Annika Paradise, RPCV, Thailand 101
My Peace Corps site, Phanom Benja, sat 45 miles inland on the Malay peninsula. I was the only white person to ever live there, but hundreds of white people bypassed us each day in air-conditioned buses hurrying from one beach paradise on the Gulf of Thailand to the other paradise on the Andaman Sea. We were the town that gassed up the buses; the town with the intersection.
The first misty morning I arrived at our bus “station” after a 14-hour overnight bus ride, I was full of excitement and nerves when the vice-principal met me with a 2’x6’ welcome sign chiseled out of Styrofoam and painted with fluorescent colors. Someone had lovingly made that welcome sign and it wasn’t him. Two teachers were waiting back at the school that morning and they handled me with cool curiosity but kindly fed me and made sure I had everything I needed to get settled. The hadn’t made my styrofoam sign either.
I first met Samruay the next day as she was coming back into the teacher compound after her weekend away. An evening Andaman breeze was stirring the heat from the banana trees. I had just unpacked, set up my pictures from home and hung my mosquito net when I heard her sing-song, “hellooooo.” “Ruay” was the first English teacher I met at the school and my official Peace Corps “co-worker”. She was the one who sought out the application and tackled the paperwork to request me, made my sign and would be my official liaison and cultural guide. We were both just twenty-two, and she was the head of the English department.
She had a wonderful, unapologetic toothy grin. She wore her hair long with bangs that formed sharp right angles around her eyes. Her tight jeans in 100-degree southeast Asian humidity flattered her narrow hips and slender figure. She was 5’8” like me, markedly tall for a Thai woman. As I watched her walk down my path, her slow self-confident dawdle struck me as the way an old friend would walk to greet me not a new foreign friend.
“He-lo-o,” she sang again in her Thai lilt, punctuated with a giggle. “Are you comfortable here?”
“Yes. Very comfortable. Thank you.”
“May I introduce myself, please. I am Mrs. Samruay Nabuntong, Director of English here at Phanom Benja School. Do you speak Thai, please?”
“Nit noy, ka.” (A little.)
“Very good!” And she jumped off the ground and clapped in excitement. “Are you tired from your travel from America, please?”
“Yeah, well I’ve actually been here for four months learning language, Thai culture and development principles, USAID applications as well as lesson planning. We’ve been in Bangkok, Supanburi, Nakorn Ratcha….” As I looked up, I realized that the wide smile had wilted. I didn’t think she understood a word.
“How many brother and sister do you have?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Only one?” she asked with a practiced rising tone of a question.
And we continued with this halting conversation that never strayed far from practiced units of vocabulary – weather, fruit, family – until we had totally exhausted her English vocabulary. “I am shy to practice my English,” she said. As she stood up to leave, she said, “I wish we could be friends.”
“Oh, but we can!” Slightly panicked, it appeared that I’d already been given the quick test and decided not to be friend material. And here I am halfway around the world from home and my co-worker just told me we cannot be friends. Sh*t.
“I am married,” and she walked away with more purpose and direction than her playful approach. And that was the last time we spoke English together.
I assumed that her comment was miscommunication, not her true sentiment. Our Peace Corps trainers told us repeatedly that Thai people are never direct but will talk around something and you must catch the hint. Well, I didn’t get the hint. Two years later, I realized how caustically direct she was at that moment: she could never be a friend; being a wife always came first.
Ruay was a country girl, not like the Bangkok Thais who made up the majority of the teachers at the school. But she was accepted for her undeniable warmth, charm, and intelligence. Ruay moved easily between the upper and lower circles of Thai society – easily slipping into the dialect that our students’ parents could understand: she was uncommonly proud of her humble origins. She grew up in a house on stilts in the middle of a rice paddy. No one in Ruay’s family had gone past the required sixth grade and her parents had to be persuaded to let her continue her studies. They wondered what purpose an education did for a girl in the world. Somehow, she convinced them. And by the time they had exhausted their resources to put her through secondary school, she received a full scholarship to attend Songkhla Teacher’s College. After college, she wanted to go to Koh Samui, a popular tourist destination, to improve her English, then teach, maybe travel to Europe, to tiptoe around the life she was born into.
Ruay and I were inseparable my first few months at site. Her husband, Pi Noi, was teaching PE at a different school about a five-hour bus ride away, so Ruay and I kept each other company and had sleepovers during the week. We ate strange sweets in coconut milk at midnight and in “Tinglish”, we shared our dreams and fears until one of us fell asleep. We were friends, not acquaintances.
When the water stopped running as it regularly did during the dry season, she taught me how to bathe in a sarong at the public well without giving a show. The whole village came out to watch the farang (foreigner) bathe with my awkward ways and white skin, and even the roti salesman brought his cart over to capitalize on the crowd – drawn spectacle. Ruay was serious then and gave sideways instruction under her breath; it would have been the ruin of my reputation if I showed too much thigh or flashed a boob. Sarongs are meant to soap and bath through – they’re like a showering bathing suit for the public washing.
Wriggle out of the wet one, while holding the dry one around you with your teeth. Then it got mumbly as we held our dry sarongs in our teeth. Small marches in place will help the wet one fall. Good, now shoot your arms through the top while still holding the dry one with your teeth. Don’t show your boob. Now let go of your teeth and wrap it around you. And fast! Cover your shoulders with a towel. Good! Then I curtsied to wild applause. I passed and Samruay and I laughed the whole way home. I had come to accept the challenge that Thai women walk in their lives: that narrow passage between respectable and not. The men make those decisions while the women create their own tribe.
Thai women were the most spirited and charming on their back porches and Ruay’s porch was the meeting place in the teacher compound. As school ended, the women changed out of their tailored khaki government uniforms and pumps and into sarongs and flip-flops. We came with cleavers, tucked under an armpit, juggling plastic bags of vegetables and meat to be chopped or fresh turmeric, dried shrimp, and lemongrass to be pounded into a paste with a mortar and pestle. Unmasked we lounged on slick teak benches and concrete porticos. We sat, laughed and I was part of a female clan in customs that are completely foreign to American culture. The women talked openly in ways that I never heard duplicated outside of the safety and creativity of the Thai porch. They asked if it was true that we put our elders into homes. When I told them that my own grandfather was living in one, they pleaded with me to bring him home. They explained that women were lucky to have the institution of prostitution because it was a safeguard for the rest of them against rape and the demands of too much sex with their husbands. Prostitutes were kind of a public service to the rest of us. We trusted each other to talk openly about our difference in culture. When I suggested that men should take responsibility for their own self-control and need not sacrifice the prostitutes, Ruay agreed with me. They teased her because she discouraged Noi from the brothels. That meant she must be having LOTS of sex.
We took turns teaching songs to one another. I taught the theme song to the “Brady Bunch” because that was one of the few songs I really knew from start to finish. And then thy taught me a Thai one and back and forth through our years together, while the bok-bok-bok-bok of the mortar and pestle kept time. We spoke of teaching, students, clothing, ghosts, movie stars and we dipped green mangoes into spicy sugar. For two years, I became a tribal woman, learned the sweetness of not waiting at the door of the men’s world.
Phanom Benja had no banks, no motorcycle dealerships, nor running water in the dry (hot) season, but we had the most beautiful lit basketball court for hundreds of kilometers – the fruit of a political bribe. Every night after dinner, Ruay and I were the first ones on the court, playing one-on-one until enough teachers, policemen and health clinic workers arrived to form teams. She was the star center on her college team and taught me plays and techniques that I still don’t know how to say in English. She even taught me benign exclamations to yell to the other team so I didn’t seem too out of place. “Ooowi!” “Aaaaya!”
“Why didn’t you ever go to work in tourism on Koh Samui after graduation?” I asked one day while doing layups.
“I had a job all lined up but the Pi Noi showed interest in me. That’s why I can’t be successful. I’m married.”
“Did you want to marry him?”
“Of course I did! All women want to get married. We’re not like American women who can just have independence. I wanted to get a scholarship and study in Australia or America. I wanted to be like you.”
This may sound like a contradiction in logic, but everything in Thailand is a contradiction in logic. Flashing a boob at the well is a catastrophe but it’s fine for sex workers to shoot ping pong balls from their privates to a crowd. You can publicly pick your nose with enthusiasm, but picking your teeth is highly impolite. “Logic” began to seem like my own cultural lens and after living there for so long I just accepted all the surprising thought lines. I didn’t however, feel the urgency that most Thai women my age felt about marriage.
My nearest PCV, neighbor, Dave would come over often on his motorcycle and join Ruay and me for a meal. Working as a fisheries volunteer he didn’t often eat well and so would sometimes ask for fifths on dinner. And as any American male would do, he would start helping with dishes. When he was out of earshot, she would show her amazement.
“Marry this man! He honors us by eating five plates of rice and then tries to wash dishes!”
“It’s not uncommon in America. Even the worst men do dishes and eat lots of food. He hasn’t done a dish since he’s been in this country – it’s good to let him do something.”
“You have to get married sometime.”
“Well, there’s so much I want to do before I get married. I’m only 22; I’m in no rush.”
“That’s very old, Anni. In Thailand, you’re too old for a top husband.”
“But I’m American, remember. Many women get married, even in their thirties.”
“You get bad choices if you wait that long. Marry him.” Maybe she was looking out for me or maybe it was her way of bringing us together so that we could learn this marriage thing together.
My friendship to Ruay proved to be an exercise in frustration. In my second year at Phanom Benja, Pi Noi transferred to our school and Ruay transformed before my eyes from a basketball-playing soul sister to a fifties housewife. Her depth and desires became replaced by her quest for the perfect curry. She stopped coming to basketball to starch the collars on Pi Noi’s shirts.
I had come to understand that she was trying to forget her dreams and as she did, she pushed me further and further away. She probably sensed my disappointment for her current way of life. I spent more time away from campus working on micro-lending, made a new circle of friends that didn’t include her, even if she was nearest and dearest to my heart. We had flashes of giggling connections in my last year, but I sensed her desired distance from me and all that I represented. I tried to respect it.
Invariably in the lunch room, she wanted to hear all the details of my weekends if the PCV’s had a gathering. Where did we go? What did we do? Did the men really cook? And clean?
There are two seasons in the southern half of the Malay Peninsula: hot and wet and extra hot and dry. In the hot season, the orange earth swirls up in dust clouds after a motorcycle passes and even the vipers with their intense survival abilities start to desperately search for water. The school closed for two months at the height of the heat and the teacher compound was virtually empty. When I wasn’t working on other projects I would enjoy the lull. Heat like that actually makes a sound – like a dull buzz. The few people left in the village would simply lay down on a teak chair – a cross between a La-z-boy and an Adirondack. They would lay there with a fan and a TV to wait for the possibility of an afternoon breeze. Sometimes, I would simply ride my motorcycle fast enough to cool off and end up in the market. Water buffalo stood motionless in the middle of the road maybe looking for a clue as to how to cool off.
In the market, the pork saleswomen sat cross-legged in their sarongs and leaned their weight into one hand, cat-like. The other hand held a dirty sandwich baggie tied to the end of a stick. Their sticks swirled hypnotically over the pork to render a fly’s landing impossible. “Thai refrigeration,” they’d giggle. The market was sheltered by a series of tarps, like a childhood blanket fort and I sat up with them to pass the time, grabbed a baggie-stick and made myself useful. We slurred our words and everything seemed extra funny when it was unbearably hot. A woman selling vegetables flopped on top of her cauliflower and started to snore.
I turned to see Ruay getting off a bus, six months pregnant, and hauling a huge sack of rice. The rickshaw driver started yelling to her, “Teacher! Drop that bag and let me help you!” Under his breath, he muttered the equivalent of “What the hell?!”
She laughed openly, brushed away the driver with a wave of her hand and protested, “I may be a teacher, but I was a farmer’s daughter first.”
I ran over to her and asked, “Where are you coming from? Where is Pi Noi?”
“My parents’ house. I wanted to get back early and get ready for the new semester.”
“But why did you haul this bag of rice with you. If you came from Huay Nam Gaio, you must have needed to change buses five times!”
“Oh Anni, rice from your ancestor’s land tastes best and my baby needs to be fed by its ancestors. And I also know that no one has cheated me by putting pebbles in the sack.”
One evening when my two years at Phanom Benja were almost up, a very pregnant Ruay showed up at my door with a solemn expression. “Anni, will you drive me to get chow fun, please?”
She heaved her nine-month belly onto her scooter and with squeals of delight, we zoomed to the market in our pajamas—the height of rebellion.
As we sat at the market stall, she spoke to me in English. This was maybe only the third time we spoke in English. “What will you do when you return to America?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll open a Thai restaurant and teach the customers to sing Thai songs.
She laughed hard. She was the only Thai woman I ever knew who didn’t cover her mouth to do a belly laugh. Then she got serious and played with her noodles. “You’re so lucky. White men are so good to their women. You can do anything you want with your life.” She spoke with anger rising. “Thai women have to be part princess and part prostitute. Pi Noi is out with Towee.” This could only mean that he was visiting prostitutes, probably because he got frustrated with her current physical state. Usually, he was the only one to stay away. I hated him for her. I hated to leave her now. I was due to fly home in two months. “Can we stay here a while. I don’t want to be home when he gets back.”
“Of course we can stay here.” I was shocked at her candor. She was acting so un-Thai that I felt a bit frightened and yet true female friendships span the divide of culture. You know when your friend needs you. “We already have our pajamas on; we can stay here all night!” We stayed on for another hour or so and caught each other up on everything going on in our lives.
When labor came days later, Ruay wasn’t dramatic or overtly showing her pain, but instead calmly asked me to cover her classes. Pi Noi drove her on his fancy Ninja motorcycle down the bumpy dirt road to the clinic. She rode side-saddle, head down, clutching to him through the contractions. He was beaming with excitement and happiness. All the students cheered as they left the school campus in the mid-day.
Exactly two years from the day I met Ruay, it was time to board the bus to Bangkok for end-of-service Peace Corps parties and just days away from the flight back to California. The people at my school and village had laden me with the essentials to bring home: rubber tree seeds, five-pound bricks of shrimp paste, a 20-pound durian, and photos and letters to remember them by. I didn’t have the heart to explain the strict agricultural regulations I would face in US customs. The entire teaching staff, market ladies and most of the students were standing with me at our intersection bus lot to see me off. There were no hugs and kisses, but hands together in a prayer position and tears, lots of tears. But Ruay was touching me, not letting my hand go. As I walked through the group toward the bus, she stayed glued to my side still clutching. Pi-Noi held their baby girl. Then she lost her composure and wailed, “Anni! Anni! Anni!……” as her stoic compatriots shot her distressed sideways glances. I felt nervous for her and in my own way I broke down too. I broke into the woman I was over two years before and I gave her a big bear hug. As I stepped away, she pressed something into my hand. “Please bring this to America” she pleaded. From the bus, I saw many of the faces that I would most likely never see again, but mostly I saw Ruay. As the bus pulled away from the dirt lot, she sank to the ground in a collapse of tears.
After my own tears subsided and I settled into the groove of the trip, I opened the envelope that Ruay had given me. Inside was her family’s address on a card and a picture of her in her basketball uniform as a college student. On the back of the picture, she had written very neatly in English, When I was young and single.
Annika Powell Paradise served in Peace Corps Thailand from 1992-1995. She taught English in a rural high school and trained teachers in English Language pedagogy. When she returned to the US, she worked in refugee resettlement before earning her MA in Education from Stanford University. Over the next five years, Annika taught in both public high and middle schools. In 2003, Annika began working at Naropa University as adjunct faculty teaching both creative and research writing skills. She also coached students at the Naropa Writing Center. From 2005-2015, Annika focused on caring for her three kids, four chickens, two ducks, one husband and a pug. Currently, she enjoys the flexibility of working one-on-one with students as well as furthering her own writing. Annika’s writing has appeared in Outpost Magazine, Brainchild Magazine, The Tribe, The Bark, Emerging Women Live, as well as numerous blogs. For more from Annika, visit her website: annikaparadise.com