"Kha wora phuttajao...ao mano lae siregern..."
I stand on the risers at Payap's November graduation, singing quietly and listening to the rest of the choir behind me. To be completely honest, I haven't the slightest clue what I'm singing about; I barely even know the words. As I mouth the Thai words, I flick my eyes away from the conductor and sneak a glimpse at the large-screen TV on the opposite wall, which is now panning across the choir. With a jolt, I realize how clearly I, blonde and with a Scandinavian complexion, stand out against the sea of Thais. Even weeks after this event, strangers recognized me as "the blonde girl in the Payap choir."
I would be hard-pressed to find a time when music wasn't a part of my life. All throughout my school years, I was in choirs, either through school or church, and I've always been singing, even when not in an organized music activity. My parents tell me about how when I was just two or three years old, I climbed the steps onto the stage at a community dance and started to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," either unaware or unconcerned that hundreds of people were watching. This pattern continued through my childhood and adolescence. Making music is one of the most important parts of my life, and I would not want nor would I be able to go a full year without it. While teaching has taken up a large portion of my time here, I wanted to find other activities and ways to make friends. Knowing this, I decided that one way or another, I would join a choir in Chiang Mai.
At the beginning of my second month, after several inquiries about this possibility, I found myself bicycling across town to meet with Payap's Dean of Music, not knowing quite what to expect. Would this be an audition or just a meeting? Would he even entertain the possibility of my joining the student choir? I walked out ten minutes later with a smile on my face and a piece of music in my hand. I hadn't had to audition at all, and in fact, the choir director had welcomed me into the Payap choir (interestingly, the choir's gender demographics are the complete opposite from those in the States: women only make up about a third of all the singers, and so the director was happy to have another alto). Rehearsals didn't start for another three weeks, so finally, more than two months into my stay in Thailand, I walked into my first choir rehearsal. To say I was nervous would be a gross understatement, but as I took my seat and opened Handel's Messiah, my nerves abated slightly. I had sung this piece before, and even though I was now in a wholly unfamiliar environment, I knew that I could do it again. Even so, for those first few days, anxiety trumped happiness as my principal emotion: I would arrive at choir, open my book, and leave, sometimes without really interacting with the people around me. Slowly, though, I began to make friends.
My involvement in and comfort level with the Payap choir serves as an apt representation of my time so far in Thailand. When I first arrived, I had very little to anchor me to Chiang Mai. My classes were all in English, I spoke English with my friends, I read English books and watched American movies. While this was fun, it was almost as if I was living in an American city. My first couple of days in choir broke me out of my comfortable bubble almost immediately. Gone was the comfortably familiar circle of American friends; instead, I was faced with the somewhat daunting task of making my own friends. While the first few days were tough, eventually I made one particularly good friend, a fellow alto. A further challenge was language: I knew that the choir would be conducted only in Thai, but it wasn't until I attended my first rehearsal that I realized that this meant that not only musical direction, but also simple things like page and measure numbers, would be given in Thai. Would I even be able to follow along?
My learning curve was steep. Even though I quickly learned simple things like measure numbers and page numbers, and could sometimes understand further directions, most of the Thai just washed over me. I became extremely good at basing my actions off of what everyone else was doing—even if I couldn't understand "sit" or "stand," I just moved with my peers, going along with the flow. This sense of flexibility has been integral to my transition to life in Thailand: it requires giving up control of knowing what is going on, and simply doing the best I can with what I know.
In choir (as in the rest of my life here), Thai wasn't my only difficulty. A week or so into rehearsals, we were given a book of new music, and asked to sight-sing it straightaway—on solfege syllables. For non-musicians, solfege syllables are the same ones used in The Sound of Music's famous song, "Do, a Deer"—if you are singing in the key of C, you sing the syllable "do" on C, "re" on D, and so on. It sounds easy, but it gets quite tricky when you have difficult pieces with many key changes, and I will be the first to admit that my solfege singing is pretty dismal. And so, when I opened the music and tried to sing the syllables, they were all over the place. Rehearsing the new music suddenly became exceedingly difficult, and I got more than a little embarrassed at my elementary musical skills. However, I was determined to approach the challenge of solfege, which mirrored my progression with the Thai language. Both realms, music and Thai, were not things that I could easily skirt through without any practice; I had to work at them. Just as I worked out solfege syllables and wrote them in my music, I also painstakingly traced Thai letters in an effort to learn the alphabet. Soon, I could read certain (simple) words without help: "yaa"(medicine) and "rotee" (a delicious fried snack) were among the first. Through my Thai language class, my reading skills progressed even further, to the point where just the other day I struggled through a sign that told me that the nearest 7-Eleven would be closed for the school holidays. Similarly, though I am still not fully comfortable using solfege, it helped me understand patterns in the music that I wouldn't have before, and I know that I've become a much better singer and musician even in the past six weeks.
The Payap graduation, however, brought with it an even more difficult task. Unbeknownst to me, our choir was performing two pieces of music, both written in Thai, which would have to be memorized. Four days before the performance, I received the music—the words, of course, were written in the Thai alphabet, and while I could puzzle out simple words, singing them at normal speed was a different class of challenge. Nerves gripped me intensely. I wasn't at all sure whether I would be able to learn the words and memorize them, or whether I would simply make a fool out of myself. Truth be told, I had no obligation to perform in this concert, and the director didn't necessarily expect it of me. However, I knew that if I sang with the choir for graduation, showing my fellow choir-members that I wanted to participate even when I didn't have to, they would feel more comfortable around me and my tenuous place in the choir would be more firmly solidified. With help, I deciphered the Thai script, and spent hours singing in my room to practice, no doubt causing my neighbors to wonder what was going on.
The day of graduation, and of our performance, crept up sooner than I expected. Our call time was 4:00 PM, but we only rehearsed for a few minutes before being let loose for an almost three-hour break. I could have easily hopped on the back of my motorbike and comfortably spent the long break back in my dorm room; however, I decided to sit, somewhat awkwardly, with some of the girls in the choir and orchestra. We talked in a halting mixture of Thai and English, but slowly got to know each other, and two hours later, I happily walked into the graduation hall with several new friends.
As my voice joined with dozens of others, I felt connected to this community, even though I was only pretending to know the words. Stepping outside of my comfort zone and attempting something difficult was integral to this sense of connection; I realized that I was the one who needed to do the legwork if I wanted to have meaningful experiences in Thailand. Singing in the Payap choir has been an extremely rewarding part of my life so far in Chiang Mai. Not only does it allow me to participate in one of my lifelong joys, that of music, but it also has provided me with the opportunity to create a meaningful link to my place and my community.