Teaching English in Chiang Mai in exchange for room and board. The kids probably think I’m weird, but it’s because I love them, like, I’m really crazy about them. I can’t stop smiling at them. It’s got nothing to do with biological clocks. I still don’t want a kid of my own.
But these kids.
These kids with their polite gooood mahhning teachuuh Ka-Lee and the way they let their little hand rest on your leg when they show you their drawings. Their Angry Birds themed, over-dressed, long-sleeved bathing attire, and matching bathing caps. And their smiles: shy, semi-toothless, genuine. I don’t know how to talk about smiles without getting all cliché on you, but I’d heard there was something special about the Thai brand of smile, and I heard right. It’s not just a routine tightening of facial musculature, it’s an event. A little bit of good passes into you. And you can give some back, if you remember to be present while it’s happening. This isn’t easy for me. I often forget to be present during hugs, too. I had a friend who used to get me into hug position, and then remind me to pay attention to what was happening. Hugging. He was a good friend.
I’m very homesick lately, and homesickness isn’t pretty. Sometimes it manifests as a complete refusal to accept what is going on around me, this exotic other-ness I traveled so far to experience. Sometimes it’s pure panic: when the air gets too hot and too close, and I can’t see the landscape for the smog. Today, I want to cry. That’s it, I want to cry, and I’m embarrassed because this is “vacation,” and vacation is supposed to be perfect and I’m lucky to be here, and what the hell is wrong with me. Selfish. #Firstworldproblems. All of those things. I still want to cry. One lonely thought cascades into the next, and pretty soon home is a paradise beyond compare- and way beyond reality.
But I’m less alone here than I’ve been this whole trip. I’ve got an entire class of Thai kids who aren’t quite sure what to make of this Godzilla-sized Farang with the black hair and the light skin, who just keeps asking them to repeat “I like rice soup” over and over and over. And over. And smiling.
Of course, every moment here is a “Thai” moment by default, as authentic as it gets. But there were the promises I unwittingly turned into expectations: the serene Buddha-moments, marigolds strung into the stories of earnest young Canadian travelers, awarded prizes by Canadian journals for their gritty but delicate portrayal of Thai life.
Well, there’s no shortage of grit. But where the hell are the marigolds?
Then it’s four in the morning and I’m banging away at the laptop and slapping at the noseeums and I hear the monks. Chanting? That’s what it sounds like.
Pad over teak floors to the window. There’s the call of cicadas and rooster zealots, and yes, definitely chanting but no- this is wrong, I need a gauzy dress and a “steaming mug” of ginger tea in my hands, I need to be on a breezy porch, or on the beach. But the air is thick and tepid-I can’t hear the chanting from the porch, and there’s no beach, so I’m catching my Buddha
-moment through grimy glass slats, cement and overgrowth in my view, noseeums watching from the other side of the net, and still it’s okay, it’s only me here. And it’s right now.
Very good day. We’re out of the Serenity Now and back at the lovely Lipe Beach resort, where we were greeted like old friends by the staff, and told we could pay for our room “later.” We’ve been on Lipe nearly a month, and people at the resorts we’ve stayed at and the restaurants we frequent wave and greet us when we walk down the street. “You’re like a local now!” people say, which of course is utterly untrue, but is the highest compliment an islander in any country can bestow on you.
So many characters. The kebab guy is a Greek with a mohawk that’s usually un-gelled, so it kind of looks like a hipster side-shave. He calls me princess and teases Zander because he always pays for the food-says if women want equal rights, they should pay up. Zander told him he has the money because he has the pockets. We didn’t tell him that all of the money is ours, because that wouldn’t be as much fun, but the last time we bought some kebabs, I pulled the money out of my bikini. You can imagine the reception that got.
So. We decided to save a few bucks. Checked into the Serene resort, very Buddhist, in that staying there constantly reminds you that life is suffering. I could go on about the bed, the mould, the ants, the bar that is open 24 hours a day and only plays the same 6 songs, including an inane big beat remix of “Signs” by The Who…but really, all I need to say are those three little words: broken sewage line. Keep in mind, it’s 35 degrees, and I’ve had food poisoning for the last two days. Keep it in mind, but try not to picture it.
Being in the Buddhist heartland, we practiced grim acceptance until about ten minutes ago, when I fucking blew my top, pulled myself together, because getting angry at people causes them to lose face, and POLITELY asked the owner what could be done. Over and over again. With a smile.
Now we are in a loft above his massage parlour with no view, no bamboo ambiance, no mosquito net, and ABSOLUTELY NO FESTERING SHIT. And we are DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY.
Asia, I’ve got your number.
Watch out, motherfucker.