Oh hey internet!

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I sort of disappeared for a week. It wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t even realize how much I needed a break from life until I was half way in it. Originally I only planned a long weekend, Friday to Tuesday, after Jeff invited me to his site. It was on Monday that I was aware of how much I didn’t want to go back to site, which is weird for me. Normally, when I get close to the end of a trip, I’m happy to go back home, see my students, and get back into the Thai groove. Yeah, I’m on a down.

A Volunteer from the ‘younger’ group, 124, emailed me about troubles at their site and I commended them for sticking it out through this difficult time. Talking to my best friend from home reminded me how bad I was doing last year. August is an awkward time in PC Thailand framework. 124s have been at site for six months, 123s are have just over six months left. So the newer guys are quite so ‘new’ anymore and have general expectations for their day, but there’s still a great deal of mystery. And they have an assload of time left. For my group, it’s not enough time to start any new projects, but there’s still a hill and a half to go, so you’re not really nostalgic.

I’m on the other end of that spectrum. Right now I feel like I have less patience than ever for the crazy shit that comes with this job. I even had those dreaded ‘WTF am I doing here,”this is a waste of time,”OMG you are so unbelievably annoying Thailand,’ thoughts. So with my excess vacation days, I cocooned myself at Jeff’s non-interneted, no running water, squat-toileted house. He cooked for me. We played catch (with a real baseball and gloves). I read while he went to work. No one expected anything from me. And it was magnificent.

I know this won’t last, but for today, I am not a ball of sunshine. I’m thinking about my own needs first. I can’t wait to go home. I can’t wait to not sweat every day. I can’t wait to be in front of a group of people who are quiet and listen rather than talk over me. I can’t wait to know what the fuck is going on. I can’t wait for my time to be appreciated. I can’t wait to not be laughed at for saying a simple sentence. I can’t wait to be with my friends and family that are not Thai. I can’t wait to not plaster a smile on my face and pretend like everything is ok. I can’t wait to tell someone my opinion and it not hurt their feelings. I can’t wait to not be a part of the broken Thai education system. I can’t wait to live in a city. I can’t wait to not be stared at for no other reason except that I’m white. I can’t wait to be understood or someone try to understand. I can’t wait to not feel hopeless.

And now, after that gaggle of negativity, something to guarantee to put a smile on your face. It worked for me.

Conquering the First Year

My first year of Peace Corps was an overwhelming rollercoaster of ups and downs that I’m glad to have made it out alive and now thriving. At least in my opinion. Your video of the week, talking nonsense about the nonsense that went on in my brain my first year of Peace Corps.

How Erin Got Her Groove Back

And it all started with a dress. I’m stretching out the blogging fingers because you’re about to get a load of sunshine your way. Deal with it.

Ups, downs, you’ve heard about them. It’s what Peace Corps life is all about. Your lens as a Volunteer, and how you deal with your host country’s culture, is often colored depending on whether you have your rose-colored ‘up’ on or your matador-cape red down. September was a real ratfink and I thought it would end once I got on vacation. Turns out, it’s a long process lifting yourself out of the abscess that becomes your brain like September did to mine.

Like I said, it started with a dress. My favorite coffee shop (it’s the best decorated place in my town- by best decorated I mean it’s Thailand at its finest, which isn’t too typical in the moo-bahn) started selling vintage dresses from Japan. I’m not sure how this works, but I’m far past the stage of asking these kinds of questions or ever expecting to understand the logic behind the answers. I saw my coteacher buy a few, but didn’t buy any for myself until one day I decided to try one on.

A sidebar here: I’ve got one of those bodies that pretty much everything looks good on. I can’t help it, I’m 6’2 and moderately thin. I’m not trying to brag, just stating a fact of life. Another one is once I try something on, that’s really all the motivation I need to buy it because as long as it’s in my size, it’s going to look good. Case closed. It doesn’t help that my whiteness is encouraged here so I longer restrict myself on colors that I once thought ‘washed me out.’ Why bother, the Thais are only going to think I’m more beautiful.

So I bought two dresses that day. Priced at less than ten American dollars, I couldn’t resist. This was right before I left for vacation. Kailyn and I checked out Phi-Phi’s offering of the shopping persuasion. Then she reminded me I’m a girl while we were at a beautiful handmade leather purse store. Cha-ching. Hey Rai Ley, what’s that you say? You have a crafty gal that makes beautiful jewelry AND gives discounts to farangs that can speak Thai? Why yes, I think I’ll oblige you with a necklace and three bracelets for myself and two for my Thai peeps. Now, what shall I pair to go with this…

I justified these things as vacation purchases, something to go along with my beautiful memories. I had been a good little Volunteer and this was my reward to myself. I’ve been here for ten months and throughout that time, I hadn’t really gone shopping and was letting myself float by with baggy polos and long flowy skirts because it was the easiest thing to wear that was Thai appropriate and I could deal with in the heat. I let myself go. I’m 23 years old. This is not acceptable.

With an extra week off from school, I decided I might give the shops in my town a legitimate shot at shopping. I was caught, three different times, by my various Thai peeps who decided to give me a ride into town. Those times did turn out to be good community and IRBing days, but it wasn’t what I wanted or needed shopping wise. Note, shopping with Thai people is generally not fun. I’ve found one Thai person that I like to go with, the rest rush me obscenely. This is not a process to be handled hastily. Humming the Mission Impossible theme song in my head and I snuck off into town to go where the wind blew me. It was lovely.

Hello Pandora, that’s a nice box you have there, mind if I crack it open? I awoke a snoozing monster. I tried things on. I picked things up, put them down, and picked them back up again. I turned around when I missed a clothes shop. I was spreading my wings and I wasn’t going to leave one rock left unturned. And I hit pay dirt. The thing about going to Thai shops is that about 3/4 of it is going to be crazy nonsense that looks like it either belongs in the 80s or is cartooned in some way. The monster was not impressed. Luckily though, there are many diamonds in the rough if you look and this was the day I had the time and the freedom to do so.

I don’t want to sound like buying clothes was the secret out of my depression (for this reason I’m not posting photos of my loot- though it does make me grin manically just looking at it), but it was the freedom I associated with it that made me feel like butterflies were flittering around in my stomach. For once I didn’t have to consider the people I was with for their time, giving me a ride, their opinion on the clothes I looked at, the money I was spending, or keep up a Thai conversation. Nothing. I will say though, I’m starting to believe in that old adage ‘if you look good, you’ll feel good.’

I don’t know if this is an Erin-is-a-nerd-thing, but something Gail Coop and I always engage in after a spree is a mini-fashion show of course. I tried this with my Pi-Chaai and she was pretty confused with the new arrivals. After all, I have been dressing like a man for the past seven months, she was probably wondering what drugs I was on. Is there a Thai phrase for ‘I’m high on life’? So I went home and did it myself. That’s right, I opened up the wardrobe doors (which is now home to a spider about the size of my hand, but that’s a story for another time) and mixed this with that and found outfits for myself along with long-lost jewelry that I forgot that I brought to Thailand. Pi-Chaai had one thing right, I’m not sure if my students are going to recognize me when school finally starts back up tomorrow. Dress wise or attitude wise because my little blogettes, the rose-colored shades are back on.

One of the most intense things about emerging from a down is remembering what it’s like to feel like yourself again. To laugh at nothing again without feeling a smirk behind it. To plug-in your Ipod when you wake up in the morning and dancing around to tunes you’d be horribly embarrassed if anyone else saw them on your playlist.  To feel your brain swinging from topic to topic instead of wallowing. To be glad to be going back to school. To be happy to wave and smile to everyone in your village. To use your mind like a Jedi and slowing down speech patterns so that you no longer just understand them, but you respond and make a joke at the same time. To look in the mirror and find yourself smiling back at your reflection. To not snap or roll your eyes at your host sister. To wave at the kids that shout your name when you bike by. To be glad to be in your village and never imagine leaving it in another year-plus. To look around and think to yourself ‘I’m going to miss this place.’ And the best of all, to know you survived another down and will be able to get through the next one with an eventual smile on your face.

The Thing about a ‘Down’

I apologize to the people who read my blog on a regular basis. I realize I’ve been a bit whiny and negative lately. I know I’ve told you about the down I’ve been riding out and the negativity is reflected in the posts I’ve done. Guess what? This is going to be another one and it’s not very pretty or coherent. I’m pre-apologizing so you can get yourself out while you still can.

My man Vinny knows what's up, this guy could easily be my best friend...if I could stand to be around other people right now

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, depression is characterized by an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. I don’t think I’ve sunk that far, but in my mass amount of free time, there are times that I can’t bring myself to do much outside of huddling in my room reading my book (or series at this point) obsessively. I do this mostly because I get to immerse myself in someone else’s world and problems rather than deal with my own. My normal flow and schedule has been totally disrupted, making me feel even more uneasy. However, the mere idea of doing those things is so exhausting in it of itself that I don’t do them. These are things I find vital to my being and normally find profoundly satisfying in the overall content with life way.

Part of it is to do with things about Thailand that I want to change, but can’t. Part of it is to do with things to do with myself that I can’t change because I’m in Thailand. And then there’s that whole being a Volunteer bit. I think of America all the time and how I wouldn’t face most of these problems. All the delicious food I could be eating. Part of me hates the smile I have to plaster on my face. Sometimes, I just don’t do it anymore. Part of my insides flare up in anger when I have to hear yet another one of the Thai jokes about me and the differences between us. What it sums up to though is a fairly impatient, grumpy person that is probably not too much fun to be around. I just can’t be bothered to do anything about it.

A month ago, I wrote myself a little cheer-up note to get me through this last month of school and I thought it helped. And then we started practicing for test last week. I think it’s a fair estimate to say that over half of my students can’t pass (and by pass I mean get 50% correct) the fairly easy practice that we did. What am I doing wrong? It doesn’t help that Thai students are completely incapable of thinking for themselves, which is the basis of the kind of teaching style we’re trying to introduce here. My teacher told me that it’s normal for Thai kids, don’t worry about it, but I couldn’t help but wonder, if you (and I mean collectively, Thai people, not my teacher specifically) don’t expect and hope for improvement, how will it ever come? I know it’s only my first semester, but after the defeating week, I felt the idea of Goal 1 of Peace Corps (transfer of skills from Volunteers to host country nationals in a sustainable way) was being promptly thrown out the window. This is when I tell myself to jai-yen-yen, but this hot heart of mine was going down, down, down and there doesn’t seem like there’s anything I can do about it. I’m too tired to anyway.

I never really experienced this kind of low before the Peace Corps. Most of my dips into depression had mostly to do with heartbreak/loneliness. This dissatisfaction with most of life is an odd outlook for me to have. They said it would come. They said we’d be on a constant roller coaster. You never really know until you do it yourself though do you?

The best part about this though, it’s getting better. Really. With only two more legit days of school left, it’ll be a nice break to get out of the classroom and hopefully interact with my students and my community as a normal person (as normal as I’m going to get at least) rather than the farang teacher. One semester down and three more to go, hopefully they’re even better than this one. I’ve got a nice little vacation down south I am counting down the days until. I caught myself shaking my little bon-bon to some tunes the other day. These are the signs and they are opening up my eyes (90s tune? come on!).

I feel even better when I look at the calendar for rest of my year. This three-week break is going to sweep October right from under my feet. By November, I’ll be ready for some routine again and I have a few things planned on the weekends like the American Women’s Conference, a hopeful English camp type activity at my best friend’s site, and then, of course, my first turkey day outside of the US. With November comes December and two three-day weekends, one being the King’s birthday/Father’s day ie lots of activities at school and hopefully lots of travel for this gal. Oh yeah, there’s Christmas and New Years in there too. I’ve heard that Thailand loves to decorate for these two, but I’m not sure how similar the celebrations are to ours. I think it’s safe to say, I won’t be exchanging many gifts this year and I’m ok with that. Word on the Volunteer street is that school take a week off for New Years as well, boom shaka laka. I’ll tell you one thing though, I’m going to enjoying teaching my students about this guy…

This is going to be me, forcing my students to learn useful things like Merry Christmas and Ho Ho Ho!

Luckily, 124, the next group of Volunteers comes in early January. I think they’ll provide a fresh and reinvigorating energy for us. We’ll seem like the old hats that 122 were for us and I hope I get to be a Resource Volunteer (go and give a presentation and tell them what’s the deal with this place…as much as we know anyway) for them. Australia and I will have our date with destiny and it’ll be our Mid-Service Conference after that. The days are long, but the years are short. There will be more ups and a lot more downs along the way, but right now things are looking good or they will be, eventually. Thank Buddha.

On an ending note: Happy 100th Post!!

The Importance of Being Centered

How many Sex and the City fans do we have out there? I watched Carrie and the gals on the reruns over and over again on TBS, I’ll admit it. One comes to mind in particular that applies to my post today. Now what could a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Thailand have in common with a gal-pal, sex filled, fashion television program set in New York City (outside of being really bored and watching every episode at least once in my time here, I haven’t yet)? Remember when Charlotte is trying to get pregnant? She tries everything from teas, a new husband, and even Eastern medicinal practices like acupuncture.

At the urging of one of their dinosaur-esque and married-to-someone-everyone-thinks-is-a-gay-man friends who was pregnant, Charlotte goes to see Dr. Mao. He sticks her with needles and as he’s leaving the room, tells her to get ‘centered.’ With the jack hammers going, her worries about her infertility, and general type-A New Yorkerness, Charlotte is unable to tune out her surroundings and focus on centering herself in the moment. It takes having to listen to one of the typical, exterior, superficial characters later in the show for Charlotte to understand how to do this and then use it again seeing Dr. Mao another time.

Dr. Mao, even as a fictional Chinese (I think?) doctor on a HBO sitcom, is onto something here. Call it what you want, centered, meditation, or being present, but it’s something I’m finding is integral to my life here. Before I arrived in Thailand, I worried how I was going to deal with roosters calling at 4 AM or the infamous Thai music that is so loud that you can see its effects as much as hear them. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you ‘being centered.’

I didn’t even realize I was there until I was on a bus with 50 or so Thai teenagers, music shaking the bus, a ladyboy in full make-up gyrating and humping other kids around 7AM when I did the oddest thing: I fell asleep. No one was as consternated as I was when I woke up. How did I do that? In America, I’m a natural insomniac and an impossibly, light sleeper. My brain went there.

Almost eight months in and I’ve found where I float into my Thai centeredness. Waking up from my nap (not from the music, but because we reached our first stop), I realized other things that come from this state of mind: my Thai is better, like Flo Rida, Thai frustrations (such as not truly teaching for a week) are shrugged off with a mai-bpen-rai, my new yoga regiment is done willingly and loving every second of  it, my brain performs Jedi mind tricks and slows down Thai speech to a rate that I not only understand, but can keep up with, things in general slow down and simplify so that I sit back and just enjoy life without a care in the world, or sitting calmly as 15 year olds drink whiskey and DDR their way through our bus ride and I escape without a headache.

I usually associate being centered with being on an ‘up.’ These are the times I love Thailand with a capital L. The goldenly glow feeling and things come naturally and easily. I make wild proclamations like sure, I’ll stay here for five years and be the principal while you live with my Grammy in the United States. (Yes, this actually happened with my principal.) I feel that I am my true self again, the ‘I just like smiling, smiling is my favorite’ self.

But for all the good it does me, riding on the feel good train, when I come back down, it’s nearly always a crash. I realize how tired I am from being ‘on’ all the time. Exhausted actually, I took a two-hour nap the other day and had difficulty rousing myself awake. I get crabby and hide out in my room doing singular activities like reading for an entire weekend. I get so homesick that I feel my body aching for escape to far and distance lands. I snap at my little sister for being a little, lazy chubster or breaking into my room without knocking. I shoot the death glare at my coteacher for translating the sentence that I want my students to understand, by themselves, in English. I read a new favorite blog of mine, Zen Habits, and roll my eyes instead of embracing the words and practicing them in my life.

The worst part is realizing how off track I am from being in the ‘zone’ and wanting to do anything to get there, but the harder I try, the further I fall into that little hole of a PCV down, skipping on the record of centeredness. I’m in a bit of one now, coming down off my last flying high. Lasting nearly two months since Reconnect, I would say I’m due for a down though. The last one, before I went off to Suphan and met up with other Volunteers though, was particularly vicious. I didn’t know how to get out. This is perhaps the most important part, learning how to re-center yourself.

Being at a low-point, allowing yourself to have the feelings and meditating on why you feel that way has helped me acknowledge it and move slowly on my way. I’ve realized that I don’t always need to come up with a specific solution to my problem because usually, like the loyal friend that it is, my brain comes back from crazyland, resurfacing like a submarine, letting me feel free again and accepting my issues for the small bumps they truly are. I think that’s what helped keep me so high for such a long period of time.

Part of that means knowing yourself well enough to do the activities to bring yourself out of that slump. I realized how much I need my other Volunteers, to keep writing, to keep reading, to keep studying Thai, to keep forcing myself out into my community. What do you need? Is it a fat pregnant lady blathering on about her baby’s nursery like Charlotte? Whatever it is, keep doing it. You’ll be amazed with what a smile can achieve, particularly so in the Land of.

An Ode to Reefs

Yesterday was a sad, sad day. I lost a pair of very dear friends of mine. I used to have them in my daily life, but now, they’ve been blown to bits. Literally (ish). Who am I talking about, my Reef flip-flops of course, and don’t you forget it.

Now it might seem ridiculous to dedicate a blog post to a pair of shoes, nay, sandals, but these were not just any sandals people. Imagine exploring a city and walking on air, standing all day in from on a Thai classroom without a backache to speak of, or traversing from water to cement and back again without a care…all because your Reefs have got your back. I’ve had these guys since my senior year of high school. We’ve been through a lot together and they were perfectly molded to the shape of my feet. Basketball seasons, snow, Europe and back again, and my first (almost) seven months in Thailand.

Jacket? Check. Scarf? Check. January? Check. No reason not to rock the Reefs.

I can’t explain how much of a flip-flop person I am and Reefs are the royalty. The freedom, the comfort, the ability to stretch out your toes for as far as you freakishly can. I preach to the masses about them. I was lucky enough to convert Jeff and witness the purchase of his first pair (he loves them thank you very much and has since bought multiple pairs, not Reefs, but we’re taking baby steps). I’ve come to the conclusion that wherever I work in the future, I need to be able to wear flip-flops every day. Where is that ok? Point me and my Reefs (as soon as I get a new pair) in that direction. I keep a solid stance that if the weather channel says the high is going to be above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s officially flip-season (it used to be 40 when I spent most of the day inside, but then I went to college). Sometimes that’s bitten me in the ass when it’s a rainy April day and I would stroll across Pitt’s campus as the library courier and I wouldn’t be able to feel my toes, but come finals, I couldn’t imagine anything other than sweats and flip-flops. (Side note: My Mom, as awesome as she is, calls them flips for short, while I’m more of a flops fan. To each their own.)

You can see the flip-flop love runs in my family, my cousin Jimmy even got them tattooed on him

So what happened? I walked out of my room yesterday morning to discover the soi dog puppies that come around at night had chewed through one of the straps of my right Reef. Now this isn’t the first pair they chewed through, I just happened to not care about  because they were 20 Baht sponge things that my little sister bought for me. As a fellow Volunteer told me, rookie move, Erin. Never leave the good flip-flops out for those nasty little buggers. As if I didn’t hate soi dogs enough, they had to go and ruin the shoes that I live in here.

First pair, Gambol knock offs, mai bpen rai

I understand if you get a little teary eyed...I did.

What’s a girl to do? Well with English camp to run off to, I had no choice to wear my black flats (evil, unsupportive, constraining things that they are) because we have to wear all black in mourning for the King’s relative (aunt I heard?) that has passed away. Government workers are supposed to wear black for the next 15days…uh Mom, can you send me a new pair of Reefs in express mail?! I might spring for a cheap pair like the Thais have to hold me over through then, but seriously, Mom, can you get on that? Black, Men’s Smoothy, size ten…you’re the best.

The ironic thing about it, just the day previous, I was raving about them to the other Volunteer at the English camp with me and mentioned that I was thinking of having another pair sent from America so that I wouldn’t have to go a day without Reefs if my pair I had died on me. Alright fate, you won this round, but I’ve got your name and number. Long story short, Reefs are awesome, soi dogs are not for killing mine (among other assorted reasons), and you should go out and buy a pair. Seriously, you’ll thank me later.