The Glass Half Full

A week before I left, I was having wine with a friend when I expressed an insecurity I had about when I return from my trip: my identity. I’ll be almost 27, unemployed, looking for a job, and struggling for money. I don’t think that sounds very attractive or impressive. Especially in a city full of ambitious and successful people.

He stopped me and said, “You’re looking at the glass half empty. You need to look at the glass half full. This experience will show people you’re adventurous, can save money, and aren’t afraid to take risks.”

I’m sure hundreds of people have told me in my life to look at the glass half full — not half empty — but this time it really stuck. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it since I’ve been in this village because, well, I’ve had a lot of time to think. There really is nothing to do, and the Internet only works half the time. Last weekend I kept asking, “What do people do here?” There’s one restaurant, but like the Internet, it’s only open half the time. Same with the coffee shop. And that’s because the people who run these establishments live in them, too. Their hours of operation are at their mercy.

But this week I finally got a glimpse into what the locals do for fun. Wednesday night, I saw flashing Christmas-like lights and heard music across the street. My roommate Eva and I decided to take a look. Turns out it was a little girl’s birthday party. Her parents were drinking beer, and the kids were running around playing games. They invited us to join and insisted we eat a slice of cake. They taught us a few Thai phrases, and we shared a couple laughs over our funny pronunciations. It was a great evening.

The next night they were outside in the front yard again, so I stopped by to say hi. They were making a list of items they needed for a weekend camping trip. When I returned to the school the rest of the volunteers were chatting in the common area, so I joined them. Elisa — who is a 64-year-old French woman — was talking about a solo retreat she went on a few years ago in India. A solo retreat is when you seclude yourself from society for as many days as you want. No Internet. No human connection. She did this for 40 days. I asked her what surprised her the most during that time, and she said, “that you don’t need much to be happy.”

In a way, I felt like this notion of the glass half full — as cliche as it is — came full circle. Here I’ve been looking at what this village lacked, rather than what it has. It may not have a movie theater, town bar, good WiFi, or a shopping center, but it does have kind people who love and care deeply about each other. It also has a school with great teachers who really care about the kids. For them, that’s all they need to be happy. And that’s the glass half full.

Sometimes Kids Give You Gifts

I have only been at this school for three days now, but the kids treat me like I’ve been here much longer. They aren’t shy at all. They’re very friendly and welcoming. Every time I walk down the street they point at me and yell “teacha, teacha!” 

Sometimes they stop and sing the ABC’s song to me. Sometimes they name off colors in English. And sometimes they give me a gift. I’ve received a lovely ring, a lot of flowers, and then today, one little girl gave me a dead frog. Yes, a dead frog. 

I wouldn’t have expected such a gift from an innocent looking girl. At first, she gave me flowers and slices of an apple. I appreciated those. But then she disappeared for a minute. I heard ruffling in the trees. She returned with the dead frog in her hand and started waving it in front of me. Its body was pretty flat, and its bones were still covered by its black slimey, waxy skin. 

I wasn’t sure what she was planning on doing with it. Startled, and scared, I yelled “no, put it down.” But she didn’t understand.

As she began to place it in the pile of gifts she already gave me, I grabbed my things and ran. I didn’t even put my computer in my daypack. I just ran down the street with my computer in my right hand, and my other things in my left hand.

That was pretty much the most exciting part of my Sunday. All I’ve done today is eat, read, run away from a little girl and a dead frog, and write this blog post. 

My First Days in Thailand

After two weeks of packing, 24 hours of flights, a few close-my-eye tuk tuk rides, and one train ride later, I’m finally able to sit down and write to you all: “I’ve arrived!” Sometimes it doesn’t feel real. I spent so much time talking about this adventure, preparing for it, and just like that I find myself right here in this very moment: unemployed, sweaty, and blogging from a small coffee shop in the middle of nowhere in Phichit, Thailand.

I haven’t even been abroad for a full week yet, and I feel like I already have so many stories to share. That could simply be the consequence of being a foreigner in a new country though. Everything is an adventure. Even a short walk to this coffee shop is one. I don’t want to bore you guys with all the details, but let’s start from the beginning.

I left San Francisco last Sunday night, and it was pretty bittersweet.  Even though I’ll come back to SF in April, goodbyes are hard. I originally wanted to spend my last weekend in the city enjoying myself, but that turned out very difficult to do. I had to pack up my room for a friend who’s subletting my room,, and of course pack up my backpack. I pretty much ended up packing till two hours before I left for dinner with a couple friends. And then I went straight from dinner to the airport.

Nobody was at the airport because I had a really late flight — 12:30am — so I had a lot of time to gather my thoughts and deal with my growing anxiety. The thought of “what would happen if I didn’t get on this plane”?” crossed my mind a couple times.  Right when I boarded though I was befriended by a nice couple who sat next to me. The woman was from Bangkok and she lives with her husband  now in Santa Cruz. She told me more about Thailand, places to go, and all that good stuff, which helped ease my fears.

Once I got to the hotel in Bangkok, I showered and rested for a bit.  I was starving and eager for my first Thai dish. Trying to go where the wind takes me, I asked the connoisseur for a recommendation. Preferably a place by the hotel because I was super hungry. He told me to go to CentroWorld. I bowed my head, said “sawadeeka” and hopped in a cab. The driver  dropped me off at an indoor mall. Of course, that wasn’t what I wanted, but  I was so hungry that I didn’t have time to look up another restaurant. So I went inside and chose the restaurant that looked least like fast food.

The place was pretty empty which I didn’t mind, but then another woman walked in. She was Thai, petite, and in her 50s. Noticing I was by myself, she pointed at me and said something to the waiter, and then sat right next to me. We started talking and it turned out that she actually has a son who lives and works in SF. Cat, which is her Thai nickname, gave me a Thai nickname: Ying, which means “good.”  We ended up having dinner together. After dinner she insisted we get a drink, so we went to a rooftop hotel bar and shared a bottle  of wine. Without asking for it, Cat had some good life advice to offer. Her personal mantra is to “do your part.” If you’re a mother, be a good one. If you’re a daughter, remember birthdays, you know, the important stuff. She kept saying “people remember that!” She also had a funny way to judge the character of her friends through an exercise with her hands. Cat told me to show her both of my palms, and all ten fingers pointing straight. Then she took four on one hand and closed them. “If your friends have all this (pointing to the six fingers), then they good friends.” 

Cat and I parted ways and the next day I explored some of the places she told me to see. One being the Emerald Buddha by The Grand Palace. I’d been warned to cover up before going to the temple, and I thought I did (I had a scarf covering my shoulders!), but apparently that wasn’t enough. The officials made me leave the area and go across the street to where there are dozens of vendors selling clothes. I bought a white baggy shirt with pink elephants on it and went back to the temple. The Emerald Buddha was really beautiful. I kneeled, said a prayer, took the flower dipped it in water and sprinkled it on my head. It’s supposed to give me good luck and protection.

After I took a tuk tuk to a restaurant I saw on my way to the temple. Of course, it was a scam, and he dropped me off at the river. A guy tried to lead me on a boat for a “one-hour boat tour.” I said no, and told the tuk tuk driver this isn’t the restaurant I wanted to eat at. He felt bad and said “OK, for free I take you there.” Not sure what the point of that was, but I got to the restaurant eventually.

After eating and regrouping, I hailed another tuk tuk and wanted to go back to my hotel. After five minutes of trying to explain to him where I was going, we were off. But oh no, I forgot my shopping bag at the restaurant. I asked him if he could go back, but he didn’t understand me, so we pulled over to an alley where all the tuk tuk drivers hangout. He found someone who spoke English, but she still didn’t understand what I was saying. I finally got creative with sign language skills and motioned to him that I was eating, had a bag, and left it there. He understood! He repeated the motion with his hands, laughed, and took me back. And yes, my bag was still there.

The next day I took the train to Taphan Hin, where Sawan, the director of volunteers for the school I’m tutoring at, would pick me up. The train was pretty rundown with unidentifiable liquid on the ground, but it got me there safely. Once I met Sawan we went to get Pad Thai. He’s in his fifties, has three daughters, and speaks a little English. We talked about the school, and he asked a lot of questions about the U.S. Overall, it was good conversation.

Once I arrived at the school I had a little bit of a panic attack. To give you an idea of where I’m living right now, my room is in the back of a kindergarten classroom. The bathroom is occupied by one frog, two large termites (not sure what they are), and two squatting toilets. My bed is a wooden plank with a sheet on it. I guess it’s good that I don’t spend much of time in there anyway. The village is really small, but there are some places to hang out. There’s one lovely coffee shop, one restaurant, a temple and a school. And the kids are always playing and asking you to play with them. “Teacha, teacha” they say. It’s pretty cute.

My first day at school, I didn’t get a class, but I shadowed a science one. The volunteers here are given three classes to actually teach because they want the kids to learn as much English as they can. I’ve never taught a class before, obviously, but the other volunteers said they improvised and it was fine. It’s kind of like being a camp counselor. You sing songs with them and practice basic English words like colors, numbers and simple phrases. I’ve been told I’m going to be a substitute P.E. teacher next week, so that should be interesting. A lot of people just stay here for a week or two. Two volunteers are leaving tomorrow, and they’re pretty sad about it.  I’m not sure how long I’m going to stay because I’d like to go to Chiang Mai before heading to the islands. Maybe two weeks, or maybe one.

On Friday night, Sunee — the head of the volunteer program — had a reunion with friends and she invited the volunteers to join. We ate authentic Thai food and met her fellow Thai friends. It was a lot of fun! There was even an American who has been volunteering  in the Peace Corps.

Well, I think that’s about it. 🙂