Friday, September 26, 2014

It's a lizard, not a gecko: 9 appreciations of Thailand

As I express my emotions best through the catharsis of writing, I decided to post this collection of reflections on what is special about Thailand. Thank you for following my blog over the past year plus. Thailand has been quite the adventure, now it’s time to travel and then return to the US. I have two days left in Chiang Mai, then Bangkok for a week (Fulbright disorientation) and then some country-hopping in Asia with friends - November 6th I fly to Amurika. 

In honor of my departure from Sansai, and completing this Fulbright grant, here is a collection of the unique aspects of Thai culture that I will miss and have appreciated. If you don’t have time to read them all, read the last one :) 

1. Thanksgiving for all meals: Communal eating brings a community together. My often experiences with it in Thailand will be greatly missed as it is very common in Thailand.
Imagine about 7 different dishes or assortments on a table. Instead of filling your plate to the brink, you take a few bites at a time, mixing with rice or sauce or curry. Eating is a slow, social activity. Many times I enjoyed these communal meals over an evening of karaoke in Thai and English or with high-spirited conversation in the English office. Along the lines of families who eat together, stay together – eating together not just in the same room, but eating the same food in a shared style allowing us to try many dishes and flavors, brought me closer to my Thai community.

2. Social Experiments through Nationalism: Imagine thousands of people walking up and down a few streets (that are usually busy with cars but shut down every Sunday night) with vendors selling everything from pad thai to wooden elephants to clothing to lanterns and every other kind of food and souvenir possible. Imagine most of these people are tourists with (often) little to no knowledge of Thai culture. Now, picture the loud speaker beginning to play the National Anthem. Suddenly 50% of the people stop dead in their tracks and stand still. The other 50% keep walking for a moment until they whisper to each other noticing people freezing and then they also stop.  Slowly only 5% is still moving and they eventually stop too. Everyone is silent and frozen for a moment as they respect Thailand, the King and the National Anthem. The music stops and everyone continues walking as normal. It is one of my favorite parts of the famous Sunday Walking Street in Thailand. Every day at 6pm the anthem is played, but here on walking street it is the most dramatic to observe how people react to something new and foreign.

3. You mustn’t watch a movie without respecting the King: Similar to observing walking street, directly prior to a movie beginning in a movie theatre, everyone must stand up for the King’s ceremonial song. To be played before every movie in every movie theatre in Thailand and when the King is around/entering somewhere. Watching people new to Thailand observe this and eventually stand up is always amusing. J It’s these little things about Thailand that I’ll miss most. These type of unexplainable ‘quirks’ that have become so familiar.

4. Unpacking the Foreigner-Abroad Privilege Backpack: There are many complicated aspects to being a foreigner abroad, and imposing the hegemony of the English language on a school, or just my general status as a foreigner in general. However, through this, I have found ways to make it count through mutual understanding, reciprocal learning and kindness. I will miss being a ‘regular’ at certain places. Sitting down at a tiny shop in my town where I don’t even have to order because as soon as they see me, my same-as-always order is being prepared. I will miss being able to wave and smile to anyone wherever I go, something that if I did in America would be seen as strange.  These are privileges that are complicated but that I’ve come to cherish in their sweetness.

5. Be outside: Life in Thailand is outside or with open windows and doors. Yes, there are many times where I wanted to retreat behind closed air-conditioned walls when I had the ability too (which wasn’t often), but more often than not the rain and sunshine were just steps away from me. The air circulating in the room came from the windows and I could see mountains from my classroom window.  I walked everywhere. I walked into town. I walked to the 7-Eleven to get phone credit or snacks. I walked to get food or go to the market or go to school. And everyone was outside. I was able to meet people in my community in Thailand because people weren’t inside their stores or restaurants, the restaurants were tables outside and the shop fronts were huge open walls where store owners hung out on the front steps enjoying the fresh air. There was a beauty in this I will miss living in the Northeast of the US – a friendliness and openness to living.

6. Convenience: 24-hour 7-Eleven shops with snacks, phone credit, ice cream, frozen meals, beer and strong air conditioning. Concord certainly doesn’t have a 7-Eleven within walking distance, and in Thailand there is a 7-Eleven almost every kilometer in my town and in the cities. Also, the affordability of eating deliciously and freshly prepared Thai food will never be readily available. I will miss $1.00 USD plates of piping hot pad thai, stir-fries, fried rices and a million other dishes I’ve tried and loved. As well as the 15 cent bags of sticky rice, a delicious addition to any meal that is time-consuming to make and will be greatly missed by my stomach.

7. Disconnect to Reconnect:  Though Thailand has been introduced to Facebook and Instagram and I’ve never taken so many selfies in my life, there is also an aspect of presence I was forced to have here. I did not have a smart phone with 3G here and there were many times the wifi was out and I had no credit on my little Nokia phone. There were nights when I would sit in my room and be reading or writing and thinking about nice it felt to sometimes be completely disconnected from the world, from other people, and be only focused on being alone and by myself. It was a unique aspect to this year in Thailand, my excess of alone time and time without connecting to people – but it was oh so wonderful. It’s indescribable the amount of self-growth I had to go through during the long alone nights or times where I didn’t speak Thai, but was with Thai people and didn’t have my phone as a distraction. I just had to sit and be present. Observe. Engage when I could. Mindfulness was certainly practiced to it’s fullest extent here.

8. Prickly Heat Powder: Take tiger balm and baby powder, then mix it together (mentally) – this is the effect of ‘prickly heat powder’ one of my new favorite aspects of Thailand. Covering my body in this baby powder substance, but feeling the cooling burn similar to tiger balm kept me cool (or at least distracted) on those 100+ degree days. Oh how I’ll miss this strange powder.

and last but certainly not least:

9. It’s a lizard, not a gecko.  Lizards in Thailand are small, harmless little creatures whom I shared my bedroom with. Geckos are over a foot big, are territorial, frightening and they bite. Luckily none lived in my house, though there was one who occasionally knocked it’s head against my window trying to get it. I used this phrase “It’s a lizard, not a gecko” to elucidate this connection to Thai culture. When I first arrived, Kru Dang said to me when I was freaked out by the lizards, “don’t worry, lizard, not gecko!”  This was the ultimate philosophy needed for this year. Along the lines of the American common phrases “it could be worse” and “it’s not so serious” – I used the mindset of ‘it’s a lizard, not a gecko’ to get me through failed lesson plans, broken printers, rainstorms that flooded my house, wifi out for days at a time, ant farms setting up base in my house, cockroaches invading my house by the dozens, disruptive classes, lonely nights, fears of my future, no food or water in the house and dozens of other relatively small inconveniences or concerns. I hope if nothing else from this year I can take the ‘sabai sabai” (laid back/ relax / it’s okay) attitude back to my hectic lifestyle in the United States. It isn’t to be used in an invalidating way, but a way to remind you that it’s okay – and it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

These beautiful unique aspects to Thailand are what I will cherish most in my departure, although obviously it is the relationships and little moments of love that are held high above everything else. I know I’ll be back to visit someday, for now I have five homes. Concord, Brandeis, Ghana, Kenya and now Thailand.

I love you Thailand. Thank you for everything. :) 
To my students, community, and dear friends: ja kitung tuk kon mak mak & ja mai luum khun tuk kon!! I will miss you and will never forget you.

PS See all you East Coasters in early November!



  1. Amazing. I'm going to borrow that line, too: "It's a lizard, not a gecko." Hope to see you soon, Jessye!

  2. Wonderful reading this Jess. So look forward to seeing you and hearing more of your adventures. xo, Dora


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