29 September, 2017

How Time Sings

Emma McDowell is from Cornwall, VT, and is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCAHM ETA placed at Bantuadthong School in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. She graduated in 2015 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a BA in Spanish and Hispanic Studies and Environmental Studies. When she is not teaching her P2, P3, and P4 students, Emma enjoys trying new foods at the market, exploring Southern Thailand, and spending as much time as she can at the beach. 

For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated with time. From the lunisolar Babylonian calendar, to the Roman Calendar, to the Mayan Calendar, to sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, stopwatches, and even apple watches, knowing the time and calculating its passing has been a significant part of human history. Years reduce into months, months into days, days into hours, and so on and so forth until every millisecond has been counted—given a name. I may not be a horologist, a person who studies how we measure time, but I do think about it a great deal, since, for most of my life, time has been my greatest fear. 

Now, I know that time isn’t one of the more popular fears like spiders, heights, or even clowns but it is non-the less an anxiety I carry with me. I worry about time wasted and time taken for granted, having too much time, or too little time, I fear that I will forget things, people, and places, losing those memories to time. As a child, I remember telling my mother that if I was a superhero, I would want to be able to control time—make special moments last longer, rewind mistakes, or even fast forward through tough phases. Maybe it is the omnipresence of the western definition of success, sayings like, “the early bird gets the worm”, or the fact that humans spend a third of their lives asleep. But time and how I use it, is always in the back of my mind. And now, as I sit here and reflect on the ups and downs, growth and change of this year, I find that time has been the only thing that has remained constant.

Kru Mem, myself, and my host teacher P'Mai

We were given a year. A year to teach, learn, and aim to “understand Thainess,” all wide and daunting tasks. I remember sitting in the cold plastic chair in the meeting room at Chulalongkorn University, feeling overwhelmed by the unknowns that lay ahead, and the very idea that my time here was already planned out—my return date to Bangkok planned a year in advance. So, I began to try and understand—endeavoring to use my time wisely. I consumed books, documentaries, and stories about Thai culture while studying the Thai language and trying my best to devour all types of incredibly spicy foods. I wanted to take advantage of my time and “su, su”, or fight my way through the challenges of language barriers and cultural differences. I prepared myself for what I might experience and thought I was going to see, and dove in ready to undertake all I had read about.

However, on my first day at school, I remember struggling through the initial hour of class. All of the sudden a classroom of 42 second-graders looked up at me with wonder and confusion. I suddenly realized that I was the teacher, and nervously started talking, trying to fill the silence with words. Little did I know that my students would simply repeat every word that I said, adding to the confusion and hilarity
making the time seemingly stretch on. The classroom, class size, and excitement of my students weren’t what I had envisioned prior to arriving, and all the preparation I had done seemed fruitless. I rushed to my office to try and create a better plan, focusing all my energy on making my time spent in class go smoother. I remember the first few weeks at school as a struggletrying to fill each class with a fun activity while simultaneously wrangling the lessons to fit into an hour. I found even in my free moments the same dilemmahaving seemingly so much time for things, while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by all the newnessunsure of how to fill my day and use my time. I wanted my new life to instantly “work”- and to understand my role, students and colleagues as fast as possible to make the most of the short period I had been allotted. Yet, all of what I had read about Thailand- the beautiful language, complex social order, and the close-knit community seemed to be there shyly hiding from my demanding eyes.

My Prathom 3 students and I

Like the birds. Every day upon returning home from school I was greeted by the symphony of my neighbor, Pi Sak’s, chorus of small gray songbirds fluttering about in their bamboo cages. Their feathers were not bright, and their song didn’t seem to be anything incredibly unique, and I was intrigued as to why he had so many of this seemingly unremarkable bird. Upon conducting my own research, I learned that the birds are known as Red Whiskered Bulbuls, and they are famous in southern Thailand for competing in singing contests. I was immediately intrigued and thrilled when my host teacher offered to take me to see a local contest. When we arrived, we saw more than 20 bird cages hanging on posts with a group of spectators sitting around. I eagerly sat down, and began to ask a million questions, “How is this judged? What do they win? How much does a bird cost? what do they eat?” Unfortunately, however, Pi Mai didn’t know the answers, and as she wandered off in search of a coffee, I watched the contest unfold
more and more questions popping into my head. Every few minutes a group of men would remove one of the hanging cages, and then sit back downwaiting, listening. I couldn’t see a rhythm or reason for the removal of the cage and as the time stretched on, my confusion and frustration grew. What were the rules? Who was in charge? If I couldn’t understand thissomething that was supposed to be a source of fun and diversion, how would I even begin to understand my new life here? In the silence of the drive home that night I remember telling Pi Mai how confused I was, and how “I just wish I understood,” to which she wisely replied, “Mai bpen rai Emma, all in time.”

Bird singing contest in Nakhon Si Thammarat

Many anthropologists argue that time is a social construct. Meaning, that humans created the concept of calculating time, and thus they can change it. Additionally, not all groups of people are the sameso their conception, understanding, and calculation of time can differ. Maybe that is why “Thai Time” is so seemingly unique from the western ideas of time. In this year have waited until 5 for rides that were supposed to come at 3, I have gone for lunches that I thought would only last 30 minutes but finished in two hours, and I have realized that song tow drives that were planned for ten minutes can actually last much longer if the driver is delivering a chicken to his friend. This concept of time being fluid and flexible, might lay in Buddhist teaching that assert that suffering in life (dukkah), is derived from attachment
not being able to let go. Many Buddhists believe that time isn’t something can be fixed or held onto. Like all changes in life, it needs to be accepted and let go in order to overcome difficulties.

So, I tried to surrender to time. Accept its ebb and flow. Wait to understand its abundance and scarcity, passage and stillness. I tried not to hurry through my day, but live it. I stopped rushing back to my office to meticulously plan and watched how my students held hands as they walked
seemingly more comfortable together than apart. I stopped agonizing about how I would order food and noticed how Pa Pid, the school chef, searched my face while serving me lunch, hoping I would like each new dish. I gave up stressing about missing class when morning assembly ran late and observed how my school spent time together, laughed together, listened together. And once I stopped fighting against time, stopped demanding that I understand, and accepted my newness, I realized that the details of my new life, that before seemed undignified or unimportant, where actually the ones that began to matter. Like how Kru Mem always packs an extra mango for me and leaves it on my desk when I am gone, or how Pi Gop sets aside a chair by the fan and ushers me over when we have a school meeting in the canteen. I found that once I stopped trying to fill my time and fight against it, I wasn’t alonetime could be something shared.

My teachers and I

This past month, I woke up early and went to get my favorite khao tom” from the woman on the narrow street that runs parallel to mine. As I walked, motorbikes whizzed by, their drivers clutching the infamous birdcages that have held my intrigue for the past year. Soon, I began to hear the chirping grow stronger, and I stumbled upon a bird singing contest. More than thirty cages were hung up and around them people sat, enjoying their morning tea and coffee, listening and carefully monitoring. I decided to join, and sat in the corner, watching and listening, attempting again to understand. I started to question the judging process, the organization, and the spectators. But then, I surrendered to the unknowns and let my mind wander. I thought about my neighbor Sak, and how he cares for each of his birds each morning and afternoon, how he shows his daughter Namoo how to change their water with care. I looked around and saw the soft, wrinkled smile of Pi Fatima, the mother of one of my students, who makes the best Khao Mok Gai in the market. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft chirps, and the wind blowing through the rubber trees of the neighboring plantation. I thought how nice it felt to be here, how comforting it was to be part of this group, this community. And suddenly, it didn’t matter why I was there, it just mattered that I was. I understood that some things, like the rules of the contest, I might never understand, and that’s ok, but I can’t force it to fit into what I want it to be, just like how I can’t stop the clock. 

And maybe that is all we can expect from everyone, including time. To accept it as it is, living each day, and embracing each person and moment as they come. To look and try to see what is in front of us
not search for what we expect. That life, and all of its gifts and burdens can be shared. Time and patiencenot a book, documentary, or website taught me that.

However, despite what Buddhism, my teachers, and the calendar tell me about time, I am not ready to let go of this year of my life. John Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “How great it would be to live in an endless state of leave-taking, to be missed without being gone, to be loved without satiety. How beautiful one is and how desirable.” I know that I will take all of the memories, friendships, and growth from this year, and suspend them in my mind, in that state of love and longing
a temporary forever I can look back on, knowing that I can never go back to how it is now. I can only go forward into the seemingly endless unknown that is time, and hope that it won’t fly away like a red-whiskered bulbul.

15 September, 2017

Rot Si Chumpoo (The Pink Bus)

Ortal Isaac is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thakhonyang Pittayakhom in Mahasarakham, Thailand, where she teaches English to Mattayom students. Ortal is from New York City, and graduated from the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary with a B.A. in Comparative Literature & Society and a B.A. in Jewish Literature. In her free time, she can be found exploring new parts of Thailand with her camera, running, and trying as many new delicious Thai foods as possible. After the grant, she plans to return to the United States and hopes to attend law school in the future.

It may sound strange, but some of the most memorable moments from my time living in Mahasarakham and traveling to different parts of Thailand have happened while in transit. Be it buses, boats, trains, vans, planes, tuktuks, songtaos, bicycles, or any other means of transportation, these are all places in which you can sit, look out at the scenery unfolding, and reflect with a sense of quiet, paradoxical stillness that is hard to find elsewhere. No matter the mode of transport, there is something special and transformative about these places; while sitting in these in-betweens, thoughts often flow deeper, farther.

Getting around in Thailand has brought more modes of transportation than I can count. I have taken many a cramped and sweaty minivan ride with far more passengers than the car could hold, been grateful for the cooling breeze while speeding through streets in a brightly-colored tuktuk, zipped my bicycle up and down the road that I live on countless times, and hitched beautiful, windy rides through a National Park in the backs of friendly strangers’ pickup trucks. I have somehow managed to squeeze myself into tiny standing spots at the very edge of numerous seemingly-full songtaos’ last steps with one small centimeter between me and the road below, traveled on bumpy, fourteen-hour swerve-filled night buses, watched the sun rise from early morning train rides, sped past mountains and majestic palm trees covered in fog while sitting on what can only be best described as a karaoke party-raft (disco ball and flashing lights included), and more. 

Sleepy neighbors on an early morning train from Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, to Khon Kaen

But somehow, some of my most beloved journeys have been those on the Pink Bus, Rot Si Chumpoo. Yet, these are also some of the most mundane. The Pink Bus, aptly named for the unmissable rosy hue that covers its buses and employee shirts, is not special to me because it is particularly dingy, odd, or fancy. It is not noteworthy because the rides I take on it are particularly long; compared to journeys on thirteen-hour night buses, my usual route on it from Thakhonyang to Khon Kaen ranges from only an hour and a half to three hours. The Pink Bus is a regular coach bus that serves several provinces in Isan—the Northeastern region of Thailand where I live. It is precisely because it is so familiar to me and has become such an integral part of my routine here in my province, that the Pink Bus holds a special place in my heart.

I remember the first time that I took the Pink Bus: it was a Friday afternoon, after my very first week at school. The past few days had been a flurry of new faces, names, places, humbling acts of kindness from complete strangers who would grow to become cherished colleagues, friends, and students, as well as lots of information that still didn’t fully make sense. There was a great deal of excitement, anticipation, and definitely a sense of feeling lost. Every second of every day was a lot to take in, new information to process and try to understand. After those first few days, I was going to Khon Kaen to spend the weekend with some fellow Fulbright ETAs placed in nearby provinces, who had also just gotten to their schools. I began the multi-step process of leaving my town, which felt a bit daunting the first time around, as I wondered how exactly I would manage to successfully reach my destination with just about two weeks of Thai language instruction under my belt.

With teachers and M2 students at school.

I biked from my house to my school, locked my bike and waited for the songtao to arrive. I quickly reached for the pocket Thai-English dictionary in my backpack, and found the word for ‘bus stop’—bogoso. Though I had very little clue as to what tone I should use in pronouncing it, I gave my pre-prepared phrase a try when the first songtao appeared and slowed down for me: “Bpai bogoso mai ka?” (Do you go to the bus stop?) After a second of visibly trying to understand the word that I thought I had correctly pronounced as bogoso, the driver repeated the word, only this time with the correct tone, (which I dutifully tried to memorize) and nodded kindly, ushering me to the back of the vehicle.

Once at the bus stop, which was nothing but an unmarked spot on the side of the construction-filled highway with a few people standing around, I approached a gruff-looking man sitting beside a small, white plastic table, looking out at the dusty road. I told him where I was going: “Bpai Khon Kaen ka.” Visibly confused by my existence, he responded with a string of words that I could not quite understand, gestured for me to wait, and I did as I was told. When the first bright pink bus arrived, he motioned quickly to me and I thanked him endlessly for steering me in the right direction. The bus was already full, so passengers who got on stood cramped together in the aisle between seats. Squished, confused, and still anxious about making it to my destination, nothing around me made sense yet: the jumble of small, coupon-like tickets I was handed upon boarding, the constant hum of a totally foreign language of which I could then understand very little, why we would stop at certain intersections and not others, and how on earth I would know when I would arrive at my destination. But it began to dawn on me that this bus ride—and my entire year in this new place—was going to hinge on trust and faith. Trust that in the end, things would simply work out. I had heard much talk about the sabai sabai mentality in Thailand; an ever-important outlook based on going with the flow, taking things as they come, without too much stress or concern placed on knowing everything ahead of time. But it was then that I really started to actively adopt this attitude. A few hours later, I made it to Khon Kaen, excited to have found my way, and my friends and I eagerly shared our experiences from the past few days. 

Learning Thai cooking skills from my host teacher and incredible chef, Khun Mae.

Since that first Friday, my rides on the Pink Bus have become a breeze, but they have never become humdrum. The route that it takes traverses some of my favorite, quintessential Isan landscapes: through small towns, open skies, and lush, brilliant-green rice paddies that line the road home. I often take the bus back right around the time that the sun begins to set, when everything is illuminated in a golden light that dazzles me just as much as it did during my first ride. The Pink Bus gives me a few hours to simply sit and allow myself to be struck by the beauty of everything around me, and how lucky I am to be here, teaching at my school, welcomed by such a kind and generous community of teachers, students, and friends. 

Selfies on selfies with M6/1

The familiar comfort of the Pink Bus provides a space through which I can see how much this once entirely foreign, daunting place, has become so beloved to me: a warm home that I did not know I would find. I know the roads the buses always take, the gruff-looking man at the station in Thakhonyang who, whenever I show up at the bus stop, now greets me like an old neighbor, with roaring laughter and a big smile. I know the way the delicate phuang malai—flower garlands—swing above the driver’s head along with every twist, bump, and turn of the bus, and the way the bus attendants chuckle and joke around in the local Isan language. I know the upbeat twang and rhythm of the mor lam songs that play on the bus’ speakers, the sleepy eyes of the university students I often sit next to, the way the water in the rice paddies reflects the sunlight at different times of the day. 

Rice fields along the Pink Bus route in Mahasarakham.

On these rides, I can stop, marvel, and reflect. They are a place in which moments from the week come back to me, allowing me to appreciate and think about them more deeply. As we whizz past verdant fields, I can picture the shy, smiling faces of the students who always pop their heads into my classroom as they walk to their next lesson, and remember how my ninth grade class, with all its jokesters, made me laugh so hard that they brought me to tears (yet again) on Tuesday afternoon. Looking out at the banana trees planted on the side of the road, I think of the way their large leaves rustle in the wind that always comes just before a storm, and remember the enormous, high splashes of water catapulted into the air with every kick from the boys who play soccer on the school’s rain-soaked field. I remember the look on a student’s face that silently spoke; today is not an easy day. The incredible deep fuchsia hue of the sunsets that I see almost every evening from my back window, and the students who always greet me with a reverent wai while never failing to practice their favorite slang from class: “Teacher! What’s up?” Gifts of fruit and khanom that hold, in their small plastic bags, sweet snacks, but more importantly: a great deal of love.

Isan sunsets from my back window.

Now, on my most recent trip home, I settle into a window seat on the Pink Bus, grateful for its air-conditioned interior, my shirt soaked in sweat from sitting outside in the sticky Isan heat while waiting in the bus station for my ticket number to be called. The bus makes its way through the familiar fields, and I lean my forehead against the window, looking out. As I watch the landscape sweeping by, I think back to my very first ride on this bus and my first few days here, feeling confused, lost, anxious, unsure of where exactly I was going and how to go about every little thing. I remember all of these moments, laugh to myself, and smile.

The last day of my first semester at school, in my classroom with fellow foreign language teachers and student teachers.