This morning I fixed my normal coffee before church and lay in my hammock to read my Bible and journal. It was quite chilly, down at 55 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, which is cold for us. I was almost finished, when I heard a rustle at the head of the hammock. I looked up and a tiny Dtukae was sitting on the hammock canvas. For those who don’t know what a Dtukae is, it is a small lizard like creature that when full grown lives on the walls of houses. It is known for its sticky feet and for its croaking call at night, as well as its bite. They say that when a Dtukae bites you it won’t let go unless you dunk it under water.
The little creature at the top of my hammock didn’t look big enough to bite me, but when it came running down the hammock toward me, I didn’t stop to consider, but jumped off with a yelp, hitting my coffee in the process and spilling it over my Bible. It seemed a little confused and lost, so I went into the house and hunted up a bag and chased it into the bag. I then stuck it into a snack container and poked holes into the top for air. I will take it to school and show it to my 1st graders and teach them “G is for gecko.” There is some controversy as to what a Dtukae is called in English. Most Americans do not call it a gecko, reserving that name for the smaller, more harmless “jing-jok” that are so much fun to flick off window screens, but a few of my Thai friends insist that those are not called gecko in English, but that Dtukaes are called geckos. Google translate says Dtukaes are geckoes. In the little bit of research I have done, it looks like Dtukaes are generally known as Tokay geckoes and the jing-joks are other kinds of geckoes. I prefer to call Dtukaes geckoes purely because Dtukaes are more memorable than jing-joks and when you are teaching “g is for gecko” to first graders you need memorable ideas.
Whatever it should officially be called, I am happy with my find and hope it will live long enough to show to my first and second graders. I keep on being amazed at the way these children learn. Because their level of English is still so low, they don’t have much previous knowledge to build on. This is a little frustrating at times because you have to start from the bottom up. However, it can also be hugely rewarding because their minds are also very receptive to new words and they are excited about learning. One of my favorite things is to hear them tossing English words around as they leave the room. I also find it fascinating to be involved in every step of their learning and have a front seat in observing their journey of language. Not only are they starting to be able to use the words I have taught them, but they are no longer afraid to call out a good morning to me as they meet me outside the classroom. One thing I find quite hilarious is how they love to boss each other around in the classroom. The older classes can be a bit rowdy at times, but usually all I have to do is say “Shh” or “be quiet” in English to one student, and he or she will turn around and yell at the others, “Be quiet!!” in English. Or “Calm down!!” Somehow when you are bossing others, it is easier to say it in English. And yelling it is always better. In the first grade class, usually the general roar subsides if I say “be quiet” except for one of two students who are so busy telling others to be quiet that they forget that the order extends to them as well.
Anugun, or Koko, is one of my 5th grade students who I thought at first would be one of my more difficult ones. He is rowdy, but he has surprised me with his interest to learn and the way he remembers sentences. The other day he blessed my heart when after class he came back to his desk to pick something up and saw me sitting there studying some Karen words. He then came over and helped me with some questions I had about the Karen dialect spoken here. When I taught occupations to them last week, I asked each one what they wanted to be when they grow up. He then asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I take that as a compliment.
Sometimes when I open up Google maps and see my location where that bold dark line marks the border of Myanmar three kilometers away, and then trace the map 4 hours down to Mae Sariang to the closest phone signal, I give a little inward gasp. A gasp not unlike the gasps I involuntarily emit when the shock of the cold water hits me as I shower in the evening. Or the little gasp that Cha, one of my students gives when I call on her to speak English in class. For the most part, I have adjusted to living here. One day runs into another. Life seems normal. In the morning I wake up before 6 and light the fire. I make my coffee, sometimes sitting beside the fire to warm my feet in the chilly morning as I journal and read my Bible. The children are supposed to be at school at 7:30, and assembly starts at 8. My first class is usually at 8:40, with three class periods before noon and two in the afternoon. The day is usually over before I realize it. And yet, the gasp sometimes still escapes me… the tingling shock that still lingers from the realization that I am not in my home culture, or my adopted Chiang Mai culture. Like this morning as I walked to church and met 2 enormous buffalo blocking the road. Or when you find out that one of your first grader’s family has a buffalo. Or in the morning as I squat by the fire to light the kindling.
This week was a mix of ups and downs. At the beginning of the week, I found myself beset entirely with cravings for dairy products and chocolatey cookies, cakes and breads. I was rationing my stash of granola bars and also realizing they just answer the cravings I was having. Finally, I remembered that at a store in the village, I had seen some off-brand oreos. I set off to find some, and they were perfect. The wafer satisfied my cookie hunger, the frosting helped with the desire for something milky and sweet (is the frosting actually milky? I doubt it, but my brain is happy with it), and the wafer also satisfied my chocolate urges. I was getting tired of black coffee and wishing for some milk, or for something sweet to offset the bitterness. Oreos worked perfectly. For 5 baht, I can eat a packet of 6. The amount of Oreos I have eaten in the week that has passed is beyond ridiculous. I have decided that I need to take turns going to the different stores in the neighborhood when I buy them so that no one can discover how many Oreos the farang teacher consumes, because I am sure if anyone would realize the truth, it would spread like wildfire.
Because, it seems, everything that I do here is of interest to everyone else. One of the village teachers speculated to another village teacher that the large amount of water I consume (I carry a water bottle with me wherever I go) probably makes me hungry. I have a feeling she was wondering why I eat so much. I feel like I am a distraction in an otherwise very quiet village and I give them something to discuss over their suppers. I keep on being surprised at the stories about me that eventually come floating to me. “Kru Dtaum says that you read your Bible every morning.” “So-and-so said that you can speak Karen as well.” (the few words I can speak do not constitute speaking Karen.) It seemed from comments from my students and others that the entire village knew I had accompanied some of the villagers into a more remote area to hunt for tadpoles and gather greens.
This week the water stopped running. It does so in the dry season. Water then has to be brought in from the storage tanks. It randomly starts up again every now and then, and then we fill up everything possible. Because of this, I had to wash my clothes in the tubs in front of the men’s showerhouse since they had more water there than we had in our house. I washed my clothes on lunch break and dumped the water out in front of the showerhouse. When I went to hang up my clothes, I found that I had washed only one sock from my pair of gray socks. This is not unusual since I am a little scatterbrained when it comes from doing laundry. It wasn’t until later that evening when Kru Dtaum went to the showerhouse and shouted out, “Hey whose socks are these?” There were three socks that I had thrown out with the washwater lying between the showerhouse and the office. I was just grateful that it was only socks and not more embarrassing items.
My fire lighting skills are getting better. I struck some difficult times several evenings when I was trying to light it and it simply would not light. I keep on getting tips that help me, but there are times, very frustrating times when I am lighting the fire and someone else comes to help me light the fire. This help is usually to say, “Oh, it’s going,” and pile on some wood. And then 1 minute later my precious fire is smoking itself to an untimely death. I want to say, “If it were your fire, then yes, it would be ok and you would know when the lit kindling is ready for bigger sticks. But this is MY fire and I happen to realize, even though I am a newby at this, that it is NOT ready for bigger sticks. So please keep your sticks off my baby fire!” But I do not say this. Instead, I grab a sliver of pine and light it again.
I have gone to the Catholic services twice now since I have come. Perhaps I should not be fraternizing with Catholics, but there is no Protestant church here. Even those who are Catholic seem to be very nominally Catholic. However, I enjoy sitting and listening to the hymns and getting some language practice. It also gives me a chance to get to know the villagers as well as see some of my students outside of school. In spite of this, I am very hungry for a good service in Thai or English that I can understand, as well as fellowship with people who are serious about their relationship with Christ.
My Acer laptop gave me some gasps this week as well, refusing to turn on when I needed it. After an anxious night and nightmares of great magnitude about losing all my data and teaching computerless for weeks while my laptop is sent to Chiang Mai to be fixed, I did find the magic key to turn it back on, which was to drain the battery until it totally died and then start it up again. Praise the Lord!
Captain Joe, (or Pugong Joe as you would say in Thai), one of the policemen at the station that is right beside the school, comes over for supper at the teacher’s house most evenings. I keep on being surprised at how people here constantly drop in on each other. When Pugong Joe is not sitting on the porch with another of the teachers and serenading us with Thai folk songs on his guitar, he is asking me questions that usually start with, “I saw in a movie once….” He dreams of traveling and going to far away places and watches movies to do so vicariously. He loves asking questions about all sorts of things, and is not hesitant to ask bold questions about Christianity, unlike many Thai people.
We teach from Monday to Saturdays, and then crash on Sundays. This is the schedule for schools in what the government calls พื้นที่พิเศษ “Special Areas,” meaning it is an area far away or hard to reach. After three or four weeks of a schedule like this, the school closes for a week or even more to give the teachers a chance to go home to their families. This means on this Friday we head down to Mae Sariang for over 7 days. I am looking forward to a break and some time by myself.
I keep on thinking that when I blog, I should choose one subject and stick to it, and then somehow wring out some kind of wise lesson or conclusion about the happening. Perhaps someday I will write something sage and wise to connect with my life here. But for now, I write because these stories need to be written in my own heart, for my own memory.
*once I reach Mae Sariang and have some good wifi connection, I will upload some pictures.
** this post was mostly written on Sunday but I was unable to post it until today because of the internet. Or the lack thereof.
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
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.
If asked to describe my week in one word, I would have to use a word I am quickly becoming to hate:
When you read the title of this post, your first thought may have been, oh, this is going to be a deeply insightful post about the invisible masks we wear.
This past week has been a long week of waking up every morning to a dirty brown sky covered in ash and PM 2.5 and dust. It’s been a long week of trying to do homework, stay healthy physically, mentally and emotionally, and balance 29 other things at the same time. It’s been a week of checking AQI levels and seeing numbers over 400.
But I am tired of talking about that. If you want to read more about the smog, go here.
I found that during this week, in order to stay sane, you need to take measures. That means wearing a protective mask where ever you go. It means staying in air conditioner as much as possible. It means not getting too active. It means drinking lots of water. It means intentionally doing things that keep you from getting depressed.
And it also means finding humor in the sm- (that bad word).
So, in doing that, I made a list of ten things that are benefits of wearing a mask (besides helping with pollution).
- When you need to do things with people you feel awkward around and both of you are wearing a mask, it feels a bit less awkward.
- When you are tired and meet someone and you want to smile but you don’t have the energy to, you can just squint your eyes at each other. They get what you mean.
- You can talk to yourself and practice your dramatic presentation for next class while waiting at the stoplight without people thinking that you have gone totally crazy.
- You can sing loudly on the way home on your motorbike without being scared of swallowing a mosquito.
- Eating snacks is a pain because you have to take off your mask. Therefore you eat less snacks. Which saves on money.
- You can stick out your tongue at people or make other expressive faces at them and they never know what you do. This gives high inner satisfaction
- You can eat chocolate behind your mask and no one knows that you are eating chocolate.
- Wearing a mask and protective sunglasses while driving a 110 cc motorbike can make you feel like you are driving one that is 500 cc. Formidable, powerful and competent. Even when you are feeling tired, helpless and incapable.
- It creates a sense of being in a community. I am a mask wearer. You are too. We wear the mask.
- And finally, the best part of wearing a mask is taking it off!!
Northern Myanmar is home to Kachin State, an ethnic group that has been entrenched in violence with the Myanmar army for several decades. However, there is one village of Kachin people in Northern Chiang Dao called Baan Mai Samakkhi.
My friend and classmate, Louise, or Louie as we call her, is Kachin. The mix of languages in her background is tangled, since her father’s stripe of Kachin actually speaks a different Kachin language than the village he lives in does. Not only this, Louise’s mother is Lisu. Add Thai and English to the mix, plus a smattering of Korean she’s picked up from living with Korean missionaries and parts of a Chinese dialect she learned from the neighboring Chinese village, and it becomes very interesting indeed.
Pan Pan, a fellow Payap student, and I decided to go see Louise at Baan Mai Samakkhi in Chiang Dao province while she was home for a Kachin holiday. Since Pan Pan didn’t have a Thai driver’s license, we decided to go with bus and songtaew (a truck with two seats on the back used for public transportation.) Traveling with a bus gives an entirely different perspective of Thailand. While I didn’t appreciate getting stuck in traffic and the heat of the bus, I also found it fascinating to observe the type of people who take public transportation , which were mostly older or middle to lower class people. I felt like I caught a better glimpse of normal life in Thailand.
I met Pan Pan at his house early on Thursday morning and we walked out to the main road where we flagged down a songtaew heading for the city. Once we reached the Gaat Luang market, we hopped aboard another songtaew to take us to the Chang Phuak bus station. Once there, we bought tickets to Muang Ngai, Chiang Dao, boarding a bus that was headed for Fang, Thailand.
I was tired from a late night the evening before and I had also neglected to take any carsick medication. Instead I bought some gum at the station and viciously chewed it as we headed out of the city and down the mountainous roads to Chiang Dao, trying to keep myself from getting sick. Passing through the city of Chiang Dao, we stayed on the bus until we reached the Muang Ngai bus station where a yellow songtaew was waiting. We boarded the songtaew and headed to Baan Mai Samakkhi.
This, I think, was the first time I had ridden in a songtaew with a lady driver. As we shot up and around curves and precipitated down steep mountainsides, I wondered if she was trying to prove something. I briefly considered ringing the bell to ask her if I could sit in front with her, as my stomach kept on churning, but instead I stared out the back door of the songtaew and chomped gum as if my life depended on it. It didn’t work. Somewhere in the breathtaking scenery between Muang Ngai and Baan Mai Samakkhi, I lost my breakfast in a plastic bag while my embarrassed fellow passengers politely looked the other way and said nothing.
Finally, a little shaky and tired, we got to the village. Pan Pan and I then walked the half kilometer to the village gate, already hearing the echoes of thundering drumbeats. Once we got to the village, Louie came running up. “Come, come,” she called. “They’re almost finished!” She dragged us quickly to a fenced in area where the music was coming from.
I saw a sight I was not expecting. I had never seen anything like it before. It reminded me of American Indian dances, or something you would see in Tibet, not something in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Kachin people from all of the 6 different Kachin subtribes were present, with people from Myanmar, China and Thailand represented. In a circle that was fenced off, beneath triangular flags fluttering on strings above, over a hundred people marched in a line, following four leaders. They danced in 12 different patterns that were drawn on the sides of 6 poles in the middle of the clearing. Drummers stood beating drums in the middle of the clearing beside the poles, and music so deafening it shook in my chest played from speakers. They did this dance called Rom Manao two hours, twice a day for two days of the festival.
We watched until the end and then went to eat noodles, before taking the afternoon off to sleep and rest. While mingling with Louie’s family, I discovered an even deeper tangle of languages. Some of the visiting Kachins could speak Burmese (and maybe Chinese?? still not sure) so Pan Pan, who is ethnic Chinese but born and raised in Burma, was able to communicate well with them. It seemed everywhere I turned, I heard a different language.
Above: Pan Pan (left) and Louie hanging out with Louie’s dog.
In the late afternoon, the music and dancing started again, and we watched until the time came for Louie and her sister to go teach English at Arunothai, the Chinese village several kilometers down the road. Try as I might, I have not yet discovered how a Chinese village came to be nestled in these mountains about 15 minutes from the Burmese border. My guess is that they were fleeing war and immigrated to Thailand.
Sometimes as I experience things, I get senses of color. While Louie’s village flaunted red and orange, this village was gray with an occasional splash of red. Perhaps it was the coming winter night that gave the gray atmosphere, or perhaps it was the streets and the walls of the village itself. Like Louie said, it felt like an ancient Chinese village transplanted into modern day times.
In Arunothai the children grow up speaking Chinese, but are required to study at a Thai school in the day. In the evening, they attend a special school focusing on Chinese and English. While Louie’s sister taught an English class, I slipped away to wander along the gray courtyard and watch the sunset. Then my curiosity got the better of me and I headed to the Chinese class to listen to the Chinese teacher, an energetic, talented woman who held her young class spellbound as they practiced songs and rhymes. I sat with the students and tried to help sing along in the limited Chinese I had learned in the past year. I felt oddly like I had come home.
In the gathering twilight, we waved goodbye to the children and left the gray village on our bikes, waving to the Chinese teacher as she too went home. Oddly, I felt like I was leaving home.
We spent the evening listening to an open air mountainside Kachin concert, something I quickly tired of since I understood nothing. I bought myself some hot cocoa and wrapped my hands around it, glad for the warmth in the mountain air and made a game of pretending to translate the Kachin words into Thai for Pan Pan. The most interesting part of the evening was the way people went up on the stage to drape garlands on the singers, while they were singing. This could be hilarious, especially when the singer was in a passionate part of the song and had to bend down to have yet another garland draped on his or her head.
The next morning, we headed to the market at Arunothai before taking a walk, eating some avocados and catching a songtaew back to Muang Ngai again. I was reminded again of the variety of people living in Northern Thailand, as group after group boarded the songtaew and jabbered with each other in languages I could not recognize. The bus ride back to Chiang Dao was hot and tiring, but at least did not involve more meal losing. I ended up standing in the aisle with about 10 other people for part of the way since there were more people than seats. In light of this, I was amused at the sign in the front of the bus. Along with other signs, warning against smoking, the sign in the bottom right of the picture announces that a law has been passed that all passengers need to put on a seatbelt and the failure to do so will result in a penalty of 5000 baht. How are 10 people standing in the aisle supposed to wear a seatbelt?
I was exhausted but happy when we got back to Chiang Mai. Despite being tired, the trip was well worth it.
And someday, maybe I will go back to Arunothai, the mysterious little gray village of Chinese people close to the Thai/Myanmar border.
To learn more about Kachin people in Thailand and Burma, check out this link: https://www.chiangmaicitylife.com/citylife-articles/curse-blood-jade-neighbouring-ethnic-war-know-nothing/