Two months of teaching in Thailand: Some thoughts…

I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for two months now, and it’s been three months since I left my friends, life and (dis)comfort zone in Cape Town.

It feels far longer.

Nong Bua Daeng Hae Krathup festival
The high street of Nongbuadaeng was festooned with decorations from the October Hae Krathup Tradition festival, which I missed by days (dammit!).

I’d never been to Asia before, and when you do full-on cultural immersion − when nearly every sight, sound, smell and taste is fresh (well, not literally − some are anything but…), and you can almost physically feel your perceptions shift around every street corner − even 15 minutes of a day stretches into something memorable. Seeing the world through new eyes engages your full attention, which slows down time.

I see a lot of adorable Thai toddlers here; they make my insides gooey. They’ve also made me reflect on cognitive learning … on how the familiar becomes familiar so early; on the joy and wonder of experiencing things for the first time.

But newness isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re 40, and frequently fearful.

Back home, I’m often the youngest among friends; unmarried, childless, still “a maiden” in many ways. Not here, among teenage students and other foreign English teachers so fresh out of school, they may as well be taking a gap year. And while home (Cape Town) can be a playground for skateboarding Peter Pans and festival-hopping party girls to say things like “age is just a number,” being a middle-aged (!!!) teacher among twenty-somethings in a conservative, small SoutheastAsian town means you’re forced to confront your chronological age – or, at least, traditional (and possibly small-minded) perceptions on it almost daily.

But I digress. Back to the many gains of this adventure: So far, the biggest immediate gain has been the sensory stimulation. I see so many intriguing sights just sitting on my veranda here in Nongbuadaeng, in rural NorthEast Thailand. Then there are the festivals and markets and celebrations and rituals. And there have been many buses and budget hotels and markets and minibus trips to other Northern places in-between.

Chinese opera
Chinese-style opera at the carnival that came to town for the week of the 5 December National Holiday, in honour of the birthday of the King of Thailand, Vajiralongkorn (AKA Rama X).

I sometimes wish I we were living in the imagined future, so I could do a quick download of all the daily images and impressions. I’m constantly thinking: I must write this down. I must save this picture. I must remember…

Then, there’s what this place is doing to my long-heavy heart.

The main reason I chose to try out ESL teaching here, over more lucrative places, was because of “the people” everyone raved about. While I’m wary of romanticising “the land of smiles”, I’ve been touched by so many everyday human interactions and treated very well by students, colleagues and town folk. Living so openly within a community (rather than behind high suburban walls, as we are in South Africa) makes you feel part of it, even if you’re just a foreign guest.

Last week, at a temple in Chiang Mai (where some of us teachers went for New Year), I said a prayer of gratitude for all the moments of grace and kindness I’ve been blessed to experience in the last two months – the sweet laughter in class, the generous warmth from the women of Nongbuadaeng, the nourishment of the delicious food. Thanks to my time in Thailand, something inside me must surely be shifting – how can it not?

wat phan tao
The place where I gave thanks: The teak Wat Phan Tao temple, meaning ‘temple of a Thousand Kilns’ (due the fact that it was once used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang next door).

Below, some notes on some of the things I miss, and some of the things I’m grateful for.

(More blog posts on teaching and living here to follow!)

WHAT I MISS

Proper conversations with friends. I love nothing better than a good, deep and detailed natter with people who know me. Language barriers reduce conversations to the bare basics here. And getting to know new people, from vastly different backgrounds, takes time and is not without its own challenges.

My car. I asked for a walkable town and I’m glad for it, but a lot of the local sites are only reachable with wheels − and I’m having scooter issues. With my driving phobia history, knowing two young men who died on scooters, and not having insurance to cover scooter accidents, I wasn’t going to hire one. But the three younger English teachers I’m with did and I didn’t want to miss out on outings or be the ‘granny of the group’. (Too late!) I’m still too poep-scared (as we say in South Africa) to ride the damn thing further than our block. But I haven’t given up on slaying the beast just yet … I miss the freedom of being able to go greater distances than my feet will take me.

Nice toilets and showers. Cape Town’s drought toughened me up a little, so I’m used to no baths and treating showers as cleaning necessities rather than languid luxuries. Here, you have to confront non-Western toilets (and ‘the bum gun’), carry toilet paper (which can’t be flushed and must be placed in the waste basket), and showers are those soft-flow hand-held jobbies hung upon the wall. *Sigh* #FirstWorldProblems

Proper cutlery (and such things). No, this isn’t because we’re eating with chopsticks. We aren’t. In Thailand, you eat with a fork (left hand) and spoon (right hand). You use the fork to push food onto the spoon, then spoon the rice into your mouth. (I’m still figuring out if it’s the same for noodle dishes). The cutlery is of a thin metal, the kind you may take camping, so I miss the feel of a heavy knife and fork in hand. Ditto for plates and glasses. At café’s here, it’s all plastic plates and cups. I wasn’t able to find any ceramic plates at the shops for my flat, either. On the plus side, everything has that impermanent/festival/camping feel, which is fun. And there’s less to break.

fork and spoon in Thailand
It took an hour’s bus ride to the nearest city, but I finally found a knife (the type that goes with a fork) among boxes of the spoon & fork combo you quickly get used to eating with in Thailand.

Some food items, like proper coffee, cheese, salt and pepper. Even though coffee is grown here, Thailand isn’t a place (like Greece) where you’ll easily find a good coffee. At the cheap hotels we’ve stayed at, it’s strong and powdery. In the shops, you’ll find instant varieties pre-mixed with milk powder, sugar and even ‘weight-loss’ or ‘skin-tightening’ ingredients. It took me a few weeks to find ground coffee, but I’m still on the hunt for a bodem (using a tea strainer until then). At restaurants and cafes, there’s sugar, chilli and soy sauce on the table. Funny how you quickly miss everyday rituals, like cracking salt and pepper onto your meal before starting.

Friendly pets. In Chiang Mai, I asked a #DigitalNomad I’d just met if there was any downside to living in Thailand. “As you’ve probably seen, it’s the attitude towards animals,” she said. It’s true. The many street dogs here are full of mange and on their own mission. The outnumbered cats are skittish and still elusive. As a pet-sitter and animal-lover, I miss animal affection.

Thai dog
A typical Thai dog. He is not as rough-looking as the street dogs, so likely belongs to the shopkeeper family. He will be fed and perhaps get the odd scratch, but he likely won’t be washed, sterilised or cooed over.

A body of water to swim in. In the North, we don’t have the beaches Southern Thailand is known for. While Cape Town’s cold Atlantic sea is hardly inviting, you always know it’s there. When it’s hot here, I crave a body of water to swim in. But the local reservoir is not for swimming, and the nearest pool requires a scooter ride to get to (and is not exactly clean). It’s not surprising that most of the kids here can’t swim. (Again, #FirstWorldProblems).

Articulation skills and the ability to read environment. There’s lots to be said here, in a longer post. But just imagine, for a minute, not being able to read street signs, menus, receipts, SMS messages from your bank or phone provider. I’m used to being literate, and feel pretty ‘lost’ in my surroundings at some point in every day.

WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR

Living in a walkable town. During the placement process, the agency asked us for our preferences, and this was one of mine (together with WiFi and a verandah or outside space at home). I’m loving walking through the food market each day, and strolling to the 7/11 at night – pretty much a no-no back in South Africa, as it’s too dangerous to walk alone at night.

Thai market Nongbuadaeng
Markets everywhere! In addition to the daily market, the nightly produce market, the Saturday night market and the 15th of the month big market, there’s the Mon-Wed food market outside the school.

The agency support. I’m told I can earn more through a direct placement and wasn’t too sure about my agency before getting here (I had all kinds of suspicions). But they offer a curriculum, telephone support 24/7 (even for things like translating a Thai text or speaking to a Thai person to organise transport etc.), and the visa support has been a relief.

That I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, yet. (Sorry!) Contrary to what many expect, Thai cuisine isn’t that vegetarian friendly. And ordering veg-only is just another communication complication. I’ve seen the lengthy process of someone trying to explain that no meat should be in the fried rice be served pork fried rice, only to get non-veg food served to them, and have to suck it up and eat plain white rice and sliced cucumber … there seems to be fish sauce, chicken, pork broth or egg in most dishes.

That I was able to buy a new phone. My one had a cracked screen and kept running out of space, even with a new SD card, but new phones were just too expensive to buy back home. I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy J4+ for less than 5000 Baht ($156; R2230) at the Big C in Bangkok, and it’s been essential for life here (with its need to Google translate, use local banking/taxi apps and Google maps).

That I’ve had some teaching experience. While it was part time and at an English creative college, rather than full time at a Thai high school, it made it easier for introverted me to stand in front of many sets of eyes and do all the prep necessary to feel prepared for 50-minute classes.

Feeling part of a community. Note I say feeling over being. We are farangs (foreigners) and get called so daily. We’re just passing through for a season. But after five years of freelancing alone at home, with no family of my own nearby, being a respected member of a community, living close with our neighbours, attending local events and just being part of the daily flow of life has been so good for me on so many levels.

So after that long post, is there anything you want to know about my Thai teaching adventure? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you here…

Thai sweets
A sweetie stand on a street in Chaiyaphum, the city an hour or so away from us. Ain’t it PRETTY??
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A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.