22 August, 2017

Sister, Sister

Tenzin Kyisarh is Tibetan American, a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) from Long Island City, New York. She teaches English in Muangchaliang School in Sukhothai, Thailand, to Mattayom 1-5 students (9th-11th grade). Last May, she graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a Certificate in International Relations. In her free time, Tenzin likes to explore nearby towns in Sukhothai, take weekend trips with her host teachers, play basketball with her students, travel around Asia with other ETAs, and eat a variety of food. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to travel and visit friends and family in Asia for a few weeks. She also hopes to find new opportunities in Asia in the education consulting field.

May 5th, 2017| Midnight before the wedding day in an unknown room| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 12:15AM:

It’s past midnight already. I wake up with cold sweat running down my back and forehead. It’s been thirty minutes since I woke up. Realizing that I only have 4 more hours to sleep I carefully rush to the bathroom amidst the blackout and sprinkle some water on my face and my back and put myself to sleep. The lingering scent of freshly washed blankets and bedsheets is unfamiliar to me. The scent reinforces that I am a guest here.

Although I was a stranger to the new and clean room, the efforts of the people who took time to think of my comfort felt very personal in this unknown place are palpable. I look over and realize that the AC is down. The power is out in the whole neighborhood from the rainstorm last night and the room is pitch black. But there’s a comfort to this darkness. I have the serenity that you experience when you’re sleeping at home with your family. Your sister’s room right next to you and your parents’ room right down the hallway. Somehow, thousands of miles away from New York in a new country sleeping in this peculiar room, this feeling of comfort has been established. Even though it is my first time staying in this room, I feel safe even with my pajamas drenched in sweat. I roll over to the other side of the bed to check my phone. 12:45am. Peace and warmth envelop me as I fall back to sleep.

May 5th, 2017| Getting ready at dawn during the wedding day| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 4:00AM:

It’s finally the day of the wedding. As I wake up to grab my makeup pouch, I think back to eight months ago when I went wedding shopping with the bride and groom. From choosing wedding cards to the venue, it dawns on me that I have been a part of this entire process. Though eight months have gone by in a flash, the numerous encounters and memories shared during those months are still vivid and fresh as if it had happened yesterday. And so, to see the two people who are very vital to making this experience wholesome is in short, magical. By the time I’m out of the room, it is already 4:30 a.m. I rush over to the next house to start getting ready. The wedding is at 7:00 a.m. When I reach the house next door, I go upstairs in the AC room to get dressed and do my makeup. As I enter the room, I see P’Nut, my housemate, surrounded by four women who are all helping her with makeup and hair in preparation for the big day. I stand at the door for a couple of minutes just admiring her. Even without her dress on she has an illuminating glow on her face. Her smile is the brightest I’ve ever seen it be. Her eyes are sparkling with tears of hope and enthusiasm. Her eyebrows look relaxed yet at the same time seem to be concealing the worry and anxiety of everything being perfect on this day. I walk over to P’Nut, put my hand on her shoulder, and ask her how she’s feeling and she replies “I’m good,” with a smile on her face. Yet, she tells me that she is worried that it might rain again like it did last night. I assure her by saying that rain is seen as a sign of good luck in Tibetan culture and give her a warm hug. After I am done with my makeup and hair, some of P’Nut’s friends help me get into my royal navy blue and gold Thai bridesmaids dress. After eight months of patience, I am finally wearing a Thai bridesmaid dress. I am very exhilarated, but at the same time I feel a sense of responsibility and pride wearing the dress. 

P’Jay, P’Nut and me at the wedding

May 5th, 2017| Wedding venue i.e., P’Nut’s House| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 9:00AM:

Rituals are over and the guests have left. Their seats have now been replaced by new guests who seem to be wearing brighter colored patung, Thai traditional skirt, then the first group. I notice some guests stop by the wedding to greet the newlyweds to make their presence known and leave a white envelope filled with money at the gifts section and quickly bid their farewell. “Tenzin!”, I hear someone calling my name. I look over to see if it is P’Nut. “Are you ready? The groom’s parade is almost coming. You have to go stand with other bridesmaids for the final wedding ceremony,” she says. Forgetting that there is a final ritual left, I rush over to stand on the line of bridesmaids who have blocked the entrance to the bride’s room. Each of us pair off and holds a small rope made with white jasmine flowers. There are eight of these “bridesmaids’ barriers” leading to the bride’s room. The groom’s parade is followed by his groomsmen, who are all attired in matching royal blue bow ties and vests, together with his relatives who seem a little drunk, enter the house and make their way towards us. 

The bridesmaids getting ready to form barriers

As the groom, P’Jay, answers the question/request given by the first pair of bridesmaids who allow him to pass as he hands each of them a white envelope and they then join the groom’s parade. I am the third “bridesmaids’ barrier.” When it is time for me to ask my question, I and the other bridesmaid tease P’Jay and don’t allow him to pass us. But, the groom’s relatives hug us randomly and make us both eat a piece of sticky rice as if to signify that we have surrendered. P’Jay heads over to the next pairs of bridesmaids to answer questions relating to P’Nut and he answers correctly, which finally leads him to P’Nut’s room door. 

Finally, p'Jay comes to the bride's godmother who's holding the flower barrier
The final barrier is P’Nut’s godmother who asks him three questions, two of which P’Jay answer correctly and is allowed to enter while sacrificing one of his groomsmen to a kiss from the godmother. After a minute, P’Jay and P’Nut walk out of the room walking hand in hand as P’Jay screams out “Yay!” holding up their hands in air. As P’Jay brings P’Nut out of her room, he is said to have overcome all the numerous hurdles that they might encounter in their married life. The ritual portrays how they will still be together even at the end of these various hardships. The worry that I have sensed earlier on P’Nut’s face is now replaced by the radiant beam as she is walking downstairs hand in hand with P’Jay. 

Groomsmen taking selfies with p'Jay

Seeing their happy faces, I am taken back to the time when P’Nut and I threw P’Jay a surprise birthday. The last-minute rush to plan the party and the obvious devotion that P’Nut has for him made me realize just how close P’Jay had become to me.

One of the many weekend travels with P'Nut and P'Jay

Fast forward two months, I am at P’Nut’s and P’Jay’s wedding where I get to witness the two of them begin their lives together as husband and wife. As I am staring at the newlyweds, P’Nut’s mother, Mae (mother in Thai), taps me on my shoulder and asks me if I’m hungry. While this is not only way of greeting each other in Thailand (and much of Asia by the way), it resonates with me because it connects me back to the first time I met Mae. She had given me so much food that the moment I got back home, I went straight to my bed and passed out. After that incident, I started calling her “Mae” as well. Every time I visited, she would make sure to make me her special spicy seafood salad or yam. Our relationship got stronger and closer with every dish she made. This was her way of showing she cares for me. And so, every now and then she packs me food to take home to eat during the school week.

At this point, there are hardly any guests left since most of them have moved over to the second venue for the lunch party. Only a handful of family members remains to help clean the house. I answer Mae, and say that I’m doing well and that I have already eaten as I head over to change out of my bridesmaid’s outfit to go to the lunch party.

During a local festival with P'Nut and P'Jay

May 6th, 2017| P’Nut’s House| Sarajit, Sukhothai, Thailand| 9:38AM:

I eat the jasmine rice that Mae has served me for breakfast. I look over at the side dishes and put some Laab Gai (spicy Thai chicken salad), Gaeng Naw Mai Nua Sub (Beef and bamboo shoot curry) and Khai Tod (fried egg) on my plate. It’s been about eight months since I was introduced to P’Nut and her family and the relationship with them have organically developed into what feels like home. P’Nut being my housemate and also a fellow English teacher has been one of the most vital individuals who has made this experience so precious and special. I reminisce about all the times we have spent together as colleagues, housemates and as sisters. In the small rural town of Had Siao, where I did not know a single person, she has become my confidant, my sister. Being invited to the wedding as a bridesmaid and meeting all her old friends and far cousins, I feel a little overwhelmed at this affectionate gesture. 

At the Sukhothai FC football game with P'Nut, P'Jay, and P'Nut's cousin

Prior to Thailand, I personally have already been exposed to various Asian cultures. Growing up with multiple Asian cultures (Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese) as my backbone to view the world, when I receive all this love from P’Nut and her family, it still leaves me at awe. These sudden gestures of endearment provide me the support and warmth that is essential in shaping my experience here. Instead of comparing our differences, P’Nut and I have bonded on little things like finding the best place to buy the best green tea in town or debating which restaurants in town to get dinner after school. Though I do learn the value of difference in terms of culture and language, I am also able to embrace that difference and find that the Thai culture and its people are really not so different from my own Tibetan culture. As a foreigner when you first arrive, you’re unconsciously picking out the differences from your own culture. However, it’s only when you really spend time and build relationships with the people and the community that you realize that even when you are thousands of miles away, you can have folks who you can call family. The people who will always be in your life because they’ve impacted you in so many ways that have not only helped you throughout the journey, but also provided you with memories you can call “home.” So, to end this narrative about “Thai culture and people,” the precious relationships I’ve built here in Thailand have been the highlight of my experience. I have found a sister in this “foreign” country called Thailand, and witnessing and being a part of one of her most important rites of passage will forever remain in the fondest of my memories.

15 August, 2017

Thank You for Understanding

Shanera Brodie is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA teaching M1 to M6 (7th to 12th grade) at Watbotsuksa School in lower-northern Thailand. She was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and recently graduated from Amherst College with a B.A in Sociology. When Shanera is not laughing up a storm with her students, she enjoys sunset bike rides alongside the rice fields in her town, indulging in delicious home-cooked meals with her host family, perusing through markets, and exploring beautiful, new destinations throughout Thailand. Upon returning to the US, Shanera will begin working towards a career in urban education, completing a year-long teaching program eventually followed by graduate studies.

In my classroom, "Do you understand?" is met with a variety of responses from my students. 

The enthusiastic "Yes!" It is a dream come true. My instructions were clear, I didn't ramble on for too long, talk too fast, or use too many nonsensical filler words.

The timid "Yes…" Only a few might answer, some enthusiastically and the rest not-so-convincingly. A timid yes is followed by whispers of "arai na," the Thai equivalent of "Huh? Wait, what?" Their groupmates will typically explain in Thai and then I will repeat myself using a slightly different choice of words accompanied by miming actions.

"Again, please." This a great response which I encourage more of my students to use. I appreciate their honesty and bravery to admit that they don't fully understand yet, but they haven't given up hope (on themselves or their crazy teacher that just spoke 100 miles per minute).

The legitimate "No." It is typically indicated by blank stares, sneaky glances at their groupmates, furrowed eyebrows, and, occasionally, an outright "No, teacher." At that point, I must reset and explain again. Oops, I think to myself, that was totally my fault. I jumbled up my words and I barely understood myself. English is hard; let me try that again.

Finally, my favorite, the illegitimate "No." A gradual hush falls upon the room as they realize that I have stopped talking. The blank stares and arai na whispers ensue. Well, darling, it is impossible that you heard what I said over the arm wrestling, selfies, combing your hair, powdering your face, and full-blown conversations about Buddha-knows-what drama in your teenage lives. I attempt to convey this exasperation with a ten second rant: "You're talking too much and not listening enough." To no avail, I must simply pause, give my best teacher stare-down until they are weirded out by my silence, and explain again. All the while, I'm trying to contain my laughter at the hilarity of the entire situation.


My school honoring the late King Bhumibol, the world's longest reign monarch

"Do you understand?" is not only a question for my students in the classroom, but has followed me throughout my time in Thailand. I have received a great opportunity to completely immerse myself into a rich, new culture. As I observe and absorb this culture, I must ask myself whether or not I understand the meaning and cultural implications behind actions, words, and everyday circumstances. How do I wai properly when greeting someone, where and why do I remove my shoes, how do I pray when I visit the temples, how do I eat this, why are we eating again- we just ate twenty minutes ago, why are my students ten minutes late, why are classes suddenly cancelled all afternoon for the third time this month, why does my host family have fifteen cats, how do I use the squat toilet without peeing on my shoes?

It is an important question for both parties, the one asking and the one answering. To understand leads to contentment, an increased capacity for new knowledge, and belonging. When my students understand, they might cheer, applaud themselves, or do a victory dance and proceed to complete a task with more focus and confidence. In this collective action, they all belong in that space. Even when someone doesn't understand, the students' instinct to explain to their friend builds community in our classroom. It also unfortunately creates the nearly impossible task of encouraging students to think for themselves and not copy one another. On the other end, to be understood leads to similar feelings of satisfaction and more opportunities to impart new information. Wonderful, my students are actually listening to me; let's delve deeper into this content. A willingness to open up and share new information is a great indication of a sense of belonging, especially for an introvert like myself.

Touring local attractions with my students and ETA friends during English camp

From my school community, my host family, my internship community, shopkeepers, and kind strangers, I have felt welcomed, I have felt this strong sense of belonging, and, furthermore, I have felt loved. A love which stems from mutual understanding and appreciation of that which is understood. Consequently, an important part of my journey this year has been the realization of how highly I value understanding others and being understood.

One quiet night at home, I sat journaling, hoping to pinpoint exactly what had led to such warm, fuzzy feelings in a matter of a few, short months. I flushed out what I thought was a brilliantly original theory: seeing, understanding, and loving are three successive levels of acknowledgement and acceptance of others. The very next day, I came across a practically identical sentiment in the book I was reading. And in another book not long after that. So much for being original. What an eerie coincidence, I thought initially. Perhaps it was not merely a coincidence, but an indication of the timelessly universal desire to be seen, understood, and loved.

Teaching in Thailand has been a unique opportunity to work within a culture that highly respects the profession. Being a foreign English teacher, specifically an American, has its own privilege. However, to be seen on the surface as someone who doesn't fit the stereotypical American mold because of my dark brown skin and kinky-curly hair certainly complicates things. Naturally, as most foreigners, I stick out as sore thumb and am prone to stares. To add fuel to the fire, I am also prone to occasional double takes, dropped jaws, pointing, laughs, or comments particularly about my skin color. Of course they see me, but their reactions tell me they don't quite understand my existence; this is quite exhausting to the soul. For me to understand the roles that white-centric beauty standards, colorism, and under-representative media play into attitudes about skin color is a huge part of understanding cultural practices such as skin whitening, avoiding the sun, and commenting that people are sii daam, literally meaning the color black. Thai people have a wide spectrum of brown skin tones, some even close to my own, but the darker end of the spectrum is not as revered as the lighter, whiter end. Whenever I hear a negative comment, whether directed at me, oneself, or a third person, I say, "It is a beautiful color! Beautiful, right?!" I carry myself in a way to signify that I am comfortable in my skin hoping to make others comfortable with their beautiful brownness as well, wherever they fall on the spectrum. Shanera doesn't want the umbrella, one of my host teachers stated to the other as I dodged the coverage on the short, sunny walk from our assembly hall. She is not afraid of the sun. It meant a lot that such a small gesture of mine was understood and respected in that way.

On a day-to-day basis, neutral and positive reactions are much more common. At school, I haven't heard a single comment about my skin color, but they love to talk about my hair! I have been embracing the versatility of my coils and figuring out ways to maintain healthy hair in the hot, Thailand sun. I have a rotation of about five easy hairstyles and, without fail, every time I change from one to another, the teachers and students shower me with compliments. Teacher, beautiful! New hairstyle? So lovely! You did it by yourself? Wooow! Very good! Can you show me?

Enjoying a riverside sunset with some of my internship students

Thai women have been my biggest supporters and care takers, emoting such strong, unwavering love. Have you eaten yet? Do you need a ride? Do you miss home? Eat more rice. It’s time to go home, go relax. From these women, I witness generosity and understand selflessness. I witness sacrifice and understand family. They show me the importance of food in their culture and how determinative your spice tolerance is of your Thainess. Wow you eat spicy food like a Thai person! Very good!

In their trust and vulnerability to share their lives with me, I understand the strong-willed mother who goes through leaps and bounds for her family despite a partner who is not pulling their weight; the young woman who followed in her father's footsteps to practice law, giving up her dream of working with children; the business woman who runs a successful catering company in addition to teaching full time; the four loving generations--grandmother, mother, daughter, granddaughter--who open up their home to a new American teacher every year and seamlessly adopt them into their family. In understanding these women, I am reminded of the wonderful women back home who raised me and are a constant support in my life. In womanhood, in communities of color, and in the intersectional experience of being a woman of color, it is far too commonplace to go unnoticed, to be practically invisible, to be misunderstood, and to be underappreciated. But, in understanding the commonalities between our two communities (the black American community in which I grew up and the Thai community in which I now live), I have formed deep connections in an unsuspecting place. A place where language and cultural differences could potentially hinder such connections.

All dolled up with my host teacher and her friends to visit temples

I believe that the nature of cultural exchange has contributed to the ease with which I have navigated my time in Thailand and built these connections. Many Thai people are curious and unafraid to ask personal questions, and I do my best to answer them honestly and completely. They also have misunderstandings which I can challenge with formal lessons or casual conversations that lead to a better, more complete level of understanding. And, of course, I have my own misunderstandings that Thai people help me through. No, we are not going to Vientiane, Laos on a whim; we are walking around the temple three times. The Thai word for this walking ritual sounds exactly like the capital city of Laos and, momentarily, I was in a quiet panic about not having a bag packed and not having a visa. My host teacher still laughs hysterically when we retell that story.

To all of those who have supported me along this journey, in ways big and small: how can I ever repay you for your overwhelming generosity and abundant love? The best way I know how is by loving you back. I'll show you love in my wholehearted acceptance of you and appreciation of who you are. Whether that means enduring long drives together for a relatively short trip, taking a million photos, dripping sweat together over a steaming bowl of noodles on a steaming hot day, loving your children as if they were my own siblings, and learning your language. I must admit, however, Thai is quite difficult. Please forgive me for butchering your words. But, always and forever, thank you for understanding.

07 August, 2017

Food, Caring, and Culture – culinary adventures in Thailand

Rosalie Shays is from Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in May 2016 with a B.A. degree in Psychology and Education, with a minor in nonprofit organizations as well as an elementary education teaching certification. Rosalie is a 2016 – 2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at ChumChonBanFon Wittaya School in Lampang province where her students range from preschool through ninth grade. Rosalie also works with her students after school integrating concepts taught in the classroom with games. In her free time, she loves reading, blogging and exploring northern Thailand. After completing her Fulbright grant, Rosalie plans to move to South America to continue learning about and teaching within different education systems. Later she hopes to attend graduate school and become an elementary school teacher back in the United States, taking what she’s learned from teaching abroad and implementing it                                                                                     into her classroom.

I have always loved Thai food. As a child, when I had the chance to pick where my family would eat out for dinner, I always chose Taste of Thai in North Raleigh. When I was ten, it closed down and I was devastated. For years, I refused to even look in the direction of the shopping center where it had been. While I chose Thailand because I was interested in learning more about its education system and I wanted the opportunity to work with primary school students, the country’s traditional foods were a great added bonus. Food is such an important piece of any society; I was excited to have an opportunity to participate in this cultural facet, which hasn’t always been possible in other places where I’ve traveled.

When I arrived in Thailand, however, eating was one of my biggest challenges. I have a few dietary restrictions; the big three are gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian. Between my knowledge of American Thai food and what I’d studied about Buddhist practices, I was expecting a great variety of options. But my first week, I found myself sticking to salad and eggs because everything else seemed to be accompanied by mystery sauces or surprise pieces of meat. Soy sauce contains gluten and it was more prevalent than I anticipated, and “vegetarian” didn’t always translate correctly for the food vendors I tried to patronize. There is also a value in Thai culture that supports providing the best food and service, so people try hard to make sure you are getting a great meal. When I asked for my food without meat or soy sauce, I got a lot of concerned looks and “are you sure?” They couldn’t believe that anyone would want to eat something so bland.

Eventually, my Thai language skills progressed from nonexistent to basic survival level and I was able to communicate better about my food needs. I also learned more about the ingredients in the food so I could ask for dishes like omelets without soy sauce and Pad Thai without fish sauce. It helps that, wherever I am in the world, once I find a few foods that I like, I tend to stick to them. One of my favorite moments from the orientation in Bangkok was the last day’s lunch. I headed straight to my regular food station where the main chef surprised me by repeating my order word for word the moment I arrived at the counter. As hard as the beginning had been, this experience reassured me that I would be able to develop similar relationships in my town.

My lunch on the last day of orientation -- Pad See Ew served "mai sai see ew" or without soy sauce.

However, after Bangkok, starting all over again was a big adjustment. My host teachers were really understanding and helped show me to the few food shops that had vegetarian options. It was still a little challenging, though, trying to explain what I could and couldn’t eat to the shop owners, given their limited English and my limited Thai. While the vegetarian cuisine is widely understood, allergies aren’t very common in the Thai community, so those issues were a foreign concept. Add to that the abstractness of gluten, something many English speakers don’t really understand, and it was almost impossible to ensure that my meals were completely safe for me to eat. I spent a lot of days with varying degrees of sickness and pain.

Complicating my early days at school was the cultural facet of gift-giving. Offering presents, especially food, is very big in Thai culture. It was hard explaining to people that I couldn’t eat the little snacks that they kindly gave me or the dishes that teachers bring to share with the lunch group. My school provides lunch every day, which is so nice, and they have gone above and beyond making sure I always have something to eat even though I can’t eat the meal that is prepared for the students. Receiving a special meal did feel weird though, and I was afraid of giving the impression that I was too good for the school lunch.

Eventually and miraculously, I was able to find gluten-free soy sauce in my local grocery store. I started using it in my own cooking and even brought it with me to the food shops and stands that I frequent. Each proprietor thought this was a little odd, but kindly accepted it and now has come to expect my weird golden bottle of sauce along with my visits. It has been so gratifying to feel like I’m experiencing true Thai food, albeit with a slight twist.

Dai, my Pad Thai lady in my town

Before coming to Thailand, my idea of Thai food was limited to noodle dishes and curries. Over the past few months, I’ve come to appreciate that my Thai food knowledge was missing one major category: fruit. Luckily, I don’t have any dietary restrictions when it comes to fruit, and that’s allowed me to bond with different teachers over the fruits that they’ve brought from home and invited me to try. One of my host teachers, P’Pete, and I both love pomelos. We fell into a habit where one of us brought one to share every day for lunch during the sweet pomelo season. A former English teacher brought jackfruit from her tree to lunch several times. By her last visit, she brought a special bag for me because she knew how much I loved it. There are so many incredible Thai fruits, some whose names I don’t even know, and I’ve really enjoyed the chance to be adventurous in this aspect of Thai culture.

While many parts of Thai cuisine are closed off to me, I realized early on that I could use cooking as a way to introduce my school community to my own culture and cuisine. One of my favorite fall treats is pumpkin bread with chocolate chips, a specialty of my mother’s. Thanksgiving in Thailand felt weird without it, so I decided to bake a batch the following week to share with the teachers. The results were a little different since I didn’t have all of the necessary spices, and Thai pumpkin has a slightly different taste and texture from North American pumpkin, but it was still fun to make and share. Seeing how well the pumpkin bread went over with the teachers at my school was also gratifying.

One of my host teachers, P'Pete, trying my pumpkin chocolate chip muffins

A few weeks later, I invited teachers over to my house to celebrate Hanukkah with me. It was quite a production, especially with my limited kitchen facilities, but we had such a fun night. My fellow teachers made the latkes better than my first attempts and loved the peanut butter “gelt” cookies that were a tradition from my student group in college. The gluten-free pasta wasn’t a huge hit, but it was worth a try. Altogether, it was delightful getting to celebrate and share a tradition with my new community. Since then, I’ve made different baked goods for special occasions or just to use up ingredients in my house. Baking is one of my favorite activities back in the States, so it’s terrific getting to share my culture through something I love so much.

Over the past few months, there have been so many breakthroughs and successes in both finding foods that I can eat and connecting with my community through food. It is still quite challenging, though, and doesn’t always go smoothly. Overall, I feel like my community and I have come to a place of understanding, which was one of my main goals for the year. I also really appreciate the effort that my school has taken to work through the challenges. Whatever event I’ve attended, from funerals to weddings to English camps, they always make sure that I’m cared for and have plenty to eat. While not what I pictured originally, my food journey has been a great cultural vehicle for learning more about my town and the incredible people who’ve allowed me to be a part of the community. I’m so grateful for their kindness and hospitality!

Celebrating Hanukkah with some of the members of my school community

02 August, 2017

Tokay, Tokay, Tokay... Okay

Vid Micevic is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA, currently teaching high school level classes at Mae Chan Wittayakom School, in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Born in South Africa, raised in New Jersey, Vid graduated from Arizona State University with a major in Sustainable Engineering and a minor in Slavic Studies. After his grant, he plans to return home with his new-found passion as an educator to begin working in education reform. Feel free to follow Vid’s journey at @373days_thailand on Instagram where you will encounter moments and stories of a day in the life of a Thailand Fulbright ETA. 

I looked at the clock. 11pm. I had made it through my first full day of teaching. The bed started singing my name and my body and mind wanted nothing more than to slip under the covers and drift away into nothingness. When I first got into bed, it was a little cold and stiff, but soon enough my body heat did its magical nightly routine, and transformed those lonely linens into a space of comfort and warmth. A smile cracked across my face as I reflected on some moments of the day. I inhaled in….and exhaled out…. grateful for another day in this beautiful country. I rolled over to the very edge of my bed and reached my lanky arm towards the light switch. After a few moments of struggling and straining every muscle in my arm (because who wants to get out of a comfy bed?), I got it. Success. Lights were off. Mind was at ease. Life was good and my toes were warm. Time to call it a day.

I closed my eyelids. My mind and body began to drift off.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap.

My eyes shoot open. My heart instantly began beating faster as my animal instincts kicked in. I was not the only creature in this room. My eyes had yet to adjust to the darkness, but it didn’t matter. My mind wasn’t the one in control. My sense of awareness sky rocketed as I strained my ears for another clue and began ruffling the sheets around me.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

There it was again, this time I could make out the sound more clearly--strong, yet stealthy footsteps…except not across the floor, but on the ceiling above me. Each quick step moved closer and closer to me. I rolled over and frantically searched the black wall for the light switch. Click. The lights slowly flickered on. My eyes darted around the room, but I found nothing out of the ordinary. I propped myself up in bed, as my eyes continued to scan for movement.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

The sound wasn’t coming from the wall this time. It was coming from the floor. The sound stayed consistent though. Several short quick footsteps then a pause. Several short quick footsteps then a pause. My skin began to crawl as my mind tried to rationalize what creature could possibly be creating these sounds.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

There it was again! This time the footsteps seemed to be moving from the floor towards the ceiling. What is happening? Who is playing games with me? My body continued to be paralyzed by the decision of fight or flight. My heart was pumping in my throat…so much for a good night’s sleep. 

While I didn’t hear footsteps again that night, I think it goes without saying that I did not have a moment of peace until the sun rose the next morning. 18 hours later, my body and mind exhausted from another long day of teaching, I returned to my room. As I climbed into bed, I did all I could to relax my tense muscles and pretended like the night before was only a dream. After what seemed like hours of analyzing the slightest of unfamiliar noises, my tiredness finally overpowered my paranoid mind. I had just drifted into a deep sleep when all of a sudden I was awoken by
Toookayyyyyy. Toookayyyyyyy. Tookayyyyyy.

It sounded like muffled person barking a sarcastic version of “okay”. (You know, when a friend comes up to you and says “I won the lottery!” and you say “yeah, okayyy. Show me a picture or it didn’t happen”.) The call kept repeating like a broken record until finally an eerie silence returned. My mind started rushing to find any explanation. Is someone hanging from the roof holding a children’s stuff doll and continually pressing the play button on its fuzzy foot? I tried to once again not fall into the traps of my paranoid mind. I squeezed my eyes shut and drifted back to sleep…not to be awoken this time.

Those were my first encounters with my beloved friends/foes that I’ve gotten to know so well over my past few months here in Thailand—the Tokay Gecko. Don’t let the word “gecko” fool you. They don’t look like those cute little ones that are the size of your pinky finger and scurry across the wall being all innocent and adorable. They look more like mini dragons that are ready to take flight. Luckily, my research has confirmed that they do not have wings or fire-breathing capabilities (yet). Their brightly colored eyes are massive and dart around, scanning with their vertically slit pupils, similar to the ones cats have. Except unlike cats, these guys do not have eyelids so there is not even a moment of relief from their threatening stare. Their skin is scaly with a grayish/blueish hue and bright yellow/orange spots. On their back, they have ridges contouring the length of the spine. It’s these ridges that have me convinced that these creatures are decedents of dragons (or maybe I could just be watching too much Game of Thrones). Maybe the most obvious (and concerning) difference between Tokay geckos and regular geckos is their size. Tokays are the second largest species of geckos and can grow from 7 – 18 inches. To put that into perspective, look at your forearm…now imagine it as a giant dragon gecko. Terrified? Yes, you should be. Oh and on top of all of this, they are known to be extremely aggressive and their bite can hurt even more than a dog’s.    

Words don't do it justice. Here is the infamous Tokay Gecko*

After two nights of restless sleep, I sought help by imitating the “Tokayyyy” mating call to friends, hoping others would understand me and finally ease my paranoid mind. After asking both my host teachers and neighbors in my government housing complex, it was confirmed. They were in fact Tokay Geckos. I hadn’t yet seen one in the flesh, so I began researching frantically to learn what ever I could about these creatures as if I were on WebMD trying to diagnose a personal health problem. The more I read, the more I was able to learn about the habits of my housemates. I became a feces expert, analyzing the dropping that appeared all over my house to discover what meal they had the night before. (Fun fact: white droppings mean that they ate something with bones). One day, I followed the trail of feces until I stumbled upon their nest, perfectly hidden between two wooden ceilings beams and impossible to reach by hand. I looked even more closely and saw about 12 white eggs…all hatched. Great. Just great. The mini-dragons multiplied.

The Tokay Nest

From the months of tracking and understanding these creatures, I’ve estimated that I had 6 teenager-adult sized Tokays and about 10 little babies. One key fact about the Tokay gecko is that they are nocturnal so they lay low during the day. One weekend, I stayed at home to work on a video project, and went downstairs from the bedroom to grab a bite to eat from the kitchen. Low and behold, there they were—two of them clinging to the wall, sleeping right above my kitchen cabinet. There was no better time than right now to capture them. My eyes locked onto them as I knew a great big battle was about to occur. David vs. Goliath.

Here is one of them right above my kitchen cabinet

In case you haven’t guessed, I was feeling like David. Immediately, my palms began sweating and my heart picked up its beat. I knew I had to do something to try to restore my sanity and peace of mind, but fears kept entering my mind. How am I supposed to reach all the way up there? What if they bite me? What if they call the whole family to plot revenge against me? After twenty minutes of some personal pep-talking, I developed my strategy. I put on my blue rubber dishwashing gloves, grabbed my pink, plastic rice container, and a broom. This was it. Who knows what would happen next? I took a big gulp, ignoring the pounding in my chest and my shaking hands and knees, and whispered to myself “fear means go.”

You know when you feel a little nervous in the stomach because you are about to do something you’ve never done before? For example, trying public speaking for the first time. You automatically get an uneasy churning feeling in your gut, because your body and mind know that you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. Whenever this feeling arises, I tell myself “Fear means Go”. It’s a saying I read in some random cheesy article when I was a freshman, and it has totally transformed how I approached my life. It’s this saying that has made me try new things and grow immensely as I experimented with what the world can offer and what I can offer to the world. Whenever I do something that has a little uncertainty and gets my gut churning, I always think to myself “Fear means Go”. It eases my nerves and reminds me that no matter what happens from this new experience, I will learn from it and only continue to grow. There is nothing to be afraid of.

The last time I told myself “fear means go”, I was sitting in the Newark International Airport Terminal with a one-way ticket to Thailand embarking on the journey I am sharing with you today. I had many doubts. Why am I leaving when I felt so comfortable and confident in the US? I had never been to Asia. Why did I choose Asia? What if I can’t break through the language barrier? What if I can’t adapt to the culture? What is Thai culture? I have never taught in my life, how am I going to be a teacher? What if the students hate me? How am I going to survive being so far away from my loved ones?

The doubts always arise. I don’t care who you are. If you’re Superman, Wonder Woman, or everything in between. We are human. We have doubts, and that’s okay. But don’t let doubt paralyze you. Don’t let the “what ifs” control your potential as a human. We are made to continuously grow and learn about the world around us, and the only way to reach our potential is to try new things—even those ones that scare us.

I took a step closer to the mini-dragons. Then another one. Then another one. Each step, I got a little more scared and a little more unstable. I began to extend my arms making the broom slowly rise into the crevice of the beam. The geckos woke up, fully aware that my broom was wobbling every which way above its body, as I was trying to control my limbs from shaking. For all they knew, I was there to kill them. They shifted their bodies a little so they could better prepare to fight or flight (oh how the tables had turned). I took a deep breath, and WHACK!

I slammed the broom against the wall hoping to pin one of them. They both scurried in separate directions. They were quick. My awareness became heightened as adrenaline flooded through my body. My eyes were following the one moving to the right as if I were a cheetah hunting a gazelle in a prairie. I forcefully brushed the wall with the broom so the bristles could release their sticky feet from their wall. It worked! The mini-dragon fell from the wall onto the floor and began frantically running up the closest wall. I kept pushing it down from the wall onto the floor. The gecko opted for option B to hide behind the furniture of the kitchen. Clearly underestimating my size, I moved the furniture and the shocked gecko tried once more to scurry up the wall to its safe zone. 

Not this time, buddy. I used my broom to pin the gecko’s head, doing all I could to avoid getting bitten. My blue rubber gloved hand quickly grabbed the hind legs. I did it. I had taken down Goliath! The Tokay Gecko in my hands didn’t feel as squishy as I expected it to be. Its rough skin felt like thick armor covering its surprisingly muscular body. As I picked it up and let it hang, it was clearly not happy. Just like any person wouldn’t be happy if a bully turned them upside down to shake the change from their pockets. Its mouth was left wide open ready to chomp down on anything within striking distance. What did I do after I caught it? I did as any millennial would do… I ran upstairs grabbed my phone and took a selfie! (pics or it didn’t happen am I right??).

Me and my first Tokay catch

I then quickly placed my prized catch in the plastic rice container and screwed the pink top as fast as I could. The tokay began running and squirming all over the container with the hope to escape.

Placed my phone next to the container for a reference of size

Placed my phone next to the container for a reference of size 
After a half hour of coming down from the adrenaline rush, I got on my bike and grabbed the container. Off we went on a nice bike ride to the rice fields ten minutes away from the house. It was quite a site for the locals seeing a “farang” (foreigner, usually a Caucasian) awkwardly riding a bike that was too small for him and carrying a large container with a Tokay in it. The locals laughed as they pointed at me, saying “Tokay! Tokay!”. I nodded my head in pride feeling like I was on a victory lap. I got off the bike and went into the rice field. I found a nice patch of grass, and unscrewed the top.

I expected the Tokay to immediately run out of the plastic jail cell. For whatever reason, it just sat there with its vertically slit eyes looking right at me and mouth gaping wide. I gave the container a good shake and it plopped out onto the grass. Before running away, he turned back for one final photo op.

Releasing the Tokay into the field

Walking back to my bike, I was still smiling to myself. I rode my bike home with a new experience under my belt, feeling a little more confident in my ability to adapt and survive in this new environment. Reflecting on these memories, I realize this is exactly why I signed up to experience the unknown halfway around the world. I wanted to feel a sense of helplessness, to truly be challenged, and to let those experiences humble and shape me in whatever way they wished.

Many foreigners who come to experience Thailand compare their time to being stuck in a fish bowl. You always stick out in a crowd (especially when you are 6’3”) and are a constant source of entertainment to locals, as they examine your every move. Rather than a fish bowl, I would compare my experience here to that of the Tokay being confined by that pink plastic container. I was uprooted and dropped into a completely different culture, cut off from so many things that brought me security and comfort. Yet, like the Tokay, when I think about having the chance to return home, back to what was familiar, I hesitate. I hesitate because this experience has made me learn and grow in ways that I will never be able to fully explain to those I love. I hesitate because I know that I am capable of living a life of uncertainty and volatility, outside the confines of suburbia. I hesitate because I know that I would become disconnected from all these memories and lessons from my time in Thailand once I adapted back to my familiar surroundings in the States.

There is one thing that will always stick with me like gecko’s feet to a wall—no matter what environment I’m thrown into—I am confident that I will adapt. That is one of the most powerful and beautiful things about humanity. No matter where I go, I will be challenged. I will fail. I will adjust. I will learn. I will grow.

Now whenever I hear the gecko calling “tokkkaayyyy” during the night, instead of gulping my heart in fear, I simply think of it as a reminder from the world telling me everything will be okay.