Friday, July 28, 2006

Realistically speaking. . .

My friend Julie, who is spending the summer in China, commented in a recent email that she hates it when people paint an overly rosy picture of foreign experiences. She was speaking of her own experiences, of course, but it got me thinking. I have been editing out some of the more colorful details of our lives here. I know it comes as a surprise that there are less than perfect days here, but it can't all be pad thai and mangoes. In the interest of full disclosure, this post will be an entirely upfront account of the past week. Hopefully this will prevent the real estate boom that would have been caused by all of you moving here to experience Thai fire drills.

This week has been a, uh, shall we say, challenging one, to say the least. Monday afternoon I was in the 7-11 with Trea when she grabbed her arm and said "hot." She'd been bit or stung by something, and her arm was swelling. Her arm continued to swell for the next 30 minutes, until I jumped in a songtaew and took her to the doctor. He was a bit worried about it, but didn't think it needed serious treatment. He gave me some cream, some antihistamine and another medication. Then he mentioned that there has been a lot of dengue fever lately. Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes and can be fatal in some cases. Dengue mosquitoes bite during the day and are common in urban areas. With all the rain we've had lately, breeding conditions are excellent and dengue is a real threat. Especially since the only treatment is "rest and drink lots of fluids." Explain that to a toddler!

Of course, after this incident, Trea spikes a 103 degree fever at 9 pm that night. We don't have a car, the public transportation becomes spotty after 9 pm, and we can't reach any of the four people with cars who have given us their phone numbers just in case this sort of situation arose. Realistically, I know that the chances that Trea has dengue are not high, and that even if she does, it's a tiny percentage of people who die from it. But that's my rational mind. My mommy side is paranoid and already racked with guilt that I brought my innocent, vulnerable little girl to this country when you can get horrible diseases from mosquitoes.

Just as I am imagining the worst, we track down my boss in her office, and she immediately takes us to the hospital (have I mentioned what a great boss I have?) We're in the waiting room when Trea vomits all over herself and me, several times. The funny thing about being a parent, is that you kind of get used to vomit. At least I have. Long story short, the doctor isn't sure what's wrong, but can't diagnose dengue until Trea's had the fever for three days. I'm still not sure why that is, since we read online that dengue is diagnosed by a blood test, but whatever. They give us a fever medication and send us home.

Tuesday, Trea is sick all day, complaining of a sore throat, refusing to eat, and generally being miserable. I've said this before, but there is nothing so miserable as watching your baby be sick and not being able to help at all. She also had her nap completely ruined because, after 30 minutes of trying to get her to fall asleep and finally succeeding, the air conditioning repairmen show up. They were supposed to come Saturday morning, but you know, Tuesday afternoon, Saturday morning, whatever. I can't speak Thai well enough to say come back later, and even if I could, who knows when they would come back. A sick baby is so fun, why not add some exhaustion just to spice things up a little?

Wednesday, Trea's throat is worse, so we go back to the doctor to be checked for strep. No strep, but on the way home, crossing the street, I accidentally step knee-deep into a mudhole in the median. I was a spectacular sight, covered in mud on one leg, mud splashed all over my khaki capris, carrying a baby who is determinedly looking down at her mud-covered mother. If the locals thought farangs were odd before, they're sure of it now.

Wednesday night, Trea can't sleep at all. She's up until midnight, sleeps until 3:45, then is up until 6:30, sleeps until 9, is up until 2:30 in the afternoon. By now John is also sick, so he's home but not much help. I'm threatening to book tickets on the first plane back to the States. John wisely refrained from reminding me that Trea also occasionally got sick in the States. The thing is, when Trea got sick in the States, I understood everything the doctors said, and I had a car to take her to the doctor or hospital in the middle of the night, and I could call my mother and get advice (or just vent about my day). I still call my mother but I have to time it so it's no the middle of the night in Maryland. Minor detail, I know, but there's something about being sick in a strange country that is worse than being sick in familiar surroundings.

Fortunately, Thursday night went smoothly and Trea has steadily improved since then. We've had a quiet weekend trying to recover from the week we've had. Whatever force you believe controls the universe - God or karma or the law of averages - this week has got to be better than the last one!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Never a dull moment

Last Saturday night we had the opportunity to attend a welcome party for new teachers (that would be us and two others). We had some great food (fish stomach soup, anyone?) and some even better karoake. It seems the tradition is for new teachers to sing a karoake number, but I weaseled out of it. I put the focus (and the pressure) on John by suggesting to Mai Yai, the school owner, that he sing in Thai. There's a group called Loso that's been around forever, they are kind of classic rock here, and we have one of their albums. So, Mai Yai got Joke, her daughter to help (little side note: Mai Yai is a nickname which means "big momma," and her kids are Joke, Jick, and Jack. Too funny.) They managed to find the song John knows the best. He totally rocked it. Not only did he have the best voice of all the men, the fact that he sang in Thai blew everyone away. To really get this, you have to understand how sacred karoake is here. I've heard it's like that all over Asia, but here it's huge. And for him to sing a song by this particular group, is like a Thai rocking a rendition of CCR or Elvis or (fill in your quintessential American musical group here). He got through the first line and the Thais started screaming like it was a rock concert. Someone even ran up and gave him flowers halfway through the song. I'd never heard him sing a rock song before, and he was awesome. I realize some of you who know John are wondering how my humble, quiet husband could be hiding this secret rock star persona, but let me assure you, it is there. I wish I'd had a camera. The principal commented that he didn't miss a word. Cliff, one of the farang teachers, asked John if he'd memorized it. Cliff's been married to a Thai woman for five years and has lived here for that entire time, and he admitted he couldn't have read the words fast enough to sing in Thai. I think he couldn't fathom the idea that John might read Thai that well; he sounded a little jealous. John was familiar with the song but he didn't have it memorized, he's just awesome. Apparently word got out, because now his fourth-grade class wants him to sing for them. They could just be trying to get out of word problems in math, though.

I also had a funny encounter with Jick's grandma. Jick lives behind the school and practically next door to us, and her grandmother lives with her. Jick's mother is 60, so her grandma's probably in her 80s. She's diabetic, wheel-chair bound, and not quite all there. They have a live-in care provider for her. I was out for a walk with Trea, and Joke, Jick, Grandma, and the care provider were all outside in the yard. We went over to say hi, and the conversation went like this (in Thai, from what I could surmise):

Joke: Grandma, look at the baby.
Grandma: What baby?
Joke: That baby, the American one.
Grandma: Huh?

A couple moments pass. . .

Grandma: (startled, with great surprise) Farang!
Joke: Yes, Grandma.
Grandma: Who's baby is that? (Hmm, let me think, she's met John, and there's only one farang couple in this neck of the woods, so. . .)
Joke: That's Teacher John's baby.
Grandma: Oh.

Several minutes later. . .
Grandma: Is that farang baby one of the teacher's kids?
Joke: Yes, Grandma, she's Teacher John's daughter.

Grandma then went on to say that John was the handsomest man at the school. Apparently he did a perfect wai when he met her, and then spoke Thai, so she was incredibly impressed with him.

Random thought for the day: the trouble with being culturally sensitive is that usually, no one notices. Unless they've had a lot of experience with foreigners, they just take whatever you're doing for granted. That's the point, I guess, to blend in, but sometimes it's nice for someone to be like hey, you're really adapting.

In other news, John managed to order pizza for the first time. Sounds simple, but ordering a pizza and giving directions in a foreign language can be a bit of a challenge. The giving directions part hit a small snag, but it got here in the end. Another side note: food delivery here is awesome. Not only do McDonald's and KFC deliver, as well as the pizza places, but there's just one number for each company. Want McDonald's? Dial 1211 and your call automatically goes to the closest store. Each company has a four-digit number like that. Why can't American places figure that out?? Maybe Thais are just too used to having food everywhere; you can't walk hardly 100 feet in the city without having a couple of eating options. There's food EVERYWHERE. Thais eat 4 or 5 times a day, and they like variety. I don't know how they stay so skinny!

Finally, a scary incident from last week. I decided to be all motivated and get up early Saturday morning for a jog. I got up at 5:30, left the house shortly thereafter, and had a nice jog in the cool of the morning alongside a nearby stream. I was walking back when I encountered a dog. Now, dogs are everywhere in Thailand, as pets and also strays. Most are passive but some are aggressive. This wasn't just any dog, though; it was a freaking Rottweiler. I've had pet dogs and some pretty big ones, and I'm not usually afraid of them. A rottweiler, in a country where rabies is endemic, is another story. As soon as I saw it I started backing up slowly and the stupid thing lunged at me. I yelled, and the owner came out of a nearby house and called it off. Stupid dog scared me to death. Gives me reason not to work out though.

That's My Girl

Disclaimer: The following post is all parental bragging. If that bothers, offends, or bores you, skip this post.

So, Grandma Jeffery and Grandma Harbertson, (I thought I'd address you directly, since you're probably the only two people still reading), Trea is doing wonderfully. She has adapted with amazing speed. Already she is learning to wai (a Thai custom where you raise your hands, palms together, and bow slightly. You show more or less respect by how low you bow your head, how high you raise your hands, and how long you hold the wai. Thais wai when greeting/saying goodbye, before accepting a gift, and to apologize). Trea hasn't mastered "Sawatdee kaa" yet, which is the greeting phrase for a female speaker, but she wais and says "kaa." She'll also do it before accepting something, if prompted. She also says "aroi," which means delicious, and sometimes repeats random things John says to her in Thai. Mostly, though, she seems to think that Thai is a joke the world is playing on her, and just giggles when she hears it. She does seem to understand some of the things the nursery teachers say to her, and she's learning their names. The other kids are nice to her and they all play together as well as can be expected of toddlers - as in, sometimes they share nicely and "talk" to each other and other times she comes home with scratches from fighting. Mai pen rai (no matter).

She's still a huge celebrity around here. Today I was walking her home in her stroller while the school clubs were meeting. I left her for just a second to talk to John, and the entire soccer club gathered around the stroller to see her. She took it in stride, of course. I guess you get used to attention when random people take your picture at church, at the park, whatever.

To get the full effect of this next anecdote, you need to visualize a songtaow, a pickup truck with two bench seats in the bed, and more or less open sides and back (there's a picture of one on John's blog.) This is our preferred mode of transportation around Khon Kaen, since they're cheap (less than $.25 each, and Trea's free), fairly convenient, and, like a bus, they follow a regular route. That means I don't have to try to explain where I want to go to a tuk-tuk driver, I can just get on and ring the bell when I want off. We were on one of these tonight, riding home, and Trea decided it would be a good idea to lean out the side and frantically wave to all the passing motorcyclists, calling "bye-bye!" and blowing kisses for good measure. Thais, being Thai, just smiled and waved back. Everywhere we go, people giver her food, drinks, flowers, balloons, whatever they've got that might get her attention. I know she's adorable, but it's a little over the top. I'm really a little concerned about what will happen to this child when we go back to America and she's just another kid on the street.

Trea is also learning about rhymes. We read a bedtime story my sister-in-law gave us called Sometimes I like to curl up in a ball. Sometimes we'll pause and Trea will fill in the word. She knows pretty much the whole book. She also knows parts of Goodnight Moon and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? We also read a book called Hippos Go Berserk. It's a counting book, and once all the hippos arrive at the first hippo's house, they go berserk. Trea keeps saying "Serk!" is this really cute, high-pitched voice. I think it's the only part of the book she really likes, because she'll flip back to that page 3 or 4 times and say "Serk!" over and over.

Also, she imitates the sound on, when you enter the site. Wish I could capture it on camera, because it's really funny to hear. She even throws her hands in the air.

We eat a lot of meals at a restaurant near our house, and Trea has become well known there. Sometimes they have Thai music videos on in the back, and she likes to go back there and dance. The Thais think this is hysterical, of course, and everyone is entertained by this little light-haired girl dancing to Thai rock.

Finally, I am really glad that I splurged on Disney princess sheets for her bed. She has Belle, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty on her pillow, and we get her to lay down at night by telling her to give the princesses hugs. She lays down and gives them hugs and kisses (sometimes she tries to feed them snacks, too, which is a little more problematic). She has no idea who they are, because she's never seen any Disney movies, but it works.

Okay, bragging done. Next post will be more normal, I promise.

Friday, July 14, 2006


We had a fire drill at school today. It was not, however, remotely like the fire drills I had in school. First, it's a once-a-semester (sometimes once-a-year) event that has been planned for weeks, and everyone knew it. It's actually been rescheduled a couple of times because "it might rain." It's the rainy season in Thailand; there's a good chance on any given day that it's going to rain. Andy (one of the other farang teachers) suggested he just pull the fire alarm one day. There are two problems with this, it would seem: one, there's no fire alarm, and two, Teacher Jick (my boss) said, "if it's a surprise, the students will walk all over each other." Right, because we wouldn't want to spring a fire drill on anyone, would we?

Anyhow, they finally decided to just do it. To add an element of excitement, the school had the gardener and some of the teachers set small fires throughout the grounds. Yes, you read that right. Real fires. All over the campus. There were three visible from the windows of my classroom. Once the fires were going good and strong, someone in the office played the sound of a siren over the intercom. This caused my co-teacher to run to the windows, scream "fire!" and run to the door yelling for the kids to get down and get out. So much for everyone staying calm. I had 19 three-year-olds belly-crawling out of the classroom with their hands covering their mouths - which was probably necessary, given the smoke that was coming through the windows! Three of the teachers ran around the school yelling "fire!" to practice alerting the students, on the theory that if there ever really WAS a fire, the intercom wouldn't work and we'd have to rely on this method. Let's hope there's not a fire.

Once out of the classroom, sans shoes, we hobbled over to the canteen to meet up with the rest of the school. Then the fire department arrived (on a side note, John said the windshield of the firetruck read "Welcome to Khon Kaen. How nice). One fireman jumped out of the truck and began to hose down a nearby building and the adjacent lawn. This caused a few jokes among the farang teachers about how it was really a yard-watering drill or a power-washing the school drill. He managed to water the lawn pretty well, but I don't think the building got very clean. The water looked slightly brown (this is Thailand, after all, and it would be ridiculous to use clean water to put out a fire).

After we all cheered and applauded the fireman for "saving" us, a local fireman gave a lecture about fire to the students. I didn't understand it because it was all in Thai, but apparently it included the chemical composition of fire extinguishers and an in-detail explanation of why fire burns. I'm sure my KG 1 students were enthralled. Some of them did enjoy the demonstration of fire-extinguishing techniques. The firemen would turn on a propane tank, light the flame, and then allow student volunteers to extinguish the flame using water, fire extinguishers, etc. Very safe. It was probably the only part of the demonstration that got everyone's attention. It did make a couple of my kids cry, but they got over it quickly.

Can't say I feel all that prepared for a fire at school now, but it was a cultural experience for me!

Monday, July 10, 2006

There's a lizard in my kitchen (and why this is a good thing)

John and I decided last week that we really needed to invest in cooking equipment. We did debate this, because with the abundance of cheap take-out, it's not necessary to cook. It will also almost always cost more to cook at home, especially since it will be farang food 90% of the time. But, much as I love not HAVING to cook/grocery shop/do dishes, there are times it's nice to be able to cook familiar foods. And not to brag, but I like my own cooking.

So, off we went to find a stove. Yes, you read that right. A stove is not an automatic in Thailand; many people simply don't cook at all. There are some stoves here with ovens, but they're tricky to use. It's almost all gas heat, which make it difficult, I guess, to evenly and consistently heat an oven. Anyway, much as I would love to be able to bake, it seemed more logical to opt for the standard gas stove. The heat makes baking often sound extremely unappealing! We found a shop selling the stoves, and luckily the owner spoke English. We bought a two-burner "glorified camp stove," as John calls it, plus a large gas can and all the accessories. They even delivered and gave us a ride home in the process. The guy who drove us home helped us carry it in; it amazes me how quickly Thais can take off their shoes. Usually they just wear flip flops, but still, they can slip them off without missing a step.

That night we went shopping for cooking utensils and cookware. I decided my first dish would be fettucine alfredo, only I couldn't find parmesan cheese. Anywhere. Now, before you start thinking "what makes Kristen think she could find parmesan cheese in Thailand?" I have had it before. Only not in this city. I did find goat cheese, but I didn't think that impart quite the flavor I wanted. Oh well, I ended up doing my best to coax whole milk, butter, olive oil, garlic powder and a bit of cheddar cheese into a sauce. It wasn't half bad, with chicken and pasta. Even if it wasn't quite the flavor it would have been with the cheese, there was something incredibly satisfying about digging into a big bowl of pasta I cooked myself. (And since then I've heard that the big Tesco-Lotus - there are two - carries it, but it's in the freezer section with the ice cream and frozen veggies. Go figure.)

On Tuesday night we had the missionaries from our church over, and made chicken with barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, and carrot sticks with ranch dressing. John even bought A&W root beer. We had Pepperidge Farm cookies afterwards. Now, I realize that normally this meal would be nothing to blog about, but it's an event here. The missionaries loved it. It's fun to be able to provide a treat from home for them, too.

While cleaning up I found a little gecko in my kitchen. He's so cute. He's tiny but hopefully he'll eat the ants and spiders that insist on invading, and get big and fat. I'd rather have a gecko than ants.