Friday, February 15, 2013

Bridging Cultures #1

I realized something today as a string of awkward and/or embarrassing events transpired- I joined Peace Corps because I can't stand living a stagnant life. I have lived in the United States for 28 of my 29 years on this Earth. Too say I know everything about American society would be a farce, but I don't think it incorrect to say that by and large, I have a strong understanding of how America works and am able to work within its cultural confines to the point that I do not horribly embarrass myself on a daily basis, and, in fact, am even able to be productive.

But that's boring.

I joined Peace Corps so that I may be completely immersed in another culture, of which I know nothing. I understand there are going to be situations where I embarrass myself. I understand there will be times I don't know what to do and both a) doing anything could be bad and b) doing nothing could be just as bad. And guess what? I'm totally cool with this. When maintaining this blog in the States, I struggled to find material to write about because who wants to read about some dude teaching crazy kids (ok, actually, there's a lot of stories that manifest from working with mental health and juvenile kids, but I digress)? In Thailand, I have constant material to write home about because every day is an adventure. I consistently experience new awkward moments, strange situations, and confusing interactions and it's awesome because I get to laugh and learn.

I intend on forever capturing many of these experiences in literary form for you and everyone else's amusement on this blog in a running series titled Bridging Cultures # (name pending, it could change, numerous times, at any given moment). I figure it will be a series because there will doubtless innumerable times I will need to document a whole host of awkward situations if only to even remotely begin to wrap my head around them, not to mention give yous something to laugh about! Additionally, you will see these, and other, posts tagged at the bottom with "T.I.T." As much as I wish I was writing about boobs, this acronym stands for "This is Thailand." With Colin, we have decided to label any/all possible ridiculous moments by stating this acronym. Even only five weeks into this wacky adventure, nothing about Thailand would surprise me, and if it by some miracle did, it, too, would be labeled T.I.T. That being said, let's get into our series premier (all of which happened within a two hour span today).

Awkward Situation 1: Today was our last day TCCS volunteers taught at our practicum schools. It was a bittersweet day. The staff and kids at our small school, Wat Dong Khilek loved us immensely and hated to see us leave. There was much ballyhoo throughout the day with gift giving, laughing, and picture taking. Picture taking, innocent, right?

So, of us four volunteers at Wat Dong Khilek, two are with one teacher and the other two are with another teacher. The teacher I was not paired with has been very enthusiastic about us being at his school. While very kind, he is a bit difficult to understand as he speaks Thai quickly, without gestures, and his English is difficult to understand. Additionally, he has been quite "touchy" with me, but I don't really mind. It's different culturally, but doesn't alarm me. Commonly in Thailand, same-sex friends/colleagues/community members will touch each other, but differently than in the States. In America, when I'm talking to friends and closer colleagues, I'll put a hand on a forearm, upper arm, shoulder, a knee if we're sitting. In Thailand, touching will occur on midsections, all parts of the back, upper legs, and even the ass. With this one particular teacher, he has touched me on the small of the back, held my wrists and dragged me around, and also just below the breast bone. Ok, strange for me, but again, it's cultural. I can become accustomed to it. However, he's been very kind and has escorted me up the stairs while I struggle on my crutches to ensure I don't have an accident.

So, returning to today, just before lunch starts, many of the teachers wanted to get pictures with all of us volunteers. Cool, let's do this. They've been so gracious, it literally is the least we can do. As we all line up for the picture, I feel two hands touch the small of my back and work their way forward. He is completely hugging me around my stomach from behind. Hmm. Immediately, I know it's my new friend and begin to wonder if this is indeed cultural, or personal. But, he doesn't stop there. He then brings himself closer to me and rests his chin on my shoulder, most contentedly. We pose for what seems like an hour in this loving embrace. I'm feeling pretty damn awkward at this point, but in good Thai fashion, I don't show it. Finally, the pictures come to an end, but before we part, a teacher asks, "Is that enough?"

All I can muster is nervous laughter and a, "I really hope so...," at which point the lover finally releases his grip and I'm granted my freedom, all to the tune of Carly's cackling.

Despite my face not showing it, I'm incredibly uncomfortable. 
Awkward Situation 2: While at lunch, we were all discussing the cornucopia of dishes presented to us for our final day at Wat Dong Khilek. One in particular, som tam, was present. It's a spicy papaya dish served in a multitude of ways typical of Thai cuisine- spicy, sour, and/or sweet. I've learned that I'm not a big fan of the sweet version (the most common Thai kind), but will eat it; I just enjoy the sour dish more (this sour dish has more Laos influences). While speaking with my co-teacher, I definitely was attempting to convey my preference for som tam Laos over som tam Thai. I absolutely have the Thai language skills to say this (pom chop gin som tam Lao maak-gua som tam Thai). What actually came out of my mouth? Pom mai chop gin som tam Thai- I don't like eating Thai som tam. Why, I will never know.

Fortunately for me, just after I expressed my complete distaste for this dish (which isn't even true...), the woman who prepared it passed by just out of ear shot. My co-teacher made sure to express to her exactly what I just stated. She shares just how much I don't like som tam Thai. Immediately, I attempt to fix my faux pas, but to no avail. I have my head down and am laughing an embarrassed chuckle because I really don't know what to do/say next. My co-teacher then reassures me, "Don't worry, don't worry! She just made it at her home and brought it here."

I let out a flabbergasted sigh and felt like the biggest asshole in the word.

Awkward Sitation 3: Disclaimer- Lots of poop talk and information. If you get grossed out, don't read. If you don't care and like laughing, read on. 

I finished eating and felt an immediate rumbling in my stomach. My worst fear is being realized- a) I didn't poop in the morning in the comforts of a western toilet and toilet paper b) I have to poop and use water and my hand to clean myself and c) I have to squat shit with a broken foot. I absolutely can not hold this beast. Luckily, there was toilet paper on hand in the library, and I brought some plastic bags in which to throw them. Looks like I'm set.

I confidently, but slowly, trudge across the small campus to access the stalls in which kids aren't allowed. They're generally cleaner and impossible for kids to pop their head over the partition to watch you poop. I begin to take stock of what I'm dealing with here. A small target hole, two walls with which to prop myself, and a little bit of luck and courage. I begin the ritual, drop trow, and prepare to deposit my daily offering. However, amidst all of this, I overlook the fact that I have to pee too. Well, due to my limited mobility, desire to not get poop water/pee all over the feet of my crutches, and need to be careful to not fall into the shit hole, I figure it's best to not move much and I begin this really awkward pee motion. Now, not to give you a vision, but to totally help you envision this, I'm bracing myself with one arm, squatting as much I can with the limited flexibility in my right leg/foot, and begin to pee backwards towards the shit hole.

Thus far, this adventure has been a total success. After I finish number one, I begin number two. So, squatting. It's different. It uses different muscles and it's just a different poop experience compared to the western experience. This is probably going to sound incredibly ridiculous, but there I am squatting, and perhaps it's the pressure from the position (or perhaps I'm just making excuses), but I absolutely did not empty my bladder, and I absolutely finish peeing all over the back of my shorts. A dejected sigh escapes, but there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. So I wrap up, sweaty as can be, and gimp my way to class.

I arrive at the location at which class is taught for the day, and Co-teacher calls me over. I sit there for about ten minutes until I help out with the class's motivation activity. I assist some kids with the task and then stumble back to my seat. I sit down just in time to see kids pointing and laughing at my butt.

Yes, these all were things that existed. I laughed and figured T.I.T. 

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