to analyze the farang’s “expatnicity” or in some cases “foreignicity.” Farangogations can occur anywhere without previous notice, for example, at police checkpoints, at fruit stands, at gas stations.
2. Foreignicity: The type of foreigner in Thailand. Usually foreignicity can be divided into two categories: expats and tourists. The most common identifying factors are noticed while driving the roads of Chiang Mai. Characteristics of tourists will be as follows: sleeveless shirts and short shorts, shiny, smooth helmets with the names of rental shops, riders holding smartphones or selfie sticks, and lots of white skin and long legs.
3. Expatnicity: This is similar to foreignicity, but differs in that expatnicity concerns foreigners who live in Thailand for an extended period of time. Examples of different types of expatnicity may be but are not exclusive to: Old white men with young Thai girlfriends, rich retired divers, homeschooling missionaries driving Avanzas, young, single English teachers, university students seeking an experience, restaurant operators and more.
4. Whistutter: A quiet, almost inaudible type of voice employed by busy English teachers when asked in public what their job is. The whistutter is used in case someone with children wanting to study English privately is in earshot. The whistutter rarely works.
5. Mennusters: Not to be confused with clusters of men, this is what you call the group of Mennonites that gather at the Chiang Mai International Airport to say goodbye to staff leaving permanently. These Mennusters form long before boarding time and disintegrate in trickles. They can be identified by the long dresses and head veilings the ladies wear, as well as cameras, forlorn looks, groups posing for pictures, and farewell cards.
6. Terrapinack: A unique kind of backpack used by teachers who commute to their job by motorbike. This backpack is classified only as a terrapinack when it used to transport everything that is essential to the teacher’s life. Certain items stay in the terrapinack permanently, for example eye drops, billfold, phone, pens, socks, tissues, Thai vocabulary lists, planners, and sunglasses. The terrapinack is so called because it is similar to that of a turtle’s shell—it goes everywhere the teacher does. When terrapinacks are lost, teachers may automatically go into a frenzy of anxiety, exude excessive sweat or completely faint away.
7. Tingutch: A form of language that has evolved among speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch who currently reside in Chiang Mai. The language contains structures and similarities of Pennsylvania Dutch, English and Thai. One sentence can contain words or structures from 2 or 3 of these languages. An example of a sentence may be: “Ich bin puuting pasa English and you still can’t versteh me!” (I am speaking English and you still can’t understand me!) According to Ethnologue, linguists predict that in approximately 20 years, the language will be established in Chiang Mai as a language of its own.