Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas in Thailand

I was warned by many that Christmas would be the hardest time of year to be away from home. There certainly is a lot to be said for being with family and in a familiar, sentimental place for the holidays, but I honestly can say that I think I had one of the best Christmases I have ever had this year. In a lot of ways, it didn’t feel like Christmas—it felt more like some other holiday was being celebrated, the distance and differences making it unlike the usual yuletide festivities while not being
a totally foreign experience. Either way, the 25th of December, 2014, was a wonderful day, but perhaps my elation and thankfulness on that fateful day was due primarily to the truly wild 24 hours that preceded it. Story time, everyone.

On the 22nd of December, I made the realization that the stamp on my passport was due to expire on the 25th. No matter the type of passport you have, as a foreigner in Thailand, every 3 months, you have to check in to an immigration office, fill out some paperwork, and pay for an extension to keep you in the country for another 90 days. This is all well and good, so my agent tells me she can take me to Hat Yai (the biggest city in the south of Thailand, about 45 minutes from Songkhla) in the afternoon of the 25th after the Christmas festivities are over at school. I was not keen to do that because it could screw up my Christmas plans for the evening, and if anything went wrong, I would be stuck because I’d be out of days to deal with the extension. So I convinced her to let me go on my own the morning of the 24th. This was not ideal because it meant me going alone, but it turns out that I would have been absolutely and totally screwed if I’d gone on the 25th, so it’s a blessing I went when I did.

I successfully found the immigration office in Hat Yai, filled out my paperwork, no problems, then I go up to the desk and show them my passport. I have a year-long non-immigrant B passport, which means I’m allowed to work in the country, but back in the states I also chose to make my visa “multiple entry,” as opposed to “single entry.” Single entry means you only get to go into Thailand once, and you have to apply to go out and back into the country. Multiple entry means you can come and go across borders as you please. Sounds like multiple entry is the way to go, right? Well, here’s something they don’t tell you about multiple entry: it also means that every three months, when your stamp time is up, you can’t just go to an immigration office within Thailand, you have to leave the country. Every 3 months. So, they tell me this in the Hat Yai immigration office, at 10:00am on December the 24th, after asking me for my agent’s number so they can call her and tell her all that in Thai so she can translate it back to me. “You just have to go to Malaysia,” my agent tells me. I sure as hell don’t know how to get to Malaysia, but I know the border is only about an hour from Hat Yai, so I try and remain calm and tell myself it can’t be that hard to get there. They assure me at the office that I just need to go through immigration at the border, walk into the country, then turn right back around and walk back through. I can go and come on the same day and head back to Songkhla that afternoon. Okay, okay, I’m cool, I’m calm, I can do that! Still don’t know how to get to Malaysia…

This is where we enter into the part of the story where I know I’ve started adjusting to life in Thailand, because if I was back in the states, or even if this had happened 3 months ago, I would have been so stressed I probably wouldn’t have been functional. Yet somehow, though I was concerned, I can’t say I actually was that scared or even stressed. I found myself sort of just going with things, which is a sure sign I am slowly losing my inner American.

A woman had walked into the immigration office bringing what appeared to be a Christmas present to the main lady who was helping me out in broken English. The two of them chatted for a while merrily while I sat there, waiting for them to reprint the slip immigration had given me at the airport when I landed in Bangkok, a slip I’d managed to lose back in Hua Hin (believe me, they were not pleased upon hearing that—I feel very fortunate to have received a second chance on that one). When the officer came back to me with my passport, I asked her how I could get to Malaysia. She turned to her friend and the two of them spoke in Thai for a couple minutes and motioned to me frequently. Then the officer said, “My friend will take you to the station. She must first stop by her office but then she will take you.” So I was like, “Okay,” and followed the kind stranger to her car and met her coworker and we proceeded to drive off to who knows where. At one point she called someone and tried putting me on the phone with them, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so we just kept on driving, and I was really hopeful that the continual conversation between the woman and her coworker wasn’t about me and how they had no clue where I was going either. We never did stop at an office, but we did stop at a bus stop at one point and the woman got out to ask a taxi driver a question. We eventually made it to the main van and bus station and the woman motioned for me to get out. She grabbed me gently by the arm and led me around the station, asking attendants lots of questions and finally stopping in front of one van. “This one! This one!” she said excitedly, so I paid 58 baht (that’s under $2), got in the van, and hoped to god it was taking me to a border.

Miraculously, it did! About an hour later, I was kicked out of the van at a very clear border crossing. I waited in a line, got my passport inspected and stamped, and boom! I was in Malaysia. Okay, that was easy. What do you know? I’m feeling good, I buy a mango, and I meander over to the opposite side to go back through immigration and into Thailand once again. It’s about 12:30, so I’m thinking I can make it back easily in time for a run before dinner. I wait in line, make it up to the passport stamper guy, and he looks at my visa, looks at my stamps, then says, “No, no, no, no, no. Come with me.” Well, that can’t be good. I follow him into the immigration office, he leads me to a woman who takes my passport from him, then says, “Ah, you entered today? You cannot enter and leave the same day.” I told her I was told very specifically by both Hat Yai immigration and my agent that I could, but she said, “Cannot! Cannot! New rule. Must stay one night in Malaysia, come back tomorrow morning. Bye bye!” And without further ado, I was shooed out of the immigration office. I couldn’t call my agent because my Thai phone only works in Thailand. I have no change of clothes, no phone charger, no form of entertainment, no Malaysian currency, no knowledge of a single word in Malaysian, and no idea where anything is in this country. In a bit of shock, I walk about a half mile through no man’s land, get my passport stamped one more time at a checkpoint and walk another quarter mile until I find a tourist information center, thank god. The woman inside was very kind and spoke pretty good English. I found out the border opens at 6:00am Malaysian time, 5:00am Thai time (I also learned there was a time difference between the two countries). She gave me a brochure for the closet hotel, told me where I could exchange my Thai baht for Malaysian Ringgits and directed me outside to a taxi driver. The taxi driver was also very nice, and spoke even better English. He took me to the place where I could exchange my money, pointed out where the good food was along the way, and brought me to the GM Hotel where they luckily had an available room. Actually, it was a really nice hotel. When you walk in and there’s a koi pond in the lobby, you know you’re in a good place. The bed was WAY nicer than my own bed in Songkhla and there was a real shower. Like, with a divider that separated it from the toilet and everything! Crazy! So I relaxed in my plush bed and watched some Malaysian movie about a girl who is gifted with a pair of magic chopsticks that have healing powers and also the ability to do things like make frogs the size of bears and turn tigers into kittens. It was kind of weird but also amusing.

After a couple hours, I venture outside and towards one of the restaurants the taxi guy pointed out: Yasmeen’s. Yasmeen’s was a fairly large, covered but open air cafeteria style restaurant with an array of sauces and meats and vegetables to chose from. When it was my turn, I just sort of looked at the guy serving and he was like, “Chicken?” and I was like, “Yeah. Chose for me.” So he chopped me up some fried chicken and chose a couple sauces and some cucumbers to put on my rice, and handed me the plate. So I have no idea what I ate, but I will tell you this; I have had some truly excellent meals in Thailand, but this meal blew me away. Easily one of the top 3 best meals I’ve had since being on this continent. It was some sort of Indian style curry—very different from Thai curry, clearly a different set of spices, and it was much more subtle in terms of heat—and the chicken was prepared perfectly. Considering I hadn’t eaten anything except a yogurt that morning and a mango at noon (it was about 3:30 by this point), I couldn’t have asked for anything better. All of a sudden, my unexpected journey was worth it!

With a happy stomach, I stopped at an ATM to take out some more money in preparation for paying for an extension at the border in the morning, though I was pretty certain I didn’t have to. I certainly wasn’t going to risk it though. Then I freaked out because I realized I made a transaction with my US Bank card in Malaysia without warning them I was leaving Thailand, imagined them canceling my card and envisioned myself stranded at the border with no baht, unable to pay anyone to get me back to Songkhla for Christmas. So I panicked and called US Bank, told them I was in Malaysia, felt better, and wasted about 50% of my iphone’s battery on the hotel’s wifi (I should probably explain I have a cheap burner phone I use in Thailand as well as my iPhone, which I only use for internet and international texts via imessage). Then I watched some random Australian cooking show that featured Christmassy food, so I was once again reminded that it was indeed Christmas Eve, and even though the food was good, the people were nice, and the bed was awesome, I really, really just wanted to be back in Thailand. I felt good about my chances of getting through immigration and back into Thailand, then back to Songkhla before the big Christmas celebration at the school at 9:00am the next morning, but based on today, I realized I really couldn’t predict what tomorrow would bring. So watched Spongebob in Malaysian and tried not to think about the morning. 

Of course, around 1am, my Thai phone died. This was my alarm, because my iPhone was at 40% and I wanted to keep the battery for the morning for GPS purposes and as an emergency outlet if I needed to call anyone. Also, my iPhone has this nasty habit of turning off randomly and I missed my wake up one too many times to count on its reliability for such things. But I had no choice, so I turned it on and set the alarm, praying it would go off in the morning, and waking up about every half hour in terror, realizing each time that only another 20 or 30 minutes had gone by.

Finally, 6am, which felt like 5am, arrived, I checked out, got a taxi, and made it to the border. I waited in two long lines, walked through no man’s land in the pitch dark while everyone else road by in buses and cars (that was a little sketch, but I wasn’t attacked by wild animals jumping out of the surrounding jungle, so that’s good), and finally held my breath as the man behind the desk asked me where I was from and what I did in Thailand. Then he stamped it, updated my expiration date to March 24th, and said with a smile, “Merry Christmas!” I couldn’t have asked for a better present.
Managing to find someone to take me all the way to Songkhla at 6:00am, immediately, was a whole other ordeal, but needless to say, I managed to convince a van driver to take me there (1,000 baht later). I didn’t even care about the price because I didn’t have to pay for an extension, and god damn it, it was Christmas, and I was just pleased as punch to be in Thailand, headed to my school to see my kiddos perform.

I give my van driver mad props for taking every back road he possibly could have at top speed to get 
me back to Songkhla by 8:30, despite rush hour. I dashed from the van into my apartment, changed clothes, ran to my school, and made it about an hour late, but about 20 minutes before the official program started. I was greeted with an excited chorus of “Teacher Mel! Teacher Mel!” from my two MEP classes, who were all dressed up in little red Santa costumes. I was a mess—my hair was crazy, I hadn’t showered, I was sweating like a Swede in Guatemala, and so my kids were like, “Teacher run?” And I replied with an out of breath, “YES! From Malaysia!” That thoroughly impressed them. And somehow, despite it all, they still said, “Teacher beautiful!” There was absolutely no where I would have rather been.

Then began the day of Christmas programs. There were four in all, because the whole school wasn't big enough to fit in the main hall for the assembly. My MEP kids had to be there for all four so they could perform at each, though, so I just spent the whole day with them up front. Each program consisted of various performances by groups of students--sometimes whole classes, sometimes just four or five students--and then games and songs MCed by a Thai teacher who frequently called us foreign teachers up to help. English teachers are the embodiment of Christmas here because it's a major association with our culture, so we were ushered around and given "Christmas food" (hot chocolate and some sort of green custard cake) and told on the spot to lead the whole assembly in a song. Luckily, the students have a repertoire of only two Christmas tunes--Jingle Bells and We Wish you a Merry  Christmas--so it wasn't hard. However, once we were called up to dance. None of us were too keen to do that, but we didn't exactly have a choice in the matter. MEP 1 was on stage after having finished their choreographed dance to Jingle Bells, and the MC told us to do the dance with them this time. Problem was, we were lined up in front of the stage so we couldn't even see the students and we certainly didn't know the dance. So we looked like absolute idiots, turning around every 10 seconds to see if we were doing the right moves. The kids thought it was hilarious, and we were definitely all laughing pretty hard. About two times through the song, I just sort of gave up and started free form dancing in front of the stage. The kids went nuts, and pretty soon all us foreign teachers were just jamming. It was awesome. 

Both MEP 1 and MEP 2 performed very well, but on account of the music being quite loud, it was hard to hear them singing. In the classroom they're ridiculously loud, but on a stage, with the music turned up, some of them didn't even have their mouths moving. Ah well. I felt kind of bad for them because they had to sit through a whole day of performances and speeches, so I sat on the ground with them and played games with them during intermissions (games involving fist-bump and high-five combinations, rock-paper-scissors, and any sort of mirroring are their favorites). They loved just having me sitting next to them, so it was quite easy to keep them happy.

After the last performance, I went home, took a much needed shower, and got ready for the staff party that night. Some of the teachers had rented out a ballroom in a nearby hotel, and were throwing a big Christmas and New Year's party. I went with two other foreign teachers who have recently been hired by my agent, and when we walked in, I was excited to see that the MEP homeroom teachers and their assistants had claimed a table with some extra seats. I work with those women every day, but it's not like we ever really get the chance to socialize, so it was really nice to see them out of the classroom, even if we can't understand each other very well.

The party started out with--what else--karaoke, the number one Thai leisure activity. The director of the school even went up and sang a song. The singing progressed into dancing, and the MEP 2 assistant took it upon herself to insist I go up and dance. I protested immensely, and argued that I would only go if she did, but somehow I was unfairly pulled from my seat by another Thai teacher and dragged to the dance floor. Feeling extremely inept and extremely in the spotlight, I watched the teacher's feet and slowly bumbled through the five-step dance and managed to get pretty okay at it before the first course of dinner appeared. Relieved, I ran back to my seat before anyone else could grab me and pull me back up there, and complained jokingly to the MEP teachers as they applauded my efforts. But right after the second course entered our stomachs, I was pulled kicking and screaming onto the dance floor again, this time with my foreign teacher friends, to learn a dance EVERYONE seemed to know--I don't know what it was called, but based on how many times the song launched into a chorus of "Chai-ya!" I'd guess that's the name of the song. This dance involved moving in a circle and doing some twisty things with your hands where your thumb and index fingers had to come together, then rotate out to the side and open up to the sky. Sometimes there was back and forth movement. It was very complicated and I felt and probably looked like a total idiot, but no one seemed to care, and me and my friends were laughing pretty hard and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Can't say it felt like any other Christmas party I've been to, but can't say I'd trade it for any I've been to in the past!

The three of us foreign teachers excused ourselves after about an hour and a half--after about 5 courses, a raffle, and a skit and dance performed by some of the younger teachers that everyone found hilarious except us foreigners--and we headed over to one of our fellow teacher's house to experience an authentic Filipino Christmas. The multitude of cultures I experienced in this 48-hour period were pretty extensive, but I can assure you that none were lacking in the department of delicious food. We were encouraged to eat as much as possible, so we did (we'd been careful not to eat too much at the staff party), and by the end of the night, it really did feel like every other Christmas of my past based on how satisfied and simultaneously uncomfortable I felt from how much I'd eaten.

Well, that's probably the most interesting Christmas story I'll ever tell, but I dare say it's a damn good one. I'm going to go sleep now :)

MEP 1 showing off for me.
Everyone's best Santa impression.
Some of my MEP 2 girls.
MEP 1 prepares for their performance.
Santa Nine 1 and Santa Bill hand out presents to "all the good children" (I know which of you actually deserve said presents...)
My Christmas snack, provided by the English department.

Me and my MEP coworkers! Love these ladies :)

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