Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The ubiquitous Thai/Mexican fruit stand

The ubiquitous Thai/Mexican fruit standI went to Bangkok for five days during Christmas. I was surprised at how Thailand is in many ways similar to Mexico.

It's hot:
The weather was almost exactly like Japan during the summer, but after a few months of cold here, I was unbelievably happy to be sweating in the humidity. T-shirts and sandals.

Cheap, delicious food:
Meals at real restaurants for less than $3, food off the street for less than a dollar.

You can't drink the water:
Only bottled water or beer, all drinks no ice.

People are devout believers:
Thailand is perhaps the most Buddhist country in the world; the average person seems genuinely content despite their situation.

Rampant poverty:
Giant department stores and expensive restaurants that only foreigners and a thin upper caste of Thais seem to be able to frequent

A country almost entirely based on tourism and cheap labor:
Thailand is a third-world country that functionally exists solely for the first-world. Thai schools require either English or Japanese language study - which you pick determines who you're going to serve, I suppose. Whether you're working in a hotel, a restaurant, or a sweatshop sewing wallets, you are serving some foreigner. Contrary to popular belief though, Thais themselves are the most frequent customers of brothels, not foreigners.

Almost everyone you meet is warm-hearted and helpful, except that the few that rip you off:
Kids approach us on the street to give us directions, the guy directing traffic in front of our hotel dances all day, the shop-keeper thanks you with a sort of elegant tranquility, the waitress in the restaurant asks how you are doing because she really does want to know. Then some guy tries to tell us a temple is closed to lead us into some back-alley trap, a taxi driver attempts to take us somewhere entirely different, and I catch another eyeing Maiko's bag. Suddenly I suspect these four little 13 year old girls that approach us to talk are just running some scam to distract me so another person can sneak up and pick my pocket. But then I notice they are all carrying English phrasebooks and just want to meet us and take pictures with us, and I feel terrible.

I really enjoy visiting and yet feel somehow guilty:
I am laying back in a recliner having my feet massaged for one hour by a squat, middle-aged Thai woman while sipping a fresh banana shake. This will all cost me less than $10, so I've been going every day. Rolling my neck, looking down and watching her brown, weathered hands kneading my deathly pale white feet, untouched by a day of hard work, I can't help but feel like I'm living some colonial fantasy. Though this amuses me greatly, I also feel guilty. Perhaps she is content in her work, something safe and easy that provides her with a stable income. Or maybe this is a great symbol of our relationship with poor nations; a white man sits in luxury tossing a sum of money literally at his feet to a servant that is but a pittance to him but her entire livelihood.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Conduct befitting an instructor

Being only 22 years old, I am at the most 6 years older than the students at school, something that I think makes them more comfortable in approaching me outside of class or opening up to me. The danger, of course, is that just as they can look up to me as almost an older brother, I can forget they're my students and start treating them like younger siblings. There is - I think, at least - a certain obligation that comes from being a teacher in which I have to act slightly different in my role at school than I would outside class, since it is a dual role that includes modeling correct behavior for the kids in the class. This mostly takes the form of pretending I don't still find gay jokes and scatalogical humor amusing. I can't think of a worse role model for not making fun of other people than myself.

For example, a few days ago I was teaching a class about Christmas and each of the students was writing a letter to Santa about what they wanted for Christmas and why. Afterwards, I asked if any of the students wanted to volunteer to tell the class, in return for points. This was Duck Boy's class, which is 21 boys and one girl, a class that is always quite rowdy. Him and his two buddies sit together and are constantly trying to joke around in class by volunteering funny answers to all the questions - which is in itself amusing because their attempts at diversion are really making them by far the most active and best participants out of all my classes. In this class, the first boy announces, "I want Power for Christmas, because I want to rule over Akira (another kid in the class)." This gets a laugh out of me, though I explain to Nietzsche that usually Santa can only grant objects, not metaphysical qualities. The next says, "I want a hot girlfriend. Because I want a hot girlfriend." I laugh again, while explaining that Santa is also not running some sort of dating or mail-order bride service.

The last kid, the Duck Boy, points at a kid to the left of him, let's call him Y., and says, "Hey, Mr. Adams. Yes, yes! I know what Y. wants for Christmas!" I wonder where he's going with this, but since it really does involve an even more advanced use of English to make a joke about someone else, I'm kind of impressed and let him go on. He continues, "He asked Santa for a deep voice!"

This is funny, because it is so true. The Y. kid really does sound pre-pubescent to a ridiculous extent; he squeaks out all his words in a voice that always seems on the verge of breaking but never quite gets there. Sometimes, hearing him ask a question from across class, I really do mistake him for a girl. I feel sorry for the kid, but not so much that I wouldn't laugh at him, which I start doing, very hard. After the few seconds it takes the other kids to process what he said, they start laughing too. The rest of the class laughing is what shocks me back into the realization that I am teaching this class, not in this class, and I really cannot be laughing at this joke. This is hard for me because I love to laugh at other people, especially when accurately characterized. I tell the kid that he's being a jerk. He defends himself, looking up at me, his eyes wide with sincerity, pointing repeatedly at the other boy, "But listen. Listen to him! Yoshimura, talk! He has girl voice. So he wants more manly voice!" I bite my lip hard as the class erupts again.

Changing gears, I point out that while Y. might have a higher voice, he is in fact taller and bigger than the Duck Boy, who is in fact, rather tiny (I use the word "chibi" or shrimp), so overall, they're about equal as men. Yoshimura gets his chance to laugh back, the class joins in, and I figure at this point that this is really the only way to deal with these sort of situations.

After class, both kids come up to me and Duck Boy reiterates that Y. has a woman's voice to me, while Y. calls him a shrimp. Both are being playful about it though, so I figure no harm is done as long as the barbs are evenly spread. The whole serious disciplinarian angle just isn't going to work for me here, so perhaps I will have to be the one to supply wit or comebacks to those kids in need instead.