Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Almost three months ago, before I had ever been to Thailand and the idea of living here was but a robotic answer to the question, “So, what are you doing after graduation,” my host teacher, P’Moo, asked me over Facebook chat whether or not I had ever eaten sticky rice.

Sticky rice? Um, maybe I have? Not sure…so probably, no?

Today (yes, it’s late again) I would like to take the time to discuss my evolving relationship with rice.

Before you quit reading and write me off as a crazy person that is wasting precious, infinite internet space blogging about a simple carbohydrate, you need to understand how integral rice is to Thai culture. Hardly a meal goes by where rice of some kind isn’t consumed. Khao laam, sticky rice with coconut milk roasted in bamboo? An excellent breakfast. Sticky rice and tamarind? A standard Northeastern snack. Ready for lunch? How does basil pork, moo ga-prow, with rice sound? Rice, rice, rice.

To regard rice as merely a staple of any meal, however, would do it little justice. Rice transcends the plate and permeates the Thai way of life more than I would have ever imagined.

If you look at the language, because you know I like to do that, you can see how rice has carved a place for itself into Thai semantics. For example, the verb “to eat” in Thai is “gin khoa,” which is best translated to “to eat rice.” In this context, khoa, the word for rice, represents any food. ANY kind of food. Can you imagine?

Moving to Isaan in the middle of the rice-harvesting season was also the perfect opportunity to see the importance of rice in the country first hand. One teacher told me that, on the weekends, many of my students spent time with their families harvesting rice. I should expect that during this time, class attendance might be low as students would be on the farm helping out. Jane, another ETA, said that one of the teachers at her school remarked that restaurant service was slow during the rice season, because all of the workers were out of the kitchens and in the patties. Such a small grain makes such a large impact in education, on the family unit, and, as the country with the fifth largest amount of land under rice cultivation (thanks, Wikipedia!) most obviously, the economy.

Before coming to Thailand, my attitude towards rice was ambivalent. Rice was a food that I ate at mediocre Chinese restaurants to sop up the grease that pools at the bottom of your plate of General Tso’s chicken . It was the half-hearted center of your average, from the box Hamburger Helper meal. Sometimes in my mind rice even took on negative health connotations. The American diet-obsessed media worships dietary experts, such as Dr. Atkins, who tell you to avoid rice at all costs, or, for God’s sake, choose the brown or wild varieties. As it went, when it came to rice, I could leave it or take it. Frankly, I mostly left it.

Living in Thailand has changed how I now view rice. After learning about the many different kinds of rice, I began to see it as a more diverse, complex food. Then, after a couple of failed attempts to make my own rice resulting in rice cooker disasters, I began to appreciate how much time and attention goes into making a dish that I had deemed common. (The process of making sticky rice is even more complicated than the looser rice we’re used to!) My friend, Eugene, summed it up best in a recent Facebook status. He commented that you know you’re living in Thailand, when, at the end of the day, if you realize you haven’t eaten any rice yet, you decide to make your own.

I’ve found that rice is not part of a meal to be filler or simply a vehicle to get the more important foods into your mouth. Sure, you could treat it that way, but it wouldn’t be fair. Rice is like a best friend that you can count on being there, and if it isn’t, you miss it sorely. Rice is a constant. Rice is your rock. In a word, rice is inevitable. (And, yes, it’s probably also the reason why it’s harder to button your favorite pair of jeans. Not that that happened to me this week or anything…)

After I had told P’Moo that I had never tried sticky rice before, he simply responded, “It’s okay, don't worry.” To me, the answer seemed strange. Should I have tried it already? Have I done something wrong? Where did that question come from, anyway? I couldn’t figure it out.

Recently, P’Moo mentioned this conversation after having enjoyed what is now, hands down, one of my favorite Isaan meals. Finishing a fantastic lunch of grilled chicken and fish, phad thai, somtom, and sticky rice, P’Moo admitted that he had been worried when three months ago I had said that I had never tried sticky rice. He thought that maybe I would not be able to handle eating rice all of the time while living in Thailand and that I would always be hungry and, therefore, unhappy. Luckily for both of us, this has been far from the case.

Eventually, I’m going to go home, and I know there’s going to be one question in particular that’s waiting for me. People will ask me, and I, no doubt, will ask myself, “How have you changed since spending a year in Thailand?” Sometimes change is obvious and fast, like dying your hair bright pink or adjusting your Swenson’s ice cream order at the last minute. But other times change is gradual, slow, yet virtually unnoticed, though it maybe should be. Change like this comes from understanding repetition, appreciating what may seem mundane, and seeing the beautiful complexity of even the most simplistic of structures.

I’m far from done with my year of teaching in Thailand, thank God, but I already have an idea about how I’m going to answer that incredibly self-reflective question.

How have I changed? You know, I really like rice now.

(Tune in next time and I’ll talk about my ridiculous amount of split ends and comment on watching grass grow and paint dry. Thanks for reading!)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Things That Have Happened


My host sister's reaction to a bowl of cereal

     Sorry that is has been a while since I wrote anything.  Everything has been going well.  Since I last wrote, I have been spending more and more time with my students.  In mid-October, they decided that I was not as intimidating as I seemed.  Now, they want my advice on everything from American music to buying clothes and asking out girls.  They have also wanted my opinion on topics, such as the FTA Agreement between the United States and Korea and which member of Girls' Generation (Korean k-pop group that my students idolize) is the most attractive (I always tell them that I prefer 2ne1).
Just chilling.
Isn't he great?

Part of my club class

    In mid November, I had a great opportunity to take some of the brightest boys at Geumseong High School to a Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference in Gwangju (pretty much a model-UN type even that my friend organized).  Before the event, I worked with the guys and helped them create a presentation that other students had debate over.  My guys wanted to talk about the controversy surrounding Dok-do island.  Dok-do is located between Korea and Japan.  For hundreds of years, Koreans and Japanese have debated over who Dok-do belongs to.  Naturally, all the students supported the proposal that my students created.  Despite being nervous, all of my students spoke very well.  I was very proud.
The guys giving a presentation on the FTA (check out the smirk on the right)

At the conference with my students
    As far as traveling has gone, I have made trips to Seoul (for a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner with the ambassador to Korea), Busan, Daejeon, and Gyeongju.  In Busan, I visited a fellow schoolmate from Middle School (small world!).  While in Daejeon, I spent time with some of my closest Fulbright friends and, in Gyeongju (which really happened in October- not November), I attended the Fulbright ETA Conference.  Gyeongju is one of the most historic cities in Korea.  It was the capital of the Silla Kingdom.  Thus, there are many historic sites to check out in the city.  We saw several graves and ancient temples.  The most impressive one was on the side of a mountain.  While walking around, an old Korean woman saw my friends and me.  She decided that she would give us a tour.  She laughed at everything I said, in Korean and English, and was constantly reaching over to give me hugs.  Turned out to be some hilarious cultural immersion.
Some tired ETAs on our intense tour of Gyeongju
At an ancient temple in Gyeongju

This guy would guard the temple

Downtown Busan

World famous Busan fish market

      When not teaching, at the gym, or with my homestay, I now frequently go to coffeeshops and meet with friends from Dongshin University, the local university in Naju.  The other ETAs and I met people by hanging up signs around the campus saying that we wanted to start a language exchange.  In theory, we  would teach the other students English and they would teach us Korean.  In reality, we spend about 25% of the time on Korean and 75% of the time on English (it's really fine because we are making some good friends).  We even met up with a few of them at the Dongshin University festival (equivalent to Gettysburg College's Springfest).  The girl group Girls Day performed at the event.  I was excited to see a k-pop concert but left the event very disappointed.  The dance moves were terrible and the girls lip-sung for only half an hour.  Between each song, they would also strike about 50 poses for pictures.
     When not teaching, at the gym, with my homestay, or at a coffeeshop, I now volunteer.  In early November, other nearby ETAs and I began teaching English to North Korean defectors.  This experience has been one of the highlights of my year so far.  I taught a class to elementary and middle school students with two other ETAs.  That opportunity ended, but I continue to teach another class to students ranging from 14 to 29.  Most of the North Korean defectors left North Korea by going into China.  Typically, they spend a few years in China and save money in order to come to South Korea.  Before we began teaching, we were warned that North Koreans see a lot of anti-American propaganda and may be suspicious of us.  So far, there have not been any problems.  In fact, they are extremely curious about our lives and the United States in general.  All of the students have a strong urge to learn English because they know that it will not only help with job opportunities, but also with adjusting to life in a democracy.  Unfortunately, it is likely that many of the students we teach in this program have gone through some major hardships.  Defectors from North Korea are often victims of human trafficking.  Families are frequently split and, in extreme circumstances, children are abandoned.  I do not know what my students have been through, if anything.  Regardless, they are still excited to come to class and are always smiling and laughing.
    In a few weeks, the semester will be over (AH!).  I plan on spending Christmas with the host family and then going to Thailand for New Years.  After a short vacation, I will spend January interning at the Fulbright office in Seoul.  I will be creating a documentary and short promotional videos for the 20th Anniversary of the ETA program.  In February, I plan on doing some more traveling (which is TBD at this point).  I will also get to bring some of my students to a leadership conference in Seoul hosted by the US embassy.

Hope all is well back home.

Stay warm.

Some holiday cheer at a mall in Gwangju

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Spoonful of Sugar

“I’m usually pretty good about not getting sick. Lucky, I guess,” I said as I clumsily dumped raw meat and wild vegetables into the hot pot and then presumably licked my chopsticks.

Direct quote from a conversation Sunday night. Fast-forward a mere few hours later, it’s two in the morning, and I’m hunched over a toilet, worshiping the porcelain gods. I’ll spare you the details.

There’s something about being sick in a place that’s not yours that intensifies the experience tenfold. Every stomach cramp or feverish chill reminds you of the magical, mystical healing properties of a Warholian can of chicken noodle soup. You fantasize about all of the Law and Order SVU reruns and lady murderer marathons you’d be watching at that very moment in a warm, comfortable bed that is all yours. And then, perhaps with a bit of rose-colored hindsight, you think about how your mom would love to be caring for you right now, waiting on you hand and foot. In reality, she’d maybe just pat your head a few times, throw you some saltines, and then over medicate you. Yes, being physically sick abroad makes you a touch homesick if you let it.

Luckily (and I am lucky this time), Thai hospitality and the hilarity that comes along with being sick in this country more than snuffed the quick flicker of wanting to be back in Pennsylvania on our living room couch. In my careful planning of falling ill, I made the strategic decision of doing so in James’s host mom’s house, an incredibly warm and sassy Thai woman named Mae Du. Not only is Mae Du a mother herself, but also the head nurse of the local hospital. The moment I dragged myself into the kitchen and melted into a chair on Monday morning, visibly unwell, you could almost smell her instincts kicking in. Mae Du was in her element, and I was to be her project.

After describing my symptoms in broken Thai and English (okay, yes, more acting than anything. You can imagine how ridiculous that must have looked.) Mae Du quickly got the picture and declared, “YOU EAT TOO MUCH! FOOD POISONING.” Sounds about right to me.

Mae Du instantly takes control of the situation and within minutes she is making things happen. She gives a series of commands in rapid Thai to her son, Ying, and he is off to the hospital to bring back medicine and a blood pressure cuff. I’m then instructed to make a series of phone calls, alerting the press of my state of being. First is to my parents back in the states, next is to P’Moo, my host teacher. Finally, it’s a little more forced hydration and a follow up blood pressure reading. Ah, yes, almost back to normal.

In very Thai, or maybe more accurately, very Mae Du style, none of this could happen without some humor thrown in (and thank God for that). Mae Du uses her electronic Thai/English dictionary to write out a series of directions for the cocktail of medications she’s sending me home with. Almost finished labeling the pill packets, she types out a final word and starts to laugh. Handing me the device, she points and says in unmistakably clear English, “pitiful!”

In a way being sick here was the quintessential Thai experience. I felt like an inconvenience that was welcomed with completely able and giving arms. Between the medicine runs, the rides home, the food, water and blankets dropped off right at my doorstep, I was left feeling grateful, pampered, and completely blown away by the kindness of those I’m surrounded by. I hope it comes across as genuine as opposed to cheesy when I say it’s difficult to find ways to express my most sincere thankfulness.

Moral of the story (and anyone who has any experience with Thai English competitions knows every story has one): if you ever need to be feeling less than one hundred percent, come do it here in Isaan. You’ll feel like the luckiest, most pitiful girl in the entire world.