Getting a Taste of Thailand
Grinnell Corps Thailand, First Quarterly Report
I remember the first time I tried Thai food. My mother, sister, and I had just finished a day's worth of exploring the beautiful Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. With the sun setting behind us, we stopped for a meal at a quaint Thai restaurant by the beach. I had no idea what anything would taste like – the menu was appealing enough and it looked like a comfortable place to rest our feet for a bit. When the piping hot bowl of green curry came to our table, I could barely anticipate the tastes that were to hit me. I took a large bite into what seemed like, at the time, culinary bliss: a smooth and subtly sweet base of coconut milk perfectly married to a bite of chili and basil, all finely complimenting the salty, bitter, and bland elements of my chicken and vegetables. Flavor explosions set off in my mouth like bursts of color (to use the exact imagery from Pixar's Ratatouille). What euphoria! How had I not ever tried this cuisine before? Ever since, I have loved, craved, and devoured Thai food. Needless to say, when I learned I was going to spend a year in Thailand through Grinnell Corps, I immediately became excited about the food I was going to encounter.
Luckily for me, Thai food in Thailand is even more eclectic and flavorful than what you may find in a Thai restaurant in the States, and there are good reasons for this. Apart from the myriad of cultural and regional influences in a dish and the rich variety of tropical fruits and vegetables available for use, Thai cuisine bases itself on the belief of achieving balance. Thais believe that the five bodily elements are reflected in natural foods, and maintaining a balance of these five different flavors – sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and the optional bitter – will bring you good health. As such, when you enter a Thai restaurant here in Chiang Mai (and anywhere else in the country), you'll often find several jars of condiments to help you achieve this sense of taste equilibrium. There's usually pickled chili in vinegar (sour), sugar (sweet), fish sauce (salty), and chili flakes (spicy). It may, at first, take awhile to wrap your head around the idea of adding a spoonful of sugar into your savory bowl of noodles, but I've certainly taken to it, especially with spicy dishes. If anything, I've learned that Thais are genius with flavor combinations. They certainly know how to please the palette.
Much like the different types of flavors I've encountered with Thai food, I've had a wide variety of experiences, opportunities, thoughts, and emotions since I arrived in Thailand a little more than three months ago (and if you'll allow me, I'm going to stretch this taste metaphor... maybe to an excessive point). From the moment I stepped off the plane, I've encountered a lot of “spice” or “stimulants” in my everyday life. I remember walking in a trance around downtown Chiang Mai on one of my first few days here. There were so many things to immediately take in: the beautifully scripted language, the variety of sounds found in the spoken language, the smell of grilled meats and hot bowls of noodles from street vendors, and the shimmering chedis at the center of every wat (temple) at nearly every corner. Then there were the cultural stimulants. Early on, I learned about the etiquette of wai-ing (where you place your hands and who you do it to matters, and if someone wais you, you should always return it), what happens if you say one word in the wrong tone (hilarity or horror), and that you should not catch your stray money with your feet (the King's face is on it – and you don’t mess with the King). While these sights, sounds, and practices have become more familiar and second-nature to me, I still find myself learning something new about Thailand, its people, and culture everyday. Such stimulants certainly have kept me on my toes.
I've also procured a lot of new energy from my position as a teacher and staff member at Payap University. For the past month or so, I have been teaching the intermediate level class of the Intensive English Program offered here at Payap University. My students are from all over Asia: I have two from Burma, four from Korea, one from Russia, and one from Cambodia (and he's a monk!). When I first received the roster, I was surprised. I thought I would be teaching Thai students. I learned, however, that I was playing a role in helping to “internationalize” Payap University, an initiative recently taken to prepare the school for the regional economic changes that will occur with the enactment of the ASEAN agreement in 2015. The first few weeks were undeniably a bit stressful. Even after completing a four week TESOL training course, creating a semester-long English language curriculum with little idea of my students’ actual comprehension and performance level required a lot of time, patience, and creativity. I, however, couldn't have asked for better class dynamics; despite the variety of backgrounds, everyone instantly bonded. Eventually the stress melted away and I started to look forward to finding new, fun ways to teach my students things like the differences between past and present continuous tenses. Although not everything has been perfect, I'm finding myself becoming more and more comfortable in my new-found role as an English language teacher.
On the other hand, there have been some adjustments I've had to make that have left a more “sour” taste in my mouth. Issues with timing and efficiency have been the hardest obstacles to overcome since my arrival. When I was at Grinnell, my planner was covered in sticky notes, numerous hastily scribbled to-do lists, and highlighted appointments and meeting times with faculty and friends that were often back-to-back and planned for weeks in advance. I felt naked doing anything without my watch, and when I had the occasional down-time, I tried to complete the other laundry list of things I needed to do. As such, the laid back nature of Thais – even in the workplace – has caused some frustrations. There have been times where I've walked into meetings and come out with little work done, apart from extra socialization. When I was helping to organize a guest list for a university event, I didn't hear back from local organizations until the very last minute, causing my co-worker and I to launch into a stressful frenzy of tasks that could have been completed earlier. Lack of communication also seems to be a related problem. There have been occasions where I've had to run to meetings because I was told of them last minute. Other times, I've shown up to an event and something that wasn't on my radar is now expected of me. While such incidences been taxing and annoying, these moments have taught me to think quickly and be even more flexible than before. They've also taught me a great deal about patience, though that itself is still very much a work in progress project.
Sometimes, too much of a good or necessary thing (e.g. salt) can be a bad thing (you see how I managed to finagle that one?). When I've traveled in the past, I've always maintained some root to my home culture so I can provide some context when adapting to a new one. After all, it is important to remember where you came from and to recognize differences so as to be sensitive to them. This tactic, however, backfired a bit, and led me to make a lot of comparisons in the initial stages of my journey here. First, it was the weather and the price relativity of daily goods. Then it became how bureaucratic systems worked (and didn't work), and eventually it became a comparison of how people interact with each other. I wouldn't say all of these observations were bad, but rather making too many of them proved to be a downer, especially when I hit a bad bout of homesickness two months into my year here. I found it especially hard to moderate my discussions of these differences especially since I was imparting my knowledge of American culture and life to my foreign students through my English lessons. While I still reflect on the differences between my life in Thailand versus the United States, I've come to embrace the more positive aspects. After all, it's these qualities that have made my time here thus far so exciting and interesting.
Additionally, there have been moments when I've encountered a more “bitter” taste – not emotionally in the traditional sense, per say, but more unsure of whether I like it or not. This has mostly been the case for me in trying to reconcile my Asian American identity while living abroad. Such a situation isn’t new to me; when I studied abroad in Cape Town, I had to constantly explain the difference between my ethnic (Japanese-born) and cultural (American-raised) background. Unfortunately, outward appearances can set off certain assumptions in others, which then affect patterns of interaction. Unlike in South Africa – where East Asians make up less than 4% of the national population, which made me a rarity of sorts – I am one of the hundreds of other Asians in Chiang Mai. And while I'm flattered at times that people think I blend in well enough to believe I'm Thai (or Chinese, or Korean, or Filipino, or obviously Japanese), I sometimes get treated as if I know what's going on... when clearly I don't. And it's all because I am Asian and look the part of one who's lived in the continent for my entire life. When I finally explain that I'm American, I get looks of confusion and maybe a change in attitude (for better or for worse). A lot of it has been subtle, but noticeable enough to see that I am sometimes looked at and treated differently than my fellow (usually white) American friends. While nothing seriously offensive has come out of these sort of interactions, it has resulted in a lot of confusion and sometimes frustration, mostly because it deals with identity issues and is generally a hard phenomenon to explain. I do hope that by the end of the year, though, I can better explain and make sense of it. Maybe in the end, I'll even appreciate it.
Fortunately, I've been immensely blessed to have many “sweeter” moments, especially when it comes to new born friendships. Community and fellowship have sat at the forefront of the wonderful things I have encountered and treasured here in Thailand. A number of my friends come from the large volunteer community here in Chiang Mai. Like me, they are all here with their specific tasks: missionary work, advocating for the rights of the disenfranchised populations in Thailand, teaching English, and protecting refugee communities along the Thai-Burma border. The variety of backgrounds, experiences, and ages among my friends have made for engaging conversations, insightful moments, and bouts of laughter and fun. The Grinnell community here in Chiang Mai has been an invaluable source of excitement and entertainment. There's a wide array of graduates, ranging from the 1960's to the past few years. We try to meet once a month for dinner and conversation, if not just hanging out. I love hearing everyone's stories about their time at Grinnell, and find solace in the fact that even after years away from Iowa, Grinnellians are still Grinnellians through and through. The older generation of Grinnellians have also begun to serve as mentors to me. Whether it's talking about potential career paths or how to tackle certain cultural differences, they've been there to provide support and care from day one. All together, I cannot be any more thankful for the blessings I've been given through all my friendships here. They certainly help make Chiang Mai a home away from home.
If I had any suppositions that quickly became a reality since my arrival in Thailand nearly four months ago (already?!), it was that my year was going to be anything but straightforward and simple. If anything, my taste of Thailand thus far has proven to be more complex and layered like my first green curry I had in Australia: smooth with a bit of bite along the way, sweet with occasional pangs of unfamiliar, unexpected, and sometimes unpleasant flavors. Frankly, though, it's proven to be quite exciting, refreshing, and fun balancing act. Already I feel like I've grown to be a bit more risk-taking and spontaneous, and I anticipate that this is only the start of more growing to take place in the future. If this is only a small sample of what’s yet to come, then I can hardly wait to see what will happen next.