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What we learn when we struggle

I wrote the following semi-auto-biographical short story for my Masters in Creative Writing, and thought I would share it:

You spent the last four weeks learning how to be a teacher. That was it, just four weeks.

In a small glass-fronted converted shop, you sat behind small desks and participated in large craft projects and focused learning.

And now, jobs acquired, you have just travelled for hours by bus and ferry from Koh Samui, Thailand, to Bangkok, Thailand. You arrived in darkness in a strange city knowing only that you had to get from this noisy bus station to the hotel, wherever that was. You had nowhere to live and had uncountable hours of uncomfortable, travelling tiredness behind you. The closest familiar thing was so far away that it was effectively unreachable.

You and your significant other, exhausted, snip at each other over trivial things, in a way you never do. You’re self-aware enough to know it is the tiredness talking, but that doesn’t change whether it was upsetting to you both. You find a taxi outside the McDonalds adorned with a Ronald McDonald statue doing the Thai gesture of respect – the wai. When you arrive near the hotel, you’re too tired to calculate the tip, and what you give is too generous, as your SO makes clear, even as you, embarrassed that you have made a mistake, try to deny it.

The streets are noisy. All of them. And dark and oozing with unfamiliarity. The sidewalks are slick with recent rain – a constant during the rainy season in which you have arrived. And the sight of rats running around piles of garbage is not just unfamiliar, but also terrifying.

And it smells. A lot.

There are food carts next to the piles of trash and rats, and they are being worked by people cooking at superhuman speeds. The food carts are around five feet long and are sheltered under old, brand-emblazoned umbrellas that faded in the sun many years ago.

As you walk, tugging huge suitcases behind you – everything you have in the world – the humid heat causes your clothes to be soaked as if it is raining on you now. And every voice that you can hear– every fragment of a sentence that drifts above the hubbub – is stretched into a sound that is unique to southeast Asian languages. The foreignness of these sounds is absolute. You are no longer in the West. You are nowhere near the safety of familiarity.

The hotel, when you eventually reach it, is mercifully not different. It is what you might have expected in any town in eastern Europe or touristy parts of Mexico. It is clean, quiet, and very small. A sanctuary that is, at least for now, yours within this massive unknown city where even the written words on signs, shops, and everywhere else that you see words, is an illegible script. You muse, as you lay on that bed recovering that evening, that in countries that use Latin alphabets, you might not know what the sign says, but you can at least sound out the letters. And even in Greece, where they use the Greek alphabet, there are letters like pi which you know how to say, and which, when sounded out, say “tram” with the exact same letter-equivalents in exactly the same location.

But Thai (and Laosian and Cambodian) are not the same at all. There is no punctuation and there are no spaces between words. After a year of non-trivial effort, you are not destined to manage to memorize the letters for even one word.

The next morning, you go to the school at which you had managed to obtain a job. If you’re a man, you’re given the ‘better’ job because men can’t work with young children. If you’re a woman, even if you’re more qualified, you’ll be shown the classroom for the young children and babies. You’re shown a classroom and told that this piece of paper is your timetable. Within five minutes of being handed that timetable, you are chided for not being somewhere not mentioned on your timetable and, when you mention this, the offence that is taken is absolute. You could have insulted their entire family and not expected such a reaction.

Back in Koh Samui, that relaxed touristic island, you had been given a crash course on Thai culture. You now know that you shouldn’t point at anything, use your feet for anything but walking (even that foot-button on the fan), shouldn’t touch a child’s head, etc. etc. But no-one warned you that gently, kindly, politely (in the West), asking how you were supposed to know something, is a sign of deep disrespect.

You meet with a coordinator who tells you that you should be in another place that was not on your timetable, and this time, having learned the lesson, you say, “Okay” and ignore them. There are no consequences for that, apparently. The coordinator’s name is Sam, and he pretends to be friendly at first. But it is soon clear that there is a hierarchy and you, if you’re white, make that confusing. If you’re white, you’re above all the other races in most contexts, but below them in the strict hierarchy of the school. If you’re from Europe, you’re confused by the reference to race. If you’re from the USA, it still stands out as bizarrely blatant. Even the old movies you have watched have not been so honest about the attitude towards skin color.

The classrooms have no glass in the windows so that as much air can flow through as possible, and wide covered footpaths go around the outside, even up here on the fourth floor, so that the rain can’t be driven through the openings.

“Why aren’t you in the hall?” the coordinator asked.

“Because you told me to be here,” you say.

“You should be in the hall.”

“Okay, where’s the hall?”

“We can take you there. You should be there already. You should be there ten minutes ago.”

“That’s not on my timetable…” face furrowed in genuine confusion.

“Why you not in hall, now?”

“Okay, let’s go,” you say.

“No, no. Busy.” The coordinator gestures that you should leave.

You walk the corridors and, eventually, come across the hall.

“Okay, teacher will be teaching you,” says one of the Thai assistants, stepping away from the front of the room, and looking at you directly.

You go to the front of the room, and a hundred two-year-old’s look up at you, waiting for you to provide them with… who knows what.

You quit on the first day, after being made to cry more than once per hour. Your significant other survives a long, long three months, mostly by ignoring the staff, or shouting at them, in order to get them to back down because they were ashamed for them.

When you were not in that school, the culture shock didn’t end. Wherever you were, if you were not in a car, you were expected to stand for attention at six thirty in the afternoon, while the national anthem was played. You risked prison if you disobeyed.

And if you were standing on an escalator at that particular time, the people at the bottom, would stop, as required, even though that meant they would be hit by everyone behind them, and even though they would act shocked that you did that to them.

You’ve slogged around the streets in the most severe humidity all day, and now you’re standing on the edge of a sky-train platform, taking deep breaths. You’ve just been glared at for pushing a local so that you can stand at the bottom of the escalator and you feel like going home. You take deep, unsatisfying breaths of humid, polluted air while looking down at the road below, crammed with vehicles ignoring the lane markings. An ambulance, lights and siren blaring, sits amongst the traffic, no-one deigning to let it pass.

You turn away from the road, seeking anything to make you feel more comfortable. A woman limps by using crutches and you see the undisguised disgust on the face of all those who see her.

Six months later, in another school run by people who seem to understand how to organize themselves, and with Thai staff that you have befriended, you ask them about the treatment of the woman in the plaster-cast, and the ambulance.

“Karma, kaaa,” she says.

“Karma kup?” you ask.

“She deserved the broken ankle, kaaaa.”

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Published inCreative non-fiction

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