I moved to Chiang Mai for the month of June to study Thai. The day after my birthday, gonorrhea I loaded my backpack into the back of Ajaan Tui’s (my boss) truck and off we went. It took about 2.5 hours for us to find a vacant room for me to rent – mostly because we were looking in an area right beside Chiang Mai University and Rajabhat University and the summer semester was just beginning. Fortunately, there was a room available at an all-girls’ dormitory behind Wat Jed Yod, one of Thailand’s oldest Buddhist temples.
Everyday, I bicycled along the Superhighway (yes, it really is called that…it’s a “highway” that hugs the northern curve of Chiang Mai. Not the same calibre as the 401, though.) and crossed it as carefully as I could. For three hours every morning, Ajaan Wilasinee taught me pronunciation, reading, writing and conversation in Thai in the ISDSI office. At lunchtime, I would eat with the staff – who love food! I think I had as much of an education in Thai and northern Thai food, as I did with the language. In the afternoons, I would explore the city by bike or study. It’s rainy season now, so timing is everything…sometimes I would be ready to hit the road after lessons but then hear raindrops hitting the rooftop. Then it would pour and pour, anywhere from half an hour to several hours, or off- and on-again. The good thing about the rain is that it cools off the heat, making it really nice to cycle around after a good drenching. I found out that I had been biking in 35 degree celsius temperatures when it was sunny…no doubt the cause of the horrible headaches I’d have at night when I went out for a long ride.
I think the biggest lessons learned in June were about rhythms and cycles. Temperature-wise, the coolest parts of the day were before 9am and after 5pm so I learned to adjust my activity levels based on that (I finally caved into hanging out in air-conditioned cafes in my last week and a half…my room only had a fan). Language-wise, I gained confidence in ordering food at outdoor food stalls and markets after spending much time conversing with my teacher first thing in the morning. But it was HARD. I felt like a one year old (and still do, sometimes) and loathed even saying good morning to the office staff. I remember finally realizing how tired I was of trying to communicate but not being able to, when I went out to dinner with an ex-pat friend and feeling really relieved that she could order the food in Thai. My moments of success at communication were tempered with frustrating ones: I felt awful when I accompanied my teacher to her husband’s village and the kids there laughed at my pronunciation. I think my language learning will be a continuous cycle of ups, downs and studying.
Emotionally, I think I experienced the gamut: loneliness, fear of looking stupid at restaurants and stores, confusion when I got lost, wondering why I was even in Thailand to joy at meeting new friends (who share your political and social views too!) and having them open up unknown parts of the city to me (morning farmer’s market, grilled pork and sticky rice for breakfast, live music, late night fruit market, Thai soap operas), enjoying Sex and the City: The Movie at the cinema, and finding my way through the maze of sois (or small lanes) in my neighbourhood and finally knowing where I was going! Even though I’ve lived in three foreign countries in the past four years, the learning curve emotionally can be pretty steep and it never stops surprising me the cycles of emotions that run through when I’m adapting to a new place.