The Only White Man in The Room
I am sitting in a blue plastic chair with a white cloth cover on it. The white cover is a direct but failed effort to make it look not so cheesy. Every chair in the room is blue plastic with a white cloth cover. The table cloths are also white. Thin paper
napkins are sticking up out of a glass. A blue plastic sand bucket is filled with melting ice. Tongs hang from the edge. There are two bottles of water, and a bottle of Pepsi and Sprite on the table. Plastic is the overriding theme at this
Why I am sitting this evening in a school hall on a cheesy chair is beyond me. The hall is in Thailand, where I survived an international airport sit in / love in during 2009. I mean for Christ sake the civil violators brought in sandwiches and coffee everyday for the stranded passengers. Next I worked through three months of riots in 2010 which brought about 90 violent deaths along with the burning of an upscale downtown mall. Most recently I survived a flood caused by the movement of a freshwater ocean, about the size of Florida, that trickled into the area around Bangkok’s core and brought about six hundred more deaths. The riot deaths, caused by gunshots paled to the deaths by drowning and electrocution from the flood waters. The trickle turned into a torrent and kept flowing for a month. The water reached waist deep in some areas and neck high in low lying areas.
So I’m sitting with two Chinese teachers on one side of me. The Ugandan teacher who never does what he says he will do is at another table. This guy, well he wouldn’t walk over to the hall from the teachers’ room with us, he said he was going home. So I sauntered over to the hall with the affable Chinese, we get seated, actually we are put at a table, then Coffee, the guy from Uganda, strolls in and he’s put at the gardeners’ table. Our table was full by the time he quit lying about going home.
We’re getting a new Director. I showed up a week earlier for the dinner but the place was deserted. The date of the dinner was changed and no one told me. Humiliating but I got over it. So the new Director who has been installed for a week by the time the second dinner date was set is there wearing a very nice navy suit but he is also wearing a fake flower boutonniere that resembles something a clown on duty would wear. It is the size of a side plate. Martha Stewart couldn’t puke up anything more inappropriate or Bozo-ish. It sticks out about five inches from his suit. I wonder if he will squirt water from it.
The old Director will arrive late, playing out her idea of a fashionable entrance. It is her going away dinner and the new Director’s inaugural dinner, a two for one double purpose banquet. Booking a banquet dinner twice but holding it once allows a rather grand sum to go into someone’s personal pocket. I wonder who benefits from this arrangement, is it a goodbye gift or the first gift from the welcome wagon. I talk to the Chinese teachers in Mandarin leaving the Thai teachers mystified that I’m able to converse with the Chinese but don’t speak Thai with them. Simple answer, I don’t want to. You have many advantages and learn plenty if you don’t speak in the language of the country you work in. Listening has advantages.
Eight boys in ethnic costume are beating a tune out on traditional drums while lovely ladies with gold in their hair dance in silk wrap around skirts with red bustieres and bare feet. I’m a little near sighted so the gold I think are earrings give them an elfish look. They match the cylinder bases that hold their hair under wraps. The cylinders are about six inches tall. The earrings stick up about four inches from where their ears should end and finish in a point. Quite fetching.
The first course is an air blown grain product with a slight fishy smell that solidifies on my tongue when I take the first bite. So much for the hors d’oeuvres. We get more fishy smelling/tasting balls presented in the top part of a steamer. Four imitation crab claws site in the middle of the dish. The balls are pork and chicken maybe. Being steamed with real fish wrapped in seaweed and the fish crab claws everything has a gill and fin taste about it. The three sauces, soy, vinegar with chili and vinegar with fish sauce and chili add a little variation to the taste depending what you choose to dip in.
I was waiting for Coffee to meet one of the Chinese teachers and yours truly a few days after school started. I decided it would be nice if I treated the two new teachers to dinner at my favorite outdoor eatery. It wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg and I figured with the two of them new to Thailand and payday some weeks off it would be a nice thing to do. Extend the hand and all that while they got a decent meal. So the Chinese teacher, Chow, and I sit and wait outside my apartment. Coffee’s late. We wait some more. I believe the Chinese teacher is very hungry. He quizzes me about the food and what the menu offers. Is there Chinese food and rice? Is it spicy?
The next dish is a clear cornstarch thickened soup with fish stomach and monster mushrooms. Cilantro is tossed in. I take some of the broth and leave the stomach parts. The stomach parts aren’t offensive looking, they resemble the loofah I use in the shower. I need the loofah because I don’t have hot water and the Bangkok grunge sticks to skin in cold water regardless of the soap you buy. We all use body scrubs and loofahs. Anyway, the broth isn’t bad. It tastes beef based although there is no beef to be found in the large bowl it has been brought in.
I get tired of waiting for Coffee. I didn’t see Chow eat any lunch and I suspect he’s a little short of cash and quite hungry. So I call Coffee. I tell him he’s late, can’t he find us? I threw in some sarcasm because we were just a couple blocks down from the school and he couldn’t miss us. So he says he got a call from a “countryman” and is with him, back at his apartment.
Oh, did you break your finger and couldn’t call me? In my country we cancel dinner if can’t make it. I guess you don’t do that in yours. Before he could answer I tell him the Chinese teacher and I have been waiting for him for forty-five minutes and I’m glad I called. We could have been eating by now and not waiting for him not to show up. I hung up before he could answer.
I’ve worked with a lot of foreigners. I don’t lend money and don’t give any one the benefit of the doubt.
So Coffee’s sitting with the gardeners. They all look very smart in matching school dress shirts, well scrubbed and they are relaxed from pouring and consuming the contents of the Red Label bottle on their table. Coffee can’t talk to them. His accented English is beyond them and their Thai is beyond him. I go over and tell him we can squeeze him in at our table. He says he’s leaving soon, but thanks. I return to my table.
Coffee sits behind me in the teachers’ room. He hums in soprano and hums hymns. He sings every fifth word. It’s annoying as hell. When he isn’t hum/singing, he puts on old music. What’s his name and Dawn, Orlando? Tie a Yellow Ribbon plays on and on throughout most days. Coffee sings “tie a yellow gibbon abound the bold cork tree”. He hasn’t been teaching English very long and doesn’t earn what the native speakers earn.
Our next course is a noodle dish. Hot long tiny noodles are served in a small pot. Enough shrimp for each of us at the table to have one hide under the noodles. I take my shrimp and peel it and devein it after removing its head and feelers. The Chinese teacher beside me wants to know if he can have the head. By all means, it’s not like I’m going to eat it or anything. He devours the head and pulls the feelers out of his mouth. The Chinese teacher beside him dumps his shrimp tail from his bowl onto the tablecloth and helps himself to a portion of noodles. Hey, I lived in China and quite liked it. Different dining strokes for different cultures. Whatever works.
Coffee borrowed my scissors one day. The next two days he didn’t show up for work. He took two days from his job at the school and did an English camp for a few extra baht. He asked all the other teachers except me to cover his school classes while he worked the English Camp. No one would. It’s all the teachers can do to face their own classes let alone do someone else’s when that someone else is out earning extra cash. It’s not like Coffee offered to pay anybody for covering his classes or anything. I left a note on his desk reminding he didn’t return the scissors. I got them back when he got back.
Dinner then proceeds with a fried rice dish with five cucumber slices. I dive for the cuc. I know no one else will eat them and it is the only vegetable we will be given throughout the meal. The rice is pretty good. I look over to the gardeners’ table, Coffee is eating his rice with chopsticks. Only someone from the Middle Kingdom does that well. He’s got rice on his green shirt. It really sticks out. He’s got a few rice grains on his lower lip and chin. The gardeners are laughing at him and he’s not sure why. I get up and go over to his table again and tell him he needs to wipe his face. He scrubs it with the paper napkin leaving white pulp bits on his face. The gardeners laugh harder. The Red Label is almost gone.
I suggest Coffee go the men’s room and rinse off the paper bits. He does and comes back looking like he bathed in the sink. Water splashes are all over his green shirt giving it a two tone look. He is the Walrus. The gardeners are delighted with coffee.
The former Director arrives in a stunning silk suit. She’s got a circus flower on as well. Hers is bigger and bright purple. Her suit is sunshine yellow so the flower really stands out. I get a better look at the new Director. He isn’t wearing a boutonniere at all. It’s a frigging corsage. Like hers.
More graceful dancers entertain us. They are lovely. Each costume change is more elaborate than the last. These performers, all staff and students, really put on a wonderful show.
Next comes a well crusted fried fish. It is a mild fish. The Chinese lads perk up when they see it. We eat with chop sticks and a Chinese soup spoon, effective albeit awkward if you need a fork. I’ve been in Asia long enough so I’m good to go. I look over and see Coffee pull a plastic fork out of his shirt pocket. What he doesn’t know is that the fork will break with the crunch of the fish and he runs a real risk of choking on a plastic tine. The broken tine will stay in the fish until he withdraws the fork from the fish in his mouth and he’ll chew on it or miss it and swallow it, choke, and then we’ll have to get another teacher. I don’t have time to warn him. I help myself to some fish and enjoy it. I was lucky to get a piece without any bones.
Coffee starts choking. I look at him feeling miserable. He’s really choking. He’s on his feet clutching at his throat. The Thai look at him and smile broadly. They know he’s choking and they grin at him. When his eyes bulge I get up stride over and lift him off his feet as I administer the Heimlich. He’s got a thin frame so I have no trouble tossing his skinny ass around, up, down and sideways until I finally can punch into his diaphragm hard enough in the right spot. He explodes fish and the tine all over the table.
I run/carry him outside. He’s wiping his eyes, the adrenalin is pumping and he throws his arms around my neck. I push him off. He babbles. Yes, please, thank you please, please God you were there. I tell him to get a grip, he’s fine. I stay with him until he’s composed enough to face the smiling gardeners again.
Dinner finishes without any disruptions. We are served our last course, a liquid dessert made from sweetened, thickened coconut milk with kidney beans, softened nuts and little squares of frozen red jelly in it. This is a popular dish and the bowl is emptied quickly. There is enough for everyone to enjoy two go arounds. Coffee has left without a word.
The next morning I run off the lyrics to Tie A Yellow Ribbon and put a set of earphones on his desk along with a pair of scissors I picked up for him at the school supply store. I got a yes please thanks. I nodded and buried my head in marking papers until lunch. I left for the airy, noisy cafeteria during my break. I enjoy mixing in the crush of kids for some reason I can’t identify. It is bedlam and mayhem riding on the undercurrent of hunger. The kids happily load up their bowls and tuck in. They joke and laugh and tease each other. Lunch is a happy time for them. I enjoy seeing kids I no longer teach. They smile and give me a shy Hello Teacher and push me into line in front of them. I belong more with the kids than I do with the local teachers. Kids carry no grudges or resentments and really don’t care that I’m the only white man in the room.
Coffee never returned after lunch that day. The lyrics, headphones and scissors were gone as well.ugh..
I really can relate…and thank you so much for reminding me why I put teaching in the rear view mirror.