This century has birthed another blogger. But a false one at best. I’m not purporting to be a virgin at this. Just a slacker. I’m attempting to unbelt my blog chasteness and mark my territory(ies). I’m throwing grievances with my inert butt to the bonfire and stomping the earth with a fitful howl.
Here lies interred in the blog are articles writ, observances remembered, and musings reignited.
Welcome and comment. Share and amuse. Tell me about it.
Mondays were yellow. Tuesdays, blue. Wednesdays, purple. Thursdays, pink. And Fridays, batik. Down to a tee. Not only were we strongly advised to wear shirts in these assigned colors, and in this order, but they had to be collared too. Unfortunately, I was a black, green and orange kind of gal — without the collars. I hoped that this village school in southern Thailand was not going to be too disappointed.
I opened my imitation Samsonite suitcase the evening I arrived in Bang Sak and stared at its long retractable handle, long-abused during bouts of airport boredom. I dug around my raggle-taggle piles of rolled shirts, folded pants, and scrunched underwear. My fingers ran into harder objects: anti-malaria pill bottles, tubes of sunscreen, plastic-wrapped sneakers, a headlamp, my journal, my camera, and a green lumistick in the extremely rare case I had to sleep in a jungle and somehow lost my headlamp. I stared at the disorderliness with admiration and then, dread. How did I fit everything in here? And why did I not have these shirt colors? What would I wear next week when I meet my students?
Earlier that afternoon, I arrived at the airport in Phuket. Lak, the school’s volunteer supervisor extraordinaire, was there to meet me. She was conspicuously wearing a soft pink shirt with a Pepto Bismol tone. On the top left quadrant of her shirt, just above the breast, was an embossed royal insignia that looked more official than my passport. After doing a wai and saying a greeting, she led me to the van. I immediately put my hands in prayer position in front of my chest and bowed forward just a tad, forming my very first wai while echoing a sincere Sawat dee kaa.
The drive from the Phuket International Airport was straightforward. From the cramped backseat, I could sense that we were just following one long highway. The humidity clung to my thick black hair and cotton tee like there was a race among water droplets to see who can sweat out the newest foreigner first. The warm air blew me dry as I angled my neck up and forward to see the verdant wall of lush green to the left and right of me.
Lak took me to the row of bungalows which housed a few of the volunteer English teachers. To my relief, I realized I wouldn’t need those Rambo lumisticks after all. Why had I thought I would be in the middle of a jungle? My naive first world perceptions got the better of me as I had envisioned a six-month stay in a rural village as something akin to Survivor. Why did I let reality TV and nonsensical fear influence my views?
Lak explained to me the teacher shirt color codes after she told me where I can purchase basic groceries and walk to beachside restaurants. I told her with a worried brow that I may not have these colors in my bag. Where would I have gotten these shirts that bore the royal emblems of Thailand?
In my bungalow, I flipped through my Thai phrase book and struggled to vocalize the phrases for shirt. My tones were off, not surprisingly. My American English tongue was unaccustomed to speaking in low, rising, high, and falling tones. Sounding out the word, I either said tiger or shirt. I had practiced in front of a bathroom mirror inside my bungalow. Where can I buy a yellow shirt? Where can I buy a shirt with a King on it? Where can I buy a shirt for teaching? I chuckled at the thought of asking for a tiger in all of these situations. But being a language teacher, I would use pictures and my body language. Surely I would be understood. But the conundrum was in the reply I would receive.
A small, child-like panic grew inside me. And then some excitement. I didn’t worry about not having any of these shirts. I worried about how I would help these kids have fun while learning English. This volunteer vacation was beginning to weigh on me. I didn’t want to mess up. I had been teaching adults for three years. New immigrants, refugees, kids who didn’t finish high school, college students, parents. Not kids. Would they think I was fun?
“Oh it’s okay. Mai bpen rai kaa. You can go to the market this weekend and get those shirts. These students will love you. They like our R35 teachers!” Lak reassured me with a speedy lilt in her sentences. I felt like dancing whenever she spoke. “I can go with you kaa.” Her long black straight tresses shined under the bright porch light of my bungalow. Lak touched my arm. She seemed more like a big sister than my supervisor. I smiled at that, especially since she was about one foot shorter than me.
I imagined being handed a tiger cub at a market before turning to her. “Could you help me with my pronunciation?”
Our story started in the middle, like all stories. In Thailand, we had been at each end of a string. Free ends this string carried. My string end was living a burnt out chapter on the obliqueness of love and its damaged sincerity.
Caught unawares, our string ends were on the beginnings of a new knot.
Even before Thailand, I was not very good at knotting. Though that is the story I have told myself to believe. Sails folded and collapsed from ship masts when my knots unraveled in disbelief and cynicism. It became clear that this was a sport for others but me. I was not apt to play anymore. My story desired an end.
Then the plot thickened. I felt a knot in my stomach.
This new knot was a simple yet multi-plated fastening of savory interests. Somehow it became tangled in a fiery mass of texts and phone credits. The knot strings swirled in a frenzy as Bangkok’s 711 stores and phone companies were raking in the profits. The knot in my gut tightened. But I was unafraid.
Our story immediately grew as knots became more complex.
We started off with a bowline, not knowing that we were headed to a sheet bend, just around the corner. The bowline is a primordial knot. It simply forms a loop at the end of a rope, which can be easily undone. Though practical and reliable, the bowline still has its drawbacks. It has a tendency to become loose if unweighted. Its bight or slacked loop can capsize if its parts are rearranged, if its ends are pulled carelessly.
Also known as a weaver’s knot, the sheet bend joins two ropes together. Our past narratives and forward-looking dreams birthed another rope. The sheet bend, along with the bowline, is very fast to tie: we didn’t waste any time. This knot is so essential that it is top knot in the Ashley Book of Knots. Since ours was of a doubled variety, our sheet bend was strong that it bound lifelines of different strengths and sizes.
We have told ourselves wisely that some knots can be heavily weighted. that’s when a clove hitch came into play. As indispensable as a sheet bend, the clove hitch can slip. If worn too thin, this knot can jam and disrupt. It was unavoidable that we encountered this in our knot-addled story. But we persisted.
Our knot has remained tied, with two opposite half hitches brought together, encircling us and forming a story worth sailing with.
It’s a simple joy in a small glass. A surge of potency spreads like a superpower poised to be applied with full force. I can’t help it. I am transformed into a caffeine fiend and order another.
Tucked away in a corner of a busy street of Vientiane, Laos is a little coffee spot. No name adores an awning. No sign beckons passersby from the sidewalk. No long queues nor crowded tables show any indication of popularity. This can be considered a shame for barista entrepreneurs. For me, it is this Laotian coffee shop’s charm.
The avuncular owner, who is just as sweet and personable as his brew, adds to this shop’s appeal. He can chat in English and is happy to share he has a sibling who lives in the U.S.
Though I am not coffee-crazed, I wantonly dip into a caffeinated hysteria when it’s damnifyingly delicious. This particular dark libation turns me into a certified java junkie.
It’s not just about the feeling that runs its course through my veins, but about how it is presented oh so modestly in its petite glass vessel. So alarmingly dignified does it look that I can only imagine what it would utter if it had a voice. Go ahead: take a sip. It may bid. The condensed milk perches beneath, carrying the Stygian brew like a graceful Atlas.
After mixing it into a unified, tawny concoction the voice becomes more potent. I sip. Then, I soar. It’s glory in a glass.
My aunt named me for reasons still debatable. She liked the name Sharon. She admired pop icon and movie star Sharon Cuneta. But she wanted to tweak it — to make it unique. She wanted me to stand out and be different. Though I was the proverbial black sheep, I think that was mere upbringing and not my name.
As a child, I didn’t enjoy my first name in full. Often mispronounced, I received giggles and chuckles growing up in the U.S. It was something else I had to deal with besides having pigtails in second grade and speaking with a FOB accent. (That’s another story). Of course, thinking about that now, I’ve come to like my name. Those childhood low blows to self esteem are buried beneath more important things to worry about in life — like death and taxes. Or what my or any other person’s name can mean for career and academic opportunities.
Did my strange and new, un-white first name, coupled with a Latina surname, influence my choices as an early Green Card holding member of the capitalist state? Were my academic performances swayed by implicit-egotism? I can’t quite say without a full recollection and assessment of my successes and failures (of which the latter, I think, outweighs the former) thus far. Certainly, I didn’t choose my school nor the street I lived on. Nor did I buy brand names with S’s or Sh-sounds in them — other than purchasing the quotidian pair of SHoes.
While I find the name effect studies dubious, I can see how a name influences others’ opinions and biases. especially in this non-color and non-class blind world of who got it and who don’t. The study conducted by Bertrand and Mullainathan reveals a sad but true state of discrimination in the job market. But their findings were limited to two major U.S. cities (Boston and Chicago) and only factored in two “races” (white and black), among other missing pieces. Surely, it can’t be denied that those in power remain in power. A Swedish study conducted something similar, as Konnikova wrote in her New Yorker piece. But I think we are being manipulated by this racial volley. Our heads continue to swivel left and right over what we should find appropriate to write on a job application or be unashamed to have on a transcript.
Our name is our label, a part of an identity that is both static and fluid. We have to live with it, unless the label is voluntarily changed and we then have to live with that. In the end, the uniqueness comes from the individual and what (s)he has to offer the world beyond the label of names. What about you? What do you figure in this name theory? How much do you discriminate upon hearing a stranger’s name?
As for me, give me a hunk of chèvre and I see the beginning of a beautiful friendship, whatever your name is.