North Dakota Living, Teaching, Travel & Adventure

North Dakotans in Mexico

I write this blog post from the deck of our suite overlooking the Caribbean sea. The sun is just coming up, the waves are crashing on the beach, and the palm trees are swaying. Although it is our last morning here, these are the sounds that have helped settle me and all my anxieties over the last few days.

A few months back, I made the declaration that if I’m going to be pregnant all winter and stuck indoors in our little house on the farm, I at least want to sit in the sun for a few days over winter break. So, I started researching resorts in Mexico, we booked a four-night stay and airline tickets, and here we are. I typically choose adventurous travel where we walk all day and learn new things and experience other cultures, but this is pretty nice, if I do say so myself.

I was frazzled the day we got here. Teaching is a stressful job, and we just wrapped up the first semester at my high school the day before we left. Teaching is also one of the best jobs, no doubt, but on a daily basis, I am needed by 140-something students, and they all need different things: some, reassurance; others, attention (and they will get it in whatever means necessary); others just need a little help with their grammar and writing skills; most of them need understanding — and some just need help passing the class and earning the credit. And that’s just the students. As a teacher, you are also needed by parents, committees, principals, and each other. It’s a demanding job, and while I love it, it’s also exhausting at times, especially at the end of a semester. I finished all my grading by Friday at 4, jumped into my husband’s pickup to head to Bismarck, and by 5 a.m. on Saturday we were on a plane headed south. I still felt a bit shellshocked, and it took a day or two for me to stop thinking about all my students and a couple nights for me to stop having dreams about school (Really! That happens.) But as I lay on the beach a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but think that the sound of the waves really are mesmerizing, that the sun and salty breeze really did feel amazing on my face — and what was I so stressed out about back home, again?

(In May or June, it usually takes us teachers about a week to recover from the shell shock, so this wasn’t too bad.)

We also took a tropical trip last year for our honeymoon, but being pregnant sure lends a different feel to things. First of all, instead of packing a lot of cute outfits to go out in at night, I realized very quickly as I was packing that most (ok, all) of my maternity clothes have been purchased in late fall and early winter — basically a lot of sweaters — and I was limited to grabbing whatever summer clothes didn’t look obscene on me. It turned out to be a very small pile. Also, I usually bring a few suits and cover-ups, but I invested in exactly one maternity swimsuit and found exactly one cover-up that still fit. I haven’t worn a tankini in years, but why start out this baby’s life by sunburning it, right? I mean, it’s going to be almost half Norwegian. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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This lack of clothing options really made packing a lot simpler.

Needless to say, we haven’t been going out much at night, anyway, but luckily my husband is pretty easygoing and likes bingeing on Netflix just as much as I do. (That is, he watches Netflix while I fall asleep at 8 every evening.) The last noticeable pregnancy change is my appetite: I usually love seafood, but now the sight and smell of it makes me sick. And here we are right next to the ocean, fresh seafood galore!

We’re having a great time, despite those weird little things. Although I’m not exactly getting a cultural experience on this trip (we’re not seeing much of Mexico itself as we haven’t even left the resort once since getting here), we have met a lot of new people, thanks in no small part to my outgoing husband. I can be pretty reserved at times, so I enjoy watching these interactions. On the plane down here, he offered everyone around us “North Dakota deer jerky.” I was thinking, Oh my gosh, we can’t offer food to strangers, they’re going to think we’re trying to poison them. Boy was I wrong! He had several people around us munching on jerky and declaring how good it was. Pretty soon we knew all our neighbors on the plane. He also knows some pretty decent Spanish after taking four years of it in high school (I took three years, yet remember literally two phrases) and has been practicing it on all the locals. They love it. “Tu Español es muy bueno!” they all exclaim to him. He’s made friends from South Dakota, Chicago, Texas, and Arkansas, and was chagrined when the only other people we met from North Dakota weren’t friendly at all. “They’re giving us a bad impression!” he whispered to me. He’s been our own North Dakota one-man ambassador squad down here.

And he takes good care of me. When I woke up one morning with a sore back, he called the spa immediately despite my protests which he thoroughly ignored. “My wife needs a pregnancy massage,” he said, and it was booked just like that. It was amazing, by the way. I never wanted it to end.

I am a lucky girl in more ways than one. I live in the best place in the world, but I get to travel, too, and all with a good man at my side.

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Nothing like a little rejuvenation of spirits at the ocean! I think I’m ready to come home now.

Musings, North Dakota Living

On Bicycles

“The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”
– Christopher Morley

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” 
-H.G. Wells

A few days ago, I bought a bicycle. It’s a beauty, an Electra Verse 21D in sky blue and canary. The second I spotted it as I walked between the two aisles of shiny hybrid bicycles in the REI store in the twin cities, I knew I was in love. I didn’t want to make any rash decisions for my first bike purchase in 17 years, though, so I tried not to yearn, and instead asked the friendly REI associate some practical and pointed questions about the style of bike I should buy. The more I explained my biking style and habits, the more he continued to gesture toward that exact blue-and-yellow piece of eye candy that I was indeed yearning for. My hopes went up. My heart rate quickened. I blurted out, “I’ll take it!” It had taken me approximately 5 minutes to pick out the bicycle of my dreams, another 15 minutes for the guys to install a kickstand and water bottle cage, 2 minutes to pay — and I was out in the parking lot, riding in circles.

Who cares about a little rain?

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This got me thinking about the power of the bicycle. Susan B. Anthony said once, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” (You can read an interesting article on the concept here.)

I, for one, am inclined to agree with her. Although I’m fortunate enough to grow up in a time when women can study and vote, I did find it pretty liberating riding around in the rain in the parking lot after the frozen shackles of a long, cold winter. That counts, right? And how many summer days growing up did my brothers and I spend riding our bikes to the local swimming pool, the baseball diamond, and the Mini Mart? How many times did my bike get me faithfully to class on time? How often have I cruised down a paved road in the badlands, thinking there can’t be a better way to enjoy the view? Liberating, indeed.

The bicycle is a wonderful piece of equipment, and it deserves some props, which is why I have decided to wake up from my no-blogging and no-traveling trance, and write this, my first blog post in months. I feel about as rusty as, well, an old bicycle. (Sorry.) I can’t think of a more deserving topic, however. In fact, the excitement of my purchase at REI got me thinking about the last time I experienced this kind of thrill, riding around in circles just for the heck of it, not caring a hoot about the dollars I just spent…

In the summer of 1997, I was 12 years old and had approximately 300 dollars in my little checking account. This money came from working on my Grandpa Tim’s farm in the summers — for every day we worked, we earned the dollar amount of our age. So the summer before, every time I spent a day out picking rock or hoeing trees or chasing cows, I made 11 dollars that day. (This was a sweet deal, because we were guaranteed a dollar raise once a year!) At the end of every summer, my dad deposited our earnings into our little checking accounts. Under his guidance, we doled out portions to savings and charity, and the rest was ours.

On this particularly beautiful evening in 1997, my dad drove me down to Dakota Cyclery on Main Street in Bismarck. I was bouncing with anticipation and clutching my navy blue plastic checkbook, with its barely-used blue-patterned checks. In the shop with my dad, I looked at bike after bike, trying out gears, admiring colors, and marveling over the fact that each one had handle brakes rather than pedal brakes — I had never owned a bike with handle brakes! Finally, I chose the one: A Specialized Hard Rock in forest green, with 21 speeds and a water-bottle cage. The green paint had tiny sparkles in it, and I was smitten. I proudly wrote out the check for $250 in my 7th-grade cursive, tearing it carefully on the perforated line and handing it over to the salesman. My first big purchase with my own money (Random tidbit: The second big purchase with my own money was a 12-gauge shotgun) — and what a purchase it was!

Even better, after a few test circles in the parking lot — sound familiar? — my dad let me ride it home from the bicycle shop. With the seat as low as it could go, I could just barely stretch my feet enough to pedal it. That first ride on my first grown-up bike, with the wind blowing back my hair as I cruised home, was a crowning moment in my adolescent life, and when I think of happiness and liberation, I think that moment sums it up pretty well.

Here’s the bike back in its glory days. I’m not sure I would go as far as to call those my glory days…

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up that forest green Hard Rock just because I have a new bike love in my life. After helping to transport me through the rocky adolescent years, the Hard Rock came with me to college in 2003, where it took me to English class, Burger Time, and once, through the Taco Bell drive-thru at 2 a.m. My cross country teammates often borrowed it when they were too injured to run. In 2007, I took it to a bike repair shop in Fargo for its 10th birthday and bought it a tune-up, new brakes, and new tires. It was my transportation on one first date, one long healing post-breakup ride, and one particularly infamous trip to Dairy Queen which resulted in my brother Danny breaking his wrist. On several occasions, we have gone down to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park to admire those badlands together. Nope, that bike’s not going anywhere. We’ve been through a lot.

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But, there’s no reason you can’t have a little bit of new with a little bit of old, so that’s how I found myself in REI looking at new bicycles for the first time in 17 years. I’m thinking I’m going to make a lot of new memories with this new bike, too. I may not be making any more 2 a.m. Taco Bell trips, but I hate to rule anything out…

So if you’re looking for me this summer, I’ll more than likely be on one of my two bicycles somewhere, enjoying my little bit of liberation.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Coming Home: Not As Easy As I Thought

When I flew out of Minneapolis for Asia on a Friday in early fall, I felt queasy. Three months wasn’t a long time to be gone — or was it? I had no idea what to expect. Would I like Asia? Would I like living out of my backpack for that long? Would volunteering be rewarding, difficult, or both? Would I like the food? Would I get sick? Would I still like my brother Tommy after all that time spent together? (Kidding, Tommy.)

I really didn’t know all the answers to these questions, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I love to travel, but I also love home, and previously my longest trips had only been a couple of weeks at most. I was determined to make the best of it regardless of what I found overseas, but I knew it wouldn’t be the most comfortable period of my life by any means. That really wasn’t why we were going. If anything, I wanted to be uncomfortable. So as we flew out of Minneapolis that rainy autumn morning, I did my best to push my nervous thoughts to the back of my mind. I remember commenting to Tommy, “Well, no matter how this trip goes, it will be a sweet feeling to land back on American soil in December!”

Because coming home is always an amazing feeling, right?

Fast forward to that December plane ride home to America from Beijing, and something remarkable had happened, for better or worse: I really didn’t feel as amazing as I had thought I would to be coming home. I didn’t feel excited. I didn’t feel eager. Instead, the same queasy feelings that accompanied me on the way to Asia were flitting around in my stomach during the return flights. What was going on? Could it be that I actually enjoyed myself so much that I was now going to pine away for Asia? This was unexpected. The thought of facing “real life” back home was as terrifying to me now as flying into the unknown in Asia had been. I had definitely experienced culture shock when we had first landed in Cambodia months earlier, but it hadn’t taken long to adjust. In fact, it didn’t take long at all for me to fall in love with Cambodia and Thailand.

I had also heard of something called “reverse culture shock,” a term used to describe a difficult adjustment back to life in America. I assumed, however, that it was only for people who spent years overseas. I was not at all prepared for it to be difficult for me. But strangely, it was. It turns out three months was long enough to pick up new habits and expectations, and not long enough for me to miss home much at all.

When we finally landed in Minneapolis, I felt empty.

I had planned and looked forward to and lived the trip for so long, and it had gone so fast, that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself now that I was back. Three months no longer seemed too long, but not long enough at all. I missed Asia incredibly. Where was the sunshine? Where was the diversity? Where was the fresh fruit being sold on every corner? Where were the challenges of trying to converse with people who don’t speak my language? Where were the interesting crowds of people? And why is everything here so darn expensive? Christmas, while it is one of my favorite times of year, just made everything worse. After living out of a backpack for that long and cycling only a handful of outfits, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I owned, and getting more stuff as gifts seemed unnecessary. I missed the simplicity of only a few days earlier. I missed the friendliness and curiosity of the Khmer and Thai and Chinese locals. I didn’t really miss the bad plumbing, but even our fancy American bathrooms added a whole new adjustment. And oh boy, I missed the food. (Except, of course, the fried tarantulas! Those I can live without.) I was pretty excited one night after Christmas to find both pad thai and a native Thai waitress at a new restaurant in town, and she was pretty excited too when I tried out one or two of my terribly-pronounced Thai phrases on her.

I was genuinely surprised and a bit bewildered by the overall difficulty of adjusting back, and I was hard on myself for it, especially when I considered how fortunate I am here at home. Was I just being dramatic? Or negative? I didn’t want to be like that. But it wasn’t until I had an email conversation with my friend E, who currently lives in China, that I understood these feelings weren’t necessarily bad or unusual. She assured me that it happened to her, too, the first time she moved to China for a summer and then returned to America. Through our conversation, I began to look at the whole process differently. Instead of feeling depressed about missing my adventures in Asia, could I take that new perspective that I had wanted so badly and work to apply it to my familiar life here? Could I simplify things, focus on teaching and family and all of the important things, and most of all, know in my heart that these experiences, even if we never get to have them again, make us who we are?

What I was feeling made even more sense when I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” 

This idea resonated with me greatly. I left a small part of my heart in Asia even after a few short months, and that’s okay with me. Dramatic? Maybe, but whatever. I’ve never been one to hold back much. And the richness I’ve gained from the whole trip has emerged during the weeks I’ve been home, especially once I was able to get past feeling empty and lost. Most importantly, I’ve started to realize that you don’t need to fly across the world for new experiences. It’s about saying “yes” when opportunities present themselves, trying new things, accepting people no matter where they come from, and enjoying the little things that surround us daily.

Coming home has turned out to be its own new experience now that I’m adjusting again. I feel like I’m getting a fresh start, so I’ve decided to fill my life with things that are meaningful, big or small. I’ve taken up local adult classes on everything from photography to crochet. I’m drinking tea for the first time ever. I sleep less and converse more. I have a new fascination for people from other cultures and have become more outgoing in general. I also have a new appreciation for drinkable tap water and flushing toilets! That new perspective is working its magic, and coming home — well, truthfully it hasn’t been as easy as I thought. It’s a little too cold now and a little too expensive, and I still find myself looking at flights online during my free time. I will more than likely jump on a plane overseas the first time the opportunity arises.

But this is home. And I’m finding again that it’s not so bad, after all.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Happy Every Day: Guest Speaking in China

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent a day and two nights in Zhengzhou, in the province of Henan in north-central China, with my friend Erika. Zhengzhou happened to be a perfect stopping point between Hong Kong and Beijing during our week of train adventures.

Usually back home I am trying to convince people to guest speak in my classroom, so when Erika asked if I’d like to accompany her to two of her college English classes at Zhengzhou University, I had to say yes. My brother Danny also volunteered his services. It turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences during my time in Asia. After just a couple hours spent with Erika’s warm and curious students, I could see why so many people fall in love with China for its people.

First, we talked about our Christmas traditions, including Christmas cookies, Christmas trees, sledding, and carols. Danny and I taught two carols to the students, and in return they sang a Chinese New Years song for us. Erika also instructed her students that if they wished to ask us a question about ourselves or about life in America, they needed to share with us something interesting about China first. Here are a few of the cultural things we learned:

  • Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is a pretty big deal!
  • We should try dumplings while in China. We heard a lot about dumplings. (And when we tried them from a street cart later, they were pretty tasty!)
  • Dialects vary greatly from province to province, and even within provinces. We even got a demonstration on dialectical differences.
  • Do not eat a banana by itself! It needs to be eaten with something else or you might hurt your stomach.
  • Do not drink milk by itself either.
  • You should not put honey in hot tea as it ruins the nutrition.

Here are some of my favorite questions the students asked us in return for sharing a cultural tidbit:

  • Why do Americans tuck napkins into their shirts in the movies?
  • Why are dentists respected in America? (In China, they tend to go to the dentist for a toothache only, not for regular cleanings. It’s not a serious medical field.)
  • Is it true that in America, if you wear an outfit to a party, you can’t wear it again? (Blame the celebrities.)
  • Does America watch dating shows too?
  • Are farms in America expensive?
  • Can you use chopsticks? Are knives and forks used as eating utensils even safe?

It’s great seeing your own culture through a brand new set of eyes. Their questions surprised me, but then again, they were shocked that I didn’t know that I’m not supposed to eat a banana alone. It’s the beauty of culture, and cultural differences.

And also, why was it ever OK to tuck napkins into a shirt?

The best part of this whole experience actually greeted me back in America. Erika’s students wrote thank-you notes and sent them to me. Here are some of the heart-warming messages I received from these truly charming students in Zhengzhou, China:

  • “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I like your lifestyle very much!”
  • “Welcome to China! I wish you happy forever!”
  • “Hope I could see your ‘star-like’ eyes again.”
  • “Thank you for visiting our class which makes us very happy!”
  • “It’s very glad to see you! Thanks for your beautiful songs!”
  • “Hope you can come back to China someday in the future.”
  • “May you come to China at Spring Festival.”
  • “I am so glad to see you but I forget to take a photo with you! What a pity! I hope I can see you again… and then take a photo!”
  • “What a lovely girl you are! Happy every day!”

What a great message: “Happy every day!” I’m not sure if the students learned a thing about Christmas from me and Danny, but I know I learned a thing or two from the whole experience. China is an amazing place, and I’ve never been greeted so warmly by young people I had never met before. When you are fortunate enough to get to add these kinds of experiences to your life list, it’s hard not to be happy every day!

Here we are:

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Thanks for the experience, Erika!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scuba Diving and No Mishaps

Traveling is full of mishaps. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, you get food poisoning and only barely make it to the public airport bathroom. You get lost looking for a museum and somehow find yourself in a field of goats. You end up stranded on an island because the weather prevents any boats from leaving. You “accidentally” almost murder a rooster. These things just happen. Actually, now that I think about it, all of these things I just mentioned DID happen.

Mishaps make the best stories provided they don’t end up in disaster.

However, I will put my storytelling instincts aside and report that our last week in Thailand actually decided to be kind to us. How boring! No one got sick. Our scuba course passed by in a blissful three days with no problems at all. Even the weather, which had been on-and-off rainy for weeks, seemed to smile on us. We also spent the last week in great company: Our brother Danny and cousin Adam joined us in Asia for the last two weeks of our trip – one week in Thailand and one in China – following the conclusion of our volunteer teaching. Seeing them across the world was a pretty sweet feeling.

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And of course, for them, missing the -40 degree wind chill back home and swapping it for a balmy 85 was a pretty sweet feeling too.

We met them in Bangkok and spent a day there before heading south to the island of Phuket, Thailand. We had to spend a little time on the beach before we could even think about doing anything else. Adam was so thrilled to be in sunshine again that he fried himself a bit – I don’t even think he cared. The rest of us are Norwegians with a red-headed mother. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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The next day, we started what we had come to Phuket for in the first place: our scuba certification course. Of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with any scuba experience from a college class he had taken, but he hadn’t been certified. We chose a 3-day course that included coursework, pool work, and the open water dives. At the end, provided we passed, we would be PADI Open Water certified.

Usually at this point the mishaps would come in. I would tell you about one of us getting seasick, falling off the boat, failing the course, eating something nasty, getting caught in bad weather, being hospitalized for sunburn, or some other problem. But everything was pretty perfect. We liked our English instructor within a few minutes of meeting him. The weather was gorgeous. The water was so clear it was turquoise. Being able to breathe underwater is a pretty sweet feeling. And yes, we all passed.

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Pretty boring, isn’t it?

Because it really was perfect. Hands down, these were my favorite three days of our entire Asia trip. When I looked around and realized I was a world away from home, underwater in the Indian Ocean with two brothers and a cousin… Well, maybe it was one of those times you just had to be there. And maybe every once in a while, perfect isn’t so boring.

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It was a good way to end our time in Thailand.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Truth About Roosters

I have a confession: Tommy and I have an ugly side. For the most part, we are easygoing and agreeable, but this ugly side revealed itself recently.

Because of a rooster.

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I really don’t like those things. Don’t get me wrong: Chickens are great – cooked and arranged artfully on my plate, that is. Roosters live and in the flesh? No, thank you. In fact, I have some disappointing information: We have all been misled on the topic of roosters. According to cartoons and egg advertisements (both reliable sources, so I thought), these colorful fowls are supposed to perch on the barn around 6 a.m. when the sun is peeking over the horizon to give a cheerful crow and wake up the farmyard. At this point, the farmer and his wife and their daughter, who is wearing some adorable blue cotton dress, finish their breakfasts of biscuits, bacon and buttermilk and tramp out of the farmhouse with rosy cheeks to begin morning chores. That rooster, he just starts the morning off right. Thank goodness for his cheerful crow every sunrise.

So idyllic.

Such a lie.

Here is the truth about roosters: They do not crow at 6 a.m. They crow at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and whenever they darn well please, lest you have forgotten their measly little existence in the past few minutes. Also, they do not crow in the farmyard. In Asia, at least the parts we visited, roosters crow all over the cities, in backyards, on rooftops, in the markets, and next to hotels where people are sleeping peacefully, Furthermore, their crow is anything but cheerful, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a crow. It’s a screech.

Had I been asked a few months ago my opinions on roosters, my answer probably would have been indifferent. My dislike for them started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After months of listening to the horrible screeching music of roosters, the dislike has only magnified. Now when I am walking down the street, I give each one that I see an evil eye. I secretly hope that every chicken meal that I eat contains at least part of the rooster that woke me up the night before. Harsh, I know. I’m not proud of this.

I mentioned that Tommy also has an ugly side when it comes to roosters. On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this came to surface in both of us. (Never mind that we could have ended up in jail.) Here are both sides of the story, which we had sent in an email to our family shortly after the incident:

Tommy’s side of the story: A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It had great reviews and we were excited about our nice place to stay upon arrival. That changed quickly. The very first morning, I woke up at 3:59 am to the sound of a dying rooster. His song of sorrow was a sick melody of crowing for the next hour and a half. At first I felt bad for the chicken, but soon that changed as I realized I should probably put an end to its life. Hence, I soon found the chickens’ roost next door, in clear sight from the 3rd balcony, right outside my door. Looking for an object to throw was difficult, as many of the objects were too valuable to kill said rooster’s poor crappy existence. However, finding a 5-liter bottle full of water soon gave me hope. I was going to crush that rooster’s head.

Rachel’s side of the story: I had no sympathy for this so-called dying rooster. It was not dying but probably just really stupid. Its song was not a crow but a 3-note call that went high-low-SQUAWK! High-low-SQUAWK! Over and over, every 5 seconds, from 4 a.m. onward. I agree, however, that this thing needs to be put out of its misery. By 5:30, my ears were ringing with the high-low-SQUAWK and my thoughts had turned murderous. I wondered to myself, how much time would I spend in a Thai jail if I went out of this room, found the rooster, picked it up and wrung its neck? (This thought process really happened, by the way.) At least jail might be quieter. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close? In fact, unbeknownst to me, Tommy was indeed outside, taking my thoughts one step further. He had located the squawking rooster and was standing on the balcony aiming a full water bottle at it. He was checked only by the rooster’s owner coming outside to feed the chickens. This was probably a good thing, we decided — until the next night, that is. This time, the squawking started even earlier, and all I felt was despair. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close again? Way to take one for the team, Tommy. I promise to visit you in jail after I sleep a few more hours.

The third night, I had gotten past anger and despair, and when I heard the rooster squawk at 4 a.m., I felt nothing but depressed. I was going through the stages of grief. The thing I was grieving was my chance at ever sleeping again.

Only one thing has happened which has made me feel sadly vindicated over these little brainless menaces. Don’t worry, I promise this turned out fine in the end. But we did get a little laugh when we saw this:

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I still wouldn’t be too upset if he ended up as a box of nuggets….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!