The King and I
Of all the useless information I’ve collected in this brain over the years, the top ranking is tied between two items in particular: an alphabetized attendance list for my kindergarten class, and the order of the tracks on Elvis Presley’s The Number One Hits. Neither of these has ever helped me pass a test, or score a date, or even win at Pub Quiz; mostly, these random bits of information have just taken up space in my memory that could have stored—I don’t know, the details of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, or irregular French verb conjugations, or some other item immeasurably more worthy of recollection. But, alas, we cannot choose which memories stick with us, and thus I find myself in Chiang Mai, eight months after graduating from Grinnell with a degree in Music and French, second-guessing the movements of Beethoven’s ninth symphony and the subjunctive tense but with Elvis’s top hits running clearly through my brain, lyric for lyric, in chronological CD order.
Road trips with my family in the 1990s would have been entirely unbearable for any non-fan of Elvis Presley. I’m certain my parents would have broken the CD in two and tossed it out the window if they hadn’t already imagined the ensuing wrath—and the musical alternatives. The soundtrack to my elementary and middle school years was relatively empty of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, but Elvis crooned me through those tough, transitional times, teaching me lessons from “Don’t Be Cruel” to “Love Me Tender” to “It’s Now or Never.” Before arriving in Chiang Mai, I had heard talk of a strong Elvis following in the Kingdom of Thailand—even the king loves The King! —and soon after arriving, I spotted a bar dubbed “Elvis the Twin” down the road from my dorm. Among the other Payap volunteers, my two most distinguishing qualities are that I brush my teeth obsessively and I absolutely love Elvis. “Have you seen that famous picture of him with the Thai king?” a friend asked me recently. “It’s hanging on my bedroom wall,” I replied.
When I told my father about my newly acquired wall decoration, he immediately Google-searched “Elvis in Thailand” and found a history of the photograph (which was actually taken in the US). He also came across a YouTube video of an Elvis impersonator, on which someone had commented: “When Elvis Presley died in 1977, there were an estimated 37 Elvis impersonators in the world. By 1993, there were 48,000 Elvis impersonators, an exponential increase. Extrapolating from this, by 2010 there will be 2.5 billion Elvis impersonators. The population of the world will be 7.5 billion by 2010. Every third person will be an Elvis impersonator by 2010.”
On January 8, 2011, I became one of them.
Well, sort of. Leading up to Elvis’s birthday, I told a number of friends about the Elvis the Twin bar and my plans to dress up in costume in honor of his 76th birthday. It wouldn’t be the first time: I was quite a convincing Elvis on Halloween in the mid-nineties, and my getup doubled as an in-class prop during a fourth-grade biography presentation (narrated in the first person, of course…and ending with “Thank you. Thank you very much.”). I didn’t end up assembling a costume in time for the big night, but I did show up at the bar fully intending to get on the stage and sing a tune or two. Our group arrived, chose a table, ordered some beers and made it through a couple of Beatles covers before realizing that, despite the Elvis-inspired décor of the bar, no one seemed to know the significance of the date. We quickly informed the singer, and he explained that the anniversary of Elvis’s death is a big day for Elvis impersonation in Thailand—but his birthday goes entirely unnoticed. To appease our disappointment, he sang a couple of his favorite Elvis tunes before turning over the microphone to another singer.
We eased into the night by dancing along with the various performers, and after weighing stage fright against fandom, a friend and I finally got up the courage to move from the dance floor to the stage and duet “Love Me Tender” to the semi-full bar. And after that on-stage début, I felt confident enough to belt out “Jailhouse Rock” with the singer from earlier in the night as my backup, even going so far as to bust a few Elvis-inspired dance moves. My disappointment waned as the night went on: though it wasn’t quite what I had pictured as a celebration of The King’s birthday, it ended up being a surprisingly great way to spend the night.
This entire story—of expectations unmet, yet fulfilled in some unexpected way—is an appropriate anecdote for my first three months as one of the first two Grinnell Corps fellows in Thailand. We were told, going into this year, that we would need to be comfortable with ambiguity; in fact, I believe that confirming this was a part of the application process. While Grinnell Corps positions in other parts of the world have been established and consistent for twenty years or more, the program in Thailand is brand new, leaving it up to us to set the standard for future fellows. I loved the idea of “pioneering,” as it were, a Grinnell program, and the likelihood of ambiguity was actually a large source of excitement for me.
But while I had anticipated the excitement of being the first set of fellows in Thailand, I had not really considered the stresses that come along with it. Our six-week, 9am-4pm daily TESOL certification course at the beginning of our stay meant that we weren’t assigned large teaching loads, since we wouldn’t have the time to lesson plan or teach in between those hours of class. But once TESOL classes ended, we were expected to sit in our offices in the English department all day, despite our lack of lessons to plan. “Form over function” is a phrase we foreigners mutter confusedly in response to the Thai tendency to value the way things look over the way things work. It is a habit I came to resent immensely in my early weeks here: though I had no real work to do, I felt obligated to sit in the office checking Facebook and The New York Times online rather than take that time to explore my new city, simply because sitting at the desk on my computer looked good. Coming from an environment like Grinnell, where I barely had enough time to sleep or sit down and was seen double-fisting caffeine more often than not, I have had a lot of trouble adjusting to a way of life where a lack of commitments is really quite fine, as long as you smile and pretend to be busy. Aside from the smiling, this just isn’t the way I operate.
So, resigned to the fact that this semester won’t entail a whole lot of teaching, I’ve begun to seek excitement and fulfillment in other ways. My Saturdays are spent volunteering at Wildflower Home, a women’s and children’s shelter outside of Chiang Mai where Meredith Nechitilo ’09 is the amazing volunteer coordinator. The bike ride takes about forty minutes each way, the majority of which follows the bustling but pleasant San Kampaeng Road, a sort of “Main Street” that runs through Chiang Mai and its neighboring suburbs. I weave my way through food vendors and flower sellers who are setting up for the day’s work, and from this road, I turn off onto the winding Bo Sang road, where handicraft merchants line the street with their brightly colored umbrellas, wooden household decorations, and various clothing both modern and traditional. This beautiful route bookends my Saturdays and renews my appreciation for the overflowing greenness of this city. In America, we chop down trees to build houses and schools, then plant new trees in their places after our projects are complete; but in Thailand, buildings are constructed around the preexisting trees, and it’s not uncommon to be inside a home or a restaurant, seated next to an enormous tree. On my ride, there is even a spot in the road where I imagine that, unable to bear the thought of chopping down these three majestic trees, the city planner simply made one lane of traffic go around the trees to their left while the other lane stayed right.
I spend the whole day on Saturdays playing in the day care with the children; this provides a nice contrast from the students I work with during the week, whose ages range from 17 to about 50. It also gives me a great opportunity to practice my Thai: we just started an intensive course this month, but already I can feel the words starting to come naturally, and practicing with four-year-olds is surprisingly helpful, given the similarities in our limited vocabulary. I can also throw in a few practice words when I meet up with my Thai students from Payap for dinner every once in a while; the students I taught during a two-week intensive English conversation course back in November have become wonderful friends and help me feel a stronger connection to the Thai culture of this city so populated with foreigners. Starting this week, I’ll be helping with a high school musical production at Chiang Mai International School, which will hopefully pull me into that community of expats. Now that the American study abroad students have arrived on campus for the semester, another volunteer and I plan to spearhead bicycle tours of the city and offer different exercise classes for foreign and Thai students alike. And to make my schedule-driven self feel more busy, I structure my days around exploratory jogs in the mornings and evenings, often trying new paths around campus or biking over to a new part of town to run around and investigate the different nooks and crannies of this ancient city.
It seems that the best solution to the ambiguity of being an inaugural fellow is finding the structure and pleasure in whatever is available to me. Though a distinct teaching schedule is not in the foreseeable future, there are ways to make my time here feel worthy of the title of “volunteer service abroad.” Short-term conversation classes and prep courses for TOEFL-style exams aren’t exactly what I had in mind for the year—and seem to be the dregs of the department—but they’ve proved challenging and interesting in their own ways. And the hope is that once we’ve established ourselves a bit at the university, we’ll be given the opportunity to teach more varied courses. For now, we’re just piecing it all together. Hey, Elvis himself advises, “If you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair”—so I keep smiling, and make do with what we’ve got.