NOTE: I’ve struggled to maintain this blog regularly because it’s often been difficult for me to put into words exactly what the last year has meant. So, for my final post, I collected my many thoughts from many different places and put them together to try and find some semblance of coherence. Please enjoy.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
You walk outside and ask
Where was the BBQ just as
When you wake up and
Look out the window you
Wonder when it rained
What cast a blanket
Over the sky to turn it so
Gray. But it’s not rain or
Lingering festivities. It’s the
Air, filled with dust too small
To see, but big enough to
Suffocate. And it coats your
Arms like a film, and makes
You reach up to your eyes to
Clean your dirty glasses,
And it’s then you realize, you’re
Not wearing glasses. It’s not
A smudge on the glass that
Has obscured the mountain,
It’s something more sinister,
Blocking the view, causing
your throat to swell. So you
put on a mask and
wonder if this is how construction workers
always feel—slightly endangered
by the very thing that is supposed
to sustain life: the air.
So I’m sitting in Penang, smoking hookah with friends, and I can’t stop staring at the woman in the full burkah, smoking hookah with a man I assume must be her husband.
The majority of things I know about the world, I know in an abstract way. After all, I have never been to Katmandu. I have never seen a sea-lion covered in oil. Theses are things I read about in the paper, and while I often believe and believe in these things with all my heart, that doesn’t make it any less strange to confront something only known on paper for the first time face to face.
I know that the majority of people who practice Islam do so the same way I practice Judaism. It’s a part of their culture. The radical Islamics who Americans constantly fear, who shows like Homeland make us believe are a constant threat to our well-being, are but a minute fraction of this elaborate world. That being said, I was awe struck watching this woman exhale smoke from under her veil. She can do that? I guess it was naïve of me to think otherwise. I guess I’m more naïve that I like to think.
A lot of western woman look at veils and head scarves as a sign of oppression. What I realize is that it’s my upbringing that forces me to see it that way. It’s nearly impossible for me to take off my western goggles—because those goggles have molded almost every thought I’ve ever had. I see the headscarf and immediately bemoan a lack of feminism, when in reality, the scarf has almost nothing to do with feminism—well, maybe that’s not true, but it has less to do with feminism that I assume.
For my own peace of mind, I came up with the following comparison. I’ll never get a tattoo in very much the same way these woman wear scarves. It’s not something I think of on a daily basis, but it’s something I accepted years ago, because it’s part of my culture, where I come from, where my parents and grandparents came from.
Mustafa and Harrith’s apartment
Harrith: Yeah, ever since the war the weather in Iraq is horrible.
Me: Since the war?
Harrith: Well everything was destroyed.
Of course—I think—no sun protection and no buildings to shield from brutal winds. We’ve created our own dust bowl.
Harrith—who moved from Iraq to Malaysia 8 years ago—tells me it’s not my fault, but how far down the rung does the excuse “I’m just following orders extend.” Is saying “it’s not you it’s the government” the same?
I don’t believe governments are necessarily representative of what the people want. Nonetheless, I’m wondering, does my passivity mean I’m exempt from responsibility?
I stare at the songs the Japanese government taught to Singapore’s children during the occupation: “Hail the Emperor.” I begin to wonder: have I ever been subject to this? What songs was I forced to sing as a child—what songs masqueraded as propaganda.
After 9/11, my fourth grade class was told that we should sing “This Land is Your Land” at the annual Winter Sing Christmas Celebration. We would also sing “God bless America.” The normal line up of songs that the fourth grade class had sung for years was wiped clean in lieu of these “American classics.” No “Shout: it’s the time of the year” and no Israeli Sword Dance. Instead it was purely patriotic. I was furious. I had wanted to learn the sword dance for years—I was desperate to learn how all those older kids managed to weave their swords into the shape of a star. Now I can tell you it has something to do with weaving – but I couldn’t do it for you. I can still recite all the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land.” Propaganda? I wonder: Did it help someone in the audience to hear the words “land that I love” float across the audience. Was it supposed to help me? This is one instance of propaganda I remember being able to distinctly recognize as propaganda even if I didn’t get know the word propaganda. I knew that my school had forced Ms. O’Shea to teach us these songs. She told us. We weren’t allowed to do the sword the dance. We’re there other instances? I’m sure. I guess the fact that I can’t identify them means that they worked.
Excerpt from my journal: Week 1 in Thailand (July 2016)
“The idea of spending an entire year here is overwhelming. The past two days have felt like an escape. I’ve been trekking with Taylor and will and it had proven to me that Thailand is indeed as beautiful as I thought it was, however when I woke up this morning I again was struck with the same all top familiar feeling of anxiety. I’m worried about simply negotiating lunch by myself.
Everything is strange to me. The sounds I hear. The feel of the air. I’m used to humidity. In Duck it’s like walking through soup sometimes, but this humidity is different. I can feel the water on my skin like dew. My bra from two days ago still is not dry.”
May 26, 2015
My final night in Thailand
Reading that journal entry reminds me of just how far I’ve come. Thailand is no longer an overwhelming place where the sounds and smells seem all too unfamiliar.
It’s a land of lemon smoothies – which I drink to “feel fresh” as my students would say.
A place where I lament not being able to “play water” when it’s hot because I have to go into the office
It’s Tuesday dance classes taught entirely in Thai minus the word “Sexy,” which the instructor screams out at random
It’s the accessory store “Pink Pussy” which innocently has a cat as its logo
It’s girls riding side-saddle on motorbikes
Dogs smiling in the wind with their paws on the dashboard
It’s a place where you smile instead of yell and apologize before asking for a favor
It’s a place where chili is not option but an essential – more than salt – more than pepper
It’s crispy pork over rice, papaya salad and 3 dollar movie tickets on Wednesdays
It’s the exhaust of a Song Taew that you don’t notice because the beauty of the rice patties distracts you
It’s the dust on your skin and the mask that digs into your cheeks as you strain to see Doi Suteph
It’s downshifting on red and up-shifting on green
It’s the two dogs from next door that crawl under your gate and tear up your lawn
It’s the small palm tree forest that grows at the agricultural fields, where the old men run faster than you do
It’s the students posing with selfie sticks in the sunflower garden behind CMU.
It’s three on a motorbike in the pouring rain
It’s thinking that ponchos are sexy
It’s finding food on your after you proof read a co-workers exam
It’s hearing the words “teacher” shouted from down the hall
It’s feeling your skirt fly up in the wind on your bike and wondering how Marilyn Monroe managed to make this look cool
It’s street food for less than a dollar and paying your utilities at 7/11
It’s refusing to use the water heater not to save money but because it’s simply that hot
It’s the 3 minute walk down your soi with empty water jugs and 1 baht coins that the machine will reject
It’s kao soi and Sunday walking street
It’s Larder’s Breakfast Hot Dog and the Hash Brown Supreme
It’s mosquito bites and umbrellas for the sun, never wearing a seat belt and always wearing a helmet.
It’s Tuesday nights at Jazz club and hating the foreigners for wearing elephant pants.
It’s not wanting to be called a foreigner.
It’s speaking Thai so people don’t call me a foreigner.
It’s accepting that I will always be called a foreigner: farong.
But still: Thailand has been my home for the last year—and that’s how I will always remember it.