post-colonial, cultural issues, left-wing politics, protests, murder, dark humour
Chase the Dragon
Little Pi is pursued down the gravel road. His skinny bite-scarred legs swinging so rapidly his feet barely graze the ground. Ten feet behind, three teachers holler and swing their straps. Where does Pi expect to escape to? There's nothing but tall, sun burnt grass for miles. As the prairie song croons, it's so flat you can see your dog and wife leaving. Pi might make it. He and his friends occasionally swallow mud. These kids are survivors.
It's a rip off that I'm placed here with dreams of palm trees, white sand and Pina Coladas (aren't those Hawaiian?) Instead, this is Isaan, prairie land of Thailand. I am the only non-Thai person for miles and no one speaks English fluently.
I live on a school compound an hour east of Kalasin, Yom Tambon, Yang Talad. That roughly translates as Dinosaur City, Muddy River Province, Rubber Market Village. About an hour west of here are the Mekong River and the border to Lao.
As a teenager, I loathed Alberta; its simultaneously dull and terrifying wheat fields roll on for eternity. Here, in Isaan it's the same. There are dinosaurs, wagon wheels and museums full of rusty farm equipment.
At night I sit in my house, alone. Forget the prairie garrison concept of pioneer's homes as protection against the elements and those restless natives. This sucker won't block anything out. Insects, vermin and a king cobra wiggle through the cracks.
After lugging water from the aluminum well, I flop onto my plastic chair, in the center of the dark room. There is no electricity. The battery-powered fan swivels, providing waves of relief from +40 weather. The short-wave radio broadcasts Radio China's version of BBC. Reception squeals as though it's transmitting a coded message a distant planet.
I sprinkle myself in Prickly Heat, a gritty powder that cakes to sweat and tingles cool like candy canes. It's a powerful deterrent for my archrivals for food and survival: ants.
Falling Rain, pronounced fun toke in Thai, my smoke brand of choice, they taste like mint-infused cigars. I chain drag as I coat myself with successive barriers of powder. I am a pastry, smoking through the hole bakers use to stuff the puff with cherry jelly.
Today I ran ten kilometers. I avoided eating for three days. Smug in my accomplishments for doing one thing that's productive.
The daily jog around the compound brings me past the canteen where three sleepy dogs wait for bones. To run ten kilometers, I complete the circuit ten times. Each round, the dogs are roused from drowsing. They jump up, scattering flocks of flies, and chase me along the gravel road, yelping.
Teachers fall silent and stare, likely thinking the sole reason to run in the heat is fear. Perhaps the teachers think it is part of the western treadmill mentality. Now, they continue with their business as I pass. It is as though I am a ghost.
Why the hell am I here?
My resume is bizarre: toting vagina replicas at the base of K2 in Pakistan; teaching kids in East London, making sure all the tabs of acid littered on the edge of the playground are removed before the kids get too hungry and eat them.
I'm selected by the British Empire "to teach teachers to teach" via an organization called V.S.O. Not the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and similar to Orwell's, "Shooting an Elephant." Volunteer Service Overseas is an oddity: volunteers are paid to travel overseas and show the natives how it's done in the west. Before agreeing to join V.S.O., I have an inkling the mandate has problems. The desire to work in Thailand (not teaching English), overoad all fears. I was certain V.S.O. would attract people concerned with social justice issues and willing to debate the fine points of development.
On the compound (in my job description from London, a college), I watch teachers do everything but teach. They beat the children, sing the Thai national anthem and King's song, and do Buddhist prayers. It's a school for special needs children but a few are just poor.
Since I'm stuck in this colonial mind-fuck for two years, I decide my goals are:
1. To learn.
2. To work with the teachers towards not beating the children.
3. To explain to parents that their disabled children were not born to them because of bad karma. Perhaps I shouldn't preach this. It's not missionary work but there are medical reasons for disability. These kids have potential to serve their communities.
The teachers aren't rotten nor are they solely cruel to the children. They gently pluck lice from the kids' hair, carry them to the doctor, and cuddle them when they cry for home. A kindlier version of Canada's residential schools.
If I've developed anything at the school it's friendship. There's Sweet and motherly Tan, gossipy party girl Ju, rough and funny On and handsome man Chaleet. The comforting trait of Chaleet's is that he doesn't hold back, in words, actions or even in our motorbike races on our daily grocery trip into town.
The teachers possess their own brand of pain preventing worthwhile work. Thai schools are a branch of government. The government withholds the teacher's pay. To feed their families, teachers borrow money from the government at high interest rates. It's not a special function of Thai culture or developing countries. Think: credit cards, mortgages, student loans and poverty.
I get paid like clockwork.
The decision to battle this pay injustice revs its engines at the VSO conference on the border of Cambodia. The gathering is reminiscent of a post-modern film blurring the themes from "Lord of the Flies", Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." We're trapped in cabins listening to speakers, carving out mandates and bitching about placements.
I'm buff and powerful; it's been a food-free week other than soymilk and cucumbers. Blah Rah, salted grasshoppers and beatles (will you still need me, will you still feed me) from coworkers doesn't cut it anymore. Don't dare believe this is on Thai's regular menu, my coworkers have fun feeding the farang local wonder-fare.
My exercise regime increases. My body moves constantly from five a.m. to midnight. In addition to my workday, the routine consists of twenty laps in the pond, the usual jog and a time of aerobics and stretching.
Here, at the conference, three events sway my sense of mental well being.
One. I argue non-stop with my boyfriend Ben. It's like voluntary torture. We hang out only when I exhaust myself taking the overnight bus to Bangkok on Friday and return to Isaan on Sunday. Ben is working in Bangkok as a human rights lawyer grappling with the draft of the Thai constitution, assuring poor country folk have rights. He wears on me, constantly spouting how ignorant everyone else in the world is (buffoons is his common term), how every one of my moves is a testimony to my white privilege and his lack of privilege as an Indian man. There are points when I understand him and gladly agree to wear my hair shirt. Once, Thai men shouted at us as we strolled along the road, "white girl with paki, really?"
"What did they say?" Ben asked.
"Something about us being visitors," I said.
Ben never bothered to learn Thai. My coworkers and new friends in Isaan "thst thst" every time they hear his name.
"Human rights. FFFah! And he is too ashamed to leave the city and visit you, he is scared of us country people," they say.
I don't know why I stick with him. Maybe it's because he's from Calgary.
Two. Leftover anger from last night. My friend Judy and I escaped the conference and discovered a community hall with Karen people singing, dancing and feasting. Like the Margaret Meads we are, we joined them. As the celebration was nearing its end, police flooded the hall and led people in rows into khaki army vans outside. Judith and I sat alone in the empty space, stunned.
Three. One purpose of the conference is selection of a corespondent who reports to London. The "chosen" person has the dizzying freedom of administering 500,000 to social justice projects in Thailand. Potential candidates lobby for higher V.S.O. wages. Some want to protest the filming of "The Beach" starring Leonardo Di Caprio (threatening Thailand's National Parks with their film set rubbish.)
I didn't intend to stand before 100 people and rattle about the teachers at my school not getting paid. I tap my foot as I gain momentum in my seat. I rise. I speak and sputter on about colonialism, injustices facing people. My engines roar. The hunger to speak out cannot be satiated.
"Where did that come from? Perhaps I say too much," I wonder. Politicians are hungry.
The position is mine. With the excitement, I am so worked up, I peer over the cliff of control. The anger regarding social justice issues dissipates. I even eat some salad from the buffet.
Tracy, my supervisor, slides the 'special' VSO information package across the table. Flipping through to the section entitled "VSO Sponsors", I spot the royal insignia of The Duke of Edinburgh with a whole whack of ugly looking corporate logos listed below it including the Thai government. A name catches my eye.
Oh blessed Ken Saro-Wiwa, oh great writer of Nigeria. Killed. In 1996, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged. People believe Wiwa was punished for protesting a Shell Oil pipeline in Nigeria.
VSO is funded by Shell Oil. Allegedly, Shell Oil is responsible for placing tower guards between Thailand and Cambodia an hours drive from here. The nasty rumor is that guards shoot people who wander within a fifty-mile radius of the towers. Karen people live in this circle around the tower.
I talk too much. The keynote speaker for the conference is a Thai man, a prominent writer and protester against Monsanto (pesticides.) He's an advocate of growing organic and native plant varieties. He loves VSO (it didn't occur to me until after that he may have complex reasons for cow towing to western ideals.)
The audience hushes. I ask, "Are you aware of the atrocities Shell Oil has committed in building the oil pipeline between Thailand and Cambodia and are you involved in any action against it?"
He's been attending rallies against the pipeline and goes on to list the injustices of Shell Oil.
"Are you aware that Shell Oil is a major funder of V.S.O.?"
Chairs shuffle. Throats are cleared. He mumbles something about needing to get money from somewhere. Bad money is unavoidable. He asks what I think of being in VSO under those circumstances. Diplomatic stuff like that.
On the bus to Isaan, I hear voices whisper in my head. Hypocrite. You're all talk and no action. SSSSssssss.
My friend's faces are the first I see as I hop off the bus. Chaleet, Tan, Ju, On and I are crammed into the cab of Chaleet's truck. My friends become incensed as I relay my discoveries at the conference. It's a comfort to speak Thai well enough to say to them: I will not lead the protest but I am behind you. Plan of action to oppose their pay predicament: Go to Bangkok as a group to the anti-
Shell Oil rally. Go to the Thai anti-corruption board, the British Embassy, the American Embassy, the Canadian Embassy. Write letters to VSO in London and visit local politicians.
We do this together. Nothing changes. Yet.
Chaleet and I are on our motorcycle race from town. He's kicking my butt. Dust spins out from his back tire. The road bloke in the distance is a common sight they check ID. I see my coworker fall from his bike. The small speck Chaleet has twisted and jumped on the horizon. The bike slides sidelong from under him. His helmet snapped free and rolled into the ditch. As I near the spot I realize his helmet hasn't fallen off his head.
I don't know much about wire put across roads by police. I don't know about the speed it takes to rip tendons and necks that hold heads and helmets on. Please don't ask me to find out.
If I had been winning the motorcycle race today, I would have lost my head. Instead, I'm losing my mind. Eating is becoming the ultimate sign of weakness. I embark on a drinking binge lasting about week and screw a fellow V.S.O.er, who also happens to be out on a binge. Darkness is catching up with us.
Tracey sends a letter stating that for my safety, it would be better if I come to Bangkok, to avoid further accidents. Oddly, I never told her there was an accident, it wasn't in the paper. Tracey had been called the day before Chaleet's death and warned that my coworkers and I were causing trouble. Tracey wrote, "the police said they were thinking of doing something about the trouble." Had they already?
At first, I stay with Ben in Bangkok and do work for VSO, scouting out prospective placements for VSOers. One of these placements is a Christian institution for special needs children called, "Hope for the Hopeless." Such a small stone compared to all the boulders yet, when VSO okays this unsuitable organization SNAP. I send 500,000 of grant money back to V.S.O. with a letter telling them I don't love them anymore.
It's easy. I go to sleep without telling any of my Thai or VSO friends my scheme. I shake Ken at five a.m. He looks blurry-eyed and half-asleep when I confess. "I'm going to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada this morning, after two years of hell," I say, "I have the return portion of the ticket VSO bought me and I've rebooked it for now."
Spotting my packed bags, Ben hurries around the house getting ready. He reminds me of a confused animal. He's angry. "You're an idiot. You're crazy. You can't leave me alone here. I have no one else here who gets it," he says. He sits on the edge of the bed, with his head in his hands and cries. My energy for compassion is tapped and drained.
We stuff my bags into the cab. The sun is beginning to rise. All the dogs and people remain asleep.
There is no such thing as running away. Memories and thoughts remain. I am without solace in Canada, a powerful reminder of what I already know: it's no better in Canada and no worse. Events inflict themselves on us. Some can chose to ignore what's around them, some will internalize the pain and joy of what we see. Sensitivity is a trait, despite the pain it inflicts, I never want to run from.
I never get to say good-bye to anyone. I never see anyone from Thailand again, except Ben. It's August 30 1999, I have been home in Edmonton for three months. Ben's on CNN reporting live on the elections in East Timor.
Chase the Dragon- A parody on Calgarian, Karen Connelly's non-fiction journal of her experience in Thailand. "Touch the Dragon" won the 1993 Governor General's award. Reference to opium use.
Pi- A Thai name that means ghost.
Blah Rah- Fermented fish.
Hair shirt- a painfully scratchy shirt worn by Christians doing penance.
Margaret Mead- Female cultural anthropologist and explorer known for distant and Eurocentric techniques.
Karen- Thai hilltribe people who live throughout Thailand and on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.
Farang- slang for word for "white person."
V.S.O.- Voluntary Service Overseas.