I know many people think that aerobics went out of vogue sometime in the years preceding my birth, but I have always loved the bright music, easy-to-follow routines, and friendly atmosphere that welcomes one in an aerobics class. Having learned this about me, you can only imagine my surprise and delight at learning that there are free aerobic dance classes all over the city of Chiang Mai on any given day. They occur in places you would never expect, mostly in the back corners of parking lots for big box retailers. My preferred class is the 6:00 p.m. at Big C Extra, conveniently located just a 10-minute bike ride from my dorm. Each night around 5:30 several die-hard aerobic dancers show up to blockade the corner of the parking lot with shopping carts, preventing the constant stream of cars and motorbikes entering Big C from disrupting our dancing. A bit after 6:00 the instructor puts a poppy mix on the blaring speakers and jumps on stage to begin class. The instructor always starts and ends our workout with a wai- a common Thai greeting that denotes respect.
I don't know exactly what I was expecting the first time I went to an aerobic dance class in Chiang Mai. I guess I was thinking it would be like the classes I've taken at home, but with the obligatory countdowns and encouragement in Thai. I was sort of right. To quote a t-shirt I've seen worn by many a tourist in Chiang Mai, I think that the classes could be described as "same same, but different." This expression, probably more popular among the Westerners in Thailand than with Thais themselves, is as self-explanatory as it seems. It is used to refer to two things that are similar, but differ from each other, sometimes in key ways. It is actually comedic how different two items can be and still be described in this way.
While the aerobics classes here feature the same fit instructors, bass-filled music, and some of the basic moves I am used to, the one significant difference is that they really do mean aerobic dance. I am used to the upbeat and repetitive routines typical of most American aerobics classes. But here, we do nothing short of putting together complex and choreographed dance numbers in the Big C parking lot every weeknight. We start out doing what I'm used to— v-steps, high knees, grapevine— and then all of a sudden the class starts twirling and dancing in tandem with the instructor. I am always amazed at how they accomplish this. Seemingly without warning, the women in front of me begin putting together 32-count combinations from the simple steps we learned moments before and then manage to reverse the direction of the routines without skipping a beat. This difference in form may seem minor, but the end result is a much more challenging class than I am accustomed to. In the beginning, I oftentimes found myself flapping around hopelessly, rather than dancing, confused about how they knew what was coming next.
In fact, the first few times I went to aerobics class, I considered not returning. I was having fun, but I couldn't help but wonder if I was out of my league. I was oftentimes lost after the warm-up and usually felt like my mistakes were very visible as the only foreigner in an all-Thai class. I was also frequently frustrated by my inability to speak or understand Thai. Many women in the class would approach me, but initially I was unable to understand any but the most basic questions. I wondered if the occasional laughter and frequent looks I was getting were a result of me doing something wrong. These were the same kinds of challenges I was having in other parts of my life in Thailand and I wanted my free time to be spent in a place where I could let go of some of these insecurities and uncertainties. At aerobics I felt myself shrinking from the challenge of learning and being outgoing in my new environment. Maybe Thai aerobics wasn't for me.
But then one day, as I stood in my spot near the front of the group, I hazarded a look behind me at the rest of the class, only to notice that many of the other women were also unable to follow the routines at first. It was shocking to me that during previous sessions I had barely noticed the rest of the class, managing to keep my attention entirely focused on the instructor and the group of serious aerobics fans who stand in the front rows. By focusing on perfecting the routines, I was not only missing most of what was going on with my classmates, but also broadcasting a certain seriousness through my body language and facial expressions. During the workout that day I was able to see the class, and the way that I fit into it, in a whole new light. It turns out that even if you can't do them at first, the routines get easier with time. Each week I find myself more capable of following the instructors. Plus, the difficulty is part of the fun; the routines are never boring. Also, no one is really laughing at anybody during the class. More often, whole groups of people are laughing together at themselves because sometimes aerobics looks a little bit funny. Even if they were laughing at me, I think I can understand why, with my displays of extreme concentration and occasional confusion showing plainly on my face. The women were likely just getting a kick out of the farang (foreigner) furrowing her brow in concentration during what is supposed to be an enjoyable workout.
Once I realized all of this, my ideas of abandoning aerobics vanished. I now understand that their comments, smiles, and laughter are ways to reach out to me and include me, even if I still can't really understand what they're saying. Between miming, a whole lot of smiling, and my improving Thai language skills, I have even made several aerobic dance friends. I look forward to seeing them when I go and find myself constantly amazed by how much communication can occur between us without any true common language. There are so many other ways to connect with people, especially when a shared activity is involved. For instance, I have begun to appreciate how much I smile when I am in aerobics class and how much any one smile can say to another person. Most of the time I smile because I am having fun—there is something great about dancing in the open air while listening to a version of "Zombies" by the Cranberries remixed with Korean pop music. But, I have also found that smiling is one of my main forms of communication at aerobics. Whether I am saying "mai kao jai" (I don't understand) for the sixth time, acknowledging a wave from someone across class, or trying to recover from being completely lost during a routine, smiling has become my default reaction.
The lesson that a smile is far better than a furrowed brow is easily transferable to all parts of life here in Thailand. The propensity to smile is so evident here that the country has earned the nickname "the land of smiles" among tourists. Early in my stay, one of my trainers told me that smiling is a whole language unto itself here. A smile in Thailand can be used for much more than expressions of joy, as we commonly think of it in the United States. Smiling is a way to avoid an uncomfortable situation, relieve tension, tease, gloat, express affection, or politely disagree, among other things. I had no idea that a smile could be so involved. While I am still limited in the meanings that my smile carries, it's impressive how the tendency to smile in a greater variety of situations rubs off on you when you're here. I now find myself reacting with a smile in all kinds of situations, be they exciting, happy, frustrating, or downright awkward.
When I first arrived in Thailand, I had a multitude of questions about how my life here would be. Not only would I be trying to adapt to and live in a different culture, but I would also be trying to establish a life for myself in a new city- making friends, creating habits and routines, and finding new favorite hang-out spots. By the end of my four years in Grinnell, I was very comfortable and nearly always felt sure of myself, especially in social situations. And then I landed in Chiang Mai, where everything, from the food to the language to the very ways that people relate to each other, was new. I promptly started to look for things that could help me to understand this place better, while also becoming a part of my new routine here. I wanted to build an existence that could keep me engaged and active during my year abroad. Fortunately, I have stumbled upon several things, including aerobics, that have made this experience a rewarding one.
I would be remiss to not mention the thing that has helped me the most during this transition—the people who have quickly become my support system in this new place. In just a few months, I have been privileged to get to know some great and diverse communities of people, from students at Payap to other short-term volunteers to long-term Chiang Mai residents. More than anything or anyone else, they are the ones who have opened my eyes to the ways things work here and have helped to make this place feel like home. For example, the Grinnell alumni network in Chiang Mai, affectionately known as the Grinnell Mafia to those of us on the inside, has quickly become one of the most important groups in my life here. By regaling me with tales from earlier eras, welcoming me into their kitchens to bake, offering me shelter after being caught on my motorbike in the rain, and inviting me to celebrate major holidays with them (thanks for a wonderful Thanksgiving, Grinnellians!), the Grinnellians in Chiang Mai have become some of my most valued friends. I am so grateful to be here in the company of some amazingly kind and generous people.
Before my arrival in Thailand, I was told that Chiang Mai holds something for everyone. I came here with few expectations of what that would mean for me, but have found that the city certainly does not disappoint. I could not have predicted that just a few months after my arrival I would find myself with good friends, new favorite hang-outs, and a couple of great hobbies, not to mention a small social circle built entirely upon our attendance at aerobics classes that take place in the unassuming corner of a Thai parking lot.