Well, This Is A Disaster, Isn’t it (Part 1)

I wish I could just write about something else. Instead of the week I’ve had. I’m not sure I’ve had more ups and downs within such a short period of time before. I’ve remained silent because I literally can’t think of anything else to say.

Then I realized that I can’t be a selective presenter. I must tell everything, good and bad.

It started Christmas Eve.

I dabbed makeup onto the tiny face before me, wondering, as I had all night, why we were dolling the children up for their dances if the only people who were going to see it was us. I had started at 5 o’clock and was still painting on my human canvasses at 7 o’clock.

I hadn’t eaten and I was dreading my own part that I would play tonight. I’m not a dancer. People have called me graceful before and that is very kind, but my coordination is reserved for impractical situations like climbing trees or crossing creeks.

I don’t know how many talent shows you’ve witnessed, but I doubt you’ve ever seen someone showcase their ability to climb trees or cross various bodies of flowing water. If there was such a thing, I would compete with better success.

No, this was us standing in a line and doing coordinated and interesting steps.

It was those crazy Filipinos.

I had expressed to them how there is no traditional dance of my people that I had been taught as a child like they apparently had. No expectation that one day I would be required to perform against my will. I always figured that if someone asked, I would politely say, “No, thank you.” and that they would just accept that and move on to a more willing dancer.

When you have been asked by the Pastor’s wife to present a dance and you have four Filipinos telling you that they will not dance unless you do as well, you might do what I did. Which was agree to it and complain the entire time.

After every practice over the two days they gave us, I would slump to the floor, in imitation of my little sister Anna and tell them, “I hate my liiiiiiiiife!”

Every move I made was a disaster.

At one point in the dance, we would all crouch to the floor and one-by-one each person would stand and execute a graceful move of their choice. Eight beats… only eight beats. When my turn came to stand and do something, I would limp out a series of hand motions and foot-tapping.

At first they told me I was good.

“No, really! You are doing well!”

Then, when they discovered that no amount of practice was improving me, they told me to just have fun. Which is a nice way of admitting that I truly was not good, but it’s ok, because if you laugh at yourself, others will feel less bad about laughing at you.

So here I was, dreading it with all my heart and painting the face of a little girl who had been raised to do her traditional Hmong dance all her life.

“Teacher! You dance?” the kids would ask me. I would nod and they would turn with excited face to the person behind them. “Teacher Eliza will dance!”

My dread heightened as the word spread and I realized that they would make a point of watching me. Great. I was hoping that the group-dance thing would rescue me.

I literally prayed and asked God to make it all go away. I am not a performer, although everything at this school has thrown me in front of a crowd with the Filipinos. Skits almost every week to tell Bible stories, teaching every day and then singing, which was by far the easiest and most anonymous thing. Now, dancing.

I tried not to imagine my family, cosily sipping coffee in front of the coal stove, snow falling past the windows, staying up late watching old Christmas movies.

That is how I am accustomed to spending Christmas Eve, not trying to compete with a bunch of five-thru-fourteen-year-olds in a foreign country.

They told me that dance is very important to Thai culture, that for every occasion they have a dance. So, I know why they asked, but in the moment, I would have traded nearly anything to not stand in front of a crowd and provide a glaring contrast for the graceful Filipinos.

I finished the face in front of me and one of the older boys, Tao, brought in two trays of food.

A Christmas feast. Pork, falling off the bone, served with noodles. Tao had piled oranges and a strange green fruit on the tray. I thanked him and he winked and left, laughing at all the makeup piled on desks in the classroom.

“Do you think it’s magic?” I yelled after him, “You are such a boy!”

I would have defended the ritualistic face-painting more, only I hated it now too and Tao doesn’t speak English.

I slid to the floor and pulled the metal tray to me. No utensils had been provided. It felt good to rebel against the system and use my God-given liberty to eat all the food with my fingers. Especially since my fight-or-flight response was screaming at me to pretend I had a fever and lock myself in my room.

I may not be able to refuse to dance, but I can sure laugh in the face of restrictive norms and eat all of a Christmas Eve dinner with my hands.

“Pe Eliza!” Judy, one of the Filipinos came in, “We dance in 30 minutes, you are not ready?”

She had her long, black hair in curlers and settled at a desk to apply her make-up.

“I will dance like this.” I gestured to my hoodie that I had been wearing all day.

Judy stared and I lifted a handful of noodles to my mouth. Rose came in at that moment. She was also wearing a hoodie.

“Rose!” Judy was aghast, “You will not change?!”

“No,” Rose looked down at her clothes, “Why should I?”

That’s my girl. Rose is the best. The most practical woman I know. I slurped my noodles as Judy looked back and forth, as if deciding on who she disapproved of more. The uncultured American who didn’t know any better, or the Filipino who didn’t care?

She settled on me. I was, after all, sitting on the floor, eating noodles with my hands in a detestable hooded sweatshirt. However, no amount of eye-rolling or sighing would budge me from my decision.

Judy turned to her preparations, obviously giving up on Rose and I.

I ate my oranges and tried to feel happy. It was Christmas Eve! And how adorable was it that they bought oranges for all the kids?

“Pe Eliza,” Judy turned, “Is it ok?” she gestured to her face.

“Yes, its good.” I mumbled.

She started pulling out the curlers and brushed her hair, looking a bit skeptical but without another person to ask. Rose had wandered out after being so scorned for her clothing choices. A glance at the clock caused Judy to burst into a flurry of action.

“Pe Eliza! Its time!”

I looked at the clock and felt dread like a lump in my stomach. It sure was time.

I followed her out of the classroom and into the crisp evening air. It is a bit chilly here now and it gets dark very early. I could hear the kids up on the second floor of the mess hall, chattering with Christmas music playing.

Through the mess hall, past the remnants of dinner and up the stairs.

They had lights set up at the front of the room and the kids were sitting in their groups, dressed in their traditional clothing and watching the first group dance. It was the little kids, doing the hand-motions to a child’s song.

It struck me suddenly that I wasn’t getting out of this. This was happening. I was going to stand up in front of all these people and do many embarrassing things.

It wasn’t one of those times where you hope you don’t mess up but have a reasonable expectation of doing well… I was going to mess up. It was going to happen and they would laugh.

Its not a nice feeling.

In the next moment I had another revolutionary thought.

Who cares?

I do. Just me. The kids will laugh and forget the next moment, the adults present are kind and generous. I, however, because of my incredibly monstrous ego, will shrivel and die because I am forced to do something I am not amazing at.

A fit of the giggles hit me. These kids were braver than I.

Here I was, moping about my forced role, and here they were, volunteering to showcase their talents for the enjoyment of others. I was eating food with my hands in protest, wearing my hoodie to show my independence, and making it all about me.

I decided to take their advice. Just have fun.

When they announced our group, the kids cheered to see their teachers up there. I saw them smile and I instantly felt the dread go away.

Not everything is about me.

When those eight beats of my solo arrived, I rose and twirled like I remember twirling when I was a little girl. A pirouette and a step from one side to the other. So yeah, I have been dancing from childhood, just not like a Thai or Filipino. Just like me.

I’m sure it looked ridiculous, I know they were laughing at me and I was laughing at me too. But something struck me, as we left the stage to applause, and that was that I enjoyed it and the kids had enjoyed it.

I had messed up. There was no mistaking that but it isn’t about me. I had released my strangle-hold on what people think and in the process I had brought joy to them.

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”

I’m not suggesting that we all go and dance to save the world. In fact, I intend to restrict my clumsy twirling to my home. However, I’m discovering that embarrassment and discomfort are not the enemies I assumed they were.

I can preserve my “dignity” and not reach out to the world around me but I’ve just put myself in a cage. There is always potential to fail and most times, it is unavoidable.

But what of the failure I will experience when I stand before God and tell Him that I didn’t speak to that person because I was embarrassed to? That it made me uncomfortable? That I didn’t use my talents because I was afraid?

It was a disaster, no doubt, but God taught me through my imperfect actions that there is no sense dreading what we must do. There is no sense in avoiding what makes us uncomfortable. We’ve been commanded to dance and right or wrong in anyone’s eyes, we must dance.

Unfortunately, discomfort and shame are not things God restricted to a one-day lesson. I was in for review in a couple days.

 

 

 

 

Just a Glimpse

Clutching it to my side, I huddled with the others in the line. I pressed myself as closely to the side of the wall as I could. So close. No one had noticed me yet, I was doing pretty well.

I kept my eyes lowered but every once in a while, I would risk a look at her. She was standing there, watching them, yelling every once in a while if they weren’t doing it properly. I willed her to turn the other direction and walk back up the way I had just come.

I was second in line now, I could see the dishwater and I started to allow myself a moment of relief. Victory was nigh.

“Teacher!!!”

I’d been spotted.

“No!”

The dish and my spoon was wrenched from my hands. It was Abigail. The dishwashing guardian. She had seen me, I never get past her watch.

Perhaps it is left-over insecurity from when I first arrived but I always try to wash my dishes. I will prove to them that I am not helpless. This is how I rebel against the stigma…. which now that I’ve written it down, seems a bit silly. These self-sufficient Thai children will never cease to be amazed at how little I know about simple things in their world.

I sulked out of the kitchen and she stood shaking her head at me. No teacher, you aren’t allowed to and you know it.

Sometimes I rant in English as I leave, but this time I just walked away. It was after lunch and the line to wash dishes was long. There are four huge sinks, the first is plain water to rinse excess food off, the second is a soapy, fluffy dish-heaven where you scrub with the scouring pads, the third is the first rinse, the fourth and last sink is the final rinse. Abigail stands watch and inspects the plates when they are finished. Then, and only then, they are allowed to be placed in the drying racks.

Other inspectors look the other way when I go through the line to wash my dish, others sweetly beg me not to, which I cannot resist, but Abigail does not mess around. If I am caught by her, there is yelling and hard looks of dark disappointment.

The kitchen girls are already prepping for dinner, cutting vegetables, frying meat, and starting the huge vats of rice. I tiptoed between them and stepped into the mess hall, where kids were washing tables and sweeping rice off of the tiled floor.

After lunch I teach sixth grade. There was a bounce in my step. It has been two days since I’ve been with them and I’d never tell those rebellious little teens, but I miss teaching them sometimes. Sometimes. Other times I walk in and just know I’ll have my work cut out for me.

Since many of these kids are from hill tribes and have never taken much English in school, we have had to back up from verb tenses and pronouns and focus on a more basic approach. Reading. Mostly letters and their sounds.

So I’ve been working through the alphabet. Which garners many groans and sighs from my more experienced students. Sorry guys. Chai and Seegame don’t get it yet. No child left behind…

Chai…. oh Chai. He’s the one that growls. Sometimes I’ll be walking down a path and I’ll hear a gravelly, “Teacher!” from somewhere up above my head. Then there is the frantic rustling of branches and leaves.

It’s just Chai, in a tree.

I’ll be walking down the hall at school and I’ll hear the low, “Teacher!” emanating from behind a door.

It’s just Chai, lying in wait.

Sometimes he will walk by in a herd of boys and I’ll hear that “Teacher!” coming from the midst.

In those cases, I usually growl, “Chai…” back into the mass and am rewarded by a glint of mischievous eyes and that naughty smile.

Now, Seegame is the mystery boy. I thought I had him figured out as the tall and dopey, good-natured boy. Which he is, except apparently, the dopey part. He was the one in class that never paid attention and tried to get out of his work. I truly and genuinely love him in spite of all the trouble.

He shocked us all with his high scores during finals and that was my first clue that he wasn’t as unintelligent as he seemed.

We usually start the class with general mayhem that sometimes subsides into less mayhem. This day, we sat and talked during the introduction period, mostly them trying out their English on me which we all enjoy.

Somehow the conversation switched to their tribes. In the class there are mostly Hmong with only a few exceptions. There are two Lahu boys, one of which is Chai, and one Lahu girl. There is an Akha girl and then there is Phet, who is a Thai boy and Athawm and Seegame, who were siblings. The reason I thought they were siblings is because once Athawm had said he was her brother.

Today, however, when I asked Athawm what she was, she answered, “Thai.”

“So you, Phet and Seegame are Thai?” I nodded, it made sense.

“No, No!” Athawm shook her head so hard her braid flipped over her shoulder. “Seegame not Thai!”

Oh really? How in heaven’s name does that work?

“Isn’t he your brother?” I asked.

“No!” She said, “eh, he-he my relative.”

“Oh, so, cousin.” I stated, about to move on.

“No! Not cousin!” She exclaimed. She seemed disturbed by my inference that he could be related to her, as her relative.

“Same father?” I was curious now.

“No!” more emphatic.

“Same mother?”

“No!”

“Same grandfather??” I was reaching for anything now.

She shook her head, more horrified at every suggestion.

“Same village?” I asked, having learned that some kids call people from their village their relative, even if they are not.

“No.” She shook her head.

“So what is he?” I was exasperated.

She said a word that I could not hope to spell or pronounce again.

“Oh? and what is that?” I asked.

“Lahu, Hmong and Thai.” She said counting on her fingers.

I happened to look around the classroom and I noticed something akin to personal pride on each face, mixed with a touch of something very close to scorn. As if Seegame could help his ancestry. Seegame looked uncomfortable. I was sorry I had stumbled upon a sore spot.

It was as if I was thrown back into a different era. In my country, we are all hopelessly mixed and we are proud of every strain of DNA that makes us who we are. Here, it is purity that brings pride.

I turned to the whiteboard and started the lesson abruptly. I didn’t want to bring any more attention to the already-uncomfortable Seegame.

Even with the trials, I don’t think I will ever meet a group of kids that can make me laugh quite like them.

The girls, carefully copying their work and making clever little jokes, Athawm interpreting where it is needed, Phet making single-word associations, like “wasabi” just randomly in the middle of everything, Seegame pretending not to know and asking a hundred times before I catch on and realize he has already written the correct answer down, and finally Chai, his stubborn chin thrust out, his eyes snapping and forever shouting out “Phonics!” when he is done. I am starting to believe he thinks it means ‘finished.’ I should probably correct that.

Sometimes it strikes me as odd that I feel so comfortable here. In some ways I’m enjoying it more then I could have imagined.

On the other hand, I find my biggest trials here. I’m seeking to discern between good change and bad. What ways should I allow myself to be stretched and grow? What ways should I stand firm?

What is my guide? What others think? Or God?

I’ve caught a glimpse of the depth of my weakness. I’ve found that my lines are drawn by what others will see on Facebook or how I will be perceived by the people here.

There is no consistency to be found there. No rock to plant my feet on.

Because my human motivation to do right has started to lag, I’ve realized how much of my ‘morality’ was based on peer pressure.

Yet, God is good. He is able to keep me from falling. I’ve seen that this is one of His lessons for me here.

Why, Eliza? Why do you believe this? Why to you draw the line here? Why are you doing this good thing?

I’ve been reading a book that I accidentally stole from a new friend here in Thailand. Absolute Surrender by Andrew Murray. Don’t worry, I’ve admitted the theft and she has graciously forgiven me. She says we can still be friends. Which is good, she happens to be the type of lady I’d like to be one day.

In this book is this revolutionary idea.

You are incapable of accomplishing godly things in human strength.

As of yet, I have not wrapped my mind around all the concepts in the book, but I do know this one thing, I am not strong and noble. Will I ever be? Or is the point of all this that God is strong and noble and He is working in me His own Image?

Lest at any time I look down and praise myself for how far I’ve come, God never fails to let me fall on my face when I take my hand out of His.

I would hate for anyone reading this to think that I’m being hard on myself. That my relationship with God is demoralizing and degrading. To the opposite. Just like that picture of a child being held secure by his father’s hand, I am held secure. I am never more peaceful and joyful than when I am walking close with God.

It’s like a well-spring of security. No matter what happens, it is for my good and in the end it will be according to His plan. I trust that. Like I trust that the sun will rise in the morning and set at night.

If you want proof of God, look at a society that denies Him. You will see the broken families, the abused children, the lack of light and you will know that what you have as a Christian should be shed abroad like spring rains on a parched world.

I want everyone to catch a glimpse of this darkness and perhaps savor the light a bit more.

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Ah, Life

So this morning I woke up with great purpose and anticipation. School has begun again. All the kids are back and you will not meet a happier person than myself. There are moments where I am just sitting on the ground, surrounded by little bodies crowding close and showing their boo-boos, hugging, snuggling… and there is no one there that is more pleased about it than the tall American right in the middle.

However, this warm, fuzzy picture is only half of the coin. The other half I like to refer to as Life and Life just happens, ready or not.

I left for Maesai this afternoon after school. There is nothing warm and snuggly about sitting on cold, hard benches at a bus station waiting. And waiting…. and waiting? Isn’t there supposed to be a bus here? A lady explained to me that the next bus was at 5 pm.

It was 4 pm.

I thought to myself that I would write a blog post. I started to and it was very nice! All about how exciting travel was. How much I enjoyed all the possibilities that every leg of the journey brings. I jinxed myself. No doubt about it.

I should have turned around right then. I did not. I boarded that 5 o’clock bus and fell asleep. When I awoke, it was to the crush of an over-packed bus. I don’t know how they fit that many people on there. We endured the ride to Chiang Rai and I stumbled off, blearily blinking in the fluorescent lights of the Chiang Rai bus station.

I looked around and spotted the sign for Maesai. They were just taking it down. No more buses that night. Great.

I’m in this vast city, at night, with no idea what to do next… Hotel?

On the bus I had passed a brightly lit hostel called Connect that looked promising. It was just a couple of streets over. No problem… I got this.

I slung my backpack and my laptop case over my shoulder and started walking. The city was teeming with foreigners. Everywhere I turned I heard snatches of French, German, Arabic and the sweet nectar of my own English. That being said, I still felt oh-so-conspicuous. A girl, alone, marching down the street with determination that was poorly masking uncertainty.

One must do what one must do.

I walked down the street to the corner. Beside the intersection was a cafe. Now, this city has many cafes, but this one was called Cat ‘N’ A Cup. The wall was entirely of glass and inside, prowling around, were the most gorgeous cats. Exotic felines curled up on pillows and sitting on tables, staring down the customers who were sipping their coffees and making tentative offers of friendship towards them.

I was so struck by the number of cats that I missed my opportunity to cross the street. When I finally tore my eyes away from the spectacle, I waited a bit, then darted across and continued walking. Everywhere I looked were candles and lights, lining the streets and clustered next to shop doors. Something was up. A festival?

I realized I had been walking for a very long time. This hostel was further than I thought. Oh and it was. Much further. By the time I dragged myself across the front patio of this trendy, well-lit hotel, I was about to throw my bags into one of the ditches on the side of the street and live there.

I walked up to the front desk.

“Hello!” a man chirped, spinning in his office chair towards me.

I say chirped because he reminded me of a perky, squat robin. His glasses glinted so brightly I could not see his eyes.

“Hello,” I answered, “Do you have a room available?”

“Do you have a reservation?” He swung towards the computer.

“No.”

His hands paused over the keyboard for a moment. “Oh,” he swung back and clicked his tongue, “I see.”

I was taken aback because I genuinely felt that I had disappointed him deeply.

“Do you have one available?” I asked again.

He pointed to the sign on the counter.

What in heavens name was a mixed dorm room 6? and why was a private room only one option and a female 4 room another? I was very confused.

“What?” I pointed to the sign.

“Would you like a female only room or a mixed room?” he asked, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

I must be incredibly sheltered.

“I want my own room.”

Who wants to come to the end of a long day and spend the night listening to a bunch of strangers snore? Who would feel safe in whatever a ‘mixed room’ is?

His tongue clicked again and he carefully put his hands together, as if he was about to deliver very delicate news. “Our private rooms are fully booked, would you like to be in a female only room? Or would you prefer a mixed room?”

A member of hotel staff came up and stood behind me. It’s not realistic to think they would force me to stay in their ‘dorms’ but my mind doesn’t react realistically, it reacts dramatically.

“I’m going to check other hotels.” I backed away, feeling very odd about it all. I was beginning to realize that a hostel was much different from a hotel. I’d always wondered. You live and you learn.

I went to the next place and it was closed. I was beginning to relate to Mary and Joseph. No room… unless you are willing to sleep with complete strangers. I’d rather sleep on a bench at the bus station. Or find my own version of a stable with a manger of hay and some friendly animals… maybe that cat place? with all the pillows…

Thankfully, all was not as bleak as I had assumed. I found a room in a presentable hotel. I deposited my heavy bags in my room and sat on the bed. I was conflicted. I was so hungry… and this is Chiang Rai at night! Think of the street markets! Think of whatever this candle festival is!

However, I have this voice in my head, which I contribute completely to my Mother. It was telling me that my phone was at 13 percent battery and if anything happened to me, people were probably a day away from noticing I was even gone.

Then my stomach rumbled and someone set off firecrackers in the street below.

I emptied my backpack and threw in some essentials. Then I hit the street. The hotel was on a very quiet stretch of the street. About halfway back to the busy section, I was hit by the conviction that I was going to be attacked. No reason, no person was even close to me, but my imagination was whispering that if it was going to happen, which it surely was, this was a perfect place for it.

It was dark and the alleyways were even darker. I almost wished my backpack was heavier. I had just emptied my only weapon. I quickened my pace. As the streets became busier they became brighter. I started to relax and enjoy it again. Anne texted me and told me that the festival was Loi Krathong. This is the festival where they float the lanterns up into the sky and send basket lights down the rivers. What a perfect time to be in the city!

The night market was my destination. Apparently, this was the best time to hit the market. It was bustling. I walked through and secretly hoped I would see the shop I had come to on my first trip here, over a year ago. I had bought a bracelet that I loved and that I wear almost every day. In fact, I was currently wearing it.

As it happened, the shop was in exactly the same place. I went in, my eyes wide with anticipation, my hands clasped. I seized every color that caught my eye and presented them to the shop lady. She smiled at the load I bore, but her eyes fell on the bracelet I wore on my wrist.

Our eyes locked. Oh, oh I see, no lady, this is mine… how do you say, “I bought this here last year.” in Thai? For an uncomfortable moment we stood, judging the character of the other. I was wondering if she was the type to call me out on the supposed theft, she was wondering if I was a thief.

I decided to flaunt the bracelet. Surely a thief would have slipped it in their bag, not slipped it onto an obvious place like a wrist. Right? What kind of idiot would put it on and flash it in front of the proprietor’s face? So I started pointing at everything and gesturing madly at the earrings. I even went as far as to point to my bracelet and ask if she had the same color again?

She allowed me to leave the shop without accusing me, so I assume she either did not think I was a thief, or was loathe to call me out on it. So I joined the flow of the night bazaar again.

I cannot express the feeling of wandering alone through a crowd. I get the same feeling when I’m overlooking a vast and spectacular view. Lost. In a good way. Insignificant and free to soak up every last iota of the experience in my own way and in my own time.

I bought my chicken on a stick and my sticky-rice and watched the people pass me by. I was brought out of my comfortable people-watching by the realization that across the way I was also being watched.

He took a bite of his food and steadily held eye-contact. I dropped my own eyes and decided that I should just shove the rest of my food in my mouth and skedaddle. So I did.

As I continued through, under the hanging lights, I saw nothing that struck me. That is, until I locked eyes with a pencil drawing. I felt like I recognized her. She looked like the soul of every little girl I’ve met here. Small and self-sufficient.

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She is, of course, unbelievably adorable. However, she makes me remember, just by looking at her, how it feels to have that distance in their eyes vanish and have little arms reach out for a hug. I’m big now, but for the first time I don’t miss being little. Because I can be the adult in someone’s life that they need. It’s exciting and scary all at the same time. So much pressure and so much opportunity!

I bought the print and a few other things at the shop. I bought strawberries, munched and meandered, listening to the languages flow past and catching the snatches of English.

“Silk? Oh Dan, I think this is real silk, isn’t it lovely?”

I missed his response but from the look on his face when I passed him, it was probably a “Harrumph!”

Dan doesn’t care, my dear, better just buy it and go to the food court where he can look at things he does care about.

I came to the end of the market and decided I was done. I also decided I wasn’t walking to my hotel. I crossed the street to where a line of Tuk-tuks waited. They are the motorized version of the old bicycle taxis.

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This one I once saw in Phayao. I don’t believe it’s used anymore but let me assure you, the modern version is definitely uglier and always blue.

I pulled my room card out of my pocket and showed a driver the name of the hotel I was staying at.

They all looked at each other and jabbered a bit in Thai. They all but did rock, paper, scissors for the opportunity of ripping me off. The man who won in the conversation, turned to me and named the ridiculous price of 80 baht.

I knew he was taking advantage of me, but I also knew that I didn’t care. When I agreed promptly, the instant regret on his face made me laugh out loud. Should have asked for more.

He laughed as well, a bit nervously, and kept shooting glances at me like he didn’t understand why was laughing. The joke was on me after all. I still laugh at the exchange. They weren’t even trying to hide how mercenary they were being. All the way to his tuk-tuk, he was calling out to the other drivers, who were lounging in their seats, pointing to me and I heard “paet-sib baht” again and again.

I rode all the way trying to understand just how much ‘paet-sib’ or 80 baht was and why it caused such a stir. It’s about $2.50 in USD. I know it’s more than I should have paid for a few blocks, but not that much more, right?

When we pulled up to the hotel, I offered him a 100-baht note.

“No change.” he smiled.

Ok, mister.

I went into my change purse and poured out all my coins and started counting very slowly. I had two 20-baht notes but now, since the poor man who probably had been collecting fares in small change all day, had no change for my 100 baht, I would have to count out 40 baht in 1 and 2 baht pieces so he had change for the next unlucky rider he would try to shiest.

When he saw me begin, I heard him sigh. I dropped some coins but continued counting and digging around in my change purse. There was the staccato beat of fingers drumming the handlebar of the motorbike.

“Ah!”

I looked up.

“They change!” he pointed to the receptionist of the hotel.

I looked back down and kept counting. I had his eighty baht in exact change, but he would have to sit and wait.

He leapt out of the front seat and bounded up the steps. When he returned, he had a 20 baht note in his hand. Magic. You go in with no money and come out with 20 baht. I wish I’d known that’s how that worked.

We completed our transaction and I trudged up to my room. I was ready for bed.

I want to tell you the name of the hotel because I had inadvertently happened upon the softest bed I’d ever slept on in Thailand. Most hotels offer you deluxe mattresses that feel like you are sleeping on the floor. Not so with this mattress. It lovingly accepts you. It also smelled so fresh. Most rooms smell like damp and other people but it smelled like flowers. The sheets and blankets were pure white and fragrant, even if the other furnishings were sparse and dated. I don’t care about one other thing if the room is clean and the bed is comfortable.

It’s called The Space Hotel in Chiang Rai. As in, you get your own space, you don’t share it with six other ‘mixed’ people. Which is nice.

So yeah, Life happened. It’s the other side to my coin and I honestly would not have it any other way. I could sit and be safe all the rest of my life and just spend my coin, not experience it. But that’s like giving away the one thing that you will have to present to God at the end.

So thank you, Lord, for my coin, both sides.

 

 

 

Elephantastic

When they said we would be riding elephants, I strangely enough did not feel any particular thrill. How could one feel a thrill when one was in the depths of despair?

Of the 160-some kids in our home, over a hundred would be traveling back to their villages to visit their relatives during school break. Which means I would be missing over a hundred pieces of my heart. When I left Friday to travel to Maesai to spend five days with Anne and Nat, I said goodbye to those kids, knowing I wouldn’t see them for a month.

On the bus I had stared out the window and tried to rationalize. It will go by quickly, they’ll be back before you know it.

No good. Still in the depths of despair.

In Chiang Rai I was hungry, so I left my suitcase with a fairly reliable-looking bus driver and struck out into the traffic on foot. This healed me a bit. There is nothing like leaving all of your belongings with a complete stranger, knowing that he could make off with it, but just not caring. Because somewhere in this vast labyrinth of streets and alleyways, there is a barbecue and sticky rice stand with my name on it.

The thrill of my stupidity and the almost instant regret distracted me. I laughed out loud as I crossed the street and dodged a motorcycle. I chose to call it faith in humanity at that point and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and anonymity of the city. Down an alley and up a street I heard music; the slide of an erhu and the beat of drums. I came upon a food court, filled with tables and ringed by food stands.

I spotted the barbecue across the way. Bingo.

With my spoils in hand I beat a hasty retreat back to where (hopefully) my suitcase and my bus waited. Safely aboard, I sank into the tired pleather seat and arranged my belongings around me. I was justified in my faith in the wrinkled man who captained us through Chiang Rai traffic. My suitcase was exactly where I left it.

On that next bus ride I tried to talk myself out of my blues. I would have a relaxing time with Anne and Nat and then I would be back. Then four weeks later, they would be back. On top of that, 50 kids were still there, I would have plenty to keep me busy.

The days passed agreeably with Anne and Nat. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I was in that familiar home-away-from-home. I slept that first Saturday nearly all day. When the topic of the elephants came up, I thought, Eh, why not? Just to cross that off the list.

I truly was not excited.

However, now, standing dwarfed by this wrinkled giant, his trunk stretching out to touch my hand, I felt my pulse jump. Yes please.

There had to be over twenty elephants in the camp. Huge, swaying, monuments to a bygone era with meager poles separating us. In Thailand, these creatures were once used in manual labor and war. Looking into the impressive face of this elephant, I tried to imagine coming up against him in a battle. No thank you.

I touched the tip of his trunk and he blew once and withdrew. I wondered momentarily if elephants remembered you by smell, like horses. His small amber eyes were fixed over my head and his ears flapped in a slow rhythm, like breathing.

I don’t know why, but I started to hum. For a few moments he just stood there, then out stretched his trunk again. He was off by a few inches and bumped my arm. He seemed flustered, like he wanted to apologize for disturbing me, and withdrew again.

The elephant beside him suffered from no such delicacy. His trunk was wrapped around the pole supporting the roof and his ears flapped at a quicker pace. He was obviously of a more excitable nature.

I stepped up to him and his trunk came out immediately. He was a little more polite at first than he was at the end. At the end his trunk was resting on my head like a heavy boa constrictor. He was snuffling at my hands and my hair and my face until I figured enough was enough. I don’t care how exotic this creature is, he is rude.

Behind me his handler called lazily from where he rested in the shade. The elephant made no effort to respond. So I pulled that heavy, leathern trunk off my head and tried to make him understand that he should be more polite. He did not agree. He wrapped his trunk around my arm and I marveled at how tiny I was compared to this animal. He could definitely fling my around or anything he wanted to.

So I pulled away and left.

I saw my elephant and my handler, or mahout, as they are called, amble up to the platform I must climb. So up I went. As soon as my foot touched the broad back of my elephant, I felt another thrill. The saddle is made of a thick woven mat, almost a foot thick, with a metal seat. There is a cushion and my mahout gave me an umbrella. Off we went.

At first, the jerk and jar of his gait made comfort and enjoyment difficult, but as I acclimated, I started to enjoy the height and the sensation. I was on top of an elephant for goodness sake! I felt like Katherine Hepburn, braving the jungle and touring a new world. I tried not to feel like a princess but that was even more difficult than trying not to slide off the seat.

My mahout looked sufficiently wild as well. He sang and talked to the elephant, he also talked to me. Between my limited knowledge of Thai and his better knowledge of English, we got along just fine.

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The rice paddies were green and vivid, the river we followed for a portion was murky and swollen. Young boys called to us as they fished along the edge and my mahout spoke back in a different language. It was not Thai. Then I remembered that this was a Karen village and that Thai was not the mahout’s native tongue. Up we climbed, beyond the rice and the river, up to the pineapples.

Here, the elephant’s appetite was not to be sated by anything other than a juicy pineapple. He ripped one right out of the patch and crunched into it immediately. The mahout seemed to be displeased and spoke sharply to it. He then jumped down and waited patiently for the elephant to be through with his snack.

He looked up at me and after a moment asked, “You, picture?”

“Yes!” I handed him my phone.

He took a few and then went a step further. “Ow mi?” He pointed to the elephant’s neck.

“Yes, oh yes!”

Before he could change his mind, I slipped under the teakwood restraint and stood on the elephant’s back. My shoes I had pulled off near the beginning of our journey and I’ll never forget the strange sensation of standing barefoot on an elephant. The hide was rough and the hair felt like bristles under my toes. I kneeled and slipped my feet down on either side of his neck. My legs nestled behind his ears and my toes barely made it beyond the tips.

I slid my hands over the top of his mighty head and laughed out loud. This was insane. Each wrinkle and line I traced with my fingertips. He started to move and I looked to the mahout on the ground. The mahout nodded and smiled. Even on the ground apparently he felt he could control his elephant. Fantastic. I hoped he was correct.

I leaned down and tried to look at the elephant’s face. His broad forehead looked so noble, even from that vantage point.

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I was curious about him and he was no less curious about me. His trunk came up and I caught it in my hands. He snuffled around and touched my hands and my leg before retreating back down and continuing his ambling gait.

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I rode a little bit longer and then the mahout handed back my phone. I crawled back into my seat and he stepped up on the elephant’s trunk and assumed his former position. I couldn’t stop smiling. The bamboo huts we passed and the people we met on the way smiled back and waved to the mahout.

I observed that the Coats, on the elephant far ahead, seemed to be on a less rebellious elephant with a less relaxed mahout. They marched on at a steady pace while we meandered here and there. My elephant had an insatiable appetite and ate nearly everything he encountered.

Once, on a lonely stretch, he halted. The mahout urged him forward but instead, his trunk snaked up a banana tree. With a jerk and a crack, the entire tree fell. I recalled stories of elephants being used to clear land in the older days and I laughed to see it in action.

The elephant carried that tree with him, shoving it into his mouth occasionally and audibly munching away. The mahout pulled out a sack with some sort of tobacco in it. I hope it was tobacco…. he sprinkled it into a white piece of paper and and carefully rolled out a perfect cigarette. At that moment, the elephant dropped half of the tree, but did not stop. The mahout slid off as the elephant meandered along and went back for the rest of the tree.

It occurred to me that perhaps this banana tree was not up for grabs. I recalled how Masae, the Lahu man that Nat works with, carefully tends his banana trees and how Pastor Pratuan planted some just last month and told me about the exact number with pride. The mahout was probably trying to destroy evidence of a theft, now that I think of it.

At the time though, I mostly thought it odd that elephants ate trees at all, let alone other tribe-member’s trees. I also was feeling quite alarmed at the elephant’s quickened pace, now that he wasn’t dragging a tree, and the fact that the only thing controlling it was… well… nothing, there was nothing controlling this snack-attacking, banana-tree-slaughtering beast. The mahout was back there, picking up the banana tree and slinging it over his shoulder, all the while casting glances up the trail to where a hut sat, presumably the dwelling-place of the owner of the banana tree.

I wished that he would stop looking back the way we had come and would start looking at his elephant, fast putting distance between himself and his mahout and with little old me perched atop his stubborn hide. Finally, the mahout turned and ambled after the elephant, the banana tree on his shoulder. He reached us and handed the tree back to the elephant, as if to say, “Well, eat it. I’m not going to be caught with the evidence.”

I felt a bit relieved that he was back, but still had some doubts as to how well he could control the elephant from the ground. Then, he lit his cigarette and started to smoke whatever it was. I determined I wasn’t going to let all these shenanigans prevent me from enjoying the ride. I opened my umbrella and re-assumed princess status, viewing the world from the shade of my perch. Soon, the mahout climbed back up and grinned at me.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss.

We finished the ride without further incident and when I stepped back onto the platform back at the camp, I turned and thanked my mahout and my elephant for the adventure. I would never have wanted it to be ordinary, and thanks to them, it wasn’t.

The Coats made it back as well and we climbed in the van and headed back to Chiang Rai. Today I was supposed to head back to the children’s home. Every time I thought of it, I felt excitement.

Unfortunately, an hour and a half wait in a steaming bus in the dusty terminal was between me and the kids. We sat there and waited… and waited…. and sweated… and waited. I bought water and tried not to be mad. It was hard. Especially when another bus for Chiang Kham pulled up and left while I sat there thinking, Surely we will leave before them. I thought that all the way up to the point where they left before us. I had arrived at 12:25 and when we pulled out at 2:00, the entire bus breathed a sigh of relief.

I fell asleep, of course, and slept until we were about 30 minutes from Chiang Kham. At the terminal I fell out of the bus and went to the bathroom. It was guarded by a long-haired Pekinese who barked and barked while I snuck past and brushed the dust and tangles out of my hair. When I came out, the owner of the Pekinese gestured angrily to the sign and held out a hand. I blinked at the sign. 3 Baht.

I gestured to my hair and she looked disappointed. Yeah, sorry, I was using your mirror. I hope there is no charge for that. The Pekinese took up barking again as she turned and walked back to her chair underneath the 3 baht sign.

When I got back to the home, the kids were assembling upstairs for devotions. I got a few hugs and many smiles and then settled back into the swing of things. So many faces were missing. I couldn’t believe how small the group was! I felt a twinge of sadness but this was overwhelmed by the laugh that bubbled up as I watched their antics as they sang.

We ate and I went to bed, wondering what I would do with myself the next day. I shouldn’t have worried.

Rose taught me how to wash my laundry by hand. And my hands are definitely going into protest. My knuckles are raw and my skin is tight. I think I will still try, as the washing machine here is more like a meat processor than a washer, but I think I will save my hearty articles of clothing for the washer. You know, the thick jean and any bedding that can withstand being chewed instead of rinsed.

I must admit that my spirits were less high when I approached the office in order to write this post and score the tests from exam week. But when I opened the door, the light fell on a square box postmarked from a little town in Pennsylvania called Fleetwood.

Home.

I tore into that thing with my bare hands. I pulled out the letters and smelled the tea. I clutched them to me like precious gems.

You never realize how much you miss home until you get a letter.

I ate up those words like a starving man eats his first scraps of food. Every word, every line, every person who took the time was like a balm to my tired soul. Just like I didn’t know I was tired until I was at home with Anne and Nat, I didn’t realize how much I missed you all until I read your notes.

I marveled at the kindness. I marveled that they would take the time. With the stack beside me, every one opened and every word read and re-read, I stared at the ceiling and thanked God for each one, for each person who showed that tiny bit of kindness and love. I know we are just people, brought from darkness into His light, but He has made us so much more than we thought we could be.

When I was selfishly making my way through high school, gossiping with my friends and rebelling against any authority I could find, I would never have thought that He could work this miracle in me. Only God could have taken the person I was, wholly wrapped up in myself, and bring me into this place.

I am living proof of my God. If you think what I’m doing is proof of man’s inherent goodness, you are wrong. I struggle every day with that same selfishness, and He is that gentle guiding hand, correcting me and granting me a love that is not of myself.

I wish that just reading these words would convince you of this goodness. His goodness. If, even in the slightest, you turn your eyes upward and look into the gentle light of the sky, your thoughts bent in a question towards Him, I will be satisfied. Look for Him. Don’t take my word for it, please. Find it for yourself.

And for all of you that sent those letters, thank you. For all of you that are supporting me, thank you. You guys are such a blessing that I cannot express it fully.

 

Say Something

I sat in the van and watched as the boy walked up and jerked the handle on the passenger side door. Every Thursday I ride this same route to pick up the rowdy villager kids that attend the school. Every Thursday this boy, Ochi, walks along the side of the house that sits between his house and the road and clambers up into the front seat.

Today though, his head jerked around as he went to open the door. He looked back towards his home and so did I. In front stood a man. He was very obviously Ochi’s father. They had the exact same eyes. The man started to yell something and I’ve never seen a man look at his own son with such hatred.

Ochi looked back towards the van almost immediately. He would not look back. He climbed up into the van and closed the door. I’m glad he did. Because his dad, with the most venomous face, lifted his hand and gave his little boy the middle finger.

I finally understood why this boy, who is so active in the classroom, becomes silent on the way home.

I couldn’t bring myself to interact with the kids on that ride. I was so deeply sad. I always come to this point, at least once a day. I would give anything to be able to say something that would help them.

As usual, as soon as I think that, I also think how perfect it is that God has put me in a place where my many words do no good. My only resort is the best resort. That is prayer.  So I prayed for him. I prayed that God would reach this boy’s heart and be the Father he needs. That Ochi would not grow up believing the hateful things he’s told but that he would find his worth and safety in Christ.

That entire day I watched for him and smiled every chance I got. I think he’s wonderful and I want him to know that even if the most influential man in his life doesn’t, his English teacher thinks he’s special.

Friday I went to Phayao to finalize my visa. My visa expires in just a few days. The officer at the front desk in Immigration is a warm and sincere guy who I had met the last time I was there.

He had asked me my name. I had said, “Eliza.”

He smiled and nodded. “My name is Pep.”

“Pep?”

“Pep.” he affirmed, then added, in order to tutor my pronunciation, “Like Pepsi Cola, but just Pep.”

“Oh, I see.”

“That’s just my nickname.”

“Really?”

“Yes, my full name is——————-”

I put the line because not for the world could I pronounce or remember that name. It was so long.

“What’s your nickname?” he asked.

“Eliza is my nickname.”

He seemed incredulous. “But it’s so long.”

I felt like it wasn’t. I still feel that way.

“A nickname in Thailand is usually one syllable.” Gik, the headmistress of the orphanage, interjected at this point.

“Oh…” I said. Pep nodded and gave me a look that made me feel like I should consider doing the same, just to save all the Thai tongues from pronouncing the ‘l’ and  the dread ‘z.’ My name is easily the most mispronounced name at the orphanage. Followed closely by Rose. Her nickname is mispronounced like, ‘Raws.’

Pep sat and I could see him mouthing my name. He turned to me after many moments.

“Elisa?”

I couldn’t bring myself to force him to put some vibrations in his ‘s.’ I nodded. He was very pleased.

This last time that I came, Pep was standing at the printer and when he turned and saw me, he froze.

“Elisa!” he finally said, pointing at me. It was the most un-Thai greeting I’ve ever received. He realized this as well and wai-ed Gik with a respectful, “Sawat-dee-khap.”

“Pep.” I wai-ed him.

He came and started sorting our paperwork. He had me re-fill out an application on a new form.

“Are there different questions on the new form?” Gik was curious.

“Nope.” I looked at her, about to laugh and tell her the new form was word-for-word the same as the original form, except that they had put a bolder font on the headings for each category, but I stopped myself when I saw Pep’s attentive face. I cleared my throat and searched for the words. “It is -eh- much cleaner.” I finished lamely.

He nodded and seemed pleased.

I bent my head to finish filling out the ‘new’ form.

“How are you?”

I started and looked up. Pep was looking down at me intently. I don’t know why I was so shocked, maybe it was the quiet and normal tone of his voice, but I couldn’t remember the correct response. I felt like one of my students.

“Good.” I choked out. I looked down at the paper. Oh yeah, it’s polite to return the question. Man, it’s been too long since I’ve had to speak my language correctly. “And how are you?” I asked, finally. The moment to ask this was past, the awkwardness told me that, but it was already done.

It was his turn to look trapped. I saw the same thought-process occur. What is the correct response?

“Go-od.” he answered haltingly.

I smiled and nodded. He seemed pleased again.

I’ll probably need to practice my social skills before returning to the States.

The officer in charge of our case came out. He seemed regretful but he informed us that they could not see us today. Gik took it in a stride and we arranged to come back Monday.

So, I still am not officially approved for my work-permit and my visa expires in about two days. It will be ok.

Saturday, I cleaned my room and swept the walkway outside my door. I shouldn’t have bothered. A backhoe appeared out of nowhere and dug up the stairs and the entire hill beside it. That was more excitement than the kids could handle. All day long we sat and watched that monstrous beast paw at the concrete and earth.

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That evening, I think they were exhausted. During the evening devotions, as they were singing, a boy gestured to me.

“Jee!” he pointed into the crowd of kids sitting on the floor and singing. “Cry!” he added.

Jee sure was. I still don’t know what had happened, but Jee was sitting crosslegged, his face towards the ceiling, sobbing like his heart was broken. I had another of those moments. The ones where I wish I could say something, anything.

Jee never cries. He is a fierce tribal boy with proud features that transform when he smiles. But I’ve never seen him cry. I know that if I go to him, he will refuse to look at me. He will refuse comfort from me.

As I sat and yearned over how broken he seemed, he turned and looked at me. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. What can I do? Pray.

He wasn’t the only boy who had a melt-down that night. I decided that the excitement of the day had proven to be too much. Many of the boys simply laid down on the floor and slept.

The girls seem to handle everything so much better. They sang their hearts out and then went to dinner like usual. All the while boys were falling left and right. I saw one boy with his sleeve in his hand and his shirt torn clear up the side. I don’t know why. When I sent him to change, he nodded but when I saw him at dinner, he was still wearing it. I decided to let him alone. He must have his reasons.

Today was Sunday. I woke up to sunshine but had coffee with Rose after lunch, watching the rain. It’s like that here. The rain comes and it goes, mostly once a day, sometimes more. You can never tell. At least I can’t. The rain does not stop the kids. They traipse around, some under scavenged umbrellas, others with their heads bare to the elements and enjoying every moment.

Despite the challenges and the communication barriers, I love it here. I could watch these kids all day… I do watch these kids all day. That’s sort of my job actually. I know that there will be more frustrating moments, more moments of missing my own people, but I think God has made my ‘mind like water’ as Nat says. There is always something and someone to love in every moment.

I’m learning too. Things I didn’t think I would. When I saw Ochi’s father do that hateful thing, I was angry and sad. I turned my heart to pray but God showed me something I didn’t expect. I was mourning Ochi’s past and looking into his questionable future. I was realizing that even if I did speak his language, I could not fill the void left by an abusive father. I could not be an example to him of what a man should be.

So I started to pray for the father. While I was doing that, I realized that this is why I should try to reach everyone with the Gospel. It’s easy to feel the burden when it is children, it’s easy to reach out. There is almost a zero-percent chance of rejection from a child. But every woman I see could be someone’s mother. Every man could be a little boy’s father. Whatever their failing, whatever their walls, they need Jesus Christ to mend their broken hearts and their children need a strong family.

So I asked God not to make me a good child care-giver, though I do want to be the best one ever, but I asked Him to make me a bold soul-winner. Because nothing will provide better for a child than their own family, whole and healthy. And no-one  can make a family whole better than God. So next time I have a chance, I’ll say something. Because little lives might depend on it.

 

 

 

I stared down at my leg. There is something so incredibly shocking about injuries. In the movies and in our imagination we think of them as causing searing pain. But usually, well, for me anyways, I’m usually just really, really surprised.

It took me several moments to understand.

Ok.

So.

Barbed-wire on my leg. No, in my leg. Ok, so that’s why I can’t lift my leg right now. Wicked-looking barbed wire too.

Right.

So…

Well, pull it out.

I bent over. Searing pain that you imagine in movies. I could see the tip of the barb under my skin, moving along the inside of it every time I moved. I wanted to throw the vines I had been pulling along the barbed wire fence but that would mean moving.

“Channon-” I said, trying to not move, balancing on one leg in this ball of wire.

Perhaps you remember Channon from my previous post. The gangly, elfin boy from Serin. The troublemaker. The boy with the perfect smile that flashes in his dark face, especially when he is making trouble. Well, I had the bright idea of making him part of my crew for my weekend task of cleaning out the back of the boys’ dormitory. I figured I could see if his unwillingness to work in the classroom was due to laziness or due to something else I suspect of him.

I suspect that Channon feels overwhelmed in the classroom. He spoke a different language when he came to the Home of Hope and he had no formal schooling. So not only did he have to learn another language, but he had to jump into classes without a basic understanding of them. So he makes trouble. My suspicions were heightened by the fact that this boy had worked harder than any other boy on my crew today.

Anyways, Channon had already seen the look on my face and he stepped to my side. I was standing across a little drainage ditch and I reached over and grabbed his shoulder. His eyes got a little solemn when he saw my predicament.

“Don’t move.” I said. Of course he couldn’t understand me.

“Pagulaap!” He called over his shoulder, staring at my leg. Pagulaap is what they call Kathy. It means Aunt Rose.

I bent over and pulled on the wire, thinking it would slip out. It did not. The wire was twisted and my skin had slipped between the coils somehow. I would have to twist it out, like a corkscrew. Also, I had a little audience.

“Oh my goodness!” Kathy reached the group and gasped.

She bent over and touched the wire.

“Ow.” I said, enunciating.

“Oh honey.” she said, trying to pull it out like I had tried to.

I laughed because crying was not an option. “Well that hurts like the dickens.”

“It’s caught somehow, dear.” Kathy said, looking at it over the top of her glasses like she does when she’s reviewing my lesson plans.

“Yes.”

I realized I was squeezing Channon’s shoulder pretty hard. I loosened up. He looked grateful for that. There was general hubbub all around as more boys noticed the group and joined to see. I felt very much like a science exhibit. Perched across the ditch, surrounded by barbed wire, vines dangling from my one hand, the other clutching Channon.

Exibit A: Teacher Eliza once again illustrating what not to do. Boys, remember, do not be like Teacher Eliza.

I threw the vines across the ditch and almost hit a few of my spectators. They dodged expertly and resumed their positions. I bent over and watched as Kathy twisted the wire just a bit. The wrong way. I saw the tip jut up under my skin, making a small tent with the tip about to tear right through. I felt surprised again.

“Ow!Ow!Ow!”

“Sorry, dear.” Even while wounding me, Kathy is solicitous.

“Here-” I decided that pulling it out couldn’t be worse than what I was experiencing. I grabbed the wire and twisted the other way. It came out. I jumped across and looked back at the wire. “Why do they have this here?”

I was looking at everyone else’s vulnerable legs with new eyes.

“I don’t know. But you need to go and get that cleaned. That wire is filthy and rusted.” Kathy pushed me towards the girls’ dorm where they keep a first aid kit. I walked away. A boy coming the opposite way was grinning at me. News travels faster than anything else here. Doubtless he was heading to see me tangled up in the wire.

After enduring the treatment and having a bandaid almost the size of my foot applied to my wound, I went back to finish. When I reached my pile of vines I looked at the wire across the ditch and narrowed my eyes. I would have hissed threatenings and slaughter, but the boys had paused their work and were watching me closely.

I gave one last scathing look and continued my weeding. We cleaned out the ditch and dragged piles upon piles of junk out of the covered porch to be stored in the basement of the school.

The little boys reveled in the filth and the older boys meticulously avoided the little boys. Channon is a leader. He became my right-hand man. There’s something about being relied on that grants a boy dignity. He may be the most rambunctious troublemaker in a classroom, dancing and singing during lessons, but he can organize a rowdy group of first and second-graders faster than anyone I know. I’m hoping that our new working relationship carries over into the classroom.

Throughout the rest of the day, my leg throbbed at strange times. My second mistake of the day, with the first being the dance with the barbed wire, was looking up symptoms of tetanus.

It doesn’t matter that symptoms only show after five days with three days being the quickest and most lethal case, I started overthinking every twinge. It starts with a headache and muscle spasms. Then it progresses to violent, uncontrollable seizures wherein broken bones and bruises are the norm. The most typical cases end with the muscles of the face contracting and the jaw locking then asphyxiation or cardiac arrest.

Once I read the articles, I was already planning where I would like to be buried and what flowers I want planted on my grave. (Abigail, you already know what to do)

I went for a nostalgic walk through the rubber tree groves, tripping through a creek like I used to when I was young. I lost my flip-flop and it got carried down-stream, also like when I was young, and my legs got all scratched up in brambles. I walked towards where I had seen the spooky lights at midnight last night. I was going to die anyways, no sense in being careful.

I found nothing but did walk into several spiders that had spun their webs between the trees. There is nothing that will make you feel more foolish than walking into one of those and twirling and whirling madly. You whip your arms around and shake the webs and the spiders off, then, when you are walking away, still twitching and shaking occasionally, just at the thought of the spiders still being on you, you see that there are two boys watching you through the trees. They can’t see the web. And the smiles on their faces tell you all you need to know about the latest rumors that will circulate.

Since I will die, it doesn’t matter.

In the evening, I was standing on the steps of the school, watching the kids play in the yard. The boys had gone to the chicken coop and returned with cornhusks and feathers. The feathers had come from the helpless fowls and the cornhusks were from their dinner troughs.

The boys had stuck the feathers into the husks and wrapped rubber bands around them. When they started throwing them, I realized with shock that they had made badminton birdies. They spiraled through the evening air perfectly. Once again I found myself impressed with the children’s ingenuity. They can make anything.

They threw one to me and I sat and admired the craftsmanship. They were pleased that I was so impressed. I think most of the time they are amused with how easily they can impress me with their little creations, but they don’t know that I come from a society that buys toys and would never pluck feathers from a chicken to make them.

“Kin khao!”

Eat. It was dinner time and a girl stepped out of the mess hall and yowled those two words. The response was instantaneous. The boys rushed the hall. The girls were only a little more sedate.

“Eliza!”

I turned towards the call. It was Rose and Judyanne, two of the Philipinno girls.

“We are walking up the road for some food, want to come?” Rose asked.

I had smelled what dinner would be earlier. Since the food is on a rotation, you start to be able to tell what it will be by sniffing the air. I wasn’t particularly excited about cabbage and pork.

“Oh, yes please.”

We walked up the road in the evening air, away from the orphanage. The crickets were already singing. The shadows in the rubber tree grove were lengthening. The two yellow lines down the middle of the road reminded me of home. But the smell on the air was the earthy and sweet smell of Thailand.

“This makes me feel free.”

Judy laughed. “Me too.”

There is something about being able to get away from your responsibility for a while; even a pleasant responsibility. Something about walking away in your own power, not riding in someone else’s car, bound to another person’s schedule. I never knew how much I missed that freedom until I tasted it tonight. We meandered into the village up the road, peeking into the two shops that the little place boasted, looking distrustfully at the bags of food and pinching the rolls to see if they were fresh.

Then we ate fried rice in the one shop, sipping our tea and coffee drinks, talking about nothing and everything. We walked back in the twilight, with the moon high above, shedding its light on the uneven road curving before us. When we reached the path to the orphanage, we hesitated.

“Let’s walk down to the rice paddies. They will be beautiful in the moonlight.”

Rose and Judyanne looked distrustfully at the storm brewing behind the mountains. Lightning flashed.

“Lets.”

Rose is always very certain about everything. She cast her vote with confidence and started walking without waiting for Judy’s answer.

Judy just giggled. Judy is prone to laughter and facial expressions. Her English is not as concise as Rose, but her face makes up for it a hundred-fold. That and her ‘tsks.’ She can ‘tsk’ like no other.

We tripped down the road towards the stretch of fields below. The mountains were visible even in the dark. The breeze quickened and brought that delicious intensity that comes before a storm. We stood still at the edge of the paddies and looked over the night. The moon was shining clear in one half of the sky, the storm was brewing in the other half.

It was with regret that I tore myself away and followed them back up the road. I had forgotten all about my impending death somewhere along the way. The night was too beautiful to worry about something you could never control. God knew. And to trust the God that created this night is enough.

The storm is still brewing, the rain will come soon. Maybe I’ll beat it back to my room. Somehow, I hope I don’t. Goodnight 🙂

 

 

 

My Worst Day

I walked into the classroom of Sixth Graders. These kids are what? Eleven? Twelve? You don’t need to be intimidated by them.

That’s what I told myself.

The desks are set up in three rows of two desks each. In each is a hard little nut of a sixth grader. These kids think they run this school. And it would be hard to argue and say they don’t. I usually sit and watch these kids perform in their little circus with other teachers. I was not looking forward to seeing their act being performed for my benefit. This was one of my first days teaching by myself and my first time teaching 6th grade alone.

I wrote out the first verse of a song on the whiteboard. Behind me I could hear the talking and the laughing and the occasional whistling. I turned around. “Quiet, please.”

They look at me and don’t even miss a beat. No whistling this time though. I should just count it a victory. I turn back to the whiteboard and continue my writing.

“Ok-” I say as I turn around, then pause. There is someone missing from their desk. “Where is Channon?” I ask the suddenly silent class. Another pause as they look back and forth at one another.

The tiny, studious girl that sits next to Channon points to the floor behind the desks. Her name is May.

I stretch on my tiptoes and see the dark, mischievous face of Channon. Channon is a gangly, elfin boy from the far-off village of Serin. He lives at the Home of Hope and “studies” at the school because his Grandmother cannot afford his education and care. I say he studies because that is what he is supposed to be doing but somehow never does.

He was completely prone on the floor. His perfect teeth flashed in his dusky face.

Charm won’t save you.

“Up.” I clip, “Get up and sit in your seat.”

His smile grows. He moves not an inch.

“Channon.”

Still nothing.

I step forward and grab his wrist, throwing every atom of energy into lifting this boy (who is almost as tall as me, by the way) off the floor. He unfolds and, still grinning like a tanned cheshire cat, slumps into his seat amid the laughter of the class.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhh!” I throw a little extra vehemence into the end of my shushing for good measure.

They subside. That is until I turn back to the board. Then the perky, pretty girl from the village, Athawm, starts singing a Thai pop song with much expression. The other girl in the back row, Baithuey, who is usually stone-faced and looks like she could be a basketball player, joins in with uncharacteristic ardor.

I turn around. “Stop singing and repeat after me.”

They stop. I start reading what I’ve written on the board and the class half-heartedly echoes. We do this a few more times before I decide it is enough.

“Teacher,” Phet, a small sapling of a boy pipes up from the second row, “I no understand.”

“Athawm,” I call back to the pretty girl, “please come up and write it in Thai.”

Athawm went to school in Bangkok and she is far above the class in her English comprehension. She speaks broken English still and there are some things she doesn’t understand, but for the most part she has a good grasp.

She hesitates, “No, I don’t want.” she finally states.

Is that so?

“Why?”

She shakes her head and her eyes are darting around at her classmates. She shouldn’t have worried, half of them were doing un-English-related doodling in their notebooks.

“Come.” I point to the board and attempt a smile.

She reluctantly slides out of her desk and comes up. She takes the marker from my hand and starts translating.

I turn to the class. “Copy.”

Some of them open their notebooks and start to write down the words. I glance over at Channon and see that he has his head down on his desk, apparently asleep. I walk up and pull on his outstretched hand that dangles over the edge of the desk. Nothing. I try to lift his head and I call out his name a few times. His hand slaps my hand away but his forehead does not budge from the desk.

While I am busy trying to resuscitate the apparently lifeless corpse in the front row, the class is degenerating into chaos again. Someone is singing and Phet is still staring at the board, his forehead wrinkled and his eyes skeptical.

I realize I’m losing them again and start visiting desks to check on their progress.

“Seegame, where is your notebook?”

I was speaking to Athawm’s brother, a haphazard boy with eyes that twinkle and a propensity to shriek like an actual banshee. By that I mean that sometimes when I am speaking to the class, he will suddenly erupt in an ear-splitting scream. I think he does it to make me jump. And I do.

Note: all of these things are actual occurrences. I am not making this up.

“Get out your notebook and copy.” I say, making hand-motions to illustrate.

He smiles his cheeky little smile and his eyes dance some more as he pulls out the notebook and starts to write it down.

I limped through the rest of the class and felt physical relief when the bell rang. There is no demerit system in place, no detention, no suspension, no expulsion… Just looks and fancy eye-brow lowering. That’s all I have.

The next morning when I woke up, I was about to pull the covers back over my head and hide in my room until they came to drag me kicking and screaming back into that classroom. I have very little preparation for this. I expected it to be different.

I became a little angry.

Why are you doing this to me, God? Why would you put me here to fail?

My nephew has this thing he used to do to get my attention. If I was looking at something else, he would take my face in his hands and turn it back to him and whatever he was doing.

In that moment of desperation, God did that. I saw something I was trying to ignore. My vanity and my pride. I had been so busy doing everything perfectly, harvesting man’s praise and basking in the glow of the children’s love, that I forgot my God. My devotions had petered out and my prayer life was lacking. I was doing it by myself.

So, He let me do it by myself. I failed.

When I saw myself, I knew in an instant that this was my doing. I begged Him for mercy. I saw endless days of the same failure stretching out before me and I knew real fear and desperation. I could not face these days alone.

That day was still a rough day. But God had already prepared something for me, a little miracle.

The next day of school dawned. I rose to meet the day and I went with such an acute feeling of helplessness. I felt like a baby, going into a battle I was not equipped to fight. Every moment I was fixed on Him. Lord, I need you. That is the only thing I could think.

That morning I sat in the office where the teachers break between classes and rested my forehead on my hand.

“Good morning.” Someone greeted me.

It was Rose. Rose is a cheerful and matter-of-fact Philippine girl who teaches 1st through 3rd grade English. She and I have become friends and I am always enjoying her dry sense of humor and her quaint way of speaking.

“Good morning.” I rouse myself.

“You look tired.” she said.

“Yup.”

She gave me a look.

“I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade today and I cannot seem to keep their attention or even know where to start.” I finally said.

“Oh?” she doesn’t seem surprised.

I wish she looked more surprised. But that is pride. Of course I don’t know! I’ve never taught.

“I’ve only ever taught Bible stories to toddlers at church. I’ve never taught like this before.”

“Well,” she starts, looking at me frankly, “I taught for some time at an ESL school in the Philippines and that was before I went to college.” She paused. “What I would do-”

And what ensued was a simple outline of a vocabulary drill. When I stepped into my 4th grade class, I sent up my plea and whipped out my flashcards.

When I stepped out of the classroom, I was buoyant. Success. Every eye on me, every mind active, every face bright with eager understanding.

The next day, I thanked Rose. She brushed it off. Then proceeded to feed me my next lesson plan to follow up the drill with. The next couple of days were glorious. Rose would suggest ideas, I would follow them and watch as the class ate up the material.

This is my miracle. God had placed Rose here for me from the very first day I arrived. But He had some lessons to teach me in my own classroom of life first.

After another successful class I breezed into the office and sat in my chair. I whipped out my phone. I had some time for Pinterest before my next class. A quote I know well jumped out at me almost immediately.

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This was my best day. But I need Him on this day of sunshine and joy just as desperately as I did on that day when I wanted to pull the covers over my head and disappear. I don’t need Him in my storms more and on the days of calm I don’t need Him less. My Almighty God does not change and my neediness for Him does not change, just the circumstances.

I turned off my phone and sat in silence. I am still that baby toddling into battle. So I turned my heart back to Him. In thankfulness for this miracle; this good day. And in desperate neediness for all my days, good or bad.