All work and no play?
Despite the stress and rigors of the course, there are many happier experiences and moments of levity that take place during my four weeks at CELTA.
Tyson’s room, three doors down from mine on the ground floor (all of the men were on the lower level, the women housed upstairs) has become an unofficial headquarters for drinking late into the night to blow off some of the day’s tension. After our 8:15pm dinner, someone will do a beer run down to the little package store about a kilometer down the road, across from our “hay bale” bar that faces a field of growing rice plants. A few of us then show up at Tyson’s door randomly to complain, commiserate, and cry into our cold Thai lager.
This has drawn the attention of the staff. Not our course instructors. They don’t really give a shit what we do in our off hours, as we are adults. But the maids who tidy up our rooms have certainly noticed that they often must clear away several empty bottles and cans from Tyson’s balcony in the mornings. Tommy, the campus administrator, who has become inured to Tyson’s irreverent habit of walking uninvited into the staff office and sitting down to bullshit and flirt with the two young ladies, asked “Tyson, you like to drink a lot of beer?”
We have also discovered a small restaurant halfway to the hay bale bar. On Sundays, Jessie’s offers a “full-English” breakfast for 300 baht. The owner of the shop, Naeng, is a Burmese woman married to a British expat, Scott. They have a lovely daughter, Jessie, who is 12 years old and speaks both flawless English and Thai. The restaurant is named after her.
I’ve never had a “full-English” breakfast before, and am eager to see exactly what I’ve been missing all these years. So on the encouragement of my British classmates, Paul, Dawn, and others, I accompany them on a Sunday morning as we crowd around three tables put together to accommodate us. We are joined by at least one former student of the CELTA course who has chosen to stay in the area for work.
It turns out that a full-English breakfast has many of the same ingredients that I would expect in an American breakfast. Sausages, bacon, eggs, hash brown potatoes, and toast. But the mushrooms and grilled tomato are a confusing addition. As is the small bowl of baked beans from a can. What the hell? In the U.S. we are familiar with these same beans. They are a staple at backyard cookouts, but we would never serve them for breakfast.
Paul shows me how to eat them “properly” by scooping them onto his toast and eating the combination like an open-faced sandwich. I begrudgingly try it, but secretly wish that someone here knew about the wonders of grits. Meanwhile, Scott is a barrel of fun, regaling us with his stories about life in Thailand and what cultural shocks he’s had to confront. He graciously offers to help both Jacob and me try to find teaching jobs here, as the two of us have decided that we will stay in Chiang Mai after the course.
After the first week of classes concludes, four of us decide that we need to get OUT of this place for a bit. While the campus is beautiful enough to rival a resort, we have rarely been outside of the walls except to go to Jessie’s, the hay bale bar, or the 7-11 which is another kilometer farther down the rural road lined with rice paddies and a tiny Thai village that boasts a barber shop, local convenience store, and a karaoke bar where foreigners do not seem to be welcome.
I unite with Jacob, Tyson, and Jasmine on a late-afternoon trip into the city of Chiang Mai to visit the Sunday “walking street” we’ve heard about. We ask the staff to arrange for a red truck to pick us up and bring us into town, where we pass through the rebuilt city walls which have been in place for over 700 years. Arriving around 4:30 in the afternoon, we find that many vendors have set up along the sidewalks and in the middle of the road. Pedestrians use the driving lanes to walk past people selling art, trinkets, clothing, shoes, and a large variety of different foods to try.
For a while, this is a relaxing activity, perusing the items and trying several different unfamiliar bites, many without knowing exactly what they are. So far, my favorite has been the grilled pork on a stick, moo ping, as it’s called here.
However, as the sun begins to set behind the mountain and the street lamps kick on, more and more visitors are crowding into the walking street area, which is actually comprised of two different avenues that are perpendicular to each other. It begins to get quite congested, and forward movement becomes all but impossible because of everyone stopping to check out t-shirts emblazoned with “Same Same but Different”, or some type of carved wooden keychain/knickknack in the likeness of an elephant or a dragon. Or a penis.
The four of us duck into a bar with an upstairs deck to escape the crowds and enjoy some cold alcoholic refreshment. We wait until long after dark to make our way back to the intersection of Prapokklao and Ratvithi Roads, where the monument to the Three Kings stands. Here we meet our driver to take us back to the secluded campus in the Hang Dong district, about 9 km south of the airport.
On the second Sunday our students invite us to come to one of their homes to learn some Thai cooking. Danna and I are the only two who are able to accept the offer. We are joined by Weng, a friend of Danna’s whose visit to Thailand happens to coincide with Danna’s CELTA program dates.
Beer, one of our female students, picks us up in her car and takes us to Max’s house. We then hop on the backs of two motorcycles, with Max and I on one, and Beer following carrying Danna and Weng.
(You’re wondering, “what kind of name is BEER??”, aren’t you? Don’t be shocked yet. We’ll talk more about English names Thai people choose for themselves and their children. Sneak peek: “Doughnut”)
The five of us go to a local market, where Beer and Max help us identify strange herbs and vegetables sitting on long wooden tables next to other offerings of freshly killed animals whose body parts are still recognizable. Fish and eels swim in shallow buckets, and piles of shellfish rest on stainless pans, not on beds of ice.
Danna and Weng are probably accustomed to seeing wet markets in Beijing, but this is a new experience for me. The sights, smells, and sounds of the market are not at all like the Safeway and Kroger stores back home.
After selecting the proper ingredients for Tom Yum Koong, we then stop for a quick visit to a small Buddhist temple. The two Chinese ladies are not dressed appropriately for entering, as they are wearing shorts and Weng has on a shoulder-baring tank top. Beer and Max wave them into the temple anyway, as there are no monks present to protest this breach of protocol. We quickly take some pictures and then leave before anyone else has time to arrive and become offended.
Our cooking “class” is fun and immersive. In a covered, rustic kitchen which is outside the house, we chop lemongrass and vegetables with cleavers on round, wooden cutting boards, pound chilies and garlic with the pestle and mortar, and take turns stirring the broth for the famous, spicy, Thai soup. We take selfies holding up the river shrimp which are blue in color, and have exceptionally long pincer arms.
When we finish the cooking process, the group then enjoys eating the Tom Yum with steamed rice accompanied by beer over ice. It’s a beautiful respite from studying, and the three of us are thankful for the warm hospitality of our local friends.
The third weekend at the school coincides with the Chinese New Year. In celebration and a genuinely heartfelt act of camaraderie, our cadre of six Chinese classmates arrange for the entire class, including the instructors, campus staff, and some of the Thai students to gather for a private meal in the upstairs banquet room of one of the better Chinese restaurants in Chiang Mai. We are also joined by Scott, Naeng, and Jessie. There are probably 50 people in attendance.
The round table where I find an open chair seats 8 of us comfortably. Four of my teaching group are here with me, Jade, Danna, Nicole, and Catherine. Tyson has abandoned us for more fertile flirting fields, it seems. He sits with some of the staff at their table.
Instead of being presented with menus for us to order individual dishes with which we may have some experience, we find that our fellow classmates from China have pre-ordered shared plates to be distributed to each table.
One of the first courses contains items that the rest of us have never seen in our Chinese restaurants back in the western world. There are sliced century eggs, black in color, and appetizing in neither name nor appearance. Some other weird-looking bits that I cannot discern to be either animal or vegetable also take up space on the platter.
Danna and Catherine are explaining the nibbles to the rest of us, and trying to convince a dubious audience to at least taste them before turning up our dainty noses. Because I raised my children with the rule to take one bite of unfamiliar food before deciding not to like it, I use my chopsticks to pick up a piece of the inky, yet translucent, century egg. It’s a bit on the salty side, and definitely toothsome instead of the slimy texture that I had expected. Not bad at all.
After receiving compliments for both my bravery and deft ability with chopsticks, I have an idea to spice up this experience and get my finicky classmates to try the delicacies in front of us. I propose a challenge in which one of us will grasp an item from the plate with their wooden utensils, then transfer it to the chopsticks of the person on the left, who will then continue the rotation. If someone drops the food item during the pass, they then have to eat it.
Taha, who sits almost opposite me, and who is probably otherwise well coordinated, cannot manage to wield his east Asian dining implements. He ends up losing his grip on the morsel almost every time. He’s a good sport about it, however, and his positive reactions to many of the items he’s forced to eat spur some of the others to taste something new.
The evening goes on, the beer and liquor continue to flow, and most everyone is having a grand time. We have completed three grueling weeks of our CELTA program, and this opportunity to decompress is sorely needed. At some point in the evening, before dessert is served, I remember that it’s traditional at the Lunar New Year to give “lucky money” to unmarried people.
I walk downstairs to the reception desk to ask if they possibly have any of the customary red envelopes for giving money. They don’t. But they do kindly hand me five plain white envelopes, into which I deposit crisp 100 baht notes for which I was able to exchange a 1000 baht note at the cashier counter.
I try and fail to not make a spectacle of myself as I hand the envelopes to Catherine, Danna, Jasmine, Stella, and Lavin. The other Chinese student, Yan, is a married man and is actually from Taiwan. The others are quite surprised and elated to receive what amounts to about $3 USD from an American. I explain to them that my knowledge of the traditions should be credited to my ex-girlfriend who educated me on the customs, which are also observed during Tet, the Vietnamese version of Lunar New Year.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, an accordion shows up in the middle of this decidedly Asian-themed event. Job, the eccentric classmate from France, but who currently lives in China and should know better, has brought his stomach Steinway to the restaurant. Which means he packed the squeezebox as a carryon to bring to a month-long education program?
This odd development causes a bit of consternation, as, well, it’s an accordion, nobody’s favorite instrument, ranking only slightly higher than bagpipes. It just doesn’t make any sense in a Chinese restaurant.
But then Jen picks it up, and having zero prior practice on this particular musical instrument, proceeds to play it exactly as poorly as one would imagine. But the joy on her face breaks the spell, and we decide why the hell not have an accordion at this event. We just keep drinking and the party devolves into cake fights and more revelry.
After the restaurant staff decides they’ve had enough of us, we head out into the street. Most of the group opts to return to their respective homes or back to the school campus. About ten of us however, are ready to stay out late. Scott, our new British friend, directs us down the street and around the corner to the Iron Bridge that crosses the Ping River at the end of Loi Kroh Road. There’s a bar there with a large red bus permanently parked in front, which serves as extra seating inside and up above on its roof.
A live band is playing, and a group of 20-something gap-year backpackers are dancing it up in front of the stage. After a few minutes, Jen grabs my arm and asks me to “please go dance with Jimmy!”, as our inebriated classmate from northern England has positioned himself unsteadily and a bit too intimately with some of the backpackers. I obediently walk over to Jimmy and dance him away from the grateful younger set.
These and other events will become cherished memories of my time at the CELTA program. When the course is over, I have scraped by with a grade of “Pass”. Some others have received a higher “Pass B”, and there are rumors that someone in the class has been awarded a “Pass A”, but if so, that person modestly keeps their mouth shut about it. We also suspect that one of our number has failed the course, but again, we never get confirmation of that.
On the final morning, I place my belongings into my backpacks and the suitcase to take with me to the hostel that eight of us have booked for the next few days. Jacob and I will be looking for an apartment to share while we attempt to find employment at local schools here in Chiang Mai. A few others are staying around to play tourist before going back to their respective countries of residence. We have requested a red truck to take us there from the campus. In the parking lot, we say our goodbyes to the rest of our classmates.
As I lift the suitcase over the threshold of the door to my room, the handle snaps off on one side. Which is a bummer. But it has served its purpose. Provided by the karmic dumpster, it has lasted long enough to get my clothing here to Thailand. I’ll find another when needed.
I’m not sure what to do with this almost intact box of Mama ramen noodles.