17 March, 2017

The Trouble with Lhong

Kait Hobson is from Philadelphia, PA and is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed in Mae Lao Wittayakom in Chiang Rai, Thailand. She graduated with a B.A. in journalism and English from Syracuse University. When not teaching her mattayom students, Kait enjoys exploring northern Thailand and eating food that is “phet mak,”or very spicy. In her free time, she likes to listen to music, paint and read. After her grant, she plans to move to New York City and pursue another degree.

My first day at Mae Lao Wittayakom began with morning assembly. In limped an ancient dog with a tattered, sun-bleached collar. His fur, which was once maybe golden when he was a puppy, looked coarse, ginger-gray and drooping. His fingernails were long and curling. I could tell, even sitting far away, that he probably smelled terrible. He only had one eyeball and his walk was so unsteady that I thought he might collapse at any moment. He reminded me of one of my favorite books as a kid, The Trouble with Tuck, about a blind dog whose child-owner spends all her time helping. 

As a
kid, I was always hiding somewhere quiet slumped over a book. I loved the way my long blonde hair fanned around the cover, creating a tunnel between the page and I that kept me wandering through a fictional world and oblivious to the real one. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m an only child but growing up I was wildly excited about all the wrong things. I couldn’t understand why Mark Twain’s novels or Cathy and Heathcliff’s star-crossed romance weren’t conversational currency at the lunch table. Playing with other kids became a parental reprimand like ‘clean up your room,’ or ‘take out the trash.’ “Go introduce yourself to her,” my grandma would coax me on the playground; sometimes I would, but mostly I’d wander off out of sight and imagine I was a long lost sibling of The Boxcar Children or that I was teleporting through a tesseract like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. Kids are curious because they play alone for hours, inside their own head, yet they’re simultaneously not lonely.

Me with my host teacher, p'Wai, and P'Pui.

The coming of age trope I read about so often in books happened to me in the third grade when I moved. Switching schools threw me out of the world of fiction, where I was a seeker of quiet places, and into an unsought silence— the kind between a bookworm and 35 classmates who don’t know each other and have nothing in common. In my life outside of 
books, this kind of silence made my ten-year-old-self feel awkward, uncomfortable—lonely, even. Experience had taught me not to wait for other kids to ask me about Emily Bronte so I started asking them questions instead. Their personal histories became interesting to me—their adventures, the minutia we often find in books and remember the most.

I was reconciling the silence by mixing fiction and reality together, learning at 10 what everyone else had probably known since they could talk—that we get together and we tell each other things. Little things. Big things. Anything. People, I decided, were not unlike books. Our stories are just messier because we don’t know what it is, yet, about the beginning that will become important at the end. I switched schools four more times before the ninth grade, and each time I was met with that uncomfortable silence I’d interrupt it with a question. In 
college, I continued to prioritize the loud real-world stories of people over the quiet realm of fiction with a major in journalism.

Me and Sara, another Fulbright ETA, trying new Thai food in Bangkok.

That’s why in Bangkok I was excited to meet the 21 other grantees. I was aware, though unsure about how, their stories would change my own. During that month we interrogated each other and we interrogated Bangkok. When we weren’t talking we filled our day with other noise—malls, street markets, monuments—everything was new but it felt familiar—like a hotter, dustier version of New York City or Philadelphia. 

It was all the noise of Bangkok that left my ears ringing when I arrived in my rural province—Mae Lao. I’m used to the northeastern United States where strangers take no interest in one another. In Mae Lao everyone always seemed to be laughing and staring at me—square in the face, right in the eye and they never stopped smiling. Laughs can seem so threatening when you have no idea where you’re going, what anyone is saying or what you’re doing.

That’s why I kept my gaze down at assembly on the first morning, watching the old dog totter through rows of kids in their worn-white uniform socks. Then I had to teach my first class—forty-two pairs of eyes stared up at me as I introduced myself—unwanted silence all around. I was that 10-year-old new girl who was wildly excited about all the wrong things—but this time was different. I had so many questions to ask them that they couldn’t understand.

In hobbled the one-eyed dog. Great, I thought, this smelly dog is here to watch me embarrass myself. They called out to him, “Lhong! Lhong!” Instead of going toward the student tables the blind and, I’m now quite sure, deaf Lhong sat himself right in front of my whiteboard. I walked back home to my big blue house. The only thing worse than weird disconnection between people is the unsought silence that comes from being with yourself.

The next day I taught first period. I planned a lesson full of diverse 
teaching methods in the hope that they would understand something I said. I was navigating the leftover silence from yesterday by drawing pictures on the board when in limped Lhong. He twisted into an arthritic ball before plopping down right in front of my whiteboard, the only communication tool I had. I nudged him lightly with my foot to move and he looked up in my direction and growled like an old man. The kids erupted into laughter. I laughed, too—that frustrated, defeated laughter of someone who has no idea what she’s doing and can’t believe a blind, deaf dog can even find her classroom this often.

The Chiang Rai ETAs exploring Doi Mae Salong.

The quiet that accompanies miscommunication brought back a lot of insecurity. I learned at 10 that stories were human connection but stories require words and in Thailand I can’t often speak. I have a call with my parents that drops from poor connection, or I can wait two weeks to 
see one of my Fulbright friends but I can’t do what I’m used to with my students. I can’t learn their stories. For me, as a journalist, this is especially hard because we expect people to tell us what we want to know about them eventually, because we’re good listeners or we ask the right questions.

I was lonely. So I decided to submit to a larger, less-focused feeling and began listening for other things.

I noticed the way my students took care of the old, grumpy dog—sharing their meat-sticks with him or building a makeshift pagoda if he was in the sun too long. The way they sat next to him on the floor. If Lhong looked lost the kids ushered him to where he needed to be. They always make sure he’s comfortable and happy. Which, by Thai standards, means feeding him—a lot. I noticed the way the kids arrived to school before sunrise to help clean and how most stayed until 6pm to help teachers. I noticed the butterflies and birds that fluttered through the wide doors of my office. The choir of crickets outside my window.

I noticed my neighbor across the street herd his water buffalo at 7am and 2pm every day, “YAW, YAW” and I laughed as I watched them evade his bamboo stick—their cattle bells tolling down the dirt lane. I’m awed and simultaneously concerned by my youngest kids who unsaddle our eight-inch classroom machete from the windowsill and whittle me carvings from stray pieces of wood just to see me worry about their little fingers and smile at the beautiful things they can create.

Me and my host teachers.

I noticed the way the kids helped me with everything. How they carried my bag. Put condiments on my meal in the cafeteria. Untangled my laptop wire. Walked to my house and took out the trash bins. There’s an affection and compassion for everything—the way they sweep the dust road, weed plants, clean bathrooms, is the same way they braid their teachers’ hair. Yesterday I fell over in a wheely chair during class. “Teacher!” Before I even knew what had happened a group of boys scooped me rightside up with the chair.

I noticed that even though I couldn’t ask questions stories were being told all around me—through the mischievous laughter of M1 students climbing the jackfruit tree outside my house to pick their breakfast. Through my collection of arm and leg scars that manage to impress middle school-aged boys anywhere. Through the kind eyes of late King Bhumibol who my student drew under the prompt, “All I want for Christmas” and entitled, “My Father.”

I’m learning that I can find stories in places other than words—like the way my host teacher puts her hand on my arm if she thinks I’m confused and squeezes my elbow if she thinks I’m upset. Or the subtle way a Thai person’s smile changes when she’s sad, happy, embarrassed, upset or angry. Not speaking fluently and not being able to justify everything I’m doing makes me feel small again, enthralled in other things like playing marbles with my students or getting competitive over a game of Uno.

If someone asked me to explain my time here I’m not sure that I could do it in words because those don’t fill a lot of my day. But I could explain the way the sun in Chiang Rai folds itself into the mountain peak outside my window. Or the way a coworker bringing me kanom can turn a bad day into a good one. The way the director of my school asks me every day what I ate for lunch, if I’ve had breakfast, and if I’m “happy, happy”—an English word they’ve borrowed that I now pronounce in Thai instead of English.

I’m realizing that when you can’t communicate in words you’re tuned out the way you were when you were a kid and saw grown-ups talking, not really understanding. It creates a lot of space to observe things that I wouldn’t otherwise notice if I understood what was happening. I’ve noticed how if you’re alone long enough your house-lizards, roosters, or red ants can seem like a human thing.

I could explain these past six months through Thai-time—an extravagance where yesterday doesn’t flow over and tomorrow doesn’t seep in. How I’ve ordered a cab for nine and it comes at noon. How I’ve made an emergency boat transfer in the Andaman Sea because a Thai man wanted to give his friend on a different ferry a melon.

I think in Bangkok I sought so much talking because I wanted the diversion, or through some fear of being alone; however, what I’ve failed to see since I was 10 is that you can have nothing in common with someone except for silence but there’s a lot to be learned in that place. My students usually have no idea what I’m saying but they know how I make them feel and this has made me more patient, understanding, and good-humored. It’s these things that I will take back to the United States; a place where an accretion of noise has rendered most people misunderstood—what I’ve learned in the absence of so much speaking: how to treat people, how to be inclusive, how to listen, how to share, how to smile.

Me and some of my students!

One morning I asked my coworker what Lhong’s name meant, “He doesn’t belong here but when he’s here he’s home.”

I feel like 
Lhong most of the time. Weird looking, blind, stumbling over Thai or uneven sidewalks, walking into the wrong room at the wrong time but like Lhong, and The Trouble With Tuck, I also have these kids in my life who spend all their time helping me, making sure I feel safe, taken care of, comfortable and certainly well fed. 

I know that I don’t belong here but when I’m here it feels like home.

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