Take Two: Why Some Places Deserve a Second Chance

April 11, 2010

When I decided to return to Japan about three years ago, after having been gone for almost ten years, my friends and family were surprised. As I cheerfully told them my plans to move back and teach English again, I would attempt to pawn off my used housewares or unread books or, say, my pet cat and they would attempt to talk me out of it. “Japan?,” they’d say, “Really? But we thought you didn’t like it there.” I would blink at them wide-eyed and oblivious (while secretly stowing my waffle iron or my copy of Crime and Punishment into their broiler), and say, “Whatever gives you that idea?” And I’d blink some more and act like I had no idea what they were talking about (while shoving my collection of New Kids on the Block shot glasses behind their couch).

To be honest, I knew exactly what they were talking about. It wasn’t that I hadn’t liked living in Japan when I lived there before, it’s just that I didn’t really appreciate it until after I had left. You see, at the time I was in my early twenties and convinced I was ready to conquer the world. I had just graduated from college with an English degree. (And we all know how useful those are when it comes to world domination!) I was certain my next step was a successful career as a… umm… okay, so I hadn’t really thought the plan out too much. But I knew I was ready for success and a career.. and maybe a car.

Instead, I ended up in a tiny house behind a tiny fish paste factory in a tiny fishing village in a rather tiny country… and instead of a car, I had a malfunctioning mountain bike. While my other friends were out in the world starting their successful careers, I was teaching English. (Something I was determined would never become my career. Oh, heck no. I was meant for better, I was sure… even if I had no idea what better was.)

In fact, I wasn’t even teaching much English. My classes at the school were viewed more as entertainment than education (and, rightly, so… at the time I couldn’t have identified a prepositional phrase to save my life… instead, I spent classroom time telling ghost stories and having the students write journal entries about what fruit they would be if they were a fruit). Because these classes were not deemed essential to the curriculum (shocker, there), they were very regularly cancelled. Often, I would show up to work to discover that there was no actual work for me to do that day. So instead of being in the classroom, I’d spend my work days in the computer lab writing long ranting emails about the injustice that someone with my talent was being so seriously underutilized. (I mean, come on, the “If I were a fruit” journal entry idea is pure genius.)

In addition to rants about being underworked (yes, I was a fool for leaving that job… I know all this now), these emails would also tend to focus on the negative about my daily life in Japan… especially if I felt the negative packed more of a comedic punch. I could have blabbed on and on about the wonderful staff of English teachers I worked with and how welcoming they were. But, instead, I wrote about the science teacher who sat across from me in the teacher’s office and would clip his fingernails every Tuesday during second period, causing errant fingernail clippings to fly unhindered on to my desk and into my coffee mug. I could have written about the quaint fishing village where I lived which was known for having some of the freshest sushi in Japan, but instead I wrote about the fresh fish fumes that were pumped into my kitchen window daily from the fish paste factory out front. Or I wrote about the time I fell down a mountain in Nagano… or about the time I woke up in a rice paddy after a particularly rowdy Halloween party and had dirt lodged in my eye for an entire week.

At the time when I was writing these emails, I’m sure I thought they were hilarious… but I can see how only writing about the bad stuff (finger nail clippings in my coffee, rice paddy dirt in my eye, etc) could have given my friends and family the impression that I wasn’t exactly enjoying life in Japan.

For the purpose of this blog entry, I dug through my old email account to see if I could find any of the emails I had sent during my first year of living in Japan… just to see how negative I really was. Thankfully, they appear to have vanished into the great big Internet in the sky… hopefully never to return again. Despite not coming across any of my old emails from Japan, I did come across a mass email I had sent out to my friends and family for the holidays during the year that I lived in Manaus, Brazil. In the email, I mapped out my Christmas wish list, which included “peanut butter” and “a host family that wears pants.” (I kid you not. And I assure you that no amount of guidebooks or language study can prepare you for the first time you show up to breakfast to find your host mom serving coffee in her g-string). Needless to say, I’m sure my family and friends would be quite surprised if I suddenly decided to move back to Manaus, too.

While the emails from my original Japan days have disappeared, unfortunately, I can’t say the same has happened to the journals I had kept during that year. Before moving to Japan the second time, I had attempted to read through the journals I had written while living in Japan that first time. I think I only got about ten pages into the first one (there were about twenty more journals to go) before I wanted to punch myself in the head. In fact, I was surprised more people hadn’t punched me in the head back then. Let’s just say I was not using my freshly earned English degree for good but for evil… and by “evil” I mean “really bad poems about crushed cherry blossoms floating on koi ponds.” (I think the flower was supposed to be a metaphor for myself… or maybe I was the koi pond… I don’t know. Either way it was bad… like, punch-me-in-the-head bad.)

After cringing through another couple poems, I packed up the journals and stowed them in my parent’s basement where I can only hope that some act of God will see fit to destroy them all. Not that I’m saying I want a flood or fire or plague of locusts to destroy my parent’s basement (especially since that basement is also housing my New Kids on the Block Reunion Tour coffee mug collection)… but, you know, if the locusts could just focus on the journals, that would be great.

Later, after returning to the States from my first year in Japan, I would discover that neither success nor a career (nor a car) were awaiting me. Instead, I ended up working in an office in Washington, DC, and picking up some weekend classes at an English school just so I could afford my rent and a metro pass. My days of being paid to do nothing but send ranting emails were over (okay, so it’s possible I sent a few ranting emails while working my desk job… but in between ranting emails I was actually expected to work… sheez!).

After a few more years of being overworked and underpaid in various offices, the idea of returning to Japan to teach again was sounding pretty good… even if my friends, family and about twenty journals full of bad poetry were telling me otherwise.

After moving back to Japan, I discovered that I really liked living there. I made a lot of good friends, traveled around the country and only had to work one job to pay my rent. Actually, I didn’t even have to pay rent as that was paid for me. (Yes, I’m sure one day I will realize I was fool for leaving that job, too… and when I realize that, I’ll be sure to give myself a nice good punch in the head.) Unfortunately, I also discovered my days of being paid to do nothing were over. (Seems after you earn your degree in teaching they actually expect you to teach. Sheez.). But other than the whole working a lot thing, I ended up enjoying my second time around in Japan much more than I thought I would.

I’ve been having the same feelings about my second time around in Thailand. About three summers ago, I decided to spend my summer break backpacking through the country. Before I’d left for my trip, everyone who had ever been here kept on telling me how much I’d love Thailand. They would fuss on and on about the great food and great sights and great people. I heard all about the beautiful beaches and amazing night markets and the famous Thai smile. I arrived in Thailand ready for the best month of my life. When I left thirty days later, I was really happy to get the heck out.

It’s not that I hated everything about Thailand the first time I was here; I liked a lot of things like the food and temples and the Chiang Mai night market. But there were a lot of things I didn’t like; for example, all of Bangkok. Admittedly, I’m sure the couple days I spent in Bangkok at the beginning and end of my trip were probably not enough for me to make a fair judgment of the place. But in the few days I was there, I felt completely overwhelmed, overheated, unhappy and harassed.

Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a big city kind of girl. I’m more like a mid-city girl. I never cared much for Tokyo, but I loved living in Kobe. I lived for six months in New York City while I was in college and never felt a desire to move back there. Meanwhile, I could see myself being really happy in Cleveland… or, say, Tulsa. I guess I just like my hustle and bustle a lot less hustley and bustley… and if there’s any place that’s got a lot of hustle and bustle (emphasis on the hustle), it’s Bangkok.

During my first trip to Thailand, I also didn’t like how I always felt suspicious of everybody. I constantly thought cab drivers or cashiers or even random strangers on the street were trying to swindle me out of my money or trying to make me buy something I didn’t want. Every time someone flashed a big Thai smile at me, I made sure to grab my wallet and scowl back at them in an attempt to hinder them from selling me whatever it was that I was convinced they wanted to sell me.

Of course, I couldn’t blame these people for trying to make a living, but, at the same time, I really, really, really did not need to buy another pair of Thai fisherman’s pants. In case you’re not familiar with them, fisherman’s pants are loose, “one-size-fits-all” deals, that look like drawstring pants. But instead of using a drawstring, you have to fold over the excess fabric using some complicated system I never got the hang of. These pants (which I’ve never actually seen a Thai person or a fisherman wear… not that I’m really hanging with lots of fishermen… or Thai people for that matter), are really popular among lots of Western tourists in Thailand. They tend to look really cute on the young, beachy, backpacker type. When I wear them, I do not look cute or young or beachy or even very backpacker-y. I just look bad…. really, really bad. I also look like I’m losing my pants (which I am because I can’t figure out how to keep them up). After buying my first pair of fisherman’s pants, I knew I had made a mistake. But, somehow, I ended up with two more pairs before my month in Thailand was done (and a whole bunch of other ill-fitting clothing purchases) all because someone had suckered me into buying them (probably with the line “one size fits all,” which I would find out later meant “one size fits all of those people who are lucky enough not to have thighs the size of Tulsa.”)

In addition to my dislike of Bangkok, my constant feelings of suspicion and all my new purchases of really, really bad pants, my list of grievances against Thailand also included: tuk-tuks, elephant rides, allergies, bugs, the heat and feeling dirty, sweaty and gross all day. At the end of my month here, I was really happy to return to Japan where no one wanted to swindle me or sell me bad pants (or any pants, really; they don’t exactly sell pants for ladies with Tulsa-sized-thighs in Japan).

I don’t know what happened to my journal from the first time I was in Thailand or if I even kept one (please, God, I hope not), but I did keep my blog at the time. Having learned my lesson from my early negative email days in Japan, most of my blog posts about my trip to Thailand were upbeat and chipper… and, surprisingly, sparse with words. Back in those days I could write a blog post in only four paragraphs! Four! That’s obviously before I found my “unique blog voice”… the same voice that requires at least eighteen paragraphs before I can get to the point.

At the start of my trip, I was particularly upbeat in my blog. After describing my room at the guesthouse in Bangkok (from what I remember, a squalid, dank, windowless affair that smelled like urine and curry), I wrote “I have my own bathroom and air conditioner, so I can’t complain!” (Clearly, my opinion on my right to complain has changed over the past couple years… now, I would complain… and really loudly at that).

Later in the week, I admitted Bangkok’s most chaotic, tourist-packed, tout-ridden area, Khao San Road, was “a bit too much for me.” Suffice to say, this was quite the understatement, and I’m not exactly known for my ability to understate things. (In fact, I’m a big fan of overstatement… as in eighteen paragraphs worth of overstatement).

But it wasn’t until my third week in Thailand, that I really started to show my true colors for the country. In a blog post describing my journey from Chiang Mai in the North to Nong Khai in the Northeast, I explained how I almost missed one of my buses because I refused to trust everyone in the bus station, including the bus driver. I was convinced that everyone in the station was involved in a complicated scheme to either get me on the wrong bus or swindle me out of my money or some combination of both.

By Week Four, I had given up any semblance of upbeat and I spent five paragraphs ranting about insects. (Still, only five! I’m sure by now I could spend at least fifteen on that very same topic… heck, I’d probably spend fifteen paragraphs leading up to the insect conversation).

On my second time around, I’m happy to say my feelings about Thailand have changed. I’m actually, dare I say, enjoying it here. Sure, I still feel hot, dirty and allergic most days. I have no intention of getting anywhere near an elephant ever again. I’m also not too crazy about the bugs… especially since the bugs I’m experiencing these days are a lot bigger and my distance from them tends to be a lot smaller than back in my backpacking days. While I swatted off lots of mosquitos back then, the only huge man-sized spiders I ever encountered were during a guided trek of Khao Yai National Park. During the trek, if the guides spotted a spider, they would stop and point it out to everyone on the tour while we ooohed and aaahed and took pictures. It was all very civilized back then.

These days my encounters with the huge, man-sized spiders of Thailand aren’t so civil. On Tuesday of this past week, I discovered a spider roughly the size of a small planet which had taken up residence outside the chicken coop. This spider was simultaneously one of the most beautiful and terrifying things I had ever seen in my life (kind of like Angelina Jolie back in her blood-drinking, Billy Bob Thornton days… you know, back before she became Mother Theresa). After taking a moment to both admire the spider and run around the perimeter of the chicken coop screaming, I grabbed the nearest spider-crushing tool I could find (a rake) and beat that beautiful spider senseless. I’m not proud of what I did. But it was either do that or leave the chickens on their own for the next month.

Despite having less than civil interaction with the spiders of Thailand, I do have to say my interactions with the people of Thailand have gotten quite a bit better. Usually, when I pull up at the local market or a roadside restaurant, it seems like most people are too surprised to see me to even attempt to swindle me. The few times that I’ve taken the mini-bus into town, I’ve paid the same price as the locals. On Friday, I stopped in a small tourist shop in Chiang Rai to poke around. Despite the fact that the shop had many pairs of fisherman’s pants on display, not a single salesperson tried to sell me a pair… maybe they saw that I was a mature woman of discerning taste who was not the type to wear clothes better suited to young, beachy backpacker types… or maybe they spotted my Tulsa-sized thighs. Either way, I was allowed to poke around the shop without a single person bothering me.

Now that I no longer suspect everyone of trying to swindle me or sell me a pair of bad pants, I find that I actually smile back at people after they smile at me rather than scowling at them and clutching my wallet. In fact, some times I smile first (which, come to think of it, is maybe not the best policy… in many cultures, wandering around town smiling randomly at strangers, especially while wearing a bike helmet, is not seen as a friendly gesture but a freaky one).

Even my views on tuk-tuks have changed. The first time I was in Thailand, I spent my first morning watching these three-wheeled tinny taxis whizz in and out of teeming Bangkok traffic and vehemently swore that I would never ride in one. A friend finally convinced me to do so, and I screamed during the entire trip (or at least it felt like I was screaming the entire trip… I might have taken a break from the screaming to have a heart attack or two). It didn’t help that as soon as I sat down in my first ever tuk-tuk, the driver steered us directly into oncoming traffic including a bus that was barreling right towards us. While I rode in more tuk-tuks during that first month in Thailand, I never much enjoyed them and always felt cramped and uncomfortable and like I was just asking to be crushed to death in some crippling accident.

Two weeks ago, I took a tuk-tuk for the first time since coming back to Thailand. Upon crawling into the back seat of the thing, I suddenly noticed how spacious it was back there. After a couple weeks of riding nothing but my bike or the cramped city bus,I felt like a princess having practically the whole motorized vehicle to myself… even if the vehicle was nothing more than a tin can on three wheels.S prawled out on the vinyl seat I immensely enjoyed every minute of my twenty minute ride through town, particularly because it didn’t involve me pedaling my way through oncoming traffic or practically sitting on some stranger’s lap.

Given how much my attitude towards Thailand has changed my second time around, not to mention my feelings towards Japan upon my second stay there, I wonder if I shouldn’t revisit a few other places I wrote off after a bad first trip. I remember vowing to never visit Morocco again by myself after being extremely put off by the constant cat calls and unwanted male attention I received as an unaccompanied Western woman. Maybe now if I were to go Casablanca or Fez, I’d find such attention, well, attentive… maybe even sweet. (Especially given the fact that I’ve spent the last three years living in Asia where it seems a girl like me would have a better chance of finding a real live dinosaur than a real live date.)

I remember not being particularly impressed by Detroit the first and only time I’ve been there. Maybe if I were to go back, I’d find some charm in the burnt out buildings and abandoned chain restaurants.

Heck, maybe I should go back to Manaus and visit my old host family. Maybe this time I’d find their lack of pants refreshing… or maybe I could just bring them some pants! I bet my old host mom would look great in a pair of Thai fisherman’s pants.

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