Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

The Loose Ends of an Era (Part 1)

This seemed like the best way of encapsulating what it’s been like the last couple months. I chose nine different scenes to focus on. Some are broken into multiple parts and scattered around, and some only contain one segment. Nothing is really in order, including pictures.

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I’m wedged into a small seat on a little orange bus somewhere in Indonesia. 24% of me is pressed against the hot glass of the window to my left. My pervasive “swamp-ass” is relatively under control today, and I smile at this consolation. My left foot, long past asleep, is shoved between the seat in front of me and the bus’s side panel. Outside the window is a reel of stone and brick houses and shops, with fences made of sticks and brown-orange terracotta roof tiles. Many homes are built on jagged wooden stilts withstanding muddy streams below. As in Thailand, everybody still tears around on motor scooters, most smoking cigarettes while they ride. Men and children pee in the grass off to the side of the road. Where are all the hot singles peeing these days? Some of the buildings have been abandoned, allowing vines and tall grass to claim them. In the distance are more rice fields, sinister-looking mountains, and clumps of palm trees scattered everywhere. Workers in old, torn sweaters and jeans crouch on bamboo scaffolding, smoking before returning to work on the mosques they’re building. I see loads of mosques under construction or renovation.

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I guess it’s better to tell them instead of not saying anything. “Okay, kids,” I begin. “Next week…” then in Thai, “I don’t come to school. I am going.”

Baitoey stands up and says, “Teacha Day-Rique. Why?”

Baitoey is probably my favorite student. This is saying a lot; I have a lot favorites. She’s a bright, motivated little ten-year-old who makes serious faces and looks away while she figures out what she is going to say, then smiles with her whole face when she finds the English words to express her ideas and delivers them.

I just taught them how to say “why,” and “because” a few lessons ago, and Baitoey is already employing these words with subtlety and command. Her tone is sad, maybe even a little betrayed; but, like always, she maintains her trademark curiosity and hint of sass. She is killing me, as are all the other little faces peering up at me in confusion.

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The teacher who sits next to me in my office shouts “Lake!” This is my moniker, believe it or not. It is the worst attempt at saying “Derek” I’ve ever heard, mostly because it is hardly an attempt at all. Later on I will discover that all along she has been trying to call me “Alex” instead of Derek because a previous teacher at the school was named Alex. (He still lives in Lopburi teaching at another school and is a friend of mine, actually; we have a good laugh when we finally piece it all together). The Thai teacher has never considered the possibility that I could have a different name than the other young white teacher whose name she nearly learned, despite my words in edgewise.

“Lake!” she shouts again. “Aaahh yew sleeee-PAAAANG?!” (This is her saying, “Are you sleeping?”). She always starts cackling by the last syllable. This is the only English she knows, other than “I” and “you,” and she loves to ask me this, especially when I’m busy doing something important and clearly not asleep. The less “asleep” I am, the more hilarious she finds it. Today I am grading finals. I have roughly 450 to go, but I won’t come near finishing in this session. I vow to wait until later in the afternoon to have my vengeance. This teacher usually tuckers out around 1:30, and when I’m feeling mischievous I say back to her: “You are sleeping.”

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They’re looking at me like I just told them I’m dying. The once constant background noise has ceased completely. I have a hard time understanding how I feel at this moment. I had partially convinced myself my leaving would be normal and anticlimactic, that some of my students would probably be glad, that there would be no sentimentality, just a sudden break; and now I can see a very different outcome. It is the most serious I have ever seen these kids. I knew some would regret to see me go, but I didn’t realize how grave the news could become. Perhaps it was purely their confusion I noticed, confusion as to why a teacher would leave and who would replace me. I am fond of most of my students, and I know I have barely started to process that I’ll never see them again. All of these thoughts occupy maybe a second.

I look back to Baitoey with a smile, drag my finger across the air, and say, “Because,” emphasizing this word to follow up on the previous lesson, before switching back to Thai. “I’m going to New Zealand. Maybe after I can go to Spain. English teacher Spain.” They nod emphatically when I say this. Baitoey considers my answer for a second then breaks into one of her charismatic smiles and says, “Wow.” Another student says, “Amazing!” The prospect of my traveling is so interesting and foreign to them, that they instantly become more involved in thinking about this than the fact I’m leaving, for which I am glad. “What do you want to do today?” I ask. It is our last class.

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I open the stall door expecting the worst. And there it is. The weird ovular sink-like thing embedded in the ground is hardly the destination of my choosing, but I haven’t the luxury of choice. Many of these ground toilets, a.k.a “squatties,” or “Long John’s,” bear the brand American Standard. I find this highly ironic. They aren’t that bad or unusual, but sometimes there is no bidet nor any toilet paper, nor a sink to wash your hands after. I also like to call these toilets “Gravy Jones’s Locker,” for reasons both literal and figurative. Figuratively speaking, the name fits because the squatties are a briny deep from which your soul can never escape, not completely, anyways. A part of you stays, again literally and figuratively.


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You are sleeping. You are sleeping. You are literally sleeping.” Vengeance.

A tough, stubborn old bird, she wakes up and mutters something in Thai. Then she goes on facebook on her horribly bejeweled iPhone and ultimately nods off again. Same as every day. I have also known her to yell “Lake!” and then throw a few limes at me, which she wants me to squeeze in my water. Sometimes, after a hearty “Lake!” outburst, she will sort of wag her wrist at me with her limp hand flopping around, and at these times it is very important that I eat one of the tart little bananas that get left in our shared office, so they don’t go to waste. She routinely steals my scissors, so every time I go collect them from her desk I pretend like I’m going to stab her with them, a recipe for more of her cackling. She loves it. It has become one of our best inside jokes.

My bike. 18 bucks

My bike. 18 bucks

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I swipe the scissors from her desk, conjure a menacing face that has become increasingly more sincere over the months, and I make like I’m going to gauge out her eyeballs with the scissors. She roars with laughter. I sit back down at my desk and start cutting up the paper to use in the activity I’m doing next class, and she comes over with a pair of scissors of her own. She barks something in Thai at the other teacher in my office who then begins watching her. Now she comes up to me with the scissors, smiling, and pretends to stab my face with the scissors. She’s testing if I will flinch, so I hold my facial ground. Her eyes bulge in surprise, she laughs, and then does it again, coming a little closer to actually cutting me. I hold still. Then she grabs a big tuft of my left sideburn and cuts it off with the scissors. I jerk my head back and watch the hairs sway down to the dirty floor. She is in an absolute fit of laughter. I look up at her and address her in Thai. “What are you doing? You can’t do that!” But she can and she already has. Then in English I say, “Why is everything so bizarre with you?” I may or may not have phrased this more obscenely. She doesn’t understand me, of course.


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My forearms rest on my knees, but I’m so slick with sweat that my arms slip forward and I start rocking dangerously in my squatting position, nearly falling over. I shake my head briskly to snap out of the weird stupor I’m in. Everything is hot and sick. I look around for something to clean up with, and I find an empty plastic water bottle in the trash can next to me. A short while later, when I carefully drop the bottle back into the trash bucket, it and I have changed permanently for the worst. My quads are shaking from holding the squat over Gravy Jones’s Locker, and I try to come up with another way out of here. I look down at my shoes and remember the old cross country trick of wiping with one of your socks and burying it. (Runners who returned with only one sock were greeted with cheers and laughter.)

I walk back to the cafeteria where my friends are eating lunch. I had assumed the lunch tickets handed out on the bus were dumb promotional things for booking future trips with the bus company and I threw mine away before I saw people using the tickets to get food.

“Y’all right there, D-Rock?”

I nod like a wiser, older protagonist whose problems weren’t solved during the movie, but there’s an “it’ll all work out somehow” feeling. “Lost a good sock back there,” I say. I rub too much hand sanitizer between my hands. “How’s the free lunch?” I ask. “I heard there was no such thing.”

Railay Peninsula, Thailand

Railay Peninsula, Thailand

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The island where they filmed part of The Man With the Golden Gun

The island where they filmed part of The Man With the Golden Gun

3 Comments

  1. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    May 7, 2015    

    Enjoyed your blog. Your writing is quite visual; the dialogue graphic; your situations interesting and humous. Sounds like you got a lot out of your Thai experiences. New Zealand should be quite another adventure. Enjoy. Best Wishes, Jim.

    • Jim's Gravatar Jim
      May 7, 2015    

      The word is humorous. Sorry for the lousy spelling. Jim.

    • Derek Rueschenberg's Gravatar Derek Rueschenberg
      May 29, 2015    

      Thanks, Jim. Means a lot coming from a writer such as yourself!

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