Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bangkok: Language, Waterfalls, Pad Thai, Goals and of course Hospitals.

My year in Thailand has officially begun...
After 32 hours of painful plane travel I finally arrived in hot, sweaty Bangkok around midnight on Friday, September 27th. It's been a spectacular 18 days thus far.

Currently, I am betwixt and between my intrepid adventure time in the Northern province of Thailand - as I'm currently staying in a Motel 66 type location, ironically called the Krit Thai Mansion, (it's really perfectly nice, just doesn't live up to the name). This month (I leave Oct. 30th for Chiang Mai, San Sai District) is an 'intensive' orientation that includes safety lessons, cross-cultural training, Thai language classes (my favorite!) and practice teaching. Though some days are ridiculously repetitive or common sense, others have provided me with some useful knowledge or a lens I had not yet acquired. Meeting the old batch of ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) who are outgoing has been the most useful thus far, as seeing their journey completed gave me both hope and excitement to get my own year really started. Additionally, it provided very useful information and was perhaps the most realistic toward preparing us - as best prepared as we can be. Truly, there is no way to prepare for the adventures, trials and challenges this year will bring, but each day I become more excited to truly dive into this adventure, more than I already have. 

Weekdays are 9am-4pm orientation activities and weekends are up to our leisure. Which I've spent a balance of cultural activities with new friends and 'Jessye time' where I read, write, draw, walk and get foot massages for $4. Also a bit of weekend traveling most recently (which was awesome). As per usual, I found myself in the hospital already - but I'll explain later.

Consistently I find myself comparing things to Ghana. Which, although useful for me, is frustratingly obnoxious for my peers. This is Thailand and I need to learn it outside the perimeters of Ghana. Let Ghana be Ghana, but be in Thailand and learn it - as best I can. I will do my best. Though comparisons can help when it comes to cultural differences/frustrations, overall I need to let go of preconceived understandings of similarities across 'developing' places and let myself learn a new place and be open to its newness.

Finding my footing in this new place has been challenging, though despite my need to not compare I believe the experiences in Ghana (and Kenya) have helped me adjust. I have not struggled nearly as much as I did on my first trip to Ghana. My cultural relativism skills are fine-tuned and I am able to have a bit of mai pen rai (don't worry/it's okay) about most things that occur in this bustling city.

Coconut Ice Cream with Corn & Peanuts

My first 18 days in Thailand: 
Bangkok in 13 semi-coherent thoughts...

1. Bangkok: The City of...: It's difficult to describe Bangkok. At first glance, it looks almost like parts of NYC with a hint of Ghana. When you look deeper, and go to SkyTrain (subway) stops off the main areas you can find less NYC type places, with more culture embedded. Whether it be a sprawling market place, a water taxi, the Grand Palace or other landmarks in Thailand, Bangkok has differences, culture and things to observe, but if you just watch the surface you might be simply overwhelmed by the busy atmosphere and rush hour at all hours.

2. Thai Massages: Painful - and somewhat similar to partner yoga. Have not decided if I will get another full body one. Last time I felt slightly better and slightly in pain. My masseur kept slapping me and saying "relax!" and when she danced across my back holding onto the pole on the ceiling I felt faintly as though a small wheelbarrow was going across my back.

3. Learning Thai: There is a reason I was never in an a cappella group in college - I'm tone deaf. Therefore, attempting to learn a tonal language has thus far proved to be very difficult. However, I will continue to practice. The dips in tone, both high and low, are confusing and I find myself often hearing the same word when in a different tone the words mean something different. I'm looking forward to getting some flashcards and really digging into the language. Language is such a critical aspect of communication, culture and understanding. Without learning enough Thai, this year will be much less enriching and I will not be able to contribute as much.
This is what Thai looks like: ภาษาไทย -- that means the language of Thai I think...
Most recently I learned how to say (not write): "my parents are psychologists" I think that about says it all, ;-)

4. Lack of English: Having spent much of my undergraduate career and nearly all of my traveling in Ghana and Kenya, I naively (and perhaps ethnocentrically?) assumed that Thai English would be at the level that Ghanaian and Kenyan English was. I was wrong. Though I do not believe that English NEEDS to be spoken by everyone, I understand that it does assist in offering opportunities. Despite the industrialized city of Bangkok, complete with subways and Starbucks, English speaking and comprehension ability even in the capital city with tons of 'farang' (foreign) the English is often limited to saying the price in Roman numerals and not a whole lot else. Though I had not expected this, it makes it that much more important for me to master Thai in order to be able to communicate with my community. The level of English spoken by my students will also be significantly lower than I expected, but that is why it is important for me to let go of my expectations and just let come what may!

5. Hospitals! Duh. It would not be my blog without a mention of some sticky situation regarding my health. On Oct 2nd, after being here less than a week I had to go to the hospital. I was well taken care of, but it was painful ear problem (I won't go into details, it's rather disturbing). Luckily I got lots of heavy painkillers and got to have stuff removed from my ears while watching it on the television screen above me that was connected to the microscope! Fevers and three times to the hospital put a damper on my first week, but my fellow Fulbrighters were very kind - especially my roommate who accompanied me twice. Doing much better now but still not supposed to get my ears wet...

6. Thai Food is My Food: The food here is incredible. Lots of times I do not know what I am eating. From fried coconut milk balls with corn in them to grilled squid balls stuffed in bean paste cakes...it all varies. I try most things. Some unidentifiable items leave me feeling ill, but I try it anyways. Though already missing cheese, hummus and fresh veggies, I am immensely enjoying the Thai staples (as well as learning how to order them... in Thai!) 
     Things I've tried: fried orchids, green tea brownies, jellied bean candies, pork buns, fried balls      of octopus, sticky rice with mango, fried rose petals, litchi, jackfruit, fish cakes, pad thai for real!! ... and so much more! 

Vegetarian Festival in Chinatown!! Fried Orchid on left.

7. Temples & Grand Palaces!: I legitimately can not describe the beauty, serenity or detail in the temples and the Grand Palace that I have visited. It was a surreal (and hot & sweaty) experience as we walked around the grounds of Wat Pho temple and Grand Palace on my second weekend here. Truly incredibly. Here are some pictures, but it only scratches the surface at the beauty. I plan to learn more about Buddhism and architecture before my year has ended here.

The Grand Palace

Wat Pho Temple & Buddha from Grand Palace

Grand Palace & Wat Pho

8. Lessons from old ETAS: As I mentioned, seeing the old ETAs was the best part of orientation. It was exciting to see them at the end, some excited to go home and others moving to Thailand and others traveling around for awhile. I enjoyed watching them interact and hearing their stories. It made me incredibly excited for the year ahead. Right now I feel so eager for the year to begin and feel as though the adventure has only just barely begun.

9. 16 people in a 12 person mini-bus that is breaking down: So...we had a three day weekend and took a little trip to Kanchanaburi!! It was 15 of us, which was overwhelming for me size-wise, but still exciting. On the way to the waterfalls (see number 12) we took a mini-bus. With broken AC and two people sitting on top of feet on the floor, as well as slipping down hills with the rusty stick shift van... it was certainly cause for an adventure. But, it got us to the falls and back in one piece, so I really can't complain. It was definitely humorous and cause for some laughs...and screams of terror too.

10. World War II in Thailand - The Bridge over River Kwai: This is a picture on the beautiful bridge over the river Kwai. The bridge/railway track was constructed during WWII and was built by prisoners of war of the Japanese. Though beautiful, the history was a bit horrific and we learned about it more in the Thai-Burma Railway museum later on.

11. WWII Museum: Perhaps the strangest museum I've ever entered ... - though that may not be culturally relative of me, it was hard to follow the winding paths and dripping locations, as well as an organization model that was hard to process. The museum itself was about as run-down as the artifacts themselves, yet this gave it a rather 'real' feeling, yet a slightly creepy one at that. It documented the Japanese-Thai relationship during WWII (among other things).

a showing of the PoWs working on the Thai-Burma railway

Some interesting buildings in this museum

12. WATERFALLS!: On our little trip to Kanchanaburi, after our amazing mini-bus ride, we hiked a (small) but beautiful mountain and saw the most incredible waterfalls. Seven tiers of waterfalls, with the 7th being the most breathtaking by far. From the 5th-7th it was a bit more challenging (and much more slippery) as we walked through water and up slanted, slippery steps or climbed up some rocks. Pictures nor words do it justice - but here are a few!
Mountain View Point - 4th fall

The 7th waterfall. Stunning
7th, 2nd and 5th

13. Projects & Internships & Career Paths & Goals: 
Throughout the past few weeks, as I have attempted to develop friendships with other Fulbrighters, learn Thai, think about lesson plan ideas and ultimately decide what I want to get out of this year - I have made many lists. Monthly goals, yearly goals, letters to myself, internship ideas, career ideas for the future, potential projects to accomplish at my school - and several more. This year is more than teaching English or learning Thai, more than learning a new culture or teaching about my own - though these are the things outlined by my cultural ambassador position, it is more than simply that (of course!). This year is about exploration beyond these things, (though those goals are important, critical even) it is time for me to let myself relax and accept that I do not have my entire life figured out, that I am young and have many passions and intellectual threads that can take me anywhere. This is my time to shine and to develop ideas for my future, to think critically, open up my mind and somehow keep my brain active. It is the time to learn about a new culture with new lens is a way I have not yet done. My main goal this year is to grow as much as possible emotionally, intellectually and beyond. 

Thank you all for supporting me.
With love,


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