“What do you miss the most?”
People ask me this when I talk about my time in Thailand. I could say the freedom of riding your motorbike through Thai traffic, the feeling of the wind blowing the hairs on your legs, because bish you know you were too rustic to shave. I could also mention the “yummy” Pad Thai. The kind that was soaked in oil prepared by the Thai mother at the local family restaurant that doubled as their house. It made me sick multiple times. To this day I cannot eat Pad Thai. I could talk about the buckets of alcohol, the beer on boats, the late night tattoo decisions, my nights with foreign lovers, the strong Thai sun. If I go back tomorrow, after the 24-hour flight, my first step on Thai soil would be a step towards a Thai KFC.
I broke a lot of rules as the only high school drama teacher. At the time, these violations were justified in my own brain. Leaving campus for Khao Soi, lunch with other teachers and maybe a sneaky glass of wine, even a stop at home for a quick nap. I never sat in my classroom and did all my work at the school coffee shop. I always wanted to be alone to write or watch an episode of Game of Thrones, and rarely write out my lesson plans.
I taught Juniors and Seniors. The boys were also enrolled in the Thai Army and missed classes every Wednesday for months at a time. The idea was if they served the Army now, they wouldn’t have to serve once they graduated. Nearly every boy, and a stray girl or two, would serve the Thai Army. I would come in on Monday ready to teach my class about The Glass Menagerie, or try a new acting exercise, and there would be three to five students napping at their desks. Instead of reading Tennessee Williams with three people and myself, I put on Anchorman and took a nap in the corner for 50 minutes.
The thirteen-year-olds sucked. They were the loud ones with very little spatial awareness. Half of them couldn’t write their name in English and the other half would translate what their friends were trying to say to me. If they pissed me off enough, I was allowed to have them stand in the back with their arms up until I told them they could sit back down. This is how most male teachers managed their classroom, and the foreign male teachers were respected way more than the foreign female teachers.
I made them sit with their heads on their desks in the dark. I sent them out of my classroom. Management of prepubescent children was not my strong suit. At the end of the semester, for four stretched-out weeks, we made sock puppets and watched Stranger Things so I wouldn’t have to hear them yell anymore.
“Teacher, what will happen to Nancy?” They would ask me in the halls.
“I guess we will have to find out!”
They knew I could be easily manipulated, and they pushed me to my limit because of it.
There was the IGCSE class. The class that technically counts for college credit, only it doesn’t. These kids were smarter than all the other students. These were the kids who spoke with little to know accents, and if they did their accents were British. We were supposed to read plays, create our own, do scene work, but kids were always gone for no reason.
For the last few weeks of my job, I would pop into their classroom and take their orders for KFC. A few ordered Zinger Burgers, or spicy chicken burgers. The girls in the class and I ordered buckets of chicken. Most importantly I put in an order for a dozen Spicy WingZ. What was even better was that KFC delivered. On the day of class, the delivery driver would drive over on his motorbike and call me outside the school gates. I would make a student talk to him because they spoke Thai and I didn’t. Those afternoons we spent our class time watching critically acclaimed films that I’d been dying to see while shoveling Spicy Wingz into our mouths.
There was a lot at Central Festival in Phuket. They had a Zara and an H&M. They had an Auntie Annie’s pretzel booth and a smoothie place. The had a bookstore that only carried English bestsellers. They had a Mister Donut, which was originally thought to be a Dunkin’ rip off, but was actually Dunkin’ only the Asia version. There was also the movie theater that featured any major English-speaking film. Any Marvel movie. Any Fast & Furious movie. I saw only mainstream garbage there; movies with action sequences or British actors trying out American accents.
Sometimes going to a movie was the only place to escape the heat or the rain. It was also a haven where you could close your eyes for a moment and feel like an American. Before the previews began, we all had to stand up and sing the Thai anthem as a projection of The King appeared on the screen.
In October 2016, the King of Thailand passed away. This began the year of mourning where people could only wear black in public, and celebrations or holidays were to be limited or cancelled entirely. When going to the movies during this time, instead of singing the Thai National Anthem, a female recording sang a saddened version of the King’s song, as animation played on the screen honoring The King’s life and all he did for Thailand as the longest reigning monarch in all of history. During this ritual I would be respectful. I would stand and watch the people mourn the King of Thailand. I would maybe even shed a tear because the song and the projection would be so moving. But once the opening credits of the film started, I pretended I was on American soil. I sat back, relaxed, and pulled the Spicy Wingz out of my backpack savoring each bite.
I’m well into my second year of being home, and I still have dreams about Thailand KFC. In the dream, I’m in Bangkok. The streets are fast and busy. The air holds tight around my neck. Each inhale breathes the stench of gasoline or garbage. The kind of smell in less industrialized countries. The smell that makes me feel a sense of home. I’m trying to find the nearest KFC, but something always distracts me: the TukTuk takes me to the wrong place, a stranger on the street is in need, the friend I’m with wants us to go to a dance club first. It’s usually night, and after all the distractions I finally see the red and white lights. By the time we walk in the front doors of the KFC, the cars and the bikes disappear, the people disburse, the floor evaporates beneath me, and I wake up.