Monday, October 19, 2009

The Princess and the Giant

Yesterday was a great example of why I will never be more Thai than the sushi at the Siamese Plate.

My two bosses Josh and Kat, the co-founders of CMRCA, are getting married in November.  It sounds like it's going to be an amazing weekend -- half in Thai and half in English, on a mountain somewhere north of Chiang Mai, near where Kat grew up.  All of the guests, or at least all of the company staff, are wearing traditional Thai Lanna dress.  For women, this means waist-to-floor length patterned skirts, silver belts, silk wrap-around shirts, and a variety of embroidered sashes and jackets, as well as lots of nature-themed jewelry.  Men wear light cotton slacks and these sort of classy shepherd shirts, with loop buttons and three-quarter-length sleeves.

Anyway, yesterday the office girls and I drove to a suburb of Chiang Mai, where a co-op of Thai women make and rent traditional Lanna clothing.  It was in a beautiful old wooden Thai house/pavillion that sort of grew into the trees, so vines hung down in open corridors and green leaves (still attached to branches) lay piled on the roof like snow.  In one long room the seamstresses had hundreds of pieces on display, as well as manequins demonstrating about a dozen different styles.  My coworkers were so giggly and excited -- just like girls going to weddings all over the world, I think -- and we all spent the next 20 minutes pawing through the patterned skirts, looking for that perfect color and design!

One by one Dao, Pui, Nid, Boom, and Benz found their favorite skirt and changed into it.  Then the seamstress ladies chose a complementary silk wrap-shirt, tied them in the style each girl chose, and picked out jackets or blouses or sashes.  They tied their hair back in buns and pinned on big fat fake buns (I have the feeling traditional Lanna women didn't cut their hair, EVER) secured with Titania-esque tiaras of silver leaves.  I was amazed... all of my low-maintenance, capri-and-t-shirt wearing coworkers transformed into classical beauties before my eyes!

I would have been much more giggly and excited myself if it wasn't for a certain uneasy foreboding that had settled in my stomach (and it wasn't the spicy pumpkin curry I had for lunch, thank you very much).  The seamstresses left me to the end, and as I compared skirts of all colors and patterns, they kept giving me worried sidelong looks.  I started to feel a sense of real cultural displacement.  Soon the reason for seamstress' nervousness became clear: after I'd changed into the relatively simple silvery-purple skirt that I'd selected, one of them hustled over to me and said in this quiet-but-emphatic way that is very typical of Thai women, "sai mai dai! san guhn bai!"

Or, "You can't wear that.  It's too short."

She was right, of course: the skirt came to a few inches above my ankles.  Over the next few minutes, I got the sense that Lanna women are serious about ankle modesty.  The seamstresses combed the whole shop for a skirt that might reach from my waist to the floor, to no avail.  Besides being possessed of secret ankles, Lanna women very rarely clear 5'4''.  

In the end they abandoned the idea that I could be made culturally congruous, and put me in the longest skirt they had.  See the picture, unless you are offended by bare ankles.  It was a wonderful outfit and I felt lucky to be wearing it!  My coworkers happily included me in a fun, girly, and self-admiring photo shoot, without a second thought.  But still, I felt bad that the seamstresses had been so uncomfortable.  Maybe they will manage to lengthen my skirt before the wedding.

Me and P'Pui as Lanna princesses (I call her "P" because she's older than me; if she was being formal she would call me "Nong Nali.")

Obviously, I'll never be Thai on the outside.  But as you can see, I am actually happy in this picture, not mortified at my extreme un-Thai-ness.  I can work on being Thai in other ways: Through language classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, fun with friends in the evening, and trying to find a place to live whenever I can. 

Happy Autumn to everyone, from the end of the Thai rainy season!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Language Barrier Killed the Radio Star

Life at my homestay in the village was full of surprises. One Saturday I was helping my host-aunt and uncle cook for their fantastic street-side food stand. A Ning had a very funny attitude about helpers. She liked to select the most exciting imaginable cooking task, such as a bowl of 1000 tiny chilis that needed to have their stems removed, and hand it to me with a big glowing smile: "geeeft for you!" Oh, the joys of participant observation.

We were out on their back porch performing various food-related tasks when I suddenly heard my name on the radio. At first I thought I must have been hearing things, but then the radio said "America" too...

I should explain that this is a local radio station, a one-man show produced and hosted by the venerable DJ Kong. Mae Noi says that everyone in the villages of Doi Saket, Mae Rim, and San Sai listen to him every day. To preserve my dignity I prefer to think he broadcasts within 100 meters of his house. He plays emotional Thai rock music and gets a lot of calls from older women on staticky cell phones, who seem to be reporting the latest village gossip.

Still hoping that I had misheard, I glared at the little plastic radio and listened. Unfortunately, my Thai was just good enough to understand what the DJ said next, which was "What is Nali doing?"

A woman's voice replied: "She's chopping eggplants."

At this point I could do nothing except brandish my knife bemusedly at A Ning, who was holding her cell phone and waving me over to talk with the DJ ("geeeft for you!"). There was no escape. I spent the next minute or so stuttering on the Doi Saket regional radio station, our own little radio echoing each grossly mispronounced word and nervous laugh on a half-second time delay. My host family was helpless with laughter. As, I imagine, was everyone else in the vicinity, at least those who were fans of DJ Kong.

The end result of this episode was that the parental generation of my host family decided that DJ Kong and I were destined for each other. I endured a steady stream of DJ Kong jokes until later that weekend, when after a beautiful dinner at a mountain lake near Doi Saket, they dragged me to his house. A Ning, who had never met DJ Kong in person before, was beside herself with excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, Mae Noi handed me some fruit to give to our host. No Noi (my host brother's girlfriend) drew me aside conspiratorially and assured me that DJ Kong was not actually handsome. What a scene!

DJ Kong turned out to be a kind man in his early 50s, with a simple but impressive broadcasting setup in his garage. He gave us a quick tour, and though I assured him repeatedly that it was not necessary, he insisted on interviewing me for the show. Live, of course. Resistance was futile, so I sat in a chair next to him, half delighted at the silliness of the situation and half dreading my inevitable embarrassment. No Noi and Mae Noi were poised at my shoulders, ready to whisper the appropriate answers to the DJ's questions in my ear.

After a short, pathetically one-sided "interview," we began receiving calls from listeners. If understanding DJ Kong's questions had been tricky, following the callers' speech was totally impossible. Through static and feedback we would hear something that was obviously a question for me, though I'd have no idea what it was; everyone in the room would look at me expectantly while I gaped at them in uselessness. Then No Noi and Mae Noi would lean in and whisper different things in both my ears. Sometimes I recognized one word from the garbled question and ran with it, trying to guess what they had asked. That worked a couple of times, until a disastrous misinterpretation caused me to mistakenly announce to the entire Doi Saket region that I don't have a boyfriend.

Eventually DJ Kong would quietly answer the caller for me, and I would scramble to close the call with a frazzled "khop khun kha" (thank you). For the next few weeks the following scene was repeated several times, at the temple, at local restaurants, and especially at the market: An older lady would stop to look curiously at me. Mae Noi, as always, would introduce me as her daughter. The lady would laugh at this, and Mae Noi would point at me conspiratorially, saying something about "DJ Kong!" Then the lady would say to me, with a look of dawning recognition, "Nali is chopping eggplants!"

So that was who I was in Doi Saket: an idiot, a novelty, a daughter, and a radio star.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bai Tioh!

For the past two weeks I've been on break from my morning language classes. No more 7 AM Songthaew rides, no more Skype chats in the hallway, no more pineapple smoothies. Well, I still had smoothies. But instead of working full time at CMRCA, I finished up my homestay by spending those weeks out in the village of Doi Saket. With only occasional connection to the outside world, I helped my host mother sell vegetables at the market, almost got used to not understanding 95% of what people said around me, ate sticky rice at least three times a day, read every book I have here twice, and collected all sorts of wacky adventures.

I found village life rather unpredictable, which ironically I never would have predicted. True, some things could be counted on: Every day I went to the market with my host mother to sell vegetables. But then, as I was demurely cutting the rotten bits off of cabbages and humming the theme song of a terrible Thai soap opera, a friend or relative of Mae Noi's would drop by and mention that they were going somewhere. I rarely followed these conversations, but all would become clear enough when Mae Noi turned to me and said in blessedly slow and clear Thai (as if she was speaking to a sentient rock) "Nali bai tioh, mai ka?"

Tioh (pronounced tee-oh) is the operative word here. To quote the illustrious Ted Conbeer, it translates roughly to "field trip." It could mean hopping on the back of a motorcycle to visit a beautiful waterfall, or a bizarre topiary garden with hedge mazes and bushes carefully pruned to resemble elephants, bunnies with whiskers, and a Stegosaurus. It could mean sitting cross-legged on the splintery floor of a traditional Thai house for several hours, helping the lovely daughters of a neighboring vegetable vendor sew button eyes onto stuffed horses while watching a HORRENDOUS Thai-dubbed American horror film. Or, my hopes raised by that magic predictability-defying word, I might be led on a "trip" across the street to help wash a mountain of dishes. Often it meant going to someone's house and sharing a snack or a meal, for no apparent reason other than to eat together. Maybe I would consent to dragging myself out of bed in the 5-o-clock hour to put on a white shirt and accompany Mae Noi and Yai Da (her mother-in-law) to a special festival or ceremony at the nearest temple. Once I found myself singing karaoke, drinking beer, and dancing in my host-aunt's living room with a bunch of her friends from work -- at 3 PM on a Wednesday.

Bush bunnies at the botanical garden

1,250 monks all take alms at once on the main street of Doi Saket, early in the morning, to commemorate what everyone called the "big monk's birthday." Whether he was the fattest monk, or the oldest monk, or simply the most high-ranking, I have no idea...

Definitely the most epic tioh: going to the market with A Ning (red shirt), A Tao (blue shirt), Yai Da (purple), and Mae Noi (sitting out of sight behind the cauliflower) from midnight til 6 AM. This vegetable stand is the core of the family's financial livelihood.

I love tioh. I especially love its ubiquitousness in village life, which is otherwise dominated by strict work patterns. But the real reason I said yes every time I was invited to "bai tioh" (bai means "go") was that it allowed me to get to know the people in my village life on a much more genuine level. Since our conversations were heavily limited by the language barrier, following folks around and helping with whatever they were doing afforded me a real chance to engage with them. This became my defining strategy for life in Doi Saket. The moments of connection were truly valuable, because I felt strange spending so much time with people and never knowing what they were talking about. There was a lot of English in my head, and a lot of Thai outside of it. I was a little lonely, though I was certainly never bored.

Coming soon, hopefully, in no particular order: Posts about the market, my Doi Saket radio career, following host family members to their night shift jobs, and why I am the least Thai person ever to be fitted for a traditional Lanna-style dress. Also pictures. Lots of pictures.