Saturday, May 15, 2010

Foot Fetish? Thailand, not for you

Before coming to Thailand, my wife and I were given several guide books, which we quickly skimmed. Well, at least I skimmed them. Certainly Allison read them. When I research a destination, or, for that matter, when I research --sometimes randomly and inexplicably-- any country in the world, I usually scan, looking for the most important information to categorize and file within the clutter of my brain. I'm not interested in political, religious, or economic history. (sidenote: Knowing the current exchange rate can be helpful.) Nor do I ogle over landmarks, heritage sights, or natural phenomena. Those are things I’ll see when I touch down; I’d rather have a fresh memory of something new than one pre-formed from a picture or a story. So, when I read a guide book, what do I look for? What do I think are the most important facts? Here is how I read a guidebook:

First, I find the maps. Maps are essential, unless you don’t know which way is north, then they become handy scrap paper. Second, I locate information describing cultural norms, taboos, and generalized habits of my destination’s inhabitants. Third, I look at laws and government. When traveling, I’m concerned about me, because I’m the one going overseas, not some travel writer who looks at everything as a story. I want to understand how my personality might need to change when making contact with a new culture. Essentially, more than anything, I want to learn what not to do, how not to behave, and what I shouldn’t be talking about.

(On another sidenote, I'm also concerned about my wife when traveling. But, out of the two of us, Allison is much less likely to perform some type of taboo performance in front of an undercover policeman. She is the sturdy base to my capricious and wobly foundation. The polite and graceful wife shining in the shadows of her burly, scraggly husband. The ketchup to my spicy mustard. Besides, would you ever believe a story where Allison was playing cards after midnight in a basement bar of Chiang Mai when she had a gun pulled on her? Think not. If this story were about me, the probability rate would jump drastically.)

So, before traveling to Thailand I learned several things not to talk about, which have since been confirmed. You don’t talk about The King or The Queen, or any member of the royal family. You don’t talk about The Buddha, unless you are paying merit to a monk. Even then you need to “walk on egg shells." Being a westerner, I might be confused with a Jehovah's Witness or a missionary, and missionaries are not respected in Thailand. There’s a sign hanging in a local pub that states, “No pedophiles, No druggies, and NO missionaries.” Thailand is 97% Buddhist for a reason, and they want to keep it that way. You don’t mess with the police. Not one word about them, and you don't need to look in their general direction either. The police here are a much more powerful repressive apparatus than what we have in America. Also, many Thai people think it is rude to discuss politics. Many of my English students are at university, and they jump on any opportunity I grant them to talk about the current turmoil in Bangkok. But older people, the people of previous generations, liken talking politics with His Majesty, and no one talks about The King.

In any guide book about Thailand, the no-no’s above are blatantly obvious. But the guide books skip over some of the other important cultural norms. For instance, most people in Thailand prize white, pale skin. They will wear coats and masks in 100 degree heat just to keep their skin white. Even deodorant here has “skin whitening” additives. Another is always expect Thais to charge westerners double or triple for a product or service. Many vendors think that because you are white, you have money. (This may be racism, but if you ask me, it's smart business, especially if you're Thai.) Always haggle. If the result isn’t to your liking, then wait for another opportunity. There will be many. Don’t point, at anyone or anything, with one finger; point with your whole hand, palm facing the ceiling. For some reason, pointing with one finger is rude. I haven’t yet learned why.

And don’t mess around with feet. Take your shoes off when you enter a home or business or a temple. When you pray to the Buddha, make sure your feet never face the direction of any Buddha effigy. When kneeling in prayer, your feet always face the door and the dirty outside world you just came from. And don’t touch anything with your feet, except the ground. This norm is particularly hard to adjust to. When I get to work, I take my shoes off. Sometimes I get comfortable and cross my legs at my desk, but it’s rude to touch the desk, or the chair, or the wall with my foot. Once I turned off a surge protector on the ground with my big toe. One of my students saw me and told me that was rude. “Don’t use feet,” I think he said. “Feet are dirty.”

Within the first month of my stay, I asked a friend of mine, “What’s the deal with feet in Thailand?” He laughed, and proceeded to tell me his story of shutting a file cabinet drawer with his foot at work. His receptionist got very upset and left early for lunch. He asked another employee what the problem was. All he got for a response was, “No feet. Use hands.” He then proceeded to tell me the history of feet in Thailand. Upwards of thirty years ago, most people in Thailand did not wear shoes, and most roads were still dirt. So, thirty years ago, out of respect, you did not touch anything with your feet; they were by far the dirtiest part of your body. The same norm was present upwards of a thousand years ago, maybe even two thousand years ago. Today, the norm persists, even among the invasion of concrete, asphalt, rubber-soled shoes, showers, and socks.

So I had confirmation that feet are gross and rude in Thailand. But part of me wanted to test my findings and study the reactions of people when an ignorant westerner performs a taboo act going against the cultural norm. The feet issue seemed like the safest test subject. But how was I going to expose this taboo? How was I going to study people’s reactions to my ignorant behavior? All I decided was I needed a venue, and I needed to wait patiently for one to present itself.

Back in February and March I was interviewing heavily for teaching work. My friend, the same friend who enlightened me on the feet issue of Thailand, offered to drive me around Chiang Mai to apply at as many schools as possible. One school we stopped at was an all-girl Catholic school named Sacred Heart. I walked into the language department and asked to speak with someone. I was introduced to the head of the department who looked at my credentials and asked me questions, which I answered with the verve of an experienced professional, even though my experience, at the time, ran awfully thin. She said she had a job starting in May, fulltime, 30,000Baht/month, and would I be interested in giving a demo lesson the next morning? I agreed to the demo straight-away, and then we discussed the student’s needs, abilities, ages, etc., so I could prepare a bang-up lesson that when executed to a T, would provide me with a job, money, and a work permit. I was pumped.

So that night I sat down and prepared a lesson for 17-20, 13-15 year-old girls, who were all “beginner students.” The lesson was about comparatives and superlatives and was planned for 45 minutes, with extra activities in case any of the information provided by the head of the department was inaccurate. The next morning, I touched up the lesson plan, did some more research on the topic (I didn’t want to chance looking like a complete idiot), cleaned up, and rode my bike across town to the Sacred Heart Campus.

I greeted the head of the department, and she, along with 4 other teachers, led me to a class room filled with 17 rambunctious, uniformed, teenage girls. I was calm and confident. I was going to have these girls engrossed with my lesson. This was my day. I was going to have a job, money, and a work permit. My wife was going to be so proud of me. Then the lesson began.

The head of the department stayed to watch my lesson, along with three other teachers. But I wasn’t nervous. I never looked in their direction. I was focused on my students. The first five minutes were allotted for small talk and introductions: I needed to gauge the level of these students. I thought I was prepared for anything. But when 10 of the girls responded to my questions with flawless English, panic started to boil in my stomach. After five minutes, it was obvious that most of the girls had been studying English since they were very young. They were intermediate-level students, not beginners. The department head had provided a flawed estimation of these students. I checked my notes, and went through with my back-up plan.

But the back-up plan was still way too simple, and I started to improvise. By now, the panic had reached my throat, nearly boiling over. Then I started to lose the attention of half the class. Then I lost the attention of the whole class. Then I ran out of things to do. The lesson was a complete disaster. The first forty minutes had been a complete failure. I failed to hold authority over my students, I failed to engage or engross them, I failed to humor them, and I failed to impress the head of the department. With five minutes of class left, I knew I would not be offered a job at Sacred Heart, but at least the panic subsided.

But sometimes when doors close, others open. With five minutes left in class, the most well-spoken student asked if we could play a game. I had not prepared a game, but a good teacher thinks on his feet. What did I have with me? What could I use to play a game? Did I have a ball to play a ball game, where you ask a question and throw the ball to another student and they have to answer the question, and then throw the ball to another student, and so on, answering and asking questions? I checked my bag…no ball. But I did have a pair of clean socks.

This was my chance, my venue to test a cultural norm. I had an opportunity to play the ignorant westerner for all it was worth. And I took it. I reached into my bag and pulled out the socks and asked, “Who wants to play the Sock Game?” There was an immediate reaction. Some girls stared blankly, but they were the ones who had been staring blankly the entire class. But some girls recoiled, turned their heads, curled their lips, and put their hands up in disgust. They were repulsed by my socks. The girl who had the biggest reaction to the Sock Game got the socks first. The only reason she caught the socks was because I lofted them towards her face; it was either catch the socks with her hands, or let them hit her in the face. She was annoyed, so annoyed she didn’t even answer my question, but merely threw the socks at her friend. She too wanted nothing to do with my socks. I kept saying, “Oh, come on; they’re clean! Go ahead smell them!” The idea of smelling my socks sent a few girls over board. They couldn’t look at me or the socks. When I would throw the socks in their direction, they would get out of the way and let the socks fall to the ground. The game was a failure. My class was a failure. And then the bell rang. Class was finished.
I met briefly with the head of the department after class. She said, politely, “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to pursue other candidates for this position.” As I had entered, I exited as a professional, telling them I hope to hear from them in the future, and thanks for the amazing opportunity. As I left the school, I started wearing a huge smile that did not leave until I was home. I had tested the waters and failed, but failure tasted sweet.

With my little experiment at Sacred Heart, I was able to gather all the evidence I needed to prove that, indeed, feet are rude and gross in Thailand. Granted, I did fail as a teacher. But I shrugged it off. I had tested the system. I had scratched the surface of taboo. I had exposed a cultural norm. I had seen 17 girls flail with the fear of touching clean socks. I had rebelled, masked as an ignorant dunce bent on pleasing his students with a game, when all I wanted was to see their reaction to a pair of socks. It was a successful morning, and I reveled in that success.

Do I recommend challenging taboo? Do I suggest tackling a cultural norm with the vim of a confident dimwit? No, never…unless an opportunity arises. For instance, as seen above, if you’re in a position of failure. Why not push the limits of that failure? Why not be a memorable failure? As I failed, I was able to gather and record priceless empirical data on the habits of Thai teenage girls and their reaction toward feet. Someday, someone will pay for my data. Until then, I'm content with the pride of achievement.

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