Articles

Then and Now

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Three people way more important than me, and a photo op kneading noodle dough.

Katherine Gallagher, 131 YinD

April 2019

I left the office at 4:30, the time I had been waiting for all day. I like my office, my bosses, my coworkers, but right now my job is to “get to know the community” and I haven’t managed to muster the courage to ask my counterpart how best to do that. As a result, I sit and listen to my coworkers gossip, read kindle books on my phone, and study the Thai alphabet. Time moves at a glacial pace. I also write up half-baked plans for the month and think about how best to interrupt someone from either work or chatting with friends to ask them to babysit me through understanding my job (or at least that’s what it feels like). I know I have to be the one to take initiative here, to ask my coworkers for help, explanations, clarifications, and the information necessary for me to do my work, but I haven’t managed it yet.

In my final interview of Pre-Service Training, one of my program managers asked me in an obvious tone, “so right now, do you wait for Thai people to approach you to start talking or do you approach them?” I chuckled to myself, knowing the answer and knowing why he was asking. “I usually wait for them to approach me.” I smiled back at him, and he said (a little too casually) “oh, well at site will you continue to do this, or will you change the way you do this?” I laughed, as did the country director who happened to be in on my meeting, and said “I’m gonna approach people more.” My manager laughed, satisfied with my answer, and we moved on to the rest of the interview. Easier said than done, as I have found.

The suffocating heat of the afternoon sunk into my skin, and for a little while, I relished it. I have always felt renewed, walking out of a chilling room into the heat of the day. I tell my Thai coworkers that I don’t have air conditioning in my house but that it’s ok, I like hot weather, and they’re incredulous. My office is overly air-conditioned, and I occasionally walk outside just to let the air warm up my skin for a while. I had been listening to Florence + the Machine’s most recent album all day, and I put on “South London Forever” as I started my ride home. I found myself finally able to shake off the remnants of a day that had started off poorly and snowballed until lunch, and I was cherishing that bike ride. During PST, the bike felt like a trap—we weren’t allowed to seek out any other methods of transportation, and every time a songteaw passed me on the highway, I felt like they were mocking me. Now, the bike is my freedom. Every day that I ride my bike to work, I get to go home when I choose- I don’t have to sit around and wait for someone to decide it’s time to go and take mercy on me (I still don’t leave before 4:30, but I have the means to, and that’s enough). I could ride 15k to town and I could just meander out of my house when I want. I don’t, but that’s not important here.

Today began at 4am, when an alarm going off in my living room woke me up. It woke only me up. It finally ceased, then I heard sleep yelling coming from the room next door. I put in headphones and attempted to settle back to sleep, when lo and behold, the power went out. It was unbearably hot as I attempted to manually fan myself and fall back asleep. I dozed for an hour, in and out, until the power finally came back on and I slept until 7:30, when I woke up for work. I got up, rode my bike, forgot my jacket, turned around, and then made it to work late-ish. I ate a red bean bun they gave me for breakfast and then immediately felt so woozy and sick I thought I might throw up. I went to the bathroom, did my business, cried a little, and then the water wouldn’t run. It was out, the cook said, the main water line wasn’t running. I washed my hands with a bucket of water that had been laid out, and tried to go about my day. Later, a woman in my office who is “good at talking” in the words of my counterpart (she means this as a compliment, she’s bright and chipper and very nice, and always has something to say so we never sit in silence) took me upstairs to her office and gently told me that she was tasked with teaching me that I was supposed to wai (put my hands together and bow my head a little) and say “sawadeeka” to my bosses every morning and every evening when I left.

I felt humiliated. I knew that but no one in my office ever did, so I thought maybe they were just more casual out here. I feel put on the spot, a spectacle every minute of every day, and I just wanted to exist quietly for a bit. Here, existing quietly, smiling politely and sitting down at your desk, spending time in my room at home, refusing to go places, all of that is rude. I wanted to explain that but I couldn’t find the words. I felt like everyone was mad at me, disappointed that this was the foreigner they got stuck with. I had to remind myself what I so often do—that if someone seems like they’re in a bad mood, it usually has nothing to do with me. Then I ate lunch with my coworkers, chatted with my counterpart, wai’d my boss and my other boss as I left, and every single negative thought I had had suddenly felt overwrought, unnecessary.

 

8 Months later:

I left my office at 4:40, and hopped in my coworker’s truck. I get rides to and from school and my office on Tuesdays because the school I teach at is farther away than is really feasible to bike. Today is my favorite day, because every Tuesday afternoon my coworkers and I go to the weekly talad nat in Khlong Tom to buy fruits, veggies, curries, noodles, and snacks for our weeks. I piled my goodies (corn, greens, an unidentified vegetable, carrots, jackfruit, strawberries, and a desert made of little taro dumplings in coconut milk) in the bed of the truck, and we went to pick up their kids from the bus stop on our way. I have since moved into my own rental house in the same mooban (think neighborhood) as my coworkers, so when I haven’t ridden my bike to work, they drive me.

Today my coworkers and I sat out at the lunch table, chatting for a while before heading back into work. I told them, cringing, how I had come back early from my trip to Bangkok because the ATM card I thought I lost had been in my wallet the whole time. We all got a good laugh at my expense (me included) and went back to work. My main counterpart told me that they had had a meeting with the teachers and directors of my schools to check up on things, and the schools expressed a desire for me to come up with an evaluation system. I know I made a face, because she backtracked and told me not to worry too much about it, she’s incredibly considerate of my time and energy (too much so sometimes!) and tries not to put too much on me. I had to clarify that I had no problem with their wish, it was just figuring out how to do it that I was thinking about (hence the face). We laughed and she continued on to tell me that the director of my smallest school had also shared that she had told the middle-aged woman who constantly peppered me with questions about my weight and appearance to cut it out, after I had finally firmly expressed how much I disliked it. I laughed at that too. It explained why she had told me today “Kat, you look skinny in those clothes—it’s only in skirts that you look fat” (and believe me, this was an improvement).

One of my bosses came up to me and told me “hey—if she says stuff like that again, look her straight in the eye and ask her ‘Auntie, when are you gonna die?’” We all cracked up at that. It sounds harsh in English (it’s certainly not polite in Thai either), but it was my boss joking around, telling me that if this older woman wants to call me fat all the time, that I should point out that she’s old. It felt good to joke, and my coworkers and I understand each other enough to do that more and more each day. My main boss came in and said to me “Kat, you can’t speak Thai anymore! Only English!” (joking again as none of my coworkers speak English). My coworker shot back “Well, Kat’s gonna be talking to herself a lot then!!”

Don’t get me wrong. The office is still the wrong temperature—now it’s always hot because my coworkers are too cold to turn on the AC (it’s 80 degrees). Now that I live in my own house, I wake up at 4 am from blaring music (weddings start early here), monks chanting, roosters clucking, puppies barking, the list goes on. It’s not so hot now, but time still occasionally moves at a glacial pace. I still have misunderstandings, and nothing is perfect. But, I’m in a groove here. I didn’t need to worry so much about formal integration into the community, because my boss dragged me to every single community event for months. She strategically did exactly what I didn’t know I needed, and now just about every single person in the community knows my name, my job, and that Peace Corps will send me back to America if I ride a motorcycle or a man touches me (that last one my boss made up, but it seems to be working). I didn’t need to stress myself out so much about slacking off on the formal greetings, because I learned that a lot of people attribute my mistakes to being a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know any better. That’s not an excuse to stay that way, but it gives me some leeway and time to learn. My friend never had to sit me down again, and now my bosses tell my Peace Corps managers: “Kat bpen khon Thai laew” (Kat is already a Thai person).

I know most of the people I work with are happy that I’m the foreigner they got stuck with, because they excitedly informed my Peace Corps Program Manager that they want another volunteer when I leave. They told me the kids wait for their day to study with me, and that they genuinely want my input and planning. I still feel put on the spot, a spectacle some moments of some days, and I still just want to exist quietly for a bit sometimes. What I’ve learned is that here, existing quietly, smiling politely and sitting down at my desk, spending time in my room at home, refusing to go places, none of that is rude, I just have to pick my battles. I have learned how to excuse my way out of unimportant events if I really don’t want to go, but I have also learned that if none of my excuses work, it is because I must go. I live alone, so I have time to myself when I need it. I can politely refuse invitations, and I can choose when and where I want to go places—just not every minute of every day. I’ve also re-learned that I’m not a quiet, riap-roi (“proper”) person. I like joking and talking with my coworkers, and I like being silly and goofy and loud with my kids.

I am lucky to work with supportive, friendly people, and to work for two kick-ass women who look out for me. I am lucky that my kids are as enthusiastic as they can be for kids who still wanna look cool sometimes, and I am lucky that people humor my ideas and strange lesson plans. I have a ways left to go when it comes to my job, but I know now that I can ask people questions and that it’s ok. It feels like I had to re-learn how to be a person again! Use my social skills! Gauge when people are too busy to interrupt and just ask them later! Say hello, goodbye, excuse me, sorry, all of the normal things that people say in their everyday life that I had to re-learn the context of for some reason.

I’m sure the rollercoaster isn’t over yet. There will be slumps and highs and faster and slower points, but for now, things are good. I won’t say I’m adjusted, only that I’m adjusting. I’m settled in, and happy, and I have some leads on some friends my own age (!). I am feeling more motivated and back in the swing of things after a semester break, and I genuinely can’t wait to see where things go from here.

 


 

Read Katherine’s other articles and contributions.

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