Saturday, February 26, 2011

Raining Strawberries and Flowers

It seems that in the past weeks I have been attending increasing numbers of festivals. After sampling a wide range I can say with some authority that there are more similarities than differences between the differing celebrations. The venue and the occasion remain unique. The food stands however, do not. It is perhaps comforting to know that you will always find piles of noodles in varying widths that can be heaped with bean sprouts, peanuts and sugar. There are without question always stands frying tiny pink splayed sausages and others with vats bobbing with silky meatballs. There are also, the same variety of souvenir stands – Lana woven bags, frilled and bowed shirts, odd wooden plaques, and overlarge key-chains. It is as if the same vendors are on constant rotation between towns.

What changes is the theme, at least a few more stands of a particular item, or in some cases a profusion of one particular item. In Bo Sang it was Umbrellas, In Sappong it was Strawberries, in Chiang Mai it was flowers.

But my intention is not to dismiss festivals with a “seen one seen them all” attitude – though I might feel this at times. Instead I continue to seek out and happen upon festivals, specifically in search of the quirky idiosyncrasies.

To offer an example – when TaReva and I drove out to Chiang Dao (72 km away from Chiang Mai) we found ourselves in the midst of a local Winter Festival with all the usual trappings and in addition: beauty pageants, fried toast on a stick and the most bizarre pet stand I have, and probably will ever see. It consisted of a wall of pastel colored cages each containing a miniature bunny that could fit into my palm. Not weird enough? Now put small baby doll clothes on all the bunnies.

In Sappong we perused a whole roadway of stands selling exactly the same strawberry products made by exactly the same company: dried strawberries, strawberry jam and locally produced, vinegar tasting strawberry wine.

The Chiang Mai flower festival is not complete without a flower parade with massive floats composed of flower creatures, flower maps, flower temples, flower elephants, flower kings. There was even a bevy of Indian Princesses pulled in a fleet of rickshaws… I am still confused about their presence.

Then of course there was Chinese New Year that turned Wararot Market red and gold. There were more beauty pageants – this time with three year olds and there were lion dancers balancing on poles.

And then there was one of those moments that I have had on a number of occasions where I am strikingly reminded that I am not in Cambridge anymore. Walking up the line of food stalls and souvenir stands, Lauren and I spied a dragon dance – an impressive many legged, electronically lit body that bobbed and swayed above the heads of the crowd. But terrestrial dancing and swerving were not enough so up it went, wrapping itself around a pole. All of this could have been viewed in a chinatown in the states, but this feat was still too tame for Chiang Mai. And so lets add fireworks into the dragon’s open mouth and set them alight so that they shower the gathered crowd below with sparks!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day by day

It is unfathomable to me that our second semester is coming to a rapid close and our final classes are this week. CMU feels natural. That striding and dancing in front of classes of forty students basically my age, has come to be exactly what I feel I should be doing. Why then is the semester wrapping up?

Over the last nine months I have come to love much about my new home – swerving between cars on my motorbike, slurping gummy rice noodles, struggling to reshape my mouth so as to make some of the more challenging Thai sounds. But I’ll say with utter confidence that more than anything else I have experienced here, I love the teaching and I love my classes.

Yes there are the frustrations – students not understanding, complications with the institution, the finer points of English grammar. Yes there are the worries - how do I explain a vocabulary word on the spot? Will a certain game or assignment work? Yes there is the loss of sleep – the hours spent grading piles of exams at coffee shops, or trolling through websites and youtube clips simply to compile a single hour and a half lesson.

But I would say that all of these are inherent to teaching. Indeed, in a perhaps ironic way, they are essential to teaching, because it makes those moments – a student’s dawning understanding, a game that gets students jumping up and down, even simple laughter – mean the world to me.

Last week I spent hours preparing a review scavenger hunt for my 202 classes. I had students racing all over campus – much to their incredulity – “we have to actually go all the way there?!” Seeing my three successive classes excitedly huddled in circles, flipping through textbooks and huffing back up four flights of stairs after finding a clue on the teacher room’s door made it all worthwhile and more.

In the last two weeks many of my classes have been devoted to presentations, and again and again I find myself close to tears with laughter. There have been the commercials advertising: “ghost wax” and “cupcake perfume.” The skits describing new products – a hat that makes you dance, exercise, or play guitar depending on the music played, and where the students slyly chose a “random” subject to test out the dance function…namely me. There have been the presentations where two of my art student ladyboys dressed and danced in the style of a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama V” and the other as a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama the IX” in order to discuss the changing roles of women in Thai society. Students have sung songs about condoms, lathered their faces with mustard yellow “magic cream” who’s secret ingredient was cow piss; they have impersonated terrible teachers to illustrate the country's educational failings, and they have serenaded us with guitars.

In my own struggles with learning how to teach I often seem to forget how hard English is to learn. I can get easily frustrated with the education system and with the language barrier that still stands partially erect between my students and I. But I think back to my own struggles with language first in high school and then in college. I remember hating to be called to answer questions, let alone to perform - so worried was I that I would make a fool of myself. In this last week I have watched all hundred and forty students of mine get up in front of the black board and put their all into not only practicing English, but doing so with confidence and creativity. I cannot be more inspired.

In the end though, it will be the small things I will miss most – the certain exuberant way one of my social science students greets me every morning, or how one of my art students will admonish the others to “speak English” in a copy of my tone and voice. It is that grin of a specific political science student who sticks out his tongue when he understands a grammar point or when something is particularly funny, or it is the exaggerated way that a collection of my art students greet me with when they stroll in ten minutes late. It is all the many personalities and characters, the class cohesions and the class quirks that I have been honored to take for granted for an entire semester.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Odd, the Absurd, and the Embarrassing

Being a tall white farang living in Northern Thailand odd things are normal (I might go as far as to say normal things have become odd). Here are just a few examples of the bizarre quirks of everyday living, and more than one instance of me making a fool of myself (something I assure you happens to me regularly).

1. I will never cease to be amazed and amused by the fashion of Chiang Mai (and indeed Chiang Mai is very fashionable). Most recently I have spotted: pink ruffled shoulder pads that resemble new-age armor and a black and white polka dotted one piece.

2. This is a story that I alluded to months ago, but figured it also belonged here. While driving back late from a dinner party my bike happened to be caught up in the fiercest windstorm I have experience in Thailand. Dust, leaves, and twigs were flying everywhere, but the real measure of the storms strength was that it was able to untie the back of my dress. Normally I would discretely pull off to the shoulder and put myself back together, but that night I happened to be intently following a friend so as to find my way back to my side of town. Thus I was forced to drive one-handed through the outskirts of Chiang Mai with my other hand on my back attempting to remain fully clothed.

3. About halfway through the school year the following sign was taped up over the toilet in the female teachers' bathroom at CMU. “Due to poor ventilation we request no heavy duty use here.”

4. My apartment building has a very kind small Thai woman called Broom Loom (loom means wind in Thai), who sits in the front office every day. And every day I wai her, but sometimes our conversations attempt to go farther. This is greatly hindered by my mediocre Thai and her non-existent English. Suffice to say our conversations never last long, they are however great incentives to keep studying. My favorite encounter was when once I couldn’t understand her (as per normal) and so she proceeded to write out in Thai what she was trying to tell me…

5. 7-Elevens are rampant in Thailand. Indeed they are so numerous that it is not uncommon to stand on the steps of one and look through the front door of another across the street. Struck by the excess experienced in Bangkok I decided to do a little research. There are approximately 5,700 7-Elevens in the country (apparently half of which reside in the capital alone). The population of Thailand is currently at roughly 68,000,000. Lets assume that there are approximately ten people employed in some capacity at each 7-Eleven. That could suggest that roughly 1 in 1000 Thais works for the 7-Eleven corporation.

6. There is no official transliteration from Thai to English. This leads to numerous complications, one of which is the pronunciation of Thai-English nicknames. Take for instance one of my students who spells her name M – I – L – D. How would you pronounce that? If you are a native English speaker, then chances are you pronounce it like the adjective that describe things that are not too strong. Unfortunately you are wrong – its actually pronounced like the English word “My”. Ok that’s not that bad you might say and it really isn’t…for the most part. But you have to be careful, as students will not always correct your butchering of their names, despite their corruption of conventional English pronunciation. I have a student in one of my classes that spells her name: Koi. Take a moment to sound that name out. Now imagine me doing that for most of a semester. Well its unfortunately not pronounced Koi, but rather “Goi”. Close you might say, forgivable… yes for many names it might be…it just happens that my pronunciation translates into Thai as “dick”…oy vey!

7. At English camp two weekends ago I happened to be on the losing side of a game and was obliged to cover my teeth with strips of deep green seaweed and smile broadly for a picture.

8. Kitiporn - a very popular Thai name with a very unfortunate English meaning.

9. After nine months I appear to have taken to heart the Thai attitude of sabai. While driving on the highway a couple of weeks back my left-hand mirror flew off. In past times, or in past places this loss of my motorbike's mirror would have caused me some alarm, or perhaps at least a touch of concern. Past selves would have pulled over to the side of the road in an attempt to retrieve it while dodging speeding cars. Even if I didn’t stop I would have, in another mindset, considered such possibilities. None of this happened. I did not dart between traffic, I did not pull over, I did not even turn back and ponder its loss wistfully. Instead my stream of consciousness when something like this: “I love driving. Oh wait was that my mirror that flew off? That was indeed my mirror that flew off. Hmm that’s interesting. Actually that’s sort of funny. Ok more importantly where is the turn I need to take to meet my friend?”

10. After careful observation I have determined that back bumpers and license plate decorations come in two, seemingly opposing, flavors - either Hello Kitty or the Playboy Bunny. Occasionally I have seen both adorning a single car. But none of these can top the exhaust pipe we discovered the other night while pulling out of the parking lot...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Rolling Cuisine

I would like to make the perhaps audacious claim that Thailand possesses the most scrumptious street food in South East Asia. Festivals see the greatest variety of stands – glistening mounds of noodles, omelets, quail eggs, soups, satays, ice cream, waffles, sticky rice, somtum, candies, chocolates, sodas, bubble teas – I could continue close to indefinitely. But the excellence of our food stands is not limited to fair grounds. For the sake of building the strongest argument I will limit myself to the stands of the everyday.

Soup stands are most prolific - they are the staples of street food dinning. Hungry at any hour you are guaranteed to find one within a five minute drive in any direction. To fully appreciate the complexities of a seemingly unassuming soup stand you must eat with a local. There is never just one kind of soup sold, but rather infinite deviations. Do you want thick toothy wide rice noodles (sen yai), thin rice noodles (sen lek), floss thin rice noodles (sen mee), or perhaps skip the rice altogether and go for egg noodles (ba mi). Then there are the choices of meatballs – pork, beef, fish, chicken – or strips of meat, or boiled meat. There are bean sprouts, mint, fresh morning glory for garnish. Sometimes there are wontons. These are all relatively self evident, displayed behind glass. But then there are the seasonings and spices that can be added to the soups, the ones that are hidden away in the belly of the cart that you don’t realize are there until you are soup initiated. It took me a month and a half to be initiated and to discover the wonders of tumyum sweet and sour spice. And finally if the number of possible choices were not overwhelming enough there are the self service spices that are basically a requirement along with chairs, forks, spoons, and chopsticks, of every Thai street food table – small glasses filled with ground chili, fish sauce, chili with vinegar, fish sauce with vinegar, and of course…sugar.

Next on my “most frequented” list are the fruit stands. These consist of long plexiglass boxes filled with rainbow layers of sliced and bagged fruits. Cubes of pineapple, ovals of Rose apple, half moons of dragon fruit, serrated papaya, Asian pear and cantaloupe. Often there will also be bags of coconut water, small whole roasted coconuts that can be cracked open with a machete, eight inch bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.

Coffee stands are also common. I frequent a particularly delicious one at the end of my soi. The man there mixes up bright creamy orange chai yen – Thai Iced Tea, brimming with sugar and condensed milk. His dark wood stand is stacked with empty condensed milk cans and plastic containers of Nestle coffee. Tucked into a shelf between cans is a plastic Chinese cup filled with chai offered up to a miniature plastic Buddha. He also serves, though I have not sampled, a variety of coffee drinks as well as powdered drinks mixed with milk that are available in every color of the pastel rainbow.

For late night desserts one should keep an eye out for milk stands, distinguishable by the case of freshly fried chromosome shaped dough. These stands serve dough with a jelly like green icing, or for those less enticed, green slime. To accompany them, the large vat set into the stand holds steaming soy milk, rice milk, and the strongest ginger tea I’ve tasted (it is the kind of tea perfect for burning away throat layers). There are also the standard roti stands of which I have already written about, where you can get your fried dough with any combination of bananas, eggs, chocolate, strawberry jam and blueberry jam. Sugar and condensed milk are a given.

Possibly the most frequent, but also possibly the least appetizing to some, are the squid stands. Small-wheeled carts with tables displaying vibrantly yellow squids and dried cuttlefish, the texture of faded newspaper. Such stands swarm around bars and clubs starting at midnight. For impatient customers they offer bags of shredded fish, for those who can wait they grill squid in front of you. Night air in Chiang Mai is awash in the pungent smell of squid.